There is an experience that many well-read Americans have when they visit Paris. They head to the first patisserie and order up a small box of madeleines. The result of this purchase is universally the same: utter disappointment, because the madeleine of their imagination is rife with the magic of memory, the power invested in this tiny cookie by the words of Marcel Proust. In the most famous section of his seven-volume A la recherche du temps perdu, when Proust bit into one as an adult, the taste caused his childhood to flood back in an irrepressible wave of nostalgia.
The disappointment these readers feel is caused by the fact that a madeleine is such an unimpressive morsel, a sponge of little flavor or texture. It is primarily used for soaking in a cup of sweetened tea — the way we dunk a plain donut into our morning coffee. The madeleine itself is insipid and boring.
Its magic for Proust was not in the eating, but in the association of the madeleine with his childhood. His, not yours. It was a door to who-he-used-to-be. But we have all had a similar, if not so profound experience concerning our own past. Often it is a tune. Perhaps you don’t immediately recognize why you react so emotionally to it, but then, you can recall exactly where you were when you heard it.
For me, it is often a color, a deep, dark blue, or the mix of green and cream white. That blue paired with yellow brings to mind a set of blocks I played with as a bairn. Not just any blue and yellow will trigger this rush, but only a very specific combination of colors.
One puzzles over what, in fact, a memory is. It would seem to be a videotape filed away in the synapses that can be retrieved by pressing the right buttons. But science can tell us memories are encoded as electrical impulses, carried between neurons by chemicals known as neurotransmitters. How does that farm I visited when I was two become a little zap in the cells of my brain, and what magic mechanism retranslates that buzz into the pictures I see so clearly behind my eyelids?
For Proust, the madeleine brought an involuntary flood of memory. And that memory inevitably exists not as a discrete neutral image, but as a wooly complex of image, emotion and thought, a whole ball of inextricable who-you-used-to-be.
The easiest aides-de-memoire are old photographs. That box of family snapshots holds a passel of memories. But there is always the sneaking suspicion that what you remember are not the events, but the pictures themselves. But then, some research implies that each time we retrieve a memory, what we are remembering is the last time we remembered that event, and so the memory degrades, like succeeding copies of a Xerox image — copying the copy multiple times. Details are lost, and what remains becomes murky and misremembered. You visit your brother or sister, now all grown up, perhaps retired, and you say, “Remember that day you fell into the creek?” and they reply, “That wasn’t me, that was your other brother, and it wasn’t the creek, it was the river upstate.”
Whose memory, then, do you trust? Your own feels so real, so re-lived in the recollection.
My late wife had a supernatural memory. She recalled events from her childhood in infinite detail. I asked her to write those stories down for her grandchildren, but she declined. “Then I will start remembering the remembering,” she complained, “and the original will be lost,” its authenticity diluted.
There is a difference, noted Proust, between the memory you search for voluntarily, and the involuntary memory summoned up, like a genie from a lamp, when you smell a smell; hear a sound, a song; see a color or a picture. The first, while not so spontaneous, is often more rewarding.
A number of years ago, I made a pact with my two brothers. We had all gone to college and moved away to our separate jobs, wives and lives. I wanted to know more about those missing years we had been apart. I suggested we each write a short autobiography for the other two brothers. I began mine, which covered only the years from my birth to when I was about 30. Even though I thought of it as a summary, it grew to 250 typed pages. Even now, I could go back and between each paragraph add new detail.
Where does all this stuff come from? Each time I call up a memory, it is like opening a door into a forgotten room, and each room has three or four other doors, each of which opens into yet another room, each with its four doors, and on and on, like Borges’s fictional library.
There seems no end, as one memory suggest two or three others. Colors come back, sounds, emotions, textures, smells, chronologies, acquaintances, pains both caused and suffered, moments of transcendence, moments of relief.
As I get older — I am already old — it becomes harder to retrieve simple things, such as words and names, but the older memories still burn underneath and can be accessed. I will sometimes, when I have trouble going to sleep, call up a scene of tranquility and walk through it like a movie or play and slowly drift off as the memory metamorphoses into a dream.
