Sunday, March 27, 2005

Keeping The Rhythm

March 22, 2005

Last week I moved from the Marais to the 15th arrondissment, an area around Convention, and settled in temporarily at my friend Louise Thunin's sweet little pied-a-terre. A much more residential neighborhood than the Marais, quieter in some ways, and with a different rhythm -- a more quotidien rhythm, I would say.

One "guards" -- or "keeps" the "rhythm" here. On the metro quai at Concorde there are colorful signs on the pavement reminiscent of those 1950's-style dance-step guides -- footprints showing how to step. They provide instructions -- or is that encouragement? -- on how to let others descend from the train before boarding, how to board, how to disembark, and all the while "keep the rhythm" -- keep moving in the flow of pedestrian traffic. I've gotten better at this, myself, at moving in pace with the crowd, with patience and also with energy.

It's a kind of collaboration, riding the metro. If one is walking through the corridor and hears a train that might be one's train, and if those in front of one begin to run, one also runs -- though sometimes it's a false alarm, wrong train, and the person in front of you turns to apologize for having made the mistake of running, and causing you to also run.

I ran for a train in the metro the other day and when I got to the quai, the train was standing there with the doors just about to close. So I leapt -- literally leapt onto the train -- just as the doors closed behind me. Someone said "brava," and someone whistled under his breath, and we all smiled.

I remember last spring, catching the SNCF train to Colombes with Andrew -- and those trains only run every fifteen minutes, so we were making a last minute dash. I squeezed into the car with Andrew just behind me, but the doors started closing as he tried to get in. The other passengers pushed the doors aside and literally pulled him on board.

I don't know if the idiom exists in French that "we're all in the same boat," but we're all in the same boat here. And I enjoy the company, enjoy being a person among persons, and keeping the rhythm.

It's a ten-minute walk -- much of it uphill -- from the metro at Convention to Louise's pied-a-terre on rue Vaugelas. Along the way, one walks up rue Olivier de Serres. From the first day I took that route, I noticed a beautiful little bar each time I passed, Le Petit Bar. I could see through the big front windows that it was all polished wood and mirrors inside and, at night, all warm light. And somehow it looked so friendly, so welcoming, and the people gathered at the bar so "genial," that I kept wanting to stop in for a drink, though I'm not usually comfortable going into bars alone.

So on Friday night, coming home around midnight, I stopped. I could see from the sidewalk that there was a crowd inside, but when I tried the door, it was locked. A man reached over from his bar stool, cracked the door, and told me "c'est ferme'." But then the bartender, a big platinum blonde waving a cigarette in one hand while she poured drinks with the other, said something to him in a gravelly voice and waved me inside. I stepped into a tiny space -- not any bigger, really, than my kitchen in L.A., and the man who had told me the place was closed immediately moved aside and offered me his barstool.

I felt as if maybe I'd walked into a private party. The bartender asked me what I wanted to drink , asked me my name, poured me a glass of red wine and started introducing me to everyone. The man who'd given me his bar stool told me the bartender, Veronique, was his wife. Then another woman walked up and took the stool beside me, and he introduced her, Katya, as his second wife. Before long, he was introducing me as his third wife. And Veronique was yelling that there were thirsty women at the bar, ordering the men to buy us drinks, opening a bottle of champagne and declaring it la fete des super femmes. She was also demonstrating techniques for applying blue eyeliner and lending her makeup bag to the women -- there were only a few of us -- at the bar. Katya told me that, no, it wasn't a private party, just a Friday night at a place where a lot of friends came to gather. "C'est genial, n'est-ce pas?" she smiled. And I counted myself lucky to be included.

This is the kind of neighborhood where the woman at the boulangerie recognizes you the second morning you come in, knows that you're just getting your breakfast bread at 11 a.m., remembers that you love the warm wheat rolls with raisins and nuts.

I've been reading Jennifer Dick's gorgeous first book of poems, Flourescence, as I've been moving through Paris these past few days. And I've been asking myself what it is about these poems that makes them so perfect for reading on the metro, in line at the post office, sitting in a cafe waiting for a friend. Somehow, though the poems are in English, the book seems to me deeply Parisian. And I've decided it may be their jagged rhythms, their luminescent fragmentedness, mirroring the rhythms and fragmentedness of life in Paris. One is always moving in and out of other lives here, in and out of conversations, celebrations, daily dramas. It's not that one's never alone -- Parisians seem to respect the privacy of the individual more than it's respected elsewhere -- but that one seldom feels isolated from the flow of life.

