Monday, January 31, 2005

Lovelier in Paris

Jan. 31, 2005

My father's birthday; he would have been 80 years old today.

In the morning, as soon as I wake up, I crawl down to the end of the bed, open the window and roll up the blind. The Pompidou Center in all its garish blues and reds rises up just beyond the gray buildings, the chimneys and rust-colored roofs.

When I go outside, finally, in mid-afternoon, it's warm enough to leave my coat open. I turn the corner out of my little street -- "Ah, the street they forgot," Joe said last night, walking me home -- and emerge into the swirl of pedestrian traffic in the Marais. I pick up some pears at a little market on rue Vielle du Temple. The first taste of the first slice is almost unbearably, almost obscenely sweet. I think I've never tasted a pear so perfectly ripe before. But maybe it's just that I've waited so long to eat.

On Saturday evening, Adrian came by with Barry, her friend from Santa Fe who's been visiting Paris for a few weeks (and who brought a "very special" bottle of red wine, too). She immediately declared that I'd gotten the deal of the century on this apartment, and helped me identify the monuments and landmarks visible from the windows: yes, that's the dome of St. Paul; and that's the "genie" (I'd always thought it was an angel) on the top of the column at the Bastille. Being on the top floor of an ancient building surrounded by other ancient buildings, I have plenty of privacy and all the peace and quiet I need. I'm high above the narrow little rue des Guillemites, which is a narrow, dark street with almost no traffic. The walls of the buildings seem to bow a bit in the middle, as if beginning to buckle under their own weight. Adrian peered over the edge of the balcony, ecstatic: "This was all a slum not very long ago. Look how everything's crumbling." I wonder what "guillemites" means?

Barry went off to meet some friends for dinner on the other side of town, and Adrian and I went out into the neighborhood -- her neighborhood and mine. We tried to get a table at one of her favorite restaurants, but it was Saturday night, no hope without a reservation. So we walked on a bit and decided to give Au Gamin de Paris a try. All of the tables in front were full and the bar was crowded, but the bartender told us, "Quelques minutes," and poured us each a kir. Very gallant, in that way of French men, making us feel welcome and cared for and carefree, all at once. But he didn't seem French, somehow, nor did the other waiters, at least one of whom looked as if he could have been the bartender's brother. Adrian cocked her ear and listened to them speaking to one another: "Arabic," she pronounced, "They're North African." Before we finished our kirs we were seated at a table near a fireplace full of candles and not far from a door that must have led to the kitchen, and from which we heard frequent bird calls -- a little too shrill, perhaps, but a good system for signaling when orders were ready. We shared salad and salmon and sole meuniere, then a piece of the chocolate gateau we'd spotted on the end of the bar when we'd walked in, and which Adrian insisted was part of the "regime," not dangerous to the waistline at all.

Later, we walked back to her apartment, where I picked up some things I'd left there last spring and borrowed a warm robe of Erica's. Then I walked home alone down rue des Archives, as a woman can do in Paris at midnight, with no fear for her safety. The streets were still full of pedestrians; the cafes still swarming and bright.

On Sunday, it was raining again. I left the apartment mid-afternoon and walked across the Seine along the Pont Neuf, knowing the rain wouldn't keep anyone at home, that the party I was going to, on the left bank, would already be in full swing when I arrived. When one passes others on the sidewalks with umbrellas, one has to raise her umbrella up to keep them from colliding. A sea of bobbing umbrellas; a tiny girl in a pink coat with a long hood that tapered into a point where it hung down her back, a pink tassel on the end.

I rang at 55 rue de Seine and, just as I was buzzed in, I heard someone running up behind me to get in the door before it closed. I turned on the stairs and saw Jeffrey Greene. We laughed and kissed hello. He told me he'd just gotten back to Paris from the country, just gotten back to France from the U.S., where he'd made another one of his 4,000 mile road trips. "You're crazy!" I said. "No, you're crazy!" he said. And we made our way up the stairs in the direction of the noise. I was happy to be walking in with him, both of us late, because I'd been afraid there wouldn't be anyone at the party I knew. But of course almost every poet I know in Paris was there: Jennifer Dick (who'd extended the invitation to me and RSVP'd on my behalf), Jenny Huxta, Michele Notebloom, Lisa Pasold, Heather Hartley, Barbara Beck, and a lot of other people who at least looked familiar. The occasion was a reception for and reading by American poet Rod Smith, hosted by American poet Joe Ross and his wife, Laura, who have recently moved to Paris from San Diego. When it was time for Rod to read, he stood in one corner of the sitting room, and those of us without chairs plopped down on the floor at his feet. At first I was afraid I was going to be bored -- uh oh, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry -- but then he started reading some poems from a notebook (still handwritten) about elves, really bizarre and hilarious poems that rearranged the old psychic furniture. Afterwards, Jeff and Heather and I hung around in the kitchen, giggling and gossiping. We tossed around the idea of putting together an anthology called BIG WHUP (how to spell that?) about all our stupid, failed romances. Jenny Huxta came through the kitchen and said she wanted to contribute, too.

When the party broke up, I walked to St. Michel and crossed the river there, then met Joe -- my jazz pianist pal who lives in a converted plumbing shop in the 19th -- in front of the Theatre de la Ville. We strolled to les Halles and had a casual dinner in a bistro, then headed back toward the Marais. I was craving chocolate -- what's new? -- and realized I had yet to enact my sacred ritual of eating a chocolate crepe in the street. Joe agreed to indulge with me, so we stopped at the next place we passed. I ordered a simple chocolate crepe, but Joe went for a crepe with Nutella AND banana AND almonds. The guy making our crepes just grinned. When he handed Joe this monstrous -- an ENTIRE banana -- concoction, Joe groaned. He had to walk me all the way back to my apartment just to finish it, and he still tossed at least a quarter of it in the bin. I just walked along happily dripping melted chocolate all over my coat. After Joe left, I went into the bathroom to wash my sticky hands and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I had chocolate on the end of my nose, chocolate on my chin. Lovely. I'm always lovelier in Paris.

