The man down the street

This morning, hurrying down my street, Git-le-Coeur, I found myself behind a very determined French woman.  She had large strides.  An older dog was following but she never turned around.  I kept looking at her, at the dog, wondering did they belong to each other, should I do something.  Suddenly she stopped.  She began tying black calla lilies to a grill at a store front.  I walked up next to her and suddenly realized which store front it was.

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“The owner, he is alright isn’t he?” my french is a bit stilted but that’s how it came out.

“He died Saturday.”

“How?”

“Cardiac arrest.  I feel black so I bought him black flowers”  and she strode away with that determined manner that only the french seem to pull off.  The dog, whom I had forgotten about, ran after her.

I started to cry.  I didn’t know the owner.  Yet almost every day for the past two years I’ve walked down Git-le-Coeur on an errand.  Every day I passed him and said “Bonjour Monsieur” or “Bonsoir monsieur” if it was after 8pm.  He always nodded and softly greeted me.  When friends would visit, we would walk past and I pointed out my beat friend that I’d never met. He always wore black.  He was always outside smoking a cigarette and reading.  If it was a hot day, he was across the street sitting on the curb in the shadow.  If it was a cool day, he would bring out one of those carrying sit-stools that has 3 legs and he would lean against it.  The windows of his store front were covered with bande-déssinée covers.  Animated stories that look like cartoon books but aren’t are the rage in France, always have been.  There wasn’t one empty space, even the door knob was a photo or a book cover.

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He must have lived above the store.  If I happened down the street at the right time, I would see him leaving the entrance to his apartment building which was next to his shop.  I’m guessing his apartment was right above the store. Colorful decorations that ranged from plastic flowers to pails to almost anything hung from the balcony.

I never knew his name.

There is no center of Paris.  Every arrondissement has its own neighborhood and each arrondissement has four quartiers.  I’ve lived in this neighborhood long enough that I know many of the characters.  I see the same homeless people every day.  I know all the cashiers at the Carrefour.  These people have become my people.  I never considered that one of them might leave…..permanently.  It was always going to be me leaving, returning to the United States or moving to another arrondissement.  I couldn’t get my brain cells to wrap around this piece of information.  My friend had left and wasn’t coming back.

I was late for a luncheon date with some classmates so I went to the metro thinking about him.  I had been pondering a little gift for him when I returned from California next month.  Now I would be pondering what I would have brought him, now that I know him better.

When lunch was finished, I hurried back to the store to photograph what was there. I read everything taped up or left by the front door.  I just couldn’t believe I would never see him again.

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His name was Jacques Noel.  He was very well loved.

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M. Jacques Noel when he was a young man.

http://www.iconovox.com/blog/2016/10/02/la-mort-de-jacques-noel-libraire-passionne/

http://cqfd-journal.org/spip.php?page=pages_mobiles&squelette_mobile=mobile%2Farticle&id_article=1509

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Bijou the cat

She looked ancient. She sat on the sidewalk on Blvd St Germain des Pres in front of the Cluny museum. She had a small cat carrier to her side and a cardboard box covered with a cloth in front of her. When she smiled at me, I saw she had only two front teeth. Her face looked like a well-loved baseball glove. She wore a babushka on her head with a grey hairs straggling out all over.

I had stopped to look at her because she was holding a leash at the end of which, sitting on the cloth covered box, was a lean white cat. On the lap of this crone-like person were two very small kittens. Another two were in the cat carrier. Only one of the kittens was white like, what I presumed was the mother. One was an orange tabby, the third was a calico and the last little kitten was a tortoise shell known as a ‘trois couleur‘ in French. I had lost my Tortie, Samantha, the day before I left California to come to Paris. It was unexpected and had broken my heart. I still hadn’t recovered eight months later. When I see cats and kittens, I get a funny tummy. I want to grab them all up, hug them and take them home with me.

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I turned to my friend, Joy, and said “I want her”. I was pointing to the little Tortie.
I asked the old woman, she must have been an SDF (san domicile fixe or homeless person), how much?
“Thirty-Five euros”
I pretended to misunderstand her and responded “thirty euros?”
She nodded yes. Then she gave me a big smile. Her face transformed from being crone-like to grandmotherly. I hadn’t known any of my grandmothers but I pictured them as smiling, warm and inviting.
There was absolutely no reason for me to negotiate with her. I had friends who had paid far more for kittens on the street. It’s a knee jerk reaction—bargain.