In the metro, a young man with a large musical instrument case is dashing through the underground corridor, and everyone steps aside to let him pass. Where two corridors converge, a group of Ukrainian musicians has set up to play. People stop to listen, to smile and applaud, maybe even to dance. A woman pushing a baby stroller stops at the top of a flight of stairs, and a passing man reaches over to take hold of the front of the stroller and help her lift it down the steps. And the rhythm is kept.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

For The Children

March 12, 2005

Just a thought: if they're going to make these skirts like the one I saw today in a shop window walking up rue Vielle du Temple toward the rue deBretagne -- a pale pink swirl of a thing, fairytale pink, fitted at the waist and hips and flaring out at the hem, with a sprinkling of beads down the front as if someone had tossed a small handful of tiny stars and they'd stuck there -- well, then, one should really be able to be 25 again, so she could wear it, at least for one week in spring time. Twenty-five, with a credit card this time, and the joie de vivre to wear it with aplomb. And preferably in love.

I'm more than a week behind here, so I'm going to try to do some quick catching up ...

Last Thursday I spent a rainy afternoon lunching with Jeff chez lui. He made us warm carrot soup and a salad with crevettes. His new book proposal has been accepted, so he's off to the US for April and May (alas!) to do research on an environmental ranch in Texas. We talked about our struggles with our work, as we always do, while the two Maltese watched us from their positions on the couch, sprawled out -- as only fluffy 3-pound dogs can sprawl -- and wearing expressions of amused concern. Jeff joked that they were his muses, and I told him he should re-name them "Poetry" and "Prose."

Then, on Friday evening, Jenny Huxta (WHO LOOKS GOOD IN CYBERSPACE!) and I trekked out to Alfortville for dinner chez Poilloux. Isabelle made some wonderful Asian dishes, redolent with cardamom, and Pierre dragged out some old photos of all of us from a decade ago. How young and beautiful we looked in the wind on the cote sauvage! No wonder we fell in love ... And Jenny brought along some of her photos, too -- beautiful images of Paris -- and also took some snaps of the children, especially of Princess Lila, who is not the least bit camera-shy. Isa told us Lila had been waiting for us all day. We played "mirrors" and showed each other dance moves. Lila was amazed -- and so wasPierre -- that I can still do splits. And I was impressed with Lila's natural turn-out, and even more so with Pierre's!

On Saturday, Dagmar and Uschi arrived by train from Basel. We picked up baguettes and had lunch in the apartment, then spent all afternoon walking around. Strolled past the department store La Samaritaine and stopped for a few minutes on the sidewalk to listen to a wacky band playing music that sounded psueudo-gypsy-ish to me. The lead singer/guitarist was wearing a Santa Claus suit and looked to be about 13 years old. Farther down the sidewalk, just at the corner, a clochard was reclining on a ragged blanket, spreading Camembert on a baguette. We walked over the Pont Neuf and finally stopped in a cafe where we got a corner table that gave us a post-card view of Notre Dame. Had big cups of cafe creme while dusk fell and the candles on the tables were lit, happy to be among the people inside, behind the windows, as the wind kicked up and rain started to fall and the people in the streets opened their umbrellas and looked longingly in at us. Later we met Adrian for a drink in the Marais -- she was on her way to a birthday party -- and then went to dinner at La Petite Chaumiere. That night, while I was brushing my teeth, I could hear Dagmar and Uschi giggling and whispering to each other. They were stretched out in their sleeping bags, side by side on the bed -- I made my bed on the couch for the weekend-- and it felt like we were all at sleep-away camp. Especially when they started reciting poems together, and singing songs they remembered from childhood.

Sunday was a day of more strolling and eating and talking -- and a little shopping, too -- and then a late afternoon visit with Brett and Aileen and their little girls at their apartment off the rue Montorgueil. Brett joined Uschi and Dagmar and me for dinner at le Gamin, which was delicious, though we could barely see our food and the place was noisy and crowded and filled with smoke, as always.

On Monday afternoon, I put my friends back on the train at the gare de l'Est, and then the apartment was little too quiet for a while. There's always a little bit of melancholy when houseguests leave, and always a lot of catching up to be done. Just the deluge of e-mail is enough to keep my head spinning, and then there's planning for the Paris Poetry Workshop, and trying to master the subjunctive tense in French, and several essays and poems in-progress, and always someone I'm trying to meet for coffee, if only a mutually convenient time can be found,

