Society

La Bastille

I head toward the Place de la Bastille where a tall column stands inside a traffic circle.

Cafes and shops today instead of a prison

Cafes and shops today instead of a prison

This is the previous location of the infamous Bastille prison. Stones in the pavement here show the outline of the old fortress. One fateful day, in 1789, the French reached their boiling point–so sick and tired of watching the King pass by in his golden carriage as they were starving to death in the filthy streets. They grabbed their pitchforks, attacked the prison, grabbed the guns and declared a revolution.

Place de la Bastille is a time-honored place to fait le grève (to strike). The CGT (Confederation Generale du Travail) is a French labor union that’s been around for more than a hundred years. People of all ages are walking around the plaza with red stickers on their jackets. A music truck is blaring music. Booths, banners and flyers. Snacks, drinks. It’s a lot more fun to fait le grève today in Paris compared to 1789.

I walk down Boulevard Henri IV, then turn south toward the Seine. Over the Pont Sully, and past the Arab Institute. To my right is the Lambert building where Voltaire once lived. Everything seems much sweeter when I get to Ile St Louis. Beautiful shops, quiet streets, and pleasant cafés. I bet no one is allowed to fait le grève here.

The little bridge called Pont Saint-Louis is a favorite place for les accordéonistes to gather; they play the old  French songs like La Vie en Rose for the tourists. I stand there, breathing in the crisp air, gazing at this gorgeous city built by kings.

Just then at my elbow appears the most weather-beaten, old woman I have ever seen in my life. She is short, bent over, hobbling along, and holding out a tiny, paper espresso cup that’s dirty and wrinkled. She bumps her cane against her bandaged leg as if to show me a good reason to give her money. No problem – I want to give her money just for having lived so long. She was a little girl when electric toasters were mind-boggling, new inventions.

I drop enough coins into her cup so she can buy something in a boulangerie, but when she smiles up at me, there’s something about her that makes me wonder. Is “madame” really just a young man in heavy theatrical makeup?

 

 

Good Morning

This morning, the workmen are arguing about something. One guy has that bird-like chirping accent from the south of France, so he always goes up at the end of every sentence like he’s asking questions even when he’s yelling. His buddy drawls out his words in a deep baritone. Actually, they are loud and boorish, but since they’re speaking French, it sounds adorable to me.

After getting dressed and drinking another cup of coffee, there’s still a lot of yelling going on. I go to my window to investigate. The chirping man is standing in the bed of the truck. He’s shouting and thrusting his arms toward the sky.

IMG_0162

Morning in the neighborhood

I look up to see a toilet hanging on a rope. It’s coming right at me. The man in the truck yells out “Aïe! Aïe! Aïe!” which is French for “Why did you pick this moment, lady, to look out your window? Put your head back inside!”

The baritone is mumbling something. Lucky for me I can’t understand him; he’s probably cursing me for having too much curiosity.

I wave down to the man in the truck. He waves and smiles like we’re great friends now. I duck my head back in and watch the toilet go past my window.

 

 

At the market

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It’s evening and I need to go the grocery store and stock up for the next few days. But I don’t have my cloth shopping bags with me. They don’t hand out plastic bags in Parisan markets—you are forced to “go green.” So I go back to my apartment, walk up the sixty-four steps, huffing and puffing, grab the bags and stuff them in my big purse.

I go into a market called The G20, which sounds rather communist. It’s a small, cramped place that smells like old fruit. I see a long row of vegetables and fruits from Morroco and Africa and I buy two kiwis because they’re firm and cheap. Then I walk to the dairy case. I get some yogurt and cheese, but I don’t see any milk. That’s odd.

In the cold case, there are boxed meals like chicken with rice or beef bourgignon. I turn a package over and read the ingredients of chicken, rice, onions, celery, garlic, cream, butter, salt, pepper. That’s it?

Where’s the sodium benzoate and maltodextrin? No disodium guanylate? Then I notice the expiration date is at the end of this week. This is like cooking a meal from real ingredients then putting it in Tupperware for a few days in the fridge. I’ve got to try this French processed food.

