mardi, octobre 25, 2005

Writers In Paris

Six weeks and a day have we been in Paris (Dear Wife and I), and I've yet to see as many museums as we tackled during a one-week stay, circa 2002. But do not take this as a complaint. Our time is spent living in the warm space between tourism and proper residence. This extended stay (almost two months and counting) allows us to get to know our neighborhood and many of its routines as a local might knows them (granted, a local with only the haziest understanding of the customs and language of the place): which dry cleaner is cheapest (forget it, they’re all expensive), which market is open Monday mornings, which is open Sunday evenings; what restaurant serves the best omelettes, which one has the best pasta, the best bresaola, the best sushi, etc. We can take this local knowledge, and then dine like tourists, which is to say at our leisure, with each meal a memorable novelty. But I am led to believe, from evidence both anecdotal and observed, that in Paris, it is the locals whose lunches are two or three hours, and the tourist who are most often anxious to pay up and be on their way.

Oh, that’s probably unfair.

Lunch today was brisk for two courses, taken in at Indiana, the Tex-Mex café just across the Blvd. St. Germy. The waitress was from Sweden, (she looked very far from the stereotype) and when I asked if she knew of the Swedish rock group Bob Hünd, (which Dear Pal Peter loves so much, and which is my stock question to any Swede I chance to meet), she said she did, and she didn’t like them. But she was tickled I asked.

I will tell you what we have seen in Paris, and that is writers. It is fitting, because so many people around here are to be seen reading: out in the parks, in the cafés, on the Metro, (mais bien sur!), people of all ages reading. Two twenty-something chicks sitting next to each other on the iron chairs in the Luxemburg Gardens; a sulky supermodel and her boyfriend under the shade of a tree in Place St. Sulpice, a husband and wife in their twilight years—all reading, and usually reading books. And there are bookstores everywhere—in the same way Rome has churches—so many bookstores that I am boggled by their solvency. Don’t they all run each other out of business? Is there some special State dispensation to keep these bookstores going? And they are all specialty bookstores, mind you: ancient and rare books, photo books, art books, etc. How high could the margins be in such sleepy shops? Are they all surviving by selling to each other via the Internet? But our neighborhood remains dense with ‘em, and while clothing stores go in and out of business, dissolving behind windows suddenly painted opaque, only to be replaced by the incredibly quick installation of a colorful kids clothier, these “libraries” (which is what they call bookstores—and libraries are called “bibliotheques,” funnily enough) just keep going.

So you would expect to meet writers in such a bookish capital, and we have. But it is surprising the ones we’ve met, and how we’ve run into them. And I’m not talking about famous writers, writers I would recognize by sight (and who would that be? Shakespeare? Truman Capote? I guess Norman Mailer would be recognizable, Maya Angelou, too—but would you or I really be sure if it was indeed Naomi Wolf we passed stepping out of Balenciaga? Or John Grisham coming out Casa Bini? Scott Turow? Anne Rice? DAN BROWN? Pundits we’d recognize, studied up close during The News Hour {how fun to see Tom Oliphant, or Michael Beschloss up close—a little sad if it was David Brooks}{imagine Brooks as a Frenchman, applying his exburbs/urburbs/bobo formulas to the Parisian Arrondissement-scape “You CANNOT find a ‘plat’ for more than 16 Euros in the 5th, no matter how hard you look!”}, but enough on the lack of recognizable writers).

Today we were in the line at Le Champion, our local grocery store, waiting to check out. In front of us was an old, old man, stooped over a shopping cart, no taller than 5’ 1”, shambling forward with the line in a musty suit and overcoat. And when he heard Dear Wife and I speaking English (in low tones, I’d like to add—well, those who know me probably doubt that—but I do try to be discreet with both my English, and my abhorrent French), he began to talk to us. He spoke in a heavily accented English, accented not by a French background, but an Eastern European one. When he turned around to face us, I could see one of his eyes was pointed askew and a milky white. He hadn’t shaved for a couple of days, and his hair was just as untended. The picture was of extreme age and unhealth. But he chatted amiably, wanting to know where we were from, etc., so we answered happily, though I found myself trying to avoid the direction of his exhaled breath—whether it would be foul or not, I was afraid of his germs. I’ve been sick in this city too long!