Monday evening I held my little weekly workshop, then made my now-perfected omelette fromage and turned in early because I knew that Tuesday would be a late night, an evening of feasting and drinking and probably dancing and singing, too, and telling stories and laughing, and I'd have to do it all in French, subjunctive or no subjunctive. Tuesday evening I took the train from the gare St. Lazare to Colombes -- about a 15-minute trip across the river, outside of the peripherique, and into the banlieue. The train was packed with rush hour commuters, so I stood on the steps leading up to the second level (also packed) and did some people-watching. Maybe it's the bad yellow light in the trains that makes everyone look less attractive than they do in the light of Paris; maybe it's the fact that the less prosperous and glamorous people do tend to live in the banlieue. It's the mirror opposite of the situation in the US, where we talk about "the problems of the inner-city." Here, it's "le probleme des banlieues," because that's where the people who can't afford to live in Paris -- though they may work in Paris -- live. And where crime rates are higher and the streets more bleak and deserted, especially at night. But Colombes is actually rather charming, and Jimi Hendrix played in a bar here once, before anyone had heard of him. And I have another French family, of sorts, in Colombes, glamorous and genial, to my mind, and I was on my way to them ...

I walked from the station to the rue de Progres, and could see the lights of Michele's atelier -- the glass walls and skylights emitting a warm glow into the night sky -- as I walked through the gate at number 30. Michele stood in the garden at the end of the walk, smiling and waving to me, looking, as ever, like some gorgeously-aging French film star -- but which one? I remember when she used to live across the street from me in L.A., when she was just that mysterious, beautiful French woman who lived with my neighbor Dale, and I'd watch her coming and going and wonder how one learned to carry herself like that, as if the whole world were watching but she didn't care, and didn't much mind being watched, either, was perfectly at ease being beautiful, and perfectly self-contained. We didn't really become friends until she moved back to France and I started coming to Paris for long visits in the mid-1990's.

Inside, Michele's equally beautiful sister -- think Isabelle Hubert, but slightly darker, slightly less fragile -- was waiting for me. I'm crazy about this Isabelle, too, who calls me "ma beaute" and sits close enough to me on the couch so that we can smell one another's perfume and hold hands, if we feel like it. Isabelle's little boy, Ian, was hiding behind the couch, ready to jump out and surprise me. I think he was just a bit disappointed that I didn't have Andrew with me this time. He was fascinated with Andrew when we came here for dinner last year, because Andrew spoke English and looked like an American Indian, and maybe also because of the way he danced the funky chicken with me after dinner. That was a ridiculous, wonderful, magical night, as my nights in Colombes always are. Much of the extended family was there, and we were "a table," eating whichever course we'd eaten our way to, and drinking whichever wine was the perfect accompaniment, and laughing and all talking at once. Isabelle was seated next to Andrew, since her English is very good, and Andrewwas telling her a story about the beret he wore as a teenager, and Isabelle was leaning across the table, translating the whole thing into French for me, and this went on for some time before I suddenly said, "Wait a minute! I speak English! I know what he's saying!" And Isabelle said, "Oh, cherie, but we don't want you to lose your French!"

So on Tuesday evening, much of the same crowd was gathered. When I arrived, Alain was in the kitchen doing what Alain does in the kitchen -- magic -- and Alain's daughter Valerie was there with her partner Didier, who's maybe the funniest man I've ever met, though the other Didier gives him a run for hismoney -- this second Didier being the husband of Alain's ex-wife Chantal, who was also there, along with Alain and Chantal's daughter, Claire, who's an extraordinary 19-year-old (and a wonderful poet) just back from three months teaching children in Vietnam. And Valerie's and Didier's new baby, Julian, was asleep in a basket in the bedroom -- we went in to peek and coo at him -- and there was Ian, of course, who wears little blue spectacles now, which make him look very "distingue" for a seven-year-old, and who gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "eating like a child." "J'adore l'urchin," he said, so I tried some, too; and "J'adore le foie gras," so I thought, What the heck, this is France. "J'adore les escargots," when they appeared from the kitchen on a huge platter with the fish, but Michele knows me well and smiled and brought me a plate sans snails. We were eating as they do in Marseilles, Alain told us, with copious amounts of the same delicious white wine we'd had on Wednesday at LeCoude Fou, and some wonderful earthy vin rouge with the cheese course -- a cheese from every region of France -- and then champagne with Michele's home-made tarte aux pommes.

After the meal, there was music, as usual -- Delta blues and gypsy music and even some "musique du Rap," for Claire -- and we danced. When everyone else had left and Alain had gone upstairs to bed, Michele and Isabele and Ian and I danced for another hour or so. I decided to try to do every move Ian did. I think we were spinning on our heads at 2 a.m. Then we cleared the table, swept up the shards of the one broken wine glass, and I went to sleep in the garden room that's always reserved for me when I come to Colombes. In the morning, I woke to birdsong and made coffee before anyone else came downstairs. Michele and Isabelle and I shared a cigarette in the garden, and Ian kept asking me to stay so that we could have some petite dejeuner together, but it was already noon and I needed to catch a train back to Paris.