I notice the milk is in opaque, white, plastic jugs on a shelf. They look like bottles of bleach. Ew, I’m not buying that.

I stand in line. Watching all the people in front of me, I figure out I will have to bag my own groceries and do it quickly. That cashier is going a mile-a-minute, flinging all my stuff to the end of the chute like she’s paid a bonus whenever an item hits the metal barrier.

For all their languorous ways, Parisians don’t seem to want to linger here. The people behind me don’t bear down on me in an ugly way, but they are bearing down on me nonetheless. There’s not much personal space here at The G20. I’m bagging as fast as I can. I look at the lady who was behind me in line. Her jar of wrinkle cream is there, next to my yogurt. She smiles at me, but I know she’s really thinking, keep your paws off my wrinkle cream.

I had always thought it would be romantic to shop at a Parisian market and walk home with my purchases in the evening. Of course, that sweet image included a baguette, a bottle of wine, cheese and stalks of lavender blossoms in my lovely straw basket.

That fantasy dies when your bags are sagging with toilet bowl cleaner. As I lumber along the street like a pack mule, a French woman asks me directions to rue Charlemagne.

With all these bags hanging off of me, yes, I definitely look like a local but I have no idea what to tell her. I do a French shoulder shrug and say, “J’ le sais pas, Madame, desolée.” I’m quite proud of my casual, mumbled French now.

I begin the long climb to my apartment. This is a fantastic cardiovascular work out, I tell myself, if I don’t have a heart attack. By step thirty-five, I’m huffing and puffing.

By step sixty, I am truly dying. I can’t breathe. What a stylish obit I could have: She died in Paris, surrounded by a fine selection of French cheese and wine.

(Please don’t mention the toilet bowl cleaner.)

 

 

Relaxation

I nibble contently on my salad, sip my wine, and watch the stream of humanity passing by. Everyone in the café is speaking in such low tones the ambient sound is like the soft rumbling of distant thunder. I am slipping into a deep relaxation, feeling like a cat on a windowsill.

I can’t help noticing a handsome couple to my right. The waiter comes to their table only when they pause in their conversation. How thoughtful. Perhaps this waiter would rather submit to the guillotine than to bother them. Who knows? They might be falling in love.

le café

le café

Ah yes, the beauty of a French café is that waiters leave you alone. They give you time to ruminate, dream and create. Can you imagine Gustav Flaubert sitting in a café, writing his masterpiece, Madame Bovary, while a waiter keeps bugging him with “Do you want more bread?”

Paris is woven with daydreams of creativity in her fabric. Literature, music, art—such great ideas have been conceived in Parisian cafés—the incubators of genius.

With my glass and salad plate now empty, my mind drifts aimlessly as I contemplate my existence. I dream that I am creating the most exemplary novel of the 21st century.

After an hour and a half of this lovely-Parisian-café-induced reverie, the sun has set and I must move on. I motion to the waiter for l’addition (the check). He nods. Ah, I have communicated my desire by simply raising my finger. Wonderful. But then I don’t see him for fifteen minutes. I catch his eye again. He nods. He goes to every table in the room but mine. I’ve been left alone with my thoughts now for almost two hours.

I’m no Flaubert—I just want to stand up and see if my legs still work.

Finally, he comes with the check. I pull out my Visa card and he says “Ah!” and rushes away. My heart sinks. But in a moment, he returns with a small, hand-held credit card machine. How clever! He runs it at the table, I sign the receipt, and I’m free.

 

 

Dining alone

When the waiter comes back, he leans slightly and crooks his head to the side.

« Vous avez choisi ? » he asks. (You’ve decided ?)

I look up at him, praying he will understand my vowels.

Oui, je voudrais un chablis et une salade vegétarienne, s’il vous plait, monsieur,” I say. What a mouthful. I rehearsed it beforehand, remembering to purse my lips like “oooo” to say une and popping my syllables like marching toy soldiers in ve-gé-ta-ri-enne.