Originally posted Dec. 1, 2017 on the Spirit of the Senses website
In 1966, I invented the Gaia principle. Me. That the earth is a single living organism. But more on that later.
First, of course, I’m not the only one to figure this out. At about the same time, chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis gave the idea its name, after the primeval Greek goddess of the Earth and the primordial mother of all life. But I beat them out and claim my primacy. But again, later.
It turns out, it is not unusual for ideas to pop up simultaneously and independently. Science and technology are littered with such examples. For instance, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz worked out the calculus at the same time, although Newton called the process fluxions — which I think is a much catchier name. They did not get on, and Newton always felt that Leibniz must have cadged the process from his notes. (Leibniz didn’t).
Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace came up with the concept of natural selection as the mechanism for evolution at the same time. In this case, the two worked it out between them amicably.
These are the most famous examples of ideas welling up separately, but there are many more.
Joseph Priestly and Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered oxygen both in the 1770s. Both Nettie Stevens and Edmund Wilson submitted papers that formed the modern view of genetic gender determination 10 days apart. Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald independently proved neutrinos have mass. Lothar Meyer and Dmitri Mendeleev each created the periodic table of elements — a year apart. The British Frank Whittle and the German Hans von Ohain each came up with the first jet engine, during World War II, on opposite sides of the conflict.
I could go on: Within six months of each other, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce each invented the microchip in the late 1950s. Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod in 1749 and Czech theologian Prokop Divis came up with the same idea in 1754, independently. In 1953, both Daniel Fox of General Electric and Hermann Schnell of the German company Bayer invented polycarbonate plastic. American Don Wetzel and British John Shepherd both invented the automated teller machine (ATM) in the late ’60s. In 1902, Leon Teisserence de Bort from France and German Richard Assmann discovered the stratosphere just three days apart.
At least five people came up with a mechanism for television in the 1920s.
Clearly, something was in the air, besides oxygen.
The same thing happens in movies. They are called “twin films,” and Wikipedia lists 173 pairs of them: movies that share the same plot made at the same time by different studios.
Among the most notable: Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998; Tombstone and Wyatt Earp 1993 and ’94; Dangerous Liaisons and Valmont in 1988 and ’89; Volcano and Dante’s Peak in 1997. Sometimes the pairing is quite specific: drag queens on a road trip across a continent to discover themselves — The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994 and To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar a year later.
Just in 2018, there was Sink or Swim and Swimming With Men, both films about a man in midlife crisis joining an all-male synchronized swim team. And Skate Kitchen and Mid90s, both about skate boarders, both with non-actor skateboarders and young heroes dealing with difficult mothers.
It seems the zeitgeist is pregnant with something and then it all coalesces with the birth pangs around the world.
Of more import are those significant upwellings of political synchronicity. Probably the most famous is the year 1848, when revolutionary movements exploded in some 50 countries worldwide, from Ukraine to Brazil. It seemed to come from nowhere and suddenly, it was everywhere. Unfortunately for history, almost all of the revolutions failed.
A lesser confluence of revolution had occurred in 1830, in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland and Italy. In France, it brought the “citizen king,” Louis Philippe, that 1848 attempted to unseat.
In our own time, 1968 was the focus of international disruption, protest and violence, not only with anti-war protests and civil rights unrest in the U.S., with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but major strikes in France, crises all through Western Europe, the beginning of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, guerrilla war in Brazil, the Prague Spring and the Red Square Demonstration in Moscow protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. There were uprisings in Poland and Yugoslavia, student revolt in Pakistan, and the climax of the Cultural Revolution in China. The whole globe seemed to be in paroxysm: Gaia was having a heart attack.
An aftershock hit in the years on both sides of 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the complete collapse of the Soviet Empire. There was a sense that it all seemed to happen at once.
And today, all across the planet, there is a simultaneous rise of populist authoritarianism. We could soon look back and see this moment as another one of those global seizures.
So, it can seem at times that the Earth is a single thing, that suffers global events, seemingly unconnected, yet simultaneous. A shadow, like an eclipse, sweeps across its lands.