In the afternoon, I met Lisa Pasold for tea in a charming place at the far end (from me) of rue des Rosiers, then had my French lesson with Corine at Le Boucheron, then came back to the apartment and collapsed.

Thursday was a day for buckling down and catching up on work. In the evening, I met Susannah -- an undergraduate writing student from USC, here for her semester abroad -- at le Boucheron for a glass of wine and salad.

Friday was another work day, all day, then in the evening there was a concert by my friend Ian Honeyman -- a tenor who would be singing Schumann and accompanying himself on pianoforte at the Anglican Church in the 8th arrondissment -- to benefit an organization in the UK that buys motorized wheelchairs for disabled kids. I wanted to make sure there was a good audience, so I sent the invitation out to my list and invited some friends to meet me here for an aperitif beforehand. There were seven women gathered in my living room drinking kir and eating olives -- Isabelle (of Pierre and Isabelle), Louise Thunin (up from LeMans), Adrian, Lisa, Eva, and Jenny Huxta (WHO LOOKS REALLY GOOD IN CYBERSPACE). And we managed to be only a few minutes late for the concert. Afterwards, we all went to a brasserie near the Madeleine for wine and a late, light supper.

Which brings me back to today, which is Saturday, and that lovely pink skirt in the shop window on rue Vielle du Temple. I was on my way to an appointment in rue Picardie and was about to take my usual shortcut to the rue de Bretagne by turning left onto the tiny rue Debelleyme. But there was a big crowd gathered in the middle of rue Debelleyme, and police on motorcycles at either end of the street, and -- thinking it was maybe an accident and not wanting to get too close -- I took the long way around instead. But on my way home again, an hour later, my curiosity got the best of me. I looked down rue Debelleyme from rue de Bretagne and saw that the street was deserted now. I also saw a huge bouquet of flowers on the sidewalk where the crowd had been. So I walked down the rue Debelleyme and found myself in front of a school, reading a bronze plaque on the facade -- the sconces beside the plaque held more fresh flowers -- dedicating the building to the 11,000 children of Paris who were deported by the Nazis, with the collaboration of the Vichy government, and sent to their deaths in the camps. The plaque said, "We must remember." I stood there and tried to imagine it. Tried to imagine the kind of men who could send thousands of children -- just like the four-year-olds I see holding hands, following their teachers into the Ecole Maternelle on the rue des Archives, or like Lila and Antoine, like Ian, like my own nieces and nephews, like children anywhere, everywhere -- to their deaths. I couldn't imagine it, or I didn't want to, butI have to, we all have to. Especially those of us who can't actively remember have to imagine. We have to imagine so that we can be horrified so that we can keep our own compassion alive. Because so many of our leaders so lack imagination, so many of those in power, who have the power to perpetrate these kinds of horrors. And if, as a society, we can't, or won't, protect the children of this world from the mass murderers of this world, I'm not sure we have any right to call ourselves civilized. I'm not even sure we have any right to call ourselves human.

Late this afternoon -- at last -- I met my good friend the poet Ellen Hinsey for tea. We recounted some of our personal horrors of the past few years, and tallied our shattered illusions and wondered how to keep faith in the face of that shattering. Ellen summed it up for both of us very succinctly; she said we somehow have to hold two things in mind simultaneously in order to do our work as poets: we have to be able to look at the horrors of this world and accept the presence of evil and those who perpetrate evil and, at the same time, see the beauty of the world, and bring both that horror and that beauty to our work. So there was that fairytale skirt in the shop window, with its promise of beauty and happiness, and -- just around the corner -- flowers left on the sidewalk by a crowd of Parisians in memory of the children who should have been saved.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Public vs. Private

March 3, 2005

I've been thinking more and more about this whole notion of a common life, of a "public life" in Paris. Well, to be truthful, I've been thinking about this for years, wondering why more people in the US aren't making the connection between a lack of public space -- a lack of public life -- and the decline of participatory democracy. This first came home to me the first time I was in Prague, in the early 1990's, not long after the "Velvet Revolution" there. I stood in Wenceslaus Square, which had been the site, which had been the site of so many demonstrations, and of the triumph of the people over their totalitarian communist dictators. The day I was there, elderly people were in the square feeding pigeons, young people were listening to boomboxes and smoking and talking, kids were playing, business people on their lunch breaks were eating sandwiches. I thought, of course a revolution started here! Everyone was here, already, out in public, together.

