They came quietly. Massive teddy bears, popping up along Paris’ boulevard des Gobelins to cozy up in a bookshop, or relax en terrasse. Week after week, they seemed to multiply as if by magic, inciting joy and mystery in the otherwise humdrum 13th arrondissement. A little over a year later, and the nounours des Gobelins (Teddies of Les Gobelins) have extended their paws throughout the city and beyond, from France to New York City; from the streets of Montmartre to those of Sri Lanka. “We’ve seen them on the beach, in the mountains, you name it,” says the man behind the magic, who has asked that we only refer to him as Philippe le papa des nounours (Philippe, Father of the Teddies), “of course, everyone wants to know: why?” We had a chat with Philippe to set the record straight, only to discover that the answer isn’t as clear cut as you’d think. Luckily, it is as cute.
No shade to the 13th arrondissement, but it’s not exactly the most bustling part of the city – which is precisely why news of the bears last October was so perplexing. “The number of increasing teddies remains a mystery…” reported France Inter in 2018; “They’re giving the holiday decorations a run for their money,” said Le Figaro. What strange forces were suddenly brewing in the south of the city? How many people were really behind the operation, and was there a secret message or motive in the operation? “I have to ask,” says Philippe when we rang him, “Can we speak informally? Because it all started with something my doudou told me.”
Doudou is French for binky. Or toy. Or blanket. Basically, it’s whatever item you had as a kid that didn’t leave your side. Philippe’s childhood doudou was his eponymous gorille (gorilla), which still doesn’t leave his side. “I’m over fifty-years old,” says the Paris-native, “I’ve travelled the world. But always with my gorilla. He knows my pains and joys, and one day he said ‘you know, I am your doudou for that reason Philippe, but I don’t have my own doudou’. He had a point. So we went out to find him one.” The winner was a much larger gorilla called super gorille. “Well then one day, the doudou of my doudou said he didn’t have a doudou. And again, he had a point. So we went out to find him one…”
Thus, through this propagating chain of doudous, we arrive at the teddy bears. “It was the three of us,” says Philippe about why he chose the bear, “me, my gorilla and his doudou, who got on well with the teddy – and the teddy had two others next to him, and we couldn’t bear to separate them [no pun intended]. So we all drove home together.” Naturally, it made quite an impression on passers-by, who took photos of the curious lot and gave Philippe an idea. “I put one in the window of my bookshop in the les Gobelins area,” he says, “and began handing them out to other shop owners.”
“I asked the Pharmicien, ‘Would you like a teddy?’ And so the teddy at the Pharmacy now distributes vaccines; there’s a bear at the wine shop who drinks all day, and consequentially throws up quite often, of course; there’s a teddy at the boulangerie, who eats a lot of cakes… »
The avenue des Gobelines is about 300 metres long. Last year, the bears eventually made it to the arrondissement’s Mayor’s office – literally, and figuratively speaking – in a pivitol moment for their future. “Of course there were locals saying, ‘We look ridiculous, this has to stop,” says Philippe. “The Mayor sent a woman to investigate,” says Philippe, “who had to go to one of the teddy’s cafes on avenue des Gobelins to get the scoop…who was then told to go to another teddy’s pizzeria, etc., until she landed at my bookshop, and said, ‘Monsieur, I’ve spoken with 34 shop owners, and received 34 different stories about why this is happening. What’s the deal?’”
The deal is joy. The simple, unfettered joy that comes from bringing people together with a gesture that speaks to every one of our childhoods. In a city that often takes itself too seriously, Philippe has created an entirely new landscape, one mapped out with levity, and a kindness of spirit.
Philippe’s bears went into hibernation last year, but they’ve been back on the town in warmer months. They’re available to rent (always for free) for 48-hour periods, and have gained an impressive social media presence (over 50,000 followers across platforms) that helps them travel the world. They’ve even made it to the Friends couch in New York City:
When asked what it’s like to check the teddies as baggage for the flight, Philippe is taken aback. “Check a teddy? No, never. Impossible! They always travel next to me.” It isn’t as easy as you’d think to gauge his tone, which walks a tightrope between sincerity and tongue-in-cheek. “Well they’re all cousins,” he says about the bears’ origins, “So we just don’t know how many there are, but they keep coming. We think they come from Central Europe. A specialist told us some come from Nepal, according to their paw prints.”
As for the bears’ next move? Expect 70 of them to be celebrating the 70th anniversary of Paris’ famous bateaux mouches (river boats) next week. Learn more on their Facebook and Instagram, and pop in to Philippe’s bookstore at 25 Avenue des Gobelins.