Now, back to me and Gaia. It was 1966 and I was a freshman in college taking an intro to biology class with Richard Carleton Ward, a teacher of peculiar manners and prejudices. I could write a whole chapter on him, the way he spoke out of the side of his mouth in a gravelly grunt, the way he bought conspiracy theories, his suburban house blocked from view in a bourgeois neighborhood by a jungle of bamboo, vines and weeds. He wrote an article for the underground newspaper I was publishing in which he complained ferociously about students’ inability to spell the word, “spaghetti.”
In his class, we were assigned to write a research paper on a living organism, animal or plant, complete with footnotes and citations, and following the Kate Turabian style manual. Points would be taken off for failing to properly spell, capitalize, indent, space margins, and italicize.
I am basically a very lazy person, and all this sounded like work. Doing research meant digging through the library for books, scouring the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature for articles, and — worst of all — cataloging the findings and writing the bibliography and footnotes.
So, I decided I would be “creative” instead. Please remember, this was 1966, and “creativity” was a buzzword more in evidence than “clickbait” is now.
To avoid all the tedious detail that research would entail, I hit upon the idea that I could invent a new organism — the Earth. Our textbook listed a series of five or six essential qualities that define life, and I applied them to the planet. I could easily make the argument that the planet respires, that it metabolizes — that all the inhabitants of the world could be seen as the same as the individual cells that make up our body: The macro rhymes the micro.
I hit the height of cleverness discussing reproduction. I wrote that at my age, I hadn’t yet reproduced (“as far as I know,” I threw in to be coy), but that didn’t mean I couldn’t, and just because the Earth had not yet reproduced didn’t mean it couldn’t. And I proceeded to hypothesize how the planet could bud like a hydra, planting new “cells” on another great, round, rocky skeleton or coral stone elsewhere in the solar system. Mars, for instance. And thus, the planet could duplicate itself.
And so, I proved, at least to the satisfaction of my crackpot teacher, that the planet we lived upon could be taken as a single giant hyper-organism. He gave me a B-plus and I managed to avoid all the serious work and pass the course. I therefore invented, out of abject laziness and sideways thinking, the Gaia Principle. Credit where credit is due. I will be happy to share the Nobel with Margulis and Lovelock.
Years later, my wife, Carole, had a different way of looking at it, which makes even more sense. She was bothered by a politician making a speech and talking about how we live on the planet and need to take care of it — a worthy idea, for sure — but her take was that we don’t live “on” the Earth, but rather, we are the Earth, along with, and no different from the birds and bees and rocks and trees.
And that is now my mantra: We don’t live on the planet; we are the planet.
Originally posted Jan. 30, 2019 on the Spirit of the Senses website
I started to write about philosophy, but realized I really wanted to talk about pears. Crisp, delicious succulent pears, the kind with small brown spots on the skin and a roly-poly bottom. Given a choice between reading Hegel (insert dry cough here) and slicing wedges off a Bartlett pear, the fruit wins hands down every time.
I have been thinking about this because of philosophy. The intellectual world seems divided irrevocably between art and philosophy — image and word. One side deals with categories of thought, the other side deals with hubcaps, clouds, tight shoes and the sound of twigs snapping underfoot, to say nothing of pastrami sandwiches and corduroy trousers.
I’m sorry if I value the one vastly over the other. I am a Dichter not a Denker. I have — this is my ideological burden — a congenital mistrust of language, particularly abstract language and language of categories. The world is too multifarious, indeed, infinite, and language by nature and requirement, simplifies and schematizes, ultimately to the point that language and reality split paths and go in separate directions. When one relies too much on language, one misses the reality.
The tragedy is, that language is all we have. We are stuck with it. We can try to write better, more clearly, use evocative metaphor when declarative words fail, use imagery rather than abstractions, and do our best — our absolute best — to avoid thinking categorically, and attempt to see freshly, with eye and mind unsullied by the words that have preceded us. It’s hard, but it is essential. To begin with the categories, and to attempt to wedge our experience into them, is to mangle and to mutilate the reality.
