Music

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?

 

 

Obsession

I began my obsession with France when I was nine years old, and I blame Paul McCartney for it.

Just like millions of other young girls in February 1964, I watched The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show like an egret watching her nest.

I fell head over heels in love with those Liverpool boys, and Paul was my favorite. In the 1960s, the local newspaper often published photos of the Beatles coming out of hotels, in restaurants and walking through airports, so I pounced on the paper when my father was done with it.

I loved everything Paul loved. If I had ever seen a photo of him knitting, I would have knitted an afghan for our ’57 Chevy. Then, as fate would have it, in the newspaper there was a photo of Paul wearing a French beret.

Paul's beret

Paul’s beret

When he sang “Ces sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble” in his song, Michelle, I reasoned that Paul McCartney would have never written that song nor worn that beret if he didn’t love France. Therefore, I loved France.

(Of course, as I grew older, I realized there were other valid reasons to appreciate France—the food, wine, art, literature, music, architecture, exciting cities and beautiful countryside.)

When I got a kitten at age ten, I named her Chat, which is the French word for “cat.” I had no idea the French were so vague about their final consonants. I should have pronounced it shah, but I pronounced it chatte, which means something naughty in French. Fortunately, no one in my neighborhood in Marietta, Georgia knew French slang.

My mother encouraged my obsession by buying me a beret and informing me that the President’s wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, spoke French. She said all sophisticated people knew how to speak French.

When I got to high school, they offered Spanish and Latin, but not French. So I went to the principal and asked why. He told me that no one would take French, so I gathered a group of friends to prove him wrong. We sat in the library after school, reading from a French book I found. We said sentences like “Je voudrais une tasse de thé” which came out like “Jee voudrash uni tassi duh thee.”

After a week of this, I went to the office where the gray-haired secretary was staring at her typewriter.

“Would you please let the principal know we’re studying French in the library?” I asked.

“Tell him yourself.” She sucked something out of her teeth while nodding toward his office. I went in. He was sitting behind his old metal desk, leaning over a copy of Deer & Ammo magazine.

“We are meeting in the library every afternoon to study French. You should come see us,” I said.

“I believe you,” he said, never taking his eyes off glossy photos of deer carcasses. But he did hire a French teacher the next year. They voted me President of the French Club and we put on a cabaret to raise money to buy a cassette player. We sold Sara Lee pastries and Sanka coffee in white Styrofoam cups.

I dressed up to look like the French cabaret singers I had seen in old movies. I was supposed to be Edith Piaf, but actually I had no idea what she looked like. I put together an outfit while rummaging in my mother’s closet–a tight black dress, black fishnet stockings, spiky black heels and a red feather boa. Hmm. Maybe I was channeling Leslie Caron from An American in Paris when I lip-synced a French song about needing my lover tonight.

When I danced and slipped the red boa around the principal’s neck, he blushed and tapped his foot nervously, knowing he would undoubtedly go to hell for having allowed this kind of thing in North Cobb High School.