I stood in a moment of suspended time. ‘What am I doing?’ was the only clear thought that went through my head. I grabbed my friend’s hand, told the SDF that I was going to the distributeur to get some euros and off we went. I needed to buy some reflection time.

We went to Monoprix and I grabbed up kitty litter, food for kittens and whatever else I could remember that kittens needed. It had been a long time since I’d had one. As we left, I turned to Joy asking “Am I crazy?” I fully expected her to say yes. She didn’t.
“You’ve been talking about getting another cat ever since Samantha died. Maybe this is the right time”
What neither of us mentioned was that I had come to Paris for one year. That year had only four more months left. I had been intimating to everyone that I wanted to stay but had done nothing to set that in motion. It didn’t even occur to me then.

We went back to where the old woman was sitting. I was afraid she might have gone. I gave her thirty euros. She gave me a little seven week old kitten that flopped over like it was dead. I wrapped her up in my scarf and we walked to Starbucks. Joy went and got us coffees and I looked at this little being.

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The next day, she and I went to the Vet which just happened to be around the corner from my apartment.  The Vet checked her thoroughly.  She was very clean, not one flea, ears and eyes perfect–in fact the Vet was surprised she came off the street!  I was so relieved.

She asked me her name. A name?  Usually a name comes right to me and that’s it but this time it took a week. The little kitten became Bijou.  Which means jewel in French.  The further adventures of Bijou, who was anything but for the first year of her life, will be in later installments of this blog

It was at least a month later that I realized that I had decided to stay in Paris at that moment.

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Bijou today at 1 year 6 months

 

Brocante, Vide Grenier or Antiquités?

They call themselves brocanteuses.  There is no real translation for the word, the closest being seller of bric a brac.  But they aren’t and they don’t.

I’m talking about Mary and Jo who work the Foire de Chatou which I just got home from.  It is a huge ‘fair’ of hundreds of dealers in everything imaginable. This particular Fair takes place every March and September for ten days.

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In Paris, there is no such thing as a garage sale or a boot sale.  In fact, it is illegal to sell anything in front of your building.  The closest equivalent would be ten or so families getting together and renting a square from the city and having a Vide-grenier – a flea market.

The Fair I just returned from is a Brocante with antiquity dealers there. Jo explained that they have to sign a certificate verifying that they do sell antiques.  She and Mary call them selves Brocanteuse antiquaire meaning most of their stuff is less than 50 years old but they may have older things.

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Mary is British, lives in Antibes, speaks fluent French and makes her living selling beautiful dishes, cutlery and silver plate that she buys in England and her many buying trips.  She brings them back to France.  Over the thirty-four years that she has been doing this, she has learned what the French like.  Today, however, I watched as a group of about six American women from Atlanta, huge smiles on their faces, swooped into her space and bought almost all the silver plate that Mary had.  She chatted with them and you can be sure they will receive e-mail invites to all her future Brocantes.  I asked her how she started this business which is known as Tinker, Tailor.  She worked for Yves St. Laurent as an accountant and hated it.  So, with an assistant, she parted ways with the company and voila, Tinker Tailor was born.

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Jo is slightly older than Mary.  She can no longer do the heavy lifting that is required to move all the   around from Brocante to Brocante.  She has cut back on the amount of time she devotes to Brocantes.  I also asked her how she got started in the business.  As a child, her father would take her to auctions in the UK which he frequented.  He loved to buy frames.  She developed the bug.  After she finished her studies and married a frenchman, she worked for an antique dealer in Tours doing all the buying in the UK and the shipping around the world.  Some years later, she struck out on her own.  That was forty-six years ago. She loves pine.  She bought only large pieces and the French bought everything.  What she noticed, however, was that she liked sober pieces with straight lines whereas the French have a more sophisticated taste.  Perhaps a  little twirl here and there.  She pointed at a mirror that she wouldn’t have in her house because of the columns.  The French love it.

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Both women had retail stores at one point in their lives but have given them up for the freedom of traveling or taking time off if need be.  Twelve years ago, Jo asked Mary if she would join her in her stall at Chatou.  They watch out for each other and get along fine.

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And just for the record, I bought the Afghan rug that is hanging on the wall.  I adore Brocantes as do most Americans.  I told Jo that I’d never have been attracted to Bric a Brac sales. But,…well who knows.  I’m always looking for a good bargain.