The matter is only made worse by the impenetrable fustian written by so many philosophers — and especially the recent crop of Postmodern and Poststructuralist explainers.
Take Hegel — please. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1839) is just the kind of philosopher who thinks thoughtful thoughts and writes incomprehensible prose.
“Knowledge of the Idea of the absolute ethical order depends entirely on the establishment of perfect adequacy between intuition and concept, because the Idea itself is nothing other than the identity of the two. But if this identity is to be actually known, it must be thought as a made adequacy.”
“A made adequacy?” That’s from his System of Ethical Life (1803-4). I’m sure if you spent an hour or two going over it again and again, you might be able to parse something out of it. But, jeez. It’s the kind of prose you get from academia all over the place:
“As histories of excluded bodies, the bodies that made national Englishness possible, this counterpastoral challenged the politics of visibility that made the very modern English models of nature, society, and the individual visible through the invisibility of bodies that did not matter.”
That’s from Kathleen Biddick’s The Shock of Medievalism (1998). She is also the author of The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History.
In such writing, individual abstract words are made to stand in as shorthand for long complex ideas, not always adequately explained. And the words are then categories, and the categories allow blanket statements that cover the world like Sherwin-Williams paint.
The basic problem is that words are always about words. When Plato talks about “the Good,” he is talking about how we define the word, “good.” Plato is about language. The linguistic grammar and language has its own rules, its own logic, and they soon supersede what the philosophers call “the case.”
There is a book out there now titled Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller. And taxonomists now largely agree that what we used to call the class of animals Pisces (fish), are really a bunch of increasingly unrelated classes or clades, in fact at least 12 of them, not counting subclasses. For example, a salmon is more closely related to a camel than to a hagfish.
But, back in the 18th century, both whales and sea urchins were also classified as “fish.” That we distinguish them separately now has made no difference to either whales or urchins, but only to dictionaries. That a whale is not a fish but a mammal is a shift in language, not biology. Fish still swim in the sea, even if we hesitate to call them fish.
And in the same way, the parsing of philosophers is mostly a shift of wordplay. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made this the central issue of his later work.
Meanwhile, as the philosophers mince language in their mental blenders, Gloucester fishermen keep pulling fish out of the oceans. When it comes to trust, I take the fishermen over the philosophers. The world is filled with sensible, seeable, feelable, hearable things. Things that give us pleasure and made the world we find ourselves cast into, like poached salmon.
Our lives are filled with the things of this world and their shapes, colors, sounds, textures, smells and tastes. And so is our art, which makes images, poems, dances, music and theater from those shapes, colors, sounds, etc., is a direct connection with the things of this world — the “case” as it were.
And I think of pears in art — those buttery layers of paint by Paul Cezanne — and the other still life art that singles out this bit or that of the physical presences of the world and shows them to us so we may notice them and appreciate them.
Most of our art tends to be divided between people and things — “things” being mostly landscapes and still life. In our art, we privilege people over things and that is only fitting. I’m sure squirrels are most interested in other squirrels, too.
But the non-human and non-living things things are so much a part of our lives, and a certain percentage of our art has been made about things. Like pears.
I step outside into the sun and I hear distant traffic, the breeze hissing in the tree leaves, and, from several blocks away, the intermittent rattle of a chainsaw. In the morning, there are birds — mockingbirds and chickadees. There is the feel of the air and the sun on my skin. There is the smell of the grass, new mown, or maybe the oily resonance of diesel fumes. I stand and feel the temperature. I live in the welter of the world.
And so, I am in love with the things of this world. I am mad for them to be in contact with me, to absorb them, to notice and appreciate them. To pay attention. To be alive.
And I slice a pear. The insides are both pulpy and wet; the skin keeps the flesh from drying out. The stem at the top curves off. The nub at the bottom shows where the white flower had been.
I take pears instead of apples here, because apples have too many words stuck to them, making them gummy with ideas, from Eve’s fruit of temptation to the computer on which I am writing these words.