Does the shopping mall in America provide the same kind of space for collective action? Or are people too consumed with consuming to notice what's going on around them? In any case, a shopping mall is PRIVATE space, privately owned by the merchants. When people have tried to stage demonstrations in malls in America, they've been told they don't have the right to demonstrate there because it's "private property." And "private property" in America is so sacrosanct that there's almost no public property left. And where public space still exists, there's no sense of it actually belonging to the public. (Think of the Bush administration's give-aways to mining companies and timber companies in our national parks and forests.) If we were to stage a revolution, where would we stage it? At the Super Walmart? (Where workers are locked in at night to prevent them from avoiding working overtime?)

There's not even any sense that our streets and parks still belong to us. Last year, when I was living in Atlanta near the King memorial, George W. came to town for a fundraising dinner. He wanted to hold a "photo op" at the tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which is part of a NATIONAL PARK in the heart of Black Atlanta. Well, what W told the press was that he wanted to lay a wreath on King's tomb. A sacrilege if I've ever heard of one. But Coretta Scott King didn't see fit to bar W -- in spite of the fact that his administration's policies have gone, and continue to go, against everything that her husband fought and died for. One can't really argue with her open-heartedness and her diplomacy. But the real obscenity was that MARTA (public!) buses were used to create a blockade around the King Center, so that the protestors -- and there were plenty of protestors -- wouldn't be visible to W or to the news cameras. They were "disappeared" behind the very symbol of the beginning of the civil rights movement in America. Karl Rove must have been pissing his pants in glee.

This has proven to be a very effective tactic for the Bush machine: if there's a public protest, the protestors are herded into an area "designated" for demonstrations, well out of the line of sight of television cameras and "public" (let's use the term loosely) officials. It's working, people.

I can't count the number of times over the years that I've found myself in the midst of a massive "manifestation" in the streets of Paris -- or stuck in traffic because the streets had been closed for a demonstration. Oh it can be an inconvenience, but no one seems to mind too much. People have a right to demonstrate, after all, seems to be the attitude; after all, the streets belong to the people. (What a radical concept!) It's just part of life in the city. When there's a "greve," here, a strike by workers that slows down or shuts down public transport, no one bitches about the workers not having a right to strike. Of course they have the right! And the inconvenience caused by the strike seems to serve to remind people how essential those workers are. Et voila. I remember reading in the English-language press, during the big public transport strike of 1996, how astounded American reporters were that the people weren't incensed, even though the country had practically ground to a halt, but instead SUPPORTED the striking workers.

And thus "the people" actually have a voice in how "the system" is run. They have a stake. And there's common ground. But there has to be a shared life, a life in common, and common space in order for that kind of democracy -- the kind we're supposed to have in America, a country founded by revolutionaries -- to work. And I don't think it's working anymore in America.

The other day, a little promotional magazine called "Centre Ville," with news of the 4th arrondissment -- which includes the Marais -- arrived in the mail. It opens with a brief editorial by the "maire" (mayor) of the 4th, a woman named Dominique Bertinotti. In her editorial, she congratulates local residents for having come together to oppose the "museumification" of their neighborhood. She says that, if one wants to live in a living city, dynamic and vibrant, it's necessary that young and old, rich and poor, are able to continue to live there -- try that philosophy out in the vast suburban mausoleums of America -- and for there to be public space, schools, hospitals, etc..., in close proximity and accessible to all.

Even the cafes in Paris, which are privately owned, are regarded as public spaces. You buy a cup of coffee and that table belongs to you for as long as you care to sit there. Last Tuesday evening Heather Hartley and I sat in the cafe des Philosophes until our eyes stung from the smoke. While we talked -- for 2-1/2 hours -- we consumed one beverage each. Of course we were never asked to pay and leave until we were ready to go, and signaled the waiter, and it was only then that I noticed that every other table in the place had filled up with diners.

I sometimes wonder if it has to do with spaces being smaller, here, and tighter; if the necessity of sharing makes for a less selfish populace.

Last Wednesday evening, my dear friends Michele Quence and Alain Doignon came to Paris from Colombes to have dinner with me at le Coude Fou. We had an aperitif here in the apartment and, once we'd caught up on personal news -- Michele will have the first Paris exhibition of her paintings on silk and her pastels beginning March 14 -- the talk turned to politics. Alain doesn't speak any English -- though I suspect he understands more than a little --so he's very indulgent about my French. And normally I find it easier to talk about politics in French than about almost anything else. But when the subject of Bush's "re-election" came up, and the war in Iraq, I literally found myself at a loss for words in any language, and suddenly all conversation stopped. I looked at my friends and said simply, "Je suis desolee." I'm sorry. I'm sorry for my country. "But it's not your fault," Alain said. Then Michele added, "And the whole world is sorry."

