Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Familiar Faces

Friday, Feb. 4 – Tuesday, Feb. 8

On Friday I saw a poodle with dreadlocks in the Marais, took down the clock of birds that hung over the kitchen sink (too much ticking), and met Jenny for dinner in the rue Montorgueil, which I am almost able to pronounce. (Try it; see what it does to your mouth.) Au Rocher de Cancale, a café with history, I’m told. Beautiful salads in a beautiful old candle-lit room on the second floor. Beautiful waitress (“Look at her, she can always waitress” – I still wonder if my ex’s lawyer meant that as a snipe or a compliment) who brought another and then another carafe of water when Jenny and I kept talking long after our plates had been cleared, our wine glasses drained. Beautiful walk home alone in the dark through the beautifully crooked streets. Other women also out walking alone at — what was it, one a.m.?

I dreamt I was turning sharp pirouettes on the polished floor of my parents’ old bedroom. I dreamt my first husband was dusting our house with a vengeance. I dreamt I was shaking sand out of the pots and pans Pierre and Isa brought back from the beach.

On Saturday, my little family from Alfortville was coming for lunch. Naturally, they would be late. Naturally, I waited almost too long to get out to the shops. The boucherie was already closing its shutters at one p.m. No poulet roti. The woman at the fromagerie was already locking up – the French have their weekend, after all. No stinky chevre rolled in ash. But the best bakery I’ve found yet in Paris was open for business. Just when you think you’ve tasted the best bread ever made, you taste better bread. And the Italian traiteur sold me aubergines and champignons, little rolls made of ham stuffed with cheese, olives and artichokes. And I had salad and could whip up a vinaigrette. And Jenny was bringing macaroons.

At 2:30, little feet on the stairs and Lila, light as a feather, rushing right into my arms. She’s six this year and she dances non-stop. She balanced on one leg and posed in arabesque, a perfect imitation of the little gold fairy on top of the column at the Bastille, visible through the balcony doors. Antoine, serious since birth, an avid reader from the age of two, lay on the couch pouring over the books his parents had just bought for him at the FNAC. “No, no, no,” Pierre and Isa teased, “put that book away. You’ll have nothing to read on holiday.” This spring, as they do every spring, they’ll take the children to Indonesia for two months. They’ll spend all day, every day, together, swimming and snorkeling, Pierre taking photos, Isa and Antoine reading to their hearts’ content, Lila wandering into the village on her own, enjoying the attention she draws, little star of her own island life. The whole family speaks Indonesian now, though Pierre tells me they still sometimes confuse the words for “head” and “coconut” because they sound so much alike. We always make one another laugh. Isabelle’s laughter and mine still rhyme. These two are, I think, the happiest parents I’ve ever seen. Pierre watched Lila drawing pictures, chided her that every sentence out of her mouth always begins with “Mais non, “or Mais oui, Papa.” Then he looked at me and said, “You know, with children, it’s all happiness.”

We spent the late afternoon at my table, with cups of strong coffee and hand-rolled cigarettes and, yes, the tiny, intensely sweet macaroons Jenny had brought — “Cookies for Barbie,” I said. Pistachio-flavored and café au lait and chocolate and something pink — framboise, perhaps? Jenny sang songs and played games with Lila. Pierre poured over Peter’s books of photographs with something like reverence, something like awe. Later, Isabelle would articulate for me exactly what it is that makes those photographs so moving: “You can tell, this is a man who really loves people.” Who was it said that’s what genius is, “love, love, love?” I’ve yet to meet Peter Turnley in person. Maybe it should feel strange to be living in his apartment, surrounded by his work, but it doesn’t. It feels, in fact, like an excellent place to do my own work. I can sit here contentedly for hours, reading and writing and musing and staring out over the rooftops of Paris.

At dusk, everyone bundled up and kissed me goodbye. I washed the dishes, took a shower, answered some e-mail, then got on the train to Alfortville so that I could have dinner with the family, too. (“You still know the way from the station?” Pierre had asked. “By heart,” I reminded him.) It always takes longer than I think it will take to get there, though once I made the whole trip, door to door from Adrian’s old place near the Etoile to the garden on Rue Louis Blanc, in thirty minutes flat. That was the same summer, if memory serves, that I got lost in the Bois des Vincennes and, without meaning to, walked all the way to Alfortville. “You just followed your heart,” Isa laughed. This time it took almost an hour, which made me only half an hour late.

Alfortville has hardly changed at all in the ten years since I first visited, though Pierre and Isabelle tell me it’s become very “fashionable” lately to buy a house here, and thus as unaffordable as all the other suburbs of Paris are becoming. But it still looks to me like a small French town, fairly nondescript, a little frayed at the edges, a little turned in on itself, compared to Paris. I walked the long blocks from the RER station, along the empty back streets, into the center of town — as always, deserted after dark — then turned the corner onto rue Louis Blanc, walked past l’Hotel de la Poste — where we’d all posed for photographs once, that first visit, John Brandi and I and Pierre and Isa and Jean-Michel, too, because we thought it was hilarious for there to be a “hotel of the post,” and because we were all hungover, and madly in love — and finally I came to number 12, unlatched the gate, walked down the long path through the garden toward the big white house, a walk that always and forever makes me feel like some kind of prodigal bride.