But a pear can be seen with less baggage. It bruises more easily than an apple, yet its pulp is firmer, stiffer, unless overripe, when it can go mushy. Nor is it as sweet as an apple, although we must point out that there are hundreds of different varieties of apple and that a red delicious is sweeter than a granny smith. (Yet the granny smith makes a better pie).
There are varieties of pear, also, and they are perhaps more distinct than the apples. The lanky brown Bosc, the squat green Anjou, the nearly round Le Conte, the very sweet Seckel. In Japan, there is the ruddy, round Kosui, or russet apple pear. The Comice is great with ripe cheese. Yellow Huffcap for making perry — a cider made from pears.
I believe the central fact of existence is variety, in infinite forms, which in contrast makes the categories of philosophers seem puerile and simplistic. And dry. Pears have juice. Derrida, none.
These are smart people. I don’t begrudge them that. And perhaps we need people thinking such thoughts. But if we leave these words to the philosophers, I will have more time for myself with all the plants, rocks, fruit, animals, clouds, stars, cheeses and oceans.
Ultimately, to experience things is more important — more rewarding — than explaining them.
When it comes time to leave this planet and join oblivion, in those last moments left to my life, mostly, I will be thinking about the people I have loved and who have loved me. But beyond that, will I be thinking about Hegel or will I be remembering pears? My money is on the palpable. There is love there, too.
I have been thinking of Paris a lot lately. It is the city I have felt most at home in, perhaps along with Manhattan. It has been a dozen years since I last went, and I will almost certainly never get back — I am too old to put up with the torture of airline travel.
It is a great city, made up of many smaller neighborhoods, each with its individual character. You can walk almost anywhere, and if you need to go further than your feet feel comfortable, you can always grab the Metro.
When Carole and I used to go, we would pick out a neighborhood (or arrondissement) and settle ourselves in it, as if we lived there. Each visit, we’d go to a different one. And we shopped in the local shops, ate in the local restaurants, and shared pleasantries with the people we came across.
Parisians have a reputation for being rude, but we never found that. Everyone we came in contact with was unhesitatingly friendly and helpful. When I was sick one day, Carole went to the chocolatier at the end of the block, and when she told the sales person why she was buying some “get-well” candy, the bag was loaded with as much again, no charge. “Tell him we hope he gets better soon.”
That was our constant experience in Paris. One day, I was walking by myself along rue Monge, near our hotel and the woman who ran the flower shop asked after Carole. “Is she not well?” “No, she’s just resting.” We had not talked with her before, but she had noticed we had been in the neighborhood and she worried about us.
The city has been brought to mind in part because of a series of TV shows about Impressionist art, made by British art historian and TV presenter Waldemar Januszczac. (Yes, that’s seven consonants and only three vowels — a Scrabble nightmare).
In the series, he makes the point that what defined the Impressionists was not all the flowers and flowery dresses, all the sunlight and paint daubs, but an interest in the daily lives of Parisians. The official painters of the day (second half of the 19th Century) were the academic painters and they painted elaborate historical, biblical or mythological paintings — subjects considered “important” enough for art.
But there was Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Degas, Caillebotte, Sisley, Gauguin, or Marie Bracquemond — all painting what they saw on the streets, or the people they hung out with. The paintings captured the life of the bourgeoisie, the ordinary people of the city.
And when I went looking back at the photographs I made while in Paris, I realized that so many of them were contemporary versions of the same things that featured in those canvases.
This was “my” Impressionist Paris.
The other reason Paris has been on my mind is that I am re-reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I first read it when it first came out and I was in high school. I had just been forced to read The Great Gatsby for class, and Hemingway gave me a very sour take on Fitzgerald. (I don’t know why they assign Gatsby to teenagers; there is no way in hell they can have any clue as to what is going on in the book — I know I didn’t. I have just re-read it and been blown away by the beauty of its prose — all that lost on me when I was a snot-nosed adolescent).
But now, as I’m re-reading the Hemingway, I am hit with my own past. I know so many of the streets he names. He and Hadley first lived on rue Cardinal Lemoine; our first visit put us right at the bottom of the hill off Lemoine. We ate breakfast each morning at Le Petit Cardinal bistro. Our regular waitress, Lauren, a sandy-blond woman in her 30s, would have our regular breakfast for us even before we ordered. (And one morning, when I had ordered a pain au chocolat and they were out, she went across the street to the patissier and brought back a sack of them, so I wouldn’t be deprived.)