Then we shared a beautiful meal, and a truly spectacular bottle of white wine that Alain was delighted to find on the menu. I had a crottin de chevre that I'm still dreaming about; it was like eating warm velvet. Afterwards, we made plans for a "family" dinner in Colombes on Tuesday then kissed each other goodnight in the street.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Talking About America

Feb. 28, 2005

Qu'est-ce que c'est la difference?

The last day of February, and one might think, hopefully, the last day of wintry weather. But it's still bitterly cold outside at night. One sees a few clochards making camp in the metro with their bottles and bags, sometimes engaging in animated conversation with better-dressed passersby. Others slumped over in the rows of orange plastic seats. But I suspect most of the homeless in Paris are in shelters these cold nights, because, well, the French seem to take care of their own better than we do in America.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes Parisians different from Americans, and why I like Parisians so much, and feel so comfortable among them. This evening I've come to the conclusion that it's at least partly because people aren't in competition with one another here -- for money, for space on the metro, for attention. As a woman here -- even a woman of a certain age, mon dieu -- one gets plenty of flattering attention from waiters and shopkeepers and even from other women. I'm thinking of the old cordonnier who calls me "ma fille" whenever I come into his shoe repair shop. And of the young woman who sold me my little red hat, telling me it would help cure my "grippe" to feel pretty and warm, especially if I added some red lipstick.

This evening, for another example, I went with Adrian and her old friend Debbie Baldwin to a little restaurant in the 11th for dinner. (Adrian and I had planned to have a quiet dinner at her place, but Deb showed up a day early for her date with Adrian, so we decided we'd all go out together.) The restaurant was called La Vache Acrobate, "The Acrobatic Cow." A typically crowded little joint with almost no space between the tiny tables. But when we needed a little more seating room on the bench along the window, the women already occupying the adjacent table cheerfully slid over and moved their coats and bags, laughing and joking and welcoming us. It's the same in the metro: people move aside and make room for one another and also keep their own hands and feet close to their bodies, so as not to trip or grope anyone, or take up more than their share of available space.

Whereas last night Jenny Huxta and I went to Jim Haynes' weekly soiree. I hadn't been in at least five years and Jenny had managed to live in Paris all this time without ever participating in this Sunday evening rite. See, a lot of ex-pats living in Paris get lonely on Sundays, because Sunday is a big family day among the French, a day most people spend at home surrounded by family. And even the French get lonely, if they don't have family nearby. So Jim has been throwing these dinner parties for 20 or 30 years. Good food, bad wine, way too many people -- usually 80 or so -- crowded into his atelier. But jostling and being jostled and balancing a plate on your knee -- that is, if you're lucky enough to find a place to sit -- is half the fun. Jenny and I struck up a three-way bilingual conversation with a Frenchman named Marc, who kept spilling his wine all over himself, but was otherwise really charming. We were happily scrunched into a corner of a kind of built-in couch that runs along two walls, and Jenny and I started making a game of seeing if we could pick out the Americans in the crowd by how much space they were taking up. One woman was sprawled -- actually reclining -- on the other end of the couch, on which she had also set down her plate. This in a room where most others barely had room to stand. When she finished eating and got up, a man took her place and sat with his knees spread wide, hand on his hip and one elbow jutting out so that no one could sit too close, I thought. I thought he seemed a little hostile, a little aggressive in his insistence on his space. Later, I noticed him walking out with a cane and felt like a complete ass for the judgment I'd made -- maybe a disability made it too uncomfortable for him to sit any other way than the way he'd been sitting. At moments like these, I wish I could be a little less "American," myself, a little less quick to judge. And if I were more "French," I might also be a little quicker to forgive myself.

I think there's really just a different attitude toward life here. There's more public space, and people live more in public -- on the streets, in the cafes -- so there seems to be more of a common life, a shared life. At the same time, there's more respect for individuality, and more individuality, period. Maybe it's because the conglometerization and corporatization of France hasn't happened yet. I hope it never does. Deb and Adrian and I were talking tonight about New York City. Adrian said she's never had any particular "feeling" for New York, although she lived there for several years. I agreed that I love my friends there, but don't feel any attraction to the city, itself, don't feel that the city has any particular personality. Then we all started wondering out loud if there was any American city that still had any personality. All the coffee shops and restaurants and stores seem the same, look the same. And the window displays, if there are any window displays, look pretty generic to me.

Here, "window-licking" -- and one does sometimes want to walk right up and lick -- provides a feast for the eyes. One can be almost as satisfied by looking as by posessing the things in the windows. Just the desire they inspire feels delicious. Here in the Marais, the window displays seem to change every few days. I find myself walking past a few favorite shops when I'm out on errands, just to see the new displays. Window-dressing is an art here, as is the making of bread and patisserie. The other afternoon on the rue vielle du Temple, a young woman was standing on the sidewalk in front of a shop, carefully scrutinizing her handiwork -- that flowering branch placed just so between the hand-sewn journals and hand-made paper, between the shiny pens and the brightly-colored pencils, did it provide just the right texture, just the right balance, or could it be even more beautiful? I wanted to stop and thank her. Lucky me, I go about my business and I'm surrounded by beauty, and so often beauty that's been created by individual human hands. It's different, it really is, and it's lovely to live on a human scale, instead of on the scale of the "big box" store.

