Paris Travel Blog

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Dawn and Malek
April 5

Ah, Paris! It felt like going home. I realize that this was my sixth visit to Paris, the first having been in 1959 with my parents and brother. Mais cette fois, Paris s’est si bien habillee! I have never seen the city so beautiful. Spring arrived there at least three weeks before coming to Boston. All the tulips, daffodils, iris, lilacs  and fruit trees were blooming. The trees and lawns were all green in the Jardins du Luxembourg and the Jardin des Tuileries. On our last weekend there, we finally stayed with some Servas hosts, in a suburb of Paris. In spite of  Herve’s collection of tarantulas, snakes, and exotic insects, he and his wife Michelle and son Tomas were warm and welcoming and fun to be with. They took us to visit Giverny, the house and gardens where Monet lived and painted for the last years of his life. It’s amazing to walk around the lily pond, look back at the Japanese bridge and realize that you’ve seen all of this before, only you’ve seen it through Monet’s eyes, through his amazing ability to paint light, to have us see not only color and form but also atmosphere. We had just gone ( again, for me) to the Musee d’Orsay to see the wonderful impressionist collection there so it was particularly timely to visit his gardens. And what gardens they are! I have never seen such density of plantings. There must have been a million spring bulbs in bloom. There were beds, for sure, and a planned gradation of color and form to each one. However, the garden did not appear formal, not in the English sense anyway. It was  refreshing for us to look at the impressionist work which seemed to be so much about painting, about color and light, about the medium itself, after all the heavy religious art we had been seeing for weeks.

I was very relieved to see my Algerian poet friend, Malek. He and I had met at the artists’ colony at La Napoule in 1989.  He had been suffering a terrible depression since his younger brother had been assassinated by the radical conservatives in Algeria, about two and a half years ago. His brother was THE man of the theatre in Algeria, and it’s the intellectuals that have been targeted by this violent group. Malek managed to put together a book of writings about his brother which will be published in Paris in the fall. He has also started a foundation to support theatre and social consciousness. However, he has been working so hard as an editor and supervisor in a well-known Paris publishing house, that he has no time for his own writing which he is burning to do right now. He’s hoping there will be enough money in his compulsory retirement account (like social security) that he can retire in a year or two. He will be sixty in November. That way, he can devote himself to writing and to working for this foundation. It did my heart good to see him smile and hear him laugh again since my only contact with him since the assassination had been by letter or telephone. He is a man of great intellect and talent and deep feeling.

Malek  speaks only French and Arabic so when the three of us had dinner together, of course the translating fell to me. I’m not sure I would always understand Malek’s ideas even if he were speaking English, and I know I don’t understand  Stephen’s thoughts half the time in spite of our common language and years together.  So picture me, dear reader, sitting between these two highly opinionated men, both of whom I adore in different ways, trying to interpret to each other their thoughts about history, xenophobia, art and literature! As the evening went on, my tongue became more and more tied, my English waned and my French nearly died. Somewhere around 11:00 PM, knowing that we had to be up at 4:00 am to get to the airport, Malek looked at me and said, “Mais tu es fatiguee, cherie!” Yes, I was tired, exhausted really, but engaged, happy, thinking, stimulated.

 If only I could bring along a few more of the people I love, I could live in Paris with no problem. .. except I would have to find a way to make a living. Perhaps it’s my mother’s legacy; whenever I sit in the Jardin des Tuileries, I picture her playing there as a young child or listening to her “Nou Nou” (her French governess) entertaining a large group of children with her stories and tall tales. In fact, just having spent a week with my mother in Connecticut and confronting the strangeness of an aging mind with its inevitable memory losses and repetitions, I had the pleasure of speaking French with her again. It was as if her brain’s synapses jumped back to her being five when French was the only language she knew, and of course the language that rolls off her tongue is perfectly accented WWI Parisian French.

It has been luckily rare for me to encounter the stereotypical obnoxious Parisian snob. In fact, most people I’ve ever encountered in France (bureaucrats notably excepted) have been friendly and generous, such as the young man in the train station at Strasbourg who offered me a “coup de main” getting my bag down the stairs. However, on the evening that we decided to go to “Chez Marianne”, a restaurant highly recommended in “Let’s Go” and the “Pariscope” as being reasonably priced and different, we encountered the attitude. The first night we tried to get in, it was just too busy, they said the wait would be an hour, so we tried the next night. We arrived at 8:45 and were told to leave our names, that we could be seated at 9:30. While others in line were being handed complimentary Kirs to drink, we were told to take a walk and come back in 45 minutes. When we returned at the appointed hour, the line was shorter, but people kept coming in and seemed to get seated before we did. At about 9:45 I said something to the young, rather bitchy host, and she said, “I told you to come back at 10:00.” I said, “Mais non, vous avez dit 9:30.”  At least we were then presented with the complimentary apperitif .  Eventually we got seated “in the second room” which meant going out on the sidewalk and entering another part of the restaurant through a different door. It was probably after 10:00.

The food was great, many little portions of middle eastern and eastern European specialities, the service was fast and lively, and the price was right, especially for the Marais which is now one of the trendiest districts in Paris. So at the end of the evening, I took the trouble to go back through the other door, wend my way through the line that was still waiting to tell the  ice lady that “Il vaut la peine d’attendre.” (It’s worth the wait.) Well, I have never seen such a personality transformation. She smiled and said, “Oh, comme c’est gentil de dire cela. Tiens, (using the familiar form now!) cette carte, et la prochaine fois tu ne dois pas attendre.” (“Oh, how nice it is for you to say that. Here, take this card, and the next time you will not have to wait.”) On the card was a picture of this young lady herself in sort of eastern European traditional garb, so I guess she was Marianne. It was astonishing to me how one nice word from a formerly disgruntled foreign customer could change her attitude entirely. The previous night  when we had inquired there, there had been another host, and he immediately lapsed into English when I spoke to him which always upsets me, when my mediocre French is so obviously put down. So this little episode with Marianne was a small linguistic, interpersonal triumph for me.

We had a rather hilarious linguistic moment in the kitchen of our Servas hosts, talking with their teenage son about “surfing.” I asked Tomas what sports he liked to do. His reply was futbol (soccer) and surfing. So I immediately launched into a discussion of my attempts to surf in Costa Rica, even physically demonstrating the technique for jumping up to one’s feet from a prone position. He said he learned on the flat but that it was really easier to do it where it was steep. I said that I, too, had only gone in the whitewater, not out in the big waves yet but that the experts said it was actually easier in the steeper waves. He asked me if I learned with “batons” (poles), and I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about.

I said, “Where did you put the poles? In the water or on the board?” At this point, Stephen, Michelle, Tomas, and I simultaneously burst out laughing, having realized that he was talking about snowboarding and I was talking about ocean surfing! He had been wondering why I had to get up from a prone position on the board; finally this absurd conversation made some sense. Ah, the subtleties of language. 
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Dawn and Malek
Dawn and Malek
photo by: Sweetski