The cafe culture Hemingway writes of is one we became intimate with, each time we went (and we attempted to stay for a month at a time, each visit).
At the cafe Etoile d’Or, at the bottom of the hill, we came late one night after a concert to have a demitasse and a dessert. Carole ordered a crème brûlée and when it came, she lightly tapped the hardened caramel crust on top, a rich glaze that she said reminded her of the stained glass of Notre Dame. She told this to the waiter, with his apron wrapped around his waist, and he smiled. We heard him in the kitchen telling the cook, who answered simply, “C’est vrai.”
I first went to Paris when I was in high school. I had accompanied my grandmother on the transatlantic boat trip to Norway so she could visit her birthplace in the south of the country. I was also given a Cook’s Tour bus trip, by myself, across northern Europe.
When we stayed in Paris, one night when the rest of the tour went to the Folies Bergere, I was deemed too young to go. So, as evening descended, I walked up the street stopping about a half-block from the hotel, at a boulangerie and bought a baguette. Next door was a charcuterie, where I bought a paper boat of wurst salad. Another door down, I bought a bottle of dry white wine and I took the bundle back to my room, where I had a private dinner that I know I enjoyed more than the poor slobs who had gone to the nightclub. Sausage, bread and wine — I was 16 and I have never again felt so grown-up.
Paris made the biggest impression on me at that tender age, of all the places we visited across five nations. It was Paris before the cathedral of Notre Dame was cleaned, and so its facade was sooty with grime. The church of Sainte Chapelle was brilliant with stained glass. The Metro impressed me — an afficionado of New York subways — by riding on rubber tires and making almost no noise.
But I didn’t get back to Paris until 2002, when Carole and I decided it was time. We had a hotel in the Fifth Arrondissement, just off rue Monge. On our first full day, we walked down the hill toward the river.
Hemingway begins his fourth chapter: “There were many ways of walking down to the river from the top of the rue Cardinal Lemoine where we lived.” It was the same route Carole and I took, although we didn’t know it at the time. We could see the spire of Notre Dame at the end of the road, less than a half-mile off. Along the way, we past a thousand cafes, bistros, tea bars and restaurants. In between were shops, fruit stands, book stores and churches.
The river divides the city in half, and along its banks you still can find the fishermen that Hemingway wrote of: “The good spots to fish changed with the height of the river and the fishermen used long, jointed, cane poles but fished with the very fine leaders and the light gear and quill floats and baited the piece of water that they fished expertly. They always caught some fish.”
It’s a working river, still.
When in A Moveable Feast he writes: “With the fishermen and the life on the river, the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with their smokestacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great plane trees on the stone banks of the river, the elms and sometimes the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river.”
Paris is an oddly layered city, with the newest on the bottom and the oldest above. Almost every building houses some modern shop on the ground floor, with neon lights, plate glass and corporate logo. While from the second floor upwards, you see the old wrought-iron balconies to the small casement windows, peeling paint, rotting plaster or concrete, and surmounted by a gaggle of chimneys, each with a half dozen flues poking out the top.
How they got those modern shops underneath the old apartments, I don’t know. It looks like they jacked the buildings up and constructed a shopping mall underneath.
For dinner, we tried a little Italian restaurant and had a opening course of mortadella, which Carole called “the worlds best bologna.” Then we had the lasagne boulognese, and a chocolate mousse for dessert. My notes of our trip are filled with descriptions of our meals. I believe I cataloged every one of them in my notes.
At La Aubergeade, on the rue de Chaligny, two men were sitting at a table across the room. One short and sandy haired who was making a point in the air with his hands. He was about 55 and wearing a wool suit. The other man was tall with a de Gaulle nose and mustache, bald with a crew cut. He was so gangly and angular that his knee, crossed over his other leg, poked high above the table level. He was skeptical and showed it with a raised eyebrow and a pursed lip. He also sawed the air with his right hand palm inward, fingers extended, in a slow and deliberate fashion, in total contrast to the energy of his friend. Momentarily, they stopped, cut their steak or potato, put it to mouth and then began their counterpoint gesticulation again.