This also has something to do, I think, with why people look more beautiful to me here -- or at least more interesting. Even the very old. Even the men on the garbage trucks, which look like Tonka toys to me. And it's not that people look "exotic" or foreign to my eyes, but that each one looks exactly like him- or herself, like an individual, and not as if they're trying to look like everyone else, or like the people they see on t.v. Some of this has to do with dress, because it's true that Parisians dress better than we do, and not because they have more disposable income. They just don't all buy their clothes from the same racks in the same big department or discount stores. So a French person may not have the same quantity of clothes that an American has in his or her closet, but the French put them together and wear them with certain panache. How many times this winter have I smiled at a young man in a dark winter coat, a bright lime-green scarf looped around his throat with that certain savoir-faire? And then there's the matter of quality, too.

This morning I walked down the rue de Rivoli in sharp sunlight to meet Corine at le Boucheron. She sat across from me in the smoky cafe in a multi-colored sweater, ribbons of color woven into the dark wool. I had to ask her if I could touch the fabric, to finger the edge of her sleeve. "It's so beautiful," I said. "Yes," she agreed, and named the famous designer and told me the story of how she acquired it: she'd fallen in love with it, but it was "trop cher;" then her sister saw it on sale in London and bought it for her. I told her that, in America, women like me -- and Corine and I are approximately the same age and of approximately the same socio-economic class -- seldom buy designer things. But a Frenchwoman wants le qualite; she may have only two sweaters in her closet, but they're beautiful sweaters.

I thought of the summer day some years ago when I returned to the U.S. from France, and was watching the crowds in the Detroit airport, trying to figure out why these people looked so different from the French. Then I realized they were all wearing their "vacation" clothes, which looked brand-new but cheap, ill-fitting. Corine told me that in France, it used to be that there were only clothing shops for children and for adults. Now there are these chain boutiques that cater to adolescent girls, who crave having a lot of different trendy clothes, and the clothes are cheap. "Ah," I said, "So Americans are like adolescents?" In this, as in so many things. It's been said before, of course: America is a young country, still in the throes of puberty, culturally and historically. And there's a clumsy sweetness in that, and a kind of vitality, but won't it be a relief to leave adolescence behind, if we ever leave it behind?

I met Corine at a dinner party at Brett's and Aileen's a few weeks ago. She had been Aileen's French tutor when my Aussie pals first moved to Paris, and has recently found herself unexpectedly unemployed. So I've hired her to help me with my French, and she's developed an intensive course of study that she believes will "poosh" me from an intermediate to an advanced level pretty quickly. I'm meeting her at Le Boucheron every day, working hard at this but having fun, feeling more connected, naturally, to the people around me, the more I understand and can speak this beautiful language. Corine explains different sentence constructions to me, and always urges me to use "le plus elegante." So I may end up speaking a broken and elegant French, which seems perfect to me.

I love this sense of the elegant in even the smallest things. This evening, on my way up the rue vielle du Temple to Adrian's, I passed a display of little flowerpots on a sidewalk table, so adorable, with a perfect baby rose in the center of each, and only 7 euros. So I chose one for Adrian and went into the shop to pay. The two men working there laughed when they greeted me, and I asked if the shop were already closed? Non, non, they smiled, though there was already an open bottle of wine on the counter, and two half-filled glasses. And one of the men took the time to wrap my gift carefully in tissue paper and twine ribbon. Such attention to detail, which is beauty, is everywhere. And am I the only American to have ever found the French not only unfailingly polite, but unfailingly kind and warm?

Of course, the French can be very critical, too, which may also account for my feeling so at home among them. They're "picky" about how things are done -- or, as my nephew Jesse has said about me, "Well, my Aunt Celia is very particular." So be prepared to wait for a cup of coffee, if you want a perfectly-prepared cup of delicious coffee. And to wait while your purchase, however small, is elegantly wrapped. And to be chastised, sotto voce, for putting your feet up on a chair. (This is Paris -- think of what might be on the soles of your shoes!) And to have your opinions and attitudes challenged with intellectual fervor. And to challenge right back.