He nods and leaves. So far, so good. He understands me and I haven’t knocked anything over. I feel like I’m on stage in a spotlight. Everyone must be staring at me. I pretend to rub the back of my neck as I turn my head to casually look around the café.

No one is looking at me! What? I can eat alone in Paris and not be considered an odd-ball? In my small town in Florida, whenever I dine out alone, people stare at me like I’m a circus freak, waiting to see what trick I’ll do. In a town filled with tourists, families and retired couples, it’s unimaginable that a woman would sit alone at dinner without a significant other pasted to her side.

I take a deep breath and look out the window. I’m facing east and it’s twilight. On my left I can see La Tour St. Jacques and to the right is the Hotel de Ville. What a beautiful view. This bistrot was opened in the 1800s by a German immigrant named Zimmer. The interior is rich and voluptuous—red velvet curtains, an ornamental ceiling, paneled walls and chandeliers. It used to be the favorite haunt of famous people like Sarah Bernhardt, Jules Verne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustav Mahler, and Igor Stravinsky. No wonder why my beautiful salad of fresh greens with blanched cucumbers, beets, carrots, and green beans costs twenty-four dollars.

 

A change

Down the street, I see a Starbucks. It proudly advertises it has Internet access. I need to let my friends and family know I’m OK.

And yes, it’s moronic that my first baguette in Paris will come from a Starbucks, but I’m hungry and I need Wi-Fi. I stand in line, reading the menu. Everyone in front of me is young, thin, and chattering away in French. I wonder what I’ll say to the barista.

I’m sure he can speak English, but I have to use my French; I got a degree in it, for crying out loud. But I’m so nervous. It’s forty degrees Fahrenheit outside but I’m sweating bullets in here because I’m about to converse with a real French person for the first time in many years. I hope nothing comes out of my nose.

I give him my order. He understands. I exhale. Then he grabs a paper cup, a black marker and looks at me.

Prenom?” he asks.

Ok, I got this. He’s asking for my first name.

“Cathy,” I say. He stares at me blankly. Then I remember, I’ve got to drop the “th” sound because the French don’t understand that sound.

“Cah-ty,” I say, trying to make it sound French.

He still doesn’t understand.

OK, now what do I do? In my college French class, I was always “Catherine” so I blurt out that name, dropping the “th” and rolling the “r” with a percussive flare. He smiles and nods while scribbling “Catherine” on my Starbucks cup, and I feel like I’ve changed into someone else.

In Paris, I’m Catherine.

 

The amoeba in Paris

I know I don’t look French.

I have a little button nose, a pale, round face from my Welsh ancestry, and it’s impossible for my wrists to fall backwards in that sophisticated gesture like French girls do, usually with a cigarette. My wrists are tight, my legs are solid and I usually hunch my shoulders when I get scared.

how to walk past a sidewalk cafe

how to walk past a sidewalk cafe

Although I’m in a fashion mecca, I don’t carry a designer purse or wear fine jewelry. I want nothing that calls attention to myself. I see no point in it.

Women who walk along in Paris, wearing all their precious baubles are saying, “Hey, I have nice jewelry. You could shove me into this picturesque alleyway, hit me over the head with your empty wallet, and take this bounty for yourself.”

I don’t mean to say there are thieves everywhere in Paris but I don’t want to mislead anyone—I just want to look clean and middle-class.

I pass a café. The sidewalk tables are packed with beautiful people. When I look at them, I see they are staring back at me and smoking in a very existential way—dragging and spewing smoke while squinting, like in the movies. Why are they looking at me? Are they attracted to my cleanliness?

I walk past more cafes. More eyes. More staring. I thought I could disappear into the crowd here. But then, I understand. People-watching is the sole occupation of anyone who sits at a sidewalk café.

Yes, there’s a bit of conversation going on, some drinking, and some smoking, but basically, a street in Paris is the runway; I am the reluctant model. This is the microscope; I am the amoeba.