But trouble was brewing. In front of this man at the check out was a young lady, and she was attempting to pay for five bags of groceries (a lot by urban European standards). But there was a problem. She was very chic, short but chic, she looked a sort of Rachel Ray-type with a prettier face maybe, but hard to tell behind her large black sunglasses, worn indoors. And there was a problem with her credit card. The checker told her dispassionately that the card didn’t work (this in French—checkers as a rule do not speak English to customers, and I do not criticize them for this, nor do I assume one way or the other whether they know English, I just report what I’ve seen—their silence may be the result of some government regulation or workplace code for all I know). The chic girl didn’t understand the checker, and the checker kept repeating “Ne marche pas…” which sounds like “Neh mosh paw” to me.

Dear Wife and I didn’t want to speak up: we’re the souls of discretion, and understood that the only thing more humiliating than credit card denial in a grocery store is having it explained to you in translation by two perky marrieds. Certainly credit card denial in Paris while you’re wearing your super-chic indoor shades would be a tough spot for any of us. And with a platinum card, no less.

No one is immune.

The chic young lady spoke, and betrayed herself as an American. She’d guessed that her card wasn’t going through, but was frozen with indecision. I know this moment, when I am trying to think how I can communicate with this foreign person before me who doesn’t understand me, and who I don’t understand. I usually go for body language and facial expressions—she went for looking in her purse. We stood mutely behind the old man, watching all this, sympathetic and a little shamed at not intervening, but what could we do? Offer to pay for her groceries? It may seem plausible while writing the scene out here, but it was impossible without embarrassing the be-jeezus out of everyone involved. We weren’t alarmed, though; we knew the situation would resolve itself (how many times had we come across Americans struggling with some aspect of the grocery checkout process in just the month-plus we’d been here—and very often the one with the problem is us). But then the old man spoke up, explained that the card had been denied, which the girl had already figured out. The card was run again, and miraculously went through, (as often happens at Le Champion), so the girl was free to now begin bagging her groceries, which slowed the line down even more. You bag your own groceries over here, and it can still catch me out. Oh, we pampered Americans!

In the meantime, the old man told us he was a writer. Really? What do you write? And with that, he reached into a big travel bag riding in his grocery cart.

“Do you like zee mystery tales?”


“Do you like zee… ghost storeez?”

He had produced a fair-sized soft cover volume, looking new, if a little abraded by the journey in his bag, and handed it to me.

“The Moaning Mansion & Other Tales,” by Leo Gaton.

“They’re not too scary, right Leo? I mean, I don’t want you to scare the be-jeezus out of us…”

No, no, he said. He said they were good, not like Stephen King. Then he said he would sell us a copy, and chattered that it was popular on Amazon, people like it, we would like it, and he could sell it to us for only 25 Euro.

Well, what was I to do? I began to think, maybe it IS worth reading. I looked at the book—clearly it was self-published. But then, wasn’t that the route we’d be going with on the anatomy book? And would I want anyone to discriminate against us for that reason? Maybe this little man, who could have believably come from the dark hills of Transylvania, had written this to exorcise some personal terror, or supernatural recollection. Perhaps within these pages lived authentic horror, experienced first-hand. Damn, it could be great! Real contact with the spirit world? He looks half bat just standing here!

He would sign it for us, he said as he paid for his groceries. He would dedicate it to us if we told him our names. As he laid his hard sell on me for the book, he would switch to an even more unnerving French for the check out lady.

I gave him the 25 Euro.

Dear Wife is much too polite to even roll her eyes in such a situation, but I could feel her interior groan viscerally.

“Yes, and I shall dedicate it to you both—vat are your namez?”

And that’s how I came to own this book, “The Moaning Mansion, etc.” by writer and part-time Paris resident (every year with his wife for a month or two, then back to San Francisco), Leo Gaton. I have been greatly disappointed with the stories themselves, as they are nowhere near as portentous and offbeat as our meeting with Leo. But we can console ourselves with the personalized dedication from the author himself:

“To Mardí and Claire,
Best Wishes,