Lights were glowing on the first and third floors; the second floor — Mario’s floor — was dark, as it often is these days. When I got to the door of what had once been Pierre’s apartment and is now “the family room,” I could see Isabelle in the kitchen, at the stove, her back to me. She was still wearing the red sweater she’d worn to Paris, but had turned her cream-colored scarf around so that the long ends of the bow were out of the way of her cooking pots. When this was Pierre’s apartment, it was two rooms, plus the kitchen and bath. After Antoine was born, Pierre and Mario knocked down the wall to make a communal space, and renovated the apartment on the third floor for the family. We always have meals here now, when I come, and I’ve sometimes slept on the fold-out couch. Isabelle laughed when I called her name, then opened the door to the stairwell and called up to Pierre.

So we had a lovely dinner of fish and fennel and a very old bottle of white wine — “Almost too old,” Pierre said. Inevitably, we rehashed old times. Inevitable, too, that we got into a discussion of politics, sinking almost into despair. Their sense is that America is taking the world down a very dangerous path, “And we can do nothing,” Pierre almost spat. But the children were with us for part of the evening, reading and drawing while we talked, trying the different sauces for their fish during dinner, and it’s not so easy to despair when they’re around. Lila even laughs at my jokes in French, how I call her hair “horses” (“Chevaux?” “Non, cheveux!”); and Antoine obeys his papa’s entreaties to speak to Cecilia in French “doucement.” In this context, I know, doucement means slowly, gently. But really, it translates as “sweetly,” as in, “Speak sweetly to Cecilia.” Should anyone feel so cherished?

At midnight, Pierre grabbed his coat and his bike — so that he could ride back home — and walked with me to the metro. He kept pulling me back out of the crosswalks; “Be careful, everyone’s drunk at this hour!” (Not that we were completely sober.) He’s the only human I know who walks as fast as I do, sometimes faster. Still, after we’d said goodnight and I’d run down into the station, the announcement came, “desolee’,” that the service to Paris was “termine’.” I went back up to the street — too late to catch Pierre and too rough an area to walk back alone – and considered waiting for the night bus. But when a taxi came along (which so seldom happens in Alfortville) I grabbed it and was home in the Marais in fifteen minutes. Et voila.

Pierre had asked me what I was doing while I was in Paris, if I was looking for another husband? I told him I wouldn’t consider getting married again unless I could marry both him and Isabelle.

Sunday was a good day for working all day: quiet and overcast. But by evening I needed an escape; I needed a BIG American movie. And so did Jenny, as it turned out. We met in Les Halles and went to see The Aviator. I loved it, and couldn’t help thinking how my dad would have loved it, too. He had always been fascinated with Howard Hughes. I understand that fascination better now. They were both in love with flying. Daddy would say, “Your old man always loved flying machines.” He never got over it. He must also have loved the way Hughes stood up to the system and won, when Pan Am was trying to get a bill passed to give them a monopoly on transatlantic passenger flights. I needed to see that triumph over the system, too, especially now, especially after my own recent encounters with “old-boys” networks. Sometimes it happens; sometimes the bastards are left sputtering, up to their ears in their own shit.

On Monday, I revised an essay, wrote a review of Lisa Pasold’s WEAVE for the Cider Press Review and worked on some new poems. Somehow, in Paris, writing poetry doesn’t seem like such an absurd way to spend one’s days. Pamela came by in the evening for a kir; Solange is still “incarcerated” in rehab, while her foot heals. But she sounded chipper when we called to say hello. Then we walked to the rue des Rosiers for falafel. Pas cher and delicious. When I walked Pamela to the metro at Hotel de Ville, a guy with a radio was dancing in front of the BHV.

On Tuesday, more writing, and shopping – since these are the final days of “les soldes.” But I’ve been more in the mood to stroll the rue du Temple, looking in the windows of the wholesalers, and the rue Rambeauteau – stopping in at the boulangerie, the fromagerie, the poissonerie, etc — than to shop for clothes. It’s been warm enough these past few days that people have been sitting outside at the cafes. I’ve started to recognize some familiar faces – the old man I see every day at the café on rue Rambeauteau, a pack of cigarettes ripped open on the table, a cup of black coffee. Sometimes someone is sitting with him and other times he’s talking out loud to himself. I’ve been asking myself why I enjoy so much just looking at people here, and it struck me that it might be because it seems that no one here is trying to look like anyone else, or everyone else; everyone looks exactly like him- or herself, which makes everyone fascinating to look at, and beautiful.

In the early evening, I met Kathleen Spivack at le Select in the 6th. “We need beauty!” she pronounced, and told me how well I looked. I’m feeling more at ease than I have in years, more at home in the world, as I always feel in Paris.

Later, I was rushing back from the little market a half-block away from my apartment and ran straight into Jenny Huxta, just heading into Au Rendez-vous des Amis. She was with her filmmaker friends who are here from London to make a documentary. The camera was rolling as we laughed and kissed, surprised and not surprised.

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