It was like watching a Tati movie, live. In fact, the tall man might as well have been M. Hulot on one of the moments when he was dragged into the cafe by his friend, accordion music playing as soundtrack. Vielle France.
At the restaurant across the street from our hotel, we had one of the best meals of my life: A steak with grilled fois gras. A small dog wandered from table to table looking for scraps and a good pat on the head. Eventually, he climbed up into my lap and stayed there contentedly, while I finished my dessert.
It feels silly writing about our food every day, but it is truly a highlight. Paris is a city where your lunchtime conversation is likely to be about where you will eat dinner. The promise of Christian salvation has little value compared with the presence of a good French meal.
“I’m not sure it does us honor, but if I had to admit it to myself, the real reason for coming back to Paris is the food,” I said.
On our first visit together, in 2002, we ate at Le Physicien, a Basque restaurant at the far end of rue Monge. It was group seating, and we were at a long table with a bunch of students. They had such a ball, it was infectious. They sang and drank and ate. Carole shared her braised kidneys with them. They shared shrimp with her. We had a piperade — a Basque specialty with garlic, onion, peppers and egg — that was the highlight. Daniel, the chef and owner, smiled on us all with his aged, whiskered smile.
Two years later, we came back for more on a bright, sunny Tuesday afternoon at lunchtime. But when we entered, a woman there was trying to shoo us away. I wasn’t sure why. I couldn’t understand her French.
But then the old man came in — the one we remember from last visit — and he immediately calmed the woman down and offered us seats.
Carole explained in French that we had been there two years ago and loved the piperade and that we wanted piperade again, with ham and egg and pepper and — well, garlic.
He was enthusiastic and hit the kitchen right off.
We had ordered two glasses of wine, but the woman brought us a whole bottle and made an apology for trying to send us away.
The piperade was wonderful — along with the vin rouge and the basket full of baguette chunks. For dessert, we had the gatteau basquaise with crème anglais.
When we left, the woman took both of Carole’s hands in her hands, and then Daniel, took both my hands and put them inside of his hands and said thank you. So, they both understood what we had been trying to tell them in our pidgin French.
It was a perfect experience, but when we walked out the door, I noticed a sign I had missed on the way in: Fermé le mardi — “Closed Tuesdays.”
That has always been our experience of Paris and Parisians.
Yes, we went to the Louvre, and other must-sees, but we didn’t spend a lot of time on the usual things. We never, for instance, went to the Eiffel Tower. Why? You can see it from pretty much any point in the city, and if you spend your day climbing the tower, well, you cannot see the tower.
On our second trip, in 2004, we stayed on the Boulevard St. Marcel and a couple of doors down from the hotel was the Pizza Lino, where we ate a couple of times. On the third time, our waiter greeted us as old friends. He wouldn’t let us order. He had made cous-cous.
“I am from Algeria,” he said. “I made it myself.”
He brought out a tagine and plates of white cous-cous and we covered them with a ladle or two of a rich red sauce filled with vegetables — potato, squash, tomato, chick peas, carrots — and a selection of meat, including meatballs, an anise flavored sausage and the best lump of lamb meat I’ve ever had. He brought it with wine and told us the wine was part of the deal. It was.
The food was wonderful, but it paled in comparison to the human interaction we had with our friend, Madjid. “I am not Arab,” he tells us, “I am Berber.” He has been in France for three years, he says. He and a friend own the restaurant. Madjid is married to a Brazilian woman and has a 14-year-old son. (the boy must now be in his 30s.)
Madjid expressed that he felt an instant sympatico with us, and we told him we felt it toward him, too. He brought us a free pichet of wine, which we felt compelled to drink.
“It is good,” he said, “when you have something to give” — like his food — “that someone truly knows how to enjoy and accept it. A gift is best when it works both ways.” I am paraphrasing his macaronic French and English. (He speaks French perfectly well, but tries to add enough English to help us understand. His English is imperfect, but better than our French.)
