Thursday, February 10, 2005

Encroaching "Frenchness"

Feb. 9

Fernanda arrived in the morning and this time I was ready for her, already drinking my first cup of coffee. We talked as she worked, and she’s very patient about helping me with my French, though I could end up speaking French with a Portuguese accent.

In the evening I stopped by the Village Voice and let Kathleen talk me into buying a handful of books — expensive here, but we must support Odile.

Then I walked over to Jeff’s and Mary’s for dinner. The two tiny circus dogs, Pandora and her puppy Snowbell, fluffy and white Maltese, greeted me ecstatically. “They love excitement,” Mary said. Jeff had prepared prosciutto and mango for the entrée; duck and salad for the plat. And then there was cheese, of course — Jeff knows how to choose the perfect camembert, Mary says; he simply tells whomever at the fromagerie, “I’m putting my life in your hands” — and we passed around the chocolates Heather had brought. John Baxter held forth about the wonders of E-bay. The wine was very old and Mary told us that, if you took in a little air with your sip, you could taste the berries on your tongue.

When it was time to go, I walked out with Jeff and the dogs — all three of them. Pandora and Snowbell and le pauvre Jake, who doesn’t stand a chance of getting much attention with those Maltese around, photogenic though he is. (Also, Jake snores like a little old man.) My cell phone rang in my pocket while we were walking up the rue du Regard. A call from the States, where it was still afternoon, and here I was at midnight on the other side of the world. Little technological miracles. What would my grandmother think? A couple of beautiful Black women passed and laughed at the little dogs, circling Jeff on their red leashes. “When I had one dog,” he said, “women used to stop to talk to me. Now they run the other way. I think I’m becoming a real eccentric.” No Jeff, you were already eccentric.

Riding home on the metro, I could smell the perfume of someone sitting nearby — something flowery and soft — and I breathed it in. On the stairs going out at the station at Les Halles, the smell of old piss was so strong I had to tuck my nose and mouth into the collar of my coat to breathe. Three men were lying on their backs on the concrete floor near the door, settling in with their bottles for the night. “Les Clochards.” I remembered the Hungarian woman who taught me that word, years ago in a café across the street from the Gare du Nord. We were eating mussels and drinking white wine. She was telling me how her son, when he was small, wanted to take Christmas gifts to all the clochards, to the men and women who lived in the streets. How, when his friend died, also still a child, he told her that his friend had become “a little fish in the heart of god.”

Feb. 10, 2005

Is it a sign of encroaching/increasing “Frenchness,” perhaps, that although there’s a boulangerie on every corner I feel compelled to make the trek to one of the two already my favorites? This noon – hunger at noon; call it breakfast or lunch — it was the boulangerie Garcia (the lovely madame at the counter may or may not be of Spanish descent; black-hair pulled back in a bun at the nape of her neck) on the rue Vielle du Temple, almost to the rue de Bretagne. I like the “pain complet” with nuts and raisins, and sometimes apricots, but apples today. I like to put the little wrapped package into the pocket of my coat and see how far I can make it back down the street before I reach in and tear off a piece to put in my mouth. Perfectly fresh, perfectly delicious just like that. I make it a couple of blocks.

It’s always an event, a joy, just to go out into the streets, to partake of the street life, even if I don’t always make myself as presentable as a Frenchwoman does for a trip to the shops. I passed a woman on Vielle du Temple who at first looked to me like one of my own relatively slovenly tribe. Bare-legged, in a skirt and sneakers. Then I got closer and saw that she was wearing, on an otherwise bare face, the most gorgeous shade of lipstick, the color of currants. And that was enough.

I love seeing how the men greet one another here — and not just in the Marais, where so many men are gay, although that’s sweet, too. A man stopping on the sidewalk to lean down over a baby in the stroller and smile and make faces. Men who look like laborers, or who look like scholars, calling out to each other, smiling, kissing one another on the cheek. Does it just seem this way to me, or have I seldom seem men in America so unabashedly happy to meet one another?

The sky today is that sky I think of as pigeon-sky: a pearly gray. And a wind just sharp enough to make me throw my shoulders back as I walk.


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