Last Friday, Adrian and I met our friends Pamela and Solange at le Coude Fou ("The Crazy Elbow") for dinner. Pamela is, in many ways, quintessentially American -- a professional poker player and dealer who spends part of each year in Las Vegas and also takes photographs and writes. Solange, her partner, is in some ways quintessentially French -- she's lived in Paris all her life and recently retired from her work in the French film industry. Each is also rather eccentric. And their relationship -- they met almost ten years ago, when I convinced Pamela to visit Paris, so I take a tiny bit of credit -- is a pleasure to behold, and sometimes a comedy of cultural errors. Solange will correct Pamela about everything from how she pours wine to how she cuts the lettuce (don't!) to how she offers mints from her purse. Pamela will respond with her big hearty laugh. That they love one another and are committed to their life together seems never in doubt.

So, we were talking about movies, and I happened to mention that my family in Kentucky sees the big Hollywood movies at home on DVD before they even reach the cinemas, because one of my brothers downloads them from the internet. Solange was outraged, "It's 'orrible! I worked in this business for many years and ..." But Adrian, bless her big, open heart, butted right in. "No, you don't understand," she said, "Every artist wants his or her work to be seen as widely as possible, it doesn't hurt the artists. It creates a bigger buzz and a bigger audience." And I butted back in and told Solange that if any entity was hurt by bootlegging, it was the big film companies and record companies, who take advantage of the artists, anyway, not to mention how obscenely they profit from the consumer. I told her, proudly, that my younger sisters bootlegged the music of "alternative" artists and passed it around in our family -- music that doesn't get the kind of airplay that the music of pop princesses like Britney Spears gets, because these artists aren't part of the whole corrupt payola system that the industry propagates and the government allows.

I wish I'd thought to mention, too, that my eldest sister, who runs a hair and tanning salon in a little house on Highway 61 between Shepherdsville and Lebanon Junction, made numerous copies of "Farenheit 911" and gave them to her customers -- most of whom are, or were, apolitical at best, and probably getting whatever news they got from the Fox network. But they came back into her shop furious after having watched the film, saying, "I never knew all this stuff." And when they tried to give the DVD's back to her, my sister told them to keep them and pass them around. I feel absolutely certain that Michael Moore would approve of this method of distribution for his film. I know some of these local folks got out to the polls and voted against W last election day, too, for all the good that's done our country ...

I told my friends at le Coude Fou that I come from a long line of people who've often operated outside of the law -- sometimes out of necessity and sometimes out of pure rebellion. One of my grandmothers ran a numbers book during the great Depression, and the other made boot-leg gin. My mother started bootlegging copies of movies as soon as she could afford a second VCR. My father did hard time in prison as a young man for a crime he didn't commit. His half-brother, my favorite uncle, spent a good part of his life running from the law. This uncle took my first boyfriend quietly aside when he came to our house to ask my father for "my hand," when I was 18. "If you ever hurt her," my uncle whispered, "I'll have a contract out on you so fast you won't ever know what happened." I think he had a sixth sense about how bullying and controlling this guy could be. I've had reason, in recent years, to wish that uncle were still alive.

And I've learned some hard lessons in recent years about "justice" in America. Should it have really been any surprise to discover that the "system," and even the law, often protects bullies? And that's what I was trying to impress on Solange: that my family, and people like us, have often operated outside the law because the law -- in America, at least -- only protects the big and the rich. In other words, those who don't need protection, but who have the power to construct --or corrupt -- a system so that it works in their favor.
And so I explained to Solange that in certain quarters in America there's a certain respect for the outlaw, for those who don't follow the rules; that we even romanticize the outlaw a bit. And that, it seemed, was something she could understand, something I think any French person could wrap her brain and her heart around. "Ah!" Solange said, and smiled. Solange has the smile of an impish angel. "It's wonderful!" And then we were on to the chocolat ...

And so maybe March 1st will be the first day of the end of winter in Paris. I won't miss the biting wind, but I will miss the sugary snowfalls of some of these recent nights. I've marveled, lately, that I haven't seen any slush in Paris. Maybe those guys on motos who used to be deployed around the city to vacuum up dog poop now suck up the snow before it gets unsightly? Because it seems there's much less dog poop to be swept up these days. Okay, so there WAS a big steaming pile right at the big red doors of #7 rue des Guillemites on Saturday night when Joe walked me home after the movies -- what do these tiny French dogs EAT that makes them poop in such big steaming piles? -- but it was gone by Monday morning. Paris has a gay mayor, one Monsieur Delanoe, who it seems is widely adored for all the changes he's instituted -- even those one might predict would be unpopular, like urging people to pick up after their pets. "Love your dog, love your neighborhood," say the signs. It seems to be working. Hooray for the mayor, I say, so long as he doesn't try to stop people from kissing in doorways or smoking in cafes ...