Two years later, we were walking up the Boulevard St. Marcel, late in the afternoon and I heard a voice: “Reeshard? Reeshard, No?” It was Madjid, in front of Pizza Lino.
“Yes, bon jour.”
“I have good memory,” he says, understating the case.
And he pulled us in and told us he had cous-cous and hardly gave us a chance to assent, but sat us down at the same table we used to sit in. “Your place, yes?”
And he set before us a bowl of white fluffy cous-cous with white raisins swollen plump, and then a great big white Normandy bowl of vegetables and soup, with big chunks of carrots, onions and turnips. While we were spooning the veggies and soup over the couscous, he brought another plate full of braised lamb, meatballs and andouille sausage, bright red with white chunks of fat.
We added the meat to our bowls and chowed down. We couldn’t possibly finish everything he brought us, and he showed the same grinning pride in his cooking that he did last time.
Our bellies were bursting, our warm-spot in our hearts were glowing and we promised to come back the next day. And, of course, we did.
At the Luxembourg Gardens, we walked among the statues and horse-chestnut trees and were in the middle of a living city. People all around were walking dogs, sitting under trees and reading, or cuddling or smoking. Teenagers rolled past on their inline skates and joggers puffed around corners. All I heard was French.
What never fails to give us pleasure is just walking around the streets. We walked along the quai, or even up the Rue Monge near our hotel, and look in the shop windows, drool at the patisserie, see what French vacuum cleaners look like, watch the people sitting at the round tables in the cafes sipping their cafe au laits. The cars are different; the way people walk or cross streets is different. It is all utterly and completely fascinating.
Throughout the city, street markets pop up on their regular days. I found the Thursday street market, spread out along Avenue Lendru Rollin from the rue de Lyon all the way to the rue de Bercy. I started to walk along it, past fish and fowl.
The market sits under canvas tent-roofs along the sidewalk, with the territory divided up between vendors. One was a fishmonger, with heaps of silvery dace and mackeral, red-fleshed, skinned flatfish, piles of oysters, boxes of shrimp and langoustini. The next had meat, with freshly butchered shanks and steaks, and platters of livers, kidneys and other oddments. More than one stall was end to end vegetables and fruits, with cauliflowers, tomatoes, leeks, cabbages, peaches, apples, pears.
A few meters down the road, the food gave way to junk jewelry and hairpins. Further, there were clothing stalls, shoes, jackets.
Then, more food. One great-smelling stall had whole chickens on rotisserie racks, about 6 skewers high, over a trough with golden roasted new potatoes. He called to us in English, “Take home a half chicken, only 3 Euro.” I shrugged my shoulder: We had nowhere to take such a succulent morsel.
At the end of the line, we kept walking for a bit, down to the river and halfway across the bridge to the Gare de Austerlitz. It was chilly that morning and the sun, barely a glare through the grey sky, broke into crystals on the sharp-edged little waves of the Seine.
A few years before that, we had been staying in a hotel off the rue Claude Bernard and one morning, we heard a crowd outside. It was market day on the rue Mouffetard.
It was like something from a movie, or a travel poster, with hundreds of vendors selling vegetables, fruits, meats, fish and all kinds of viands. Up and down the narrow street, shops offered oysters, coffee, bread and beer. On shop had freshly-dead rabbits hanging in the window. “Lapin — 8 Euro, Lievre — 10 Euro.” The hare was about 20 percent larger than the rabbit.
The street was mobbed. It was a hive of activity, and at the bottom of the hill, by the Saint-Médard Square, there was a small band, with accordion, playing music. The crowd sang along and gathered in a circle around the musicians and two or three couples would move to the center and begin dancing, all with great smiles on their faces.
By about noon, the marché came to an end, and the band signaled the end of their performance with an elegiac La Vie en Rose — the whole thing could not have been more French. I’m sorry if it all sounds corny, but it also felt very real.
We knew then that we had to come back, and we did so every other year, when we could afford it.