My Name is Lucy Barton

I wanted to read Elizabeth Strout’s latest book: My Name is Lucy Barton (Random House, New York, 2016) because I loved Olive Kittredge. I loved the book and I loved the HBO series. It was one of the first things I saw when I arrived in Paris.

I am a member of the amazing American Library in Paris which houses the largest collection of English language books on the continent. I put a Hold on Lucy Barton and then waited five months for my turn to come around.

When I picked it up, the back cover fell open to a photo of Ms. Strout. The photo is captivating. She is looking the reader right in the eye with a look of such kindness. She has a smile on her face that tells me she would be great company, someone to sit down with for a cup of tea and just talk about life. I can’t tell if her hair is blond or white or a combination of both. She has such an air of being young, approachable but full of depth – what I call experience. This photo contrasts so much with the glossy photos that often accompany action driven books. I was fairly sure just by looking at her that I would be reading a character driven novel.

My name is Lucy Barton is short, 191 pages. I read it in two sittings. Then I put the book down on the floor, sat on my couch and asked myself “how does she do that?” How does she write such simple sentences, such simple scenes and make them so full of all the pathos that makes up our lives” This book is for mothers, anyone who has a mother or has had a mother or has been a mother. This book is about relationships and marriage and children and doctors and first time loves. But it is all about Lucy Barton—how she reflects on her far past, her not so far past, her present and for a large part of the book, a hospital stay where she went for two days and stayed for nine weeks.

One morning, she woke up to find her mother sitting at the end of her bed. And this starts the story that almost every woman I know yearns for—some indication of her mother’s enduring love. Lucy calls her mother ‘mommy’. I’ve been embarrassed to say ‘mommy’ in either speech or writing since I was about fifteen years old. I had decided my mother wasn’t a mommy. If Lucy Barton’s mother was a mommy, mine was too. And just allowing the word back into my vocabulary, allows me to mourn her passing in a whole new way.

Lucy Barton was born dirt poor. She managed to leave home, go to college and live in NYC. She makes observations like: “It has been my experience throughout life that the people who have been given the most by our government—education, food, rent subsidies—are the ones who are most apt to find fault with the whole idea of government. I understand this in a way.”  And she does, it’s just an observation. One of hundreds that made me put the book in my lap for a few minutes and think.

Lucy Barton is a writer. Elizabeth Strout is an author. There are some wonderful insights into the life of an author. Are they autobiographical? I don’t know and don’t care. They speak for themselves. When Lucy attends a talk by an author she’d run into in a clothing store, some of the audience attacked her (the author) for reference to a past president. The moderator was fascinated and pushed the author, asking her how she responds “She said that she did not answer them….’It’s not my job to make readers know what’s a narrative voice and not the private view of the author,’ and that alone made me glad I had come (thought Lucy)” He pushed her some more .“He said, ‘What is your job as a writer of fiction?’ And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.”

3:30am in Paris

Out my window, it’s dark.  The Quai is mostly clear.  The Seine is quiet, all the young people who sit on the concrete sidings until 1 or 2 in the morning have gone home.  The spotlights on Notre Dame have been turned off.  It’s that time of night when the only people awake are those that are tossing and turning because they can’t sleep.

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I’m not looking out the window.  I was deep into sleep and had set my alarm to wake up before 3am.  Hillary Clinton is ‘debating’ Donald Trump. She actually looks lovely in a red suit and he looks exactly the same.  His hair is combed forward and looks at bit like a small mop. Both are standing in front of a huge blown up photo of the Constitution.  When she talks, he stares at her with a huge frown on his face.

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Here in Paris, the news doesn’t show either of these two at campaign rallies 24/7.  In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw the Donald on France24, Al Jazeera or BBC news. I’m very familiar with Hillary’s voice but I’m surprised that I recognize Trump’s voice.  He seems to be doing exactly what he has done for a year and a half–criticizing “Secretary Clinton”, criticizing government, criticizing everyone that isn’t him.  As I’m writing he is bragging about how he forced President Obama to produce his birth certificate.  I’m stunned.  What is it with him?  He can’t produce his income taxes but because President Obama is black, he engaged in this birther theory year after year after year.

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I, and many of my friends that don’t live in the United States, are frightened.  The slight possibility that Donald Trump could be President of the United States is so appalling that it is barely imaginable.  Whatever one thinks of Hillary, I happen to be a fan, she is prepared to be president.  She is probably more prepared than any other candidate in history.  She’s been in the White House, she’s been Secretary of State and Senator from New York.  She was shown to work well with Republicans in New York. If she were a man, there wouldn’t even be a competition.