 

French lesson

I keep walking. There are a million shops here on rue Saint Antoine in the Marais district: clothes and shoe stores, dry cleaners, cafes, bookstores, two bakeries, Chinese take-aways, a wine shop, and a cheese shop. There’s even a foie gras shop.

Past the church, rue St Antoine has three busy east-bound lanes of traffic.  On the south side of the street, next to the shops, a granite-paved lane doesn’t have any markings. No curbs. It looks like a pedestrian walkway. Well, it isn’t. A truck comes barreling right up behind me. I could easily get killed here.

It seems like everyone is out shopping today. I jump into the stream of humanity and go, keeping pace with the crowd. I try to walk with confidence like I know where I’m headed, although I don’t know where I’m headed.

I walk past a fish market with a case filled with huge, pink fish lying on mounds of ice, their glassy eyeballs staring in that dazed “why me?” look. I stop and check the prices. I can never eat here.

At one point, I slow my pace so I can stand for a moment and get my bearings again. An old woman almost slams into my backside.

“Sorry,” I say immediately, then I blurt out my French translation: “Desolée, madame.

She walks past me, muttering something about my mother. Great. I’ve been on this street in Paris for two minutes and already I’ve made somebody mad. I watch the old woman go waddling down the street, her broad figure draped in a black shawl.

I wonder about that old woman, and also that man I bumped into at the Charles de Gaulle airport yesterday. They both said something about my mother. Isn’t that interesting?

Then it dawns on me—mere (mother) sounds a lot like merde (sh*t).

If I knew less French, I’d be much happier right now.

The French waiter

A handsome French waiter, in his late twenties, is standing on the sidewalk beside some small tables, set ready for lunch patrons. Sparkling glasses, silverware, white tablecloths. He’s wearing a long, white apron tied around his slender waist. His thick, black hair is combed straight back.

A very handsome man. Someone should take his photo – the iconic French waiter. I’m walking straight toward him. Oh my, he’s gorgeous.

We lock eyes. I look away quickly. Men that age never look at me – I’m usually free to gawk all I want. Maybe he thought I would eat here if he did that. Or maybe my hair is sticking up funny. I finger my scarf to see if the tag is showing. My eyes are down, watching the pavement go by under my black boots. I want to look at him again.

Just before I pass by, I take another furtive glance upward.

Bonjour, madame,” he purrs, just at the moment when our bodies are close.

Bonjour, monsieur,” I manage to say.

What just happened? I thought I could be invisible here in Paris, like I usually am in the United States. Was that a sexual thing? That can’t be a sexual thing! I’m old enough to be his…

But so much transpired in that small moment. He knew I was attracted to him, and it amused him. He kept his eyes on me to see my reaction. I enjoyed his sultry hello, perfectly timed. Those dark brown eyes. A tease. A flirt. A little bit of attention to reaffirm life. This is why I love Paris.

 

Le chien vs. le chat – animal discrimination in Paris

As dawn rises and sunlight fills the room, I’m aware of slowly ascending through the steps of wakening. No alarm blaring, no lawn movers roaring, no kids yelling; just a peaceful Sunday morning in Paris. This gradual awakening is like the softest experience of all. I feel so calm. I can’t believe I have slept eighteen hours. I never want to get out of this bed for the rest of my life.

A room with a view.

A room with a view.

I lie there, listening to the city sounds until ten o’clock, when I force myself to get vertical. I need to email my sons about my safe arrival in Paris. I pull on the cord that the landlady had quickly gestured toward while saying proudly that the apartment had Internet.

In horror, I see a dial-up phone cord dangling like an artifact from the previous century. My time in Paris will now include lots of time in Wi-Fi cafés.

In the kitchen, I pull out drawers to see what kind of utensils I have to work with. It’s pretty well stocked.

I notice a little cardboard poster stuck on the fridge with a magnet. I lean down to read it. It lists the emergency numbers in case you need la police or les pompiers (firefighters) or l’hôpital (hospital). Then I read chien perdu.

Are you kidding me? Losing a dog in Paris is at the same level of emergency as having a heart attack or a robbery?

Then I notice there’s no emergency number for chat perdu.