Friday, October 06, 2006

Magnificent Jules Joffrin: a sentimental post for a rainy Paris evening

Some time ago, I had a dream that put me on a podium before a sea of adoring faces. They had all gathered at some nondescript park – there was grass but there were no trees. The only moments I remembered upon waking were the two exclamations that ended my oration, “I love you all! … AND I LOVE THIS CITY!”

This last phrase was accompanied by a sweeping gesture, arms extended from head to waist, elbows awkwardly locked at 135 degrees. The crowd cheered and applauded, and I thanked them, thank you, thank you.

My subconscious apparently thinks very highly of me.

But it’s no coincidence that I made this dream in Paris (sic). My love for this city lives on, and I really do love Parisians, although it’s a love of the unrequited variety.


It had been a rough day. (So many of these posts start off that way.)

Defeated after trying to adjust to a new work environment, I abandoned my Seat Vulture prowess for a more scientific approach to the metro. Research has shown that if a packed train arrives after a moderate wait, another will follow close behind, almost empty.

And so as the quai filled up with rush hour commuters, I sat down. Since time had taken a toll on the row of conjoined seats, I planted my feet. The seat slanted slightly downwards. Annoying, yes, but I stayed there as a train came, filled up, and left. The only people left on the quai were of the drunken and/or crazy variety. I listened to the tunnel and ignored them.

Soon a woman in heels came to join me, waddling unsteadily down the quai. She plopped down hard into the seat next to me, sending a jolt through the row of chairs, thereby dumping me onto the floor of the metro.

I was quite surprised to find myself, in business attire and holding a book nonetheless, sitting on the filthy floor. My stupid black synthetic pants had seemed slippery against the plastic, but I hadn’t realized to what extent I needed to hold on for dear life. In an instant, my social status had been lowered to that of the drunk and/or crazy. One of them sent me a friendly smile and nodded as I clamored back into the seat of doom.

The woman didn’t so much as glance in my flailing direction. Had she seen me sit there as the train pulled away, and dismissed me as some thing that was already unstable, in spite of her earthquake-inducing grace? Or had she just not realized that she caused my fall?

In any case, I hated her. So I glared at her while she studied her electricity bill. Her bare neck had pockmarks all over it. Bare neck – maybe she wasn’t French. I readjusted my own scarf, which is key to fitting in whenever the temperature drops below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. She didn’t know. I started to forgive her. The next train came, empty, my mood improved only slightly, and the ride was uneventful.


Minutes later, I trudged up the steps at Jules Joffrin, a diversion from my normal path. It’s a magnificent place where everything is always right for me, an instant cure for a bad mood. (Even while walking there once after a sobbing incident, my eyes all swollen and red, a man stopped me to say, “But, frankly, you have some beautiful eyes!”)

The area around Jules Joffrin has never done me wrong, and I’m convinced it never will.

I’m convinced that it’s perfect. Every time. Last night the setting sun cast a warm glow on the Mairie. Children laughed from the small carousel. The fall wind pulled the smell of cooking crepes in my direction. With Nutella. Fall is here, and the air feels cleaner. I clicked by with purpose – I was heading to the market, rue du Poteau.

I always walk on the right side of the street. First: shopping baskets, cheap pots and pans, rickety furniture. I step aside to avoid the man who still asks for money, and a small caress if possible. I continue, turn sideways to get around the mother breaking a pain au chocolat between her whining offspring.

Roasting chicken, I wonder what it tastes like. All sorts of meat in parts, no saran wrap, no clean white Styrofoam packages. Just piles of red meat, and plucked, skinny chickens hanging from their feet. A more realistic look at what’s for dinner.

Next: handmade pasta on display in greens and creams and salmon, stacks of pasta boxes in blue. The French clucking their tongues against teeth while choosing a wine to complement their meal.

