Encore, et pour toujours

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. 

Click on any image to enlarge

1 comment
  1. daniel prendergast said:

    Loved every word and picture. (Though in the interests of equality you might have snuck Cassatt and Morisot into your list of Impressionist painters of the everyday.)

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