I’m surprised I actually woke up and got out of bed for this.  I could have read a transcript in the paper in the morning.  I could have read the critics’ observations and declarations of who the winner is.  I needed to see for myself the narcissism, the outright lying, the incredible immaturity of the man who wants to be Commander-in-Chief.  I give her huge points that she is standing there and still has a smile on her face.  She must be seething inside. No matter the question, he has to have the last word.  Lester Holt, the moderator, is not doing a good job of managing his outsized ego.  One of the critics is saying that this is a debate for the fact checkers.

The debate is winding down. It’s time to go back to bed.  I don’t know if I can sleep.  This is as serious an issue as any I’ve known in my lifetime.  I will finish by quoting Hillary: “I hope you get out there and vote as if your future depends on it.  Because it does.”

Sunday on the streets of Paris

Last night, Saturday night, the weather was delicious.  At 9pm, the warm breeze caressed sleeveless arms and everyone, Parisian and tourist alike, was smiling.  The streets were full of walkers, the bistros and restaurants spilled out onto the sidewalks and streets.  It was one of those nights when I didn’t want to go home.  I just wanted to walk this gorgeous city and feel the warmth, hear the happy chatter and soak in what I think of as the essence of Paris: the sidewalk culture.

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Today is Sunday and oh how things change.  It is rainy, cool and grey.  Soggy joggers are running along the Quai des Grands Augustins looking a bit like soaked puppy dogs.  Bikers are riding by with yellow, blue and white rain jackets unfolding like sails behind them.  There are no cars, only taxis and buses.  Today is Car Free day in Paris!  Anne Hidalgo, our mayor, has been trying to bring attention to the pollution.  She hopes to have part of the central city completely car free by 2018.  Fortunately, Paris has one of the best public transportation systems in the world.  So today, only taxis, public transport and electric vehicles will be allowed to run.  Normally, it would be a wonderful day to roam the city, walk in the roads and enjoy everything that Paris has to offer.  We will see who braves the rain.

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One group of people out and about enjoying the streets are the skateboarders.  Hoards of them in groups of thirties and forties are passing under my window.  They are singing to the skies as loudly as they can so happy are they to have the roads to themselves, well practically.  Some are dressed as if it is already Halloween.  A bride zooms by, then King Kong followed by two characters from Toy Story with huge smiles on their faces and arms up in the air.  Who cares about the rain they seem to be saying.  Look Ma, no cars!!!!

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Fall is in the air

img_1178There is a different light in Paris when summer turns to Autumn.  Today is officially the first day of Autumn but, unofficially, it arrived last Saturday.  From a week of hot days, sun dresses and sandals, we got rain and grey.  Some say that grey is the official color of Paris.

Out my window, I see people walking with sweaters and coats.  Most importantly, the scarf is back.  It’s too hot to wear a scarf in summer.  Now we can pull all our wonderful scarves out of drawers and closets and put them in whatever familiar place they reside in homes.  Mine is on my  coat rack at the entrance to my apartment.  I never wore a scarf before I came to Paris.  Well, maybe in the dead of winter if I was really, really cold and had handy a warm woolen scarf.  But not the signature French piece of clothing.  True Parisians don’t wear a lot of color: black, grey, navy blue, sometimes brown.  Then they add the scarf.  Something thoughtfully chosen, that has a lot of color and distinguishes one person from the next.

The sun is out today but looks washed out.  It has lost its summer intensity.  Often I can tell the temperature by just looking at the sun on the water, in the sky.  Not today.  I just checked the temperature on my iPhone and I wasn’t far off.  It’s a nice day, good for walking.  It’s Fall.   It’s dark when I get up at 7:30am and it’s almost dark when I’m walking home at 7:30 at night.  I’ve always loved Autumn but losing the light really makes me sad.  I love Paris in the summer with its endlessly long days, hot weather and slow pace of life.

La rentrée, when children go back to school, families return from vacation and work starts up again in Paris, is coming to an end.  No more holidays until the school holiday in mid-October.  In the US, we have Halloween to look forward to.  And believe it or not, the Parisians, especially the younger Parisians, love Halloween.  I don’t see many pumpkins but there are lots of parties and dress-up and fun that last through the night.

And so the days move on.  It is still Paris!