And then, I cross the street past the knick knack stand to an explosion of color: vegetables, fruits, in giant piles, brightly lit in the fading sunlight. My favorite time of day to be at the market: dusk. The odor from the fish market comes in waves from across the way. The smell lingers even on days when the fish are put away.

I buy vegetables without any idea what I’ll make for dinner. I just love to have them weighed and pay so little. Green beans: 36 cents. A squat yellow pepper: 42 cents. Four tomatoes on the vine: 75 cents. Here the cucumber tastes more like cucumber. The tomatoes smell more like tomatoes. There’s no other way to say this. And here, I love this city.

I listened to the music coming in my headphones and heard one line, again and again.

Everything will change.

And so it will, I thought. Here I am, twenty-six years old, living in this Paris, in these months, in this time. Then I return again to the States. And when I leave this time, I don’t know when I’ll be back.

I wonder what I’ll be pointing to when I’m sixty and I say, and this is where I used to buy the vegetables. And this is where Nicolas and I used to meet to drink a glass of something or other. And this is where I used to walk. And this is where I used to love.

Paris is a museum, Nicolas announced one night.

He meant that people come to Paris to see what once was great. He was talking about art and the art scene and tourists and where it all happened. And it’s not happening anymore, he said. And it’s true, to some extent. Picasso isn’t stepping out of his ratty apartment to buy bread. Hemingway isn’t walking through parks to avoid the smells of food.

But the woman next to me is examining each avocado and chatting idly with the fruit seller about what her children did over the summer. And the vegetable guy is calling out for people to buy his mushrooms. And Nico is at the library waiting to come out. And they will be here tomorrow, and they will be here next day.

So this is my museum, I think, and I am like a tourist. I must try to record everything, and come back to see what once was great.


At 11:31 PM, Anonymous Josh said...

When I was walking next to you in Paris, it was easy to see why Paris is a city to fall in love with. It wasn't the Paris of movies, books, or imagination - but something more concrete and real. Thanks for writing this, I think it is beautiful and it makes me wish even more intensely that I was there to walk beside you (and jiu-jitsu the lady who dumped you on the floor.)

At 12:03 AM, Blogger Nicolas said...

What about the dog shit? You forgot the dog shit... okay, so maybe Paris is okay after all.

Were you wearing the brand new scarf in the metro?

This post makes me forget my gripes with this city.

At 12:05 AM, Blogger Emily said...

Yes I was wearing my brand new scarf, thank you very much.

Nico says it looks like all the other scarves I already own. One day I'm going to get one that isn't predominantly red.

That day is not tomorrow.

At 12:43 AM, Blogger Buffy said...

I can't tell you how much I love this post.

I once heard Zadie Smith talk about one of her characters along these lines....

She left one world, moved into and embraced another. She loved it and call it her own. Trouble was, she never fully fit in...was never accepted wholly and compeltely by it. But she could never go home again...because she could never again fit into her once-world wholly and completely either. So she was left somewhere in between.

Obviously, Smith said it more eloquently, but maybe you see my point.

At 11:33 AM, Anonymous Chris said...

I'm actually tearing up.

It could be the pinkeye, but you never know...

At 7:45 PM, Blogger Buffalo said...

You paint beautifuly.

At 6:04 PM, Blogger anno domini said...

loved it! please don't leave Paris!

At 11:00 PM, Blogger Susan said...

Haha I only exist to make fun of you in your sentimental moments.

At 8:48 AM, Blogger fre said...

I absolutely love the Paris you're describing, but I just like the Paris I'm living in. I'd love to love Paris the way you love it :)

At 3:54 AM, Blogger Rob said...

What a beautiful post.

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Neha said...

Paris. ot ur own city. Guess thats what makes it more beautiful. More precious and mor special.
I say the same for bangalore..thats the city where I live in. Love it. WHen I leave Bangalore, like you, will never be able to tell when will I be back or will I ever be back.

At 11:24 PM, Blogger joy suzanne said...

that was beyootiful


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