“Paris” means two things. At least. In French, it’s the word for the plural of “gamble/wager/bet.” And it’s the name of the most photographed city in the world, the city that’s a roll of the dice, a life wager, a challenge. So says essayist David Downie.
Life itself feels like enough of a wild, glorious, fragile, blessed, beautiful, terrifying gamble that being in this gorgeous city fits. I’ve been here not quite a week. I feel at home. My lovely little apartment in the 15th arrondissement has tiny balconies on the street and french windows from the bedroom that overlook the courtyard. Every morning I open the curtains, the french doors and the metal shutters for the day.
This morning Felicia, “la guardienne” (the building caretaker) from Galicia in NW Spain was watering courtyard plants. I opened the windows, waved and whispered “Felicia! Buenos dias!” down from the third (European second) floor. She grinned and waved, “Hola, Marta!” We speak in Spanish always and it feel like home. Her Spanish is beautiful – just like my best Spanish friend Maite Ramos’ at the Univ. of Madrid – Gallegas are always the most friendly and comfortable. And after struggling to understand Pablo’s Uruguayan Spanish for my three weeks in Lyon, talking with Felicia is a delight. She is very proud of her 25 year old granddaughter who has been a doctor for two years, and of her father, who was such a presence in their village in Spain that they’re are going to put up a statue of him. I took her some different kinds of terrines that I made at the Cordon Bleu the other night. She’s a dear. We’re wearing sister outfits today – black pants and sweaters and hot pink scarves. Well, it is Paris.
Old guys play boules (French version of Italian bacci) in the parks. There were four or five matches going the other day when I walked past la Tour Eiffel. 5-6 men playing in each, with spectators and concomitant commentary. It’s all oddly reminiscent of my past. Okay, we DID play bocci in our hallway when I was little (“Keep it on the RUG, kids!”), but this reminds me of going to London for the first time when I was in law school. I’d spent my life to that point reading Sherlock Holmes, Dorothy Sayers, Thomas Costain, English history and Dickens. Grandmother Reese had me reciting not only the English kings and queens from Ethelred the Unready to Elizabeth II, but also factoids about the War of the Roses by the time I was 10. London felt familiar when I saw it for the first time, even though I’d only seen the Trafalgar lions in my imagination. I kept a weather eye out for cockney pickpockets, Sairy Gamp rounding the corner, or Holmes striding through fog, pretending to be blind.
In Paris now, I’m unconsciously looking for Desiree Clary, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and Gene Kelly, Porthos and D’Artagnon, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough. I haven’t seen them yet, but their friends make appearances. These people are so French. I bought two 100 gram slices of cheese on Saturday after prolonged discussion about which would be perfect. This was 2 hours after my train hit the station. (It’s Lent. Confession time. First purchases: a little Chanel makeup, a baguette and cheese. Mais, bien sur. [But of course.]) Result of consultation: a wildly ripe goat cheese covered with cinders and a very young Spanish sheep cheese from the Pyranees. Both were exquisite. I returned yesterday, to be greeted with, “Ahhhh, bonjour, madam ! And did you like the sheep’s cheese ?”
I assured him that he was my hero and that I was in need of MORE of the sheep’s cheese because I couldn’t possibly exist longer without further enjoying its flavor.
My first class at L’Ecole Alain Ducasse was interesting. I arrived early on Tuesday and watched everyone walk into the courtyard. Skinny pants, fancy handbags and stiletto boots or 4″ suede heels with jeans. EVERYONE, men and women, wore a snappily-knotted scarf. “Cooking?” I thought. “These people are cooking dressed like this?” Well, as it turned out, most of these visions weren’t going into the cooking school – there were other offices in the building. In the class, a 35 year old French woman played at Parisienne restraint for the first couple of hours – pouty eye rolls, one shoulder shrugs, moues (nothing I learned in MY high school). She avoided eye contact with the older French guy, the attractive young Brazilian woman who sounded just like Penelope Cruz, and me, sparkling only for the chef. This not being my first day at the rodeo, I knew not to negotiate with terrorists (if you do, they win) and translated for the Brasilian woman who spoke no French. The three of us had a great time making glorious fish soup with “rouget” – a beautiful, small red mediterranean fish, seared then roasted leg of lamb with jus and about 6 kinds of vegetables.
After 3 hours and the first glass of wine, French girl asked what nationality I was (I’d given my name as “Marte.”) I asked what they thought and the guessing game began. She glanced lingeringly at my feet and said, “Dutch?” (I don’t think she knows about accents, but the Dutch are the Europeans who laugh in public and probably wear hideous shoes.)
Other guesses were English and “you’re not Spanish, are you?” Okay so I’m not letting down the team. It may be the high point of my international life. Moral: wear black with a scarf. Go to friendly Lyon first for three weeks to learn to mince a shallot into 5-molecule-thick cubes. Christine (faux name) ended up giving me directions to three cooking supply stores by Les Halles and writing them into my iPad herself. Everyone happy.
So, one more story. I was meeting my friend Erica from Lyon (and Hong Kong) at Les Halles, the spot where the huge Parisian food market used to be. The old market is now a shopping center, at that moment filled with 537 French teenage girls lined up for an open-call modeling competition for Elle magazine. Riot police in full gear stood by to quell disturbances.
I rode to the top of the metro station escalator to wait for Erica. A middle-aged man sat on a bench right at the tip of the elevator, wordlessly extending his right hand. He wore a lampshade on his head. It was white with gold trim and tassels. He also wore bright orange tennis shoes. Then another man strode across the plaza toward him, talking in a delighted voice. Lampshade man jumped up, arm extended. The two men shook hands like bankers, They bowed slightly to each other, exclaiming graciously “Je suis ravi de vous voir” (“I am ravished with delight to see you”) and that it had been too long. The first man, in the tennis shoes, raised his lampshade and tipped it like a bowler, then extended his hand hospitably toward the bench to his left. They chatted amiably, the original man’s hand extended to people exiting the subway escalator.
Moments later, a fancily dressed, middle-aged woman in black came up the escalator, smoking. I’m not sure whether or not she was a hooker, but the possibility exists. (This, I suspect, is another area of weakness in my Preparation For Life by the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Cornelia Otis Skinner mentioned the same gap in her Baldwin education in the early 1920s.*) The woman in black caught my eye, raised an eyebrow, smiled slightly, pulled two cigarettes out of the pack in her purse, then handed one each to the two seated men. “Ahhhh, madam. Vous est ravissante!”
Toto, we’re not in Bryn Mawr anymore.
*Our Hearts Were Young and Gay