Saturday, January 29, 2005


Jan. 28, 2005

My AirFrance flight arrived at DeGaulle at nine this morning. The young Frenchwoman sitting beside me -- 2-1/2 months pregnant, “It’s ‘orreeble,” she said, “But I’m very happy... I think” -- managed not to vomit, and I managed a little sleep. Our plane began its descent and then ascended again, and the captain assured us we just had to wait a few moments, lots of traffic at DeGaulle, “It’s nothing ... unusual.”

So I’m back in France, where everything is “normale,” where it’s possible, still, to smoke and flirt and the waitress, arriving for her shift at the airport cafe, greets her colleague at the bar with kisses on each cheek and a stream of chatter. I’m having a cafe creme here because I’m already late, because of the snafu at the baggage carousel: huge suitcases jamming the belt, and then all the luggage backing up and the whole operation grinding to a halt somewhere down below. Finally, some of us found some Air France agents and they sent men with gloves, who crawled down the belt into the baggage area and freed the jammed suitcases and boxes, throwing them -- quite dramatically -- off the belt at our feet. “Not all French are this way,” a man with a camera, documenting the mayhem, told me. But the baggage handlers were doing their work with a certain je ne sais quoi.

I’ve decided to take the Roissy bus to L’Opera, and then get a cab to the Marais from there, sensing already that dollars aren’t going to go far in euros this year, and I shouldn’t pamper myself too much.

Jan. 29

Although the Roissy buses are supposed to come every 20 minutes, I waited with a group of other passengers at the door for an hour before the bus finally came. And couldn’t, at first, find a taxi at L’Opera. And dragged my bags around in the rain. By the time I finally got to the Marais, the man (Brad) who was supposed to meet me here with the keys to the apartment was long gone. But some women taking a cigarette break in the courtyard let me use the phone in their office, stash my bags in the vestibule, and then advised me to have a coffee at the cafe on the corner until the situation resolved itself. (They also complimented me on my French, asked if things "va bien" in the US, and seemed surprised when I answered in the negative ... The joke --sort of -- that it's impossible to have a cigarette in America, and -- not a joke -- that we have this idiot for a president. They seemed relieved by my response but, I suspect, would have gone on being friendly in any case. Guardian angels wherever I go ...)

So I spent an hour at Au Rendez-Vous des Amis and then met Brad, at last. The apartment is “charming,” as promised: on the top (sixth) floor of an ancient building on a quiet street in the heart of the Marais, with views of Beaubourg, St. Paul, a thousand rooftops -- windows full of sky.

The apartment belongs to an American photojournalist whose beautiful black and white prints of Parisiennes are everywhere. My connection to Peter is Jenny Huxta, a young poet-photographer I met about ten years ago, when she was nineteen and driving cross-country by herself. A friend of mine who’s a friend of Jenny’s mother’s called me in L.A. from Pennsylvania and asked me to meet Jenny when she made it to the west coast and then call back with a full report. I was delighted to make her acquaintance, and have continued to be delighted by her presence in my life. As I told my friend in Pennsylvania, Jenny at 19 was doing exactly what I wished I’d been doing at that age. At 28, her life is one big adventure. Our paths keep crossing and re-crossing; we always make one another laugh. She’s been living in Paris, off and on, for several years, and now speaks fluent French and supports herself by assisting photographers and teaching English. Her hair is a coppery red this year, which sets off her blue eyes and gives her a technicolor look.

Last night Jenny met me here and we went back down the street to Au Rendez-Vous des Amis (“the meeting of friends”) for an omelette and salad and red wine. We talked about politics and both of us cried, thinking about how a whole generation of immigrants -- her grandparents, and mine -- worked in the mines and the mills and believed they were building a new kind of country. And how they’ve been betrayed. How we have in America now a state as monstrous as any state, but bigger. The place was filling up with locals, with chatter and cigarette smoke. Two elderly women took the table next to ours. One drank beer while the other drank coffee; they flirted with the young waiter; they seemed to be enjoying the noise and the crowd and one another’s company. I thought about how, in the U.S., women like this would be sitting at home alone in front of television sets; about how what we miss is this kind of public life, the streets outside full of pedestrians, still, at midnight and the cafes packed with young and old. Pretty soon Jenny and I were giggling madly, catching up on one another’s stories of the past year. We decided we were missing a golden opportunity by clomping around Paris in our boots and jeans, where everyone seems to be walking around in his or her own movie, and we decided we’re going to start wearing capes. I walked her part way home to rue Montorguell to clear the smoke from my eyes and kissed her goodbye at the traffic light. Back on rue Guillemites, I fell into a nine hour sleep.

By this morning the rain had stopped and, by mid-afternoon, a slant of hazy sunlight was slipping into the narrow street. I went for a walk and to do some marketing. At the corner of rue Vielle du Temple and rue de la Perle, I saw Dustin Hoffman waiting to cross in the other direction. He was with a young woman I hope was his daughter. He looked happy and handsome and pleased not to be recognized. We passed in the intersection when the light changed. Then I passed a clutch of Frenchwomen -- middle aged, chic -- on the sidewalk, staring after him, pointing and smiling.