Return to Paris, Part Two: Encore, s’il vous plaît

We don’t do much our first day in Paris, both of us exhausted from our journeys, but that evening we venture out to dine in the home of Alice’s childhood friend Marina, who with her husband George has lived in Paris for over 30 years. Alice met Marina at the international school she attended while growing up in Iran. They are both of Armenian heritage and both managed to get out of Iran safely before the momemtum of the revolution took hold. They’ve seen each other on and off over the years, mostly during Alice’s visits to Paris, and they reunite with such ease it’s hard to believe it’s been close to ten years since they last met. 

Marina is a petite woman, with styled shoulder length hair, still rich brown in color (thank you Clairol? A genetic gift?), fashionably dressed and with obvious remnants beneath the large glasses and soft wrinkles of glamor and vitality. She gives me the standard French double-cheeked air kisses as if we are old friends, and chatters away while she leads us to their apartment, a short walk from our rental. Her husband George is waiting for us, and though less effusive than his wife, he is equally warm and friendly, clearly glad of our company. He’s an artist, his paintings hanging or placed upon shelves and surfaces throughout the apartment. They are quite good, some of them copies of famous works, like Girl with the Pearl Earring, others original. I see one I particularly like, of a young red haired girl, and wish I had the money to buy it from him. Yet none of them are recent, we learn. He has given up painting, just as he has given up leaving the apartment. He’s 92 and not particularly infirm, nor beset by dementia. Simply stubborn, Marina tells us: she has tried everything she can think of but he won’t be persuaded. 

Over the next few days, Alice and I develop a routine of sorts, getting up around 9:00 and leisurely puttering about the apartment in our pajamas, drinking coffee and chatting and eating something light before getting dressed and walking a couple of blocks to catch the metro to wherever we’ve decided to go for the day. We visit a small museum with a tapestry exhibit which Alice is particularly keen to see, and the Musée Marmottan, where I discover an artist I’d never heard of but really like, called Berthe Morisot, who was married to Manet’s brother. We go to the weekly flea market in Montreuil, smaller than the better known one in the Porte de Clignancourt, and as such more easily navigable to us. Alice buys gifts for friends and family, while I find two small trinkets, both inexpensive but unusual, one which will serve as my souvenir of the city, the other as a gift for Neighbor Jim. We are joined by Marina one day in Montmartre where we amble along the cobblestone streets, in and out of Sacré Cœur and around the Place du Tertre, watching the local artists at work until, tired and hungry, we wander into a crêperie for lunch. We go to Île de la Cité and walk past the damaged but never to be relinquished Notre Dame, so important to this nation’s history and literary culture, then cross the bridge into the Latin Quarter. We stroll through the Jardin du Ranelagh where we are both charmed by a bronze statue of a man standing over a crow with a large, what appears to be coin, in it’s mouth, taunting a curious, or perhaps just very hungry fox who has ventured close and is reaching up toward it. I later learn the sculpture is called the Monument Jean de la Fontaine and pays tribute to this famous poet and fabulist from the 17th century.

Jean de la Fontaine, a crow and a fox

On the sole rainy day of our stay, we visit the Galeries Lafayette, an enormous department store that is housed inside a glass and steel dome that is itself a tourist attraction.

Looking Up

One evening Alice and I take the metro across town to a restaurant Marina recommends, where I have a delicious confît du canard. On another, the three of us meet on a street corner and take a bus to a restaurant called Le Relais de Venise. It’s a steakhouse, for lack of a better term, that serves only one meal: a green salad with walnuts in a light dressing followed by pieces of steak covered in a “secret sauce” and accompanied by frites (fries) and whatever you want to drink. We get there at 6:30 to stand in line for the first, 7:00, seating (there are three seatings over the course of the evening.) We are the third or fourth party in line, and by the time the doors open exactly at 7:00, the line is winding down the sidewalk and into the street. We haven’t even been served yet when we see a new line forming for the 9:00 seating. We are given one round of salad but two servings of the main course, and to drink we choose a half bottle of house red wine, which is delicious. Our waitress knocks it over in her hurry to clear away our dishes and as a result, she brings us a new one. The meal is good, but I think it’s the novelty that accounts for the crowd more than the food itself.

The week passes quickly, and I find I wish we could stay on. Alice and I are surprisingly compatible; we are eating well; we are walking each day in a new and different neighborhood and I’m charmed by the same things I was charmed by 30 some years ago: the architecture, and the efficiency of the metro, where the buskers play Vivaldi on a violin, or even, occasionally, an accordion. The way art is insinuated into everything: the clothes, the shopfronts, the food. The manners, the language, the hats. The importance of flowers, and the melodic hum of people going about their business. I can imagine myself living here – not permanently, but for several months perhaps. It’s got its downsides like every place, of course. The cost of living is high, the homeless population is increasing, urban sprawl has hit, and the French have yet to embrace the dog owner’s responsibility of picking up after their pet. But after I’ve bid Alice farewell, as I sit at the Gare d’Austerlitz waiting for my night train to Figeac, I find I love Paris every bit as much as I once did. I watch several pigeons fly down from the rafters and make their way around the floor of the waiting area where I’m seated, pecking at crumbs, some too small to see, that sloppy human eaters have shed to the ground. I see one who is limping, and upon closer inspection I see it is missing several toes on one foot. I pay more attention and soon I realize half the pigeons are missing toes. I suppose this isn’t unique to Parisienne pigeons. All over the world, pigeons with missing toes are probably hobbling around train stations, parks, sidewalks and buildings. It must be hard making a living as a scavenger bird in a concrete world. But for some reason, I know I will remember them as living here, in Paris. As much as anything else I’ve seen, smelled, tasted or heard in this city, I’ll remember looking at these birds and being quietly moved by the sight of them, touching down and getting straight to work alongside the other, “perfect” pigeons, none of them long for this world, just trying, like all of us, to find their way.

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