Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tuesdays II

back to Au Chien Qui Fume this week...

... expecting to be disappointed, especially because I wasn't really all that hungry for fish soup. Of course they have lots of other yummies on the menu, but they do soupe de poisson so well... so I went and I ordered it, all in the name of routine.

The waiter who served me last week didn't take my order, but he did end up bringing my bowl from the kitchen and greeted me with a friendly reconnaissance that surprised us both. I mentioned that the joint was jumpin' and he said the evenings especially have been very busy lately. I suspect the change of pace that I noticed was due mostly to the fact that I had arrived earlier than last week. I had to sit at a floating table for two in the middle of the restaurant. The bar man was lining up saucers with doilies and meringues for after lunch coffees and the fish monger was serving himself a pastis. I couldn't make out any of the conversations around me as they bounced around the room in buoyant warble.

But there was one table that caught my attention... two older gentlemen shared a rather large fish and a half bottle of wine before ordering desert. The one with the short, clean cut hair had a fruit bowl and the other, who was facing me, ordered a slab of cream and custard... maybe lemon. The latter must have mentioned me to the former because he turned to look at me. He tried to see what I was reading--California Quarterly's latest volume--before turning back to his brother, twin brother--I knew it as soon as he turned around. Then he got up and took his coat and hat from the maitre'd and waited by the door. Meanwhile, the less pressed and polished brother caught my eye and took it as an invitation to start up a conversation with me.

The first question is always "What country are you from?" and usually, anyone friendly enough to ask it is happy to meet an American. He seemed a little tipsy, said that "love is life," and then he invited me to dinner. By now it was maybe 3:30 and his brother was standing by the door, all but tapping his foot, but the friendly one kept chatting me up. He would be back with an artist friend for dinner--someone well known, he said--and if I was there, he would be happy to invite me to join them. The idea was enchanting and, truth be told, it hung in the back of my mind as I passed the rest of the day at that small table in the middle of the room drinking Grand Marnier, reading poetry, and writing...

"These crumpled wads of wasted words won't stick. They drip between the walls and the Maitre'd with the thick moustache, and the more I waste, the smaller the words, the vaster the small, blank page... Drinking in the afternoon--la classe Americaine, he says as he works to pay my way. I want to come back again and again. Have dinner with the drunken twin and his artist friend. But can I ask that freedom of my Love, my jealous, zealous Love?"

Ok, not always something worth reading! But there it is anyway. After that, I spent almost an hour on the phone with family and friends back home. Honestly, I don't see how this can last for too many Tuesdays, but yesterday was no disappointment. Thinking I might go to the movies after lunch, I didn't take the Filou; and though I never made it to the movies, it's a good thing I left him home. He would have been clawing at the window after the first hour and a half. Maybe next week, Filou!

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Au Chien Qui Fume

On Tuesdays Agnes, our housekeeper, comes at one and spends three hours doing what has sometimes taken me days to do myself… if I even do it at all… because I hate it! Dusting, mirror and toilet cleaning, kitchen scouring and heavy duty vacuuming, the occasional ironing. Whew! What a load off. She doesn’t have a key so I usually stay home when she comes. We move around each other in the small apartment, maybe I help her stretch the sheets across the bed or gather up the dirty laundry scattered about, but the late lunch hour is perfect for café sitting, and it's got me thinking...

Every writer needs a café, right? Someplace she can go, away from the laundry and email, and the same old walls. But it has to be someplace particular. Someplace she only recognizes after a few visits but which suddenly becomes familiar… a place where she can sit and forget certain things, remember others. And because I want this to be a routine, I am writing my intentions here so as to be accountable for sticking to it.

So this past Tuesday, I let Agnes in and Filou and I went to a restaurant that I know is very dog friendly... Le Chien Qui Fume—The Smoking Dog is a chain, but the only one to which I’ve ever been is here in Châtelet. In warmer weather the patio is divine, looking out on Les Halles and its sage green trellises, and inside the ambiance is classy without being pretentious. There are pictures of celebrities hung just below the ceilings and little dog statues perched above the bench seats that line the well-partitioned spaces. All this is only part of the reason why I’ve settled on this place.

When we arrived, lunch hour was nearly over. An older woman seated near our table with a matching older man gave us the usual disapproving glances, top to bottom. He didn’t of course. The men rarely do. Plus, he was seated with his back to us. But they were already having desert and Filou settled in at my feet right away, so quiet, so well behaved that it didn’t take long for her to forget me. No sooner had my wine arrived than I found myself privy to the most beautiful conversation I have ever overheard in this beautiful city.

Maybe it was the chocolate, but her face had turned to mush and her eyes were sparkling from wells of almost tears. She was actually smiling… the sweetest smile, truly, and she reached across the table to hold what I can only hope was her husband’s hand. (She spoke with such sincerity and compassion that I thought it might have been her lover.) “When I do things for you, when I show you how much I care, I do it because I want to, not because I have to. Sure, affection is a basic human need, but it’s not about that.” I couldn’t hear his responses, but I could see that he was looking into her eyes, and even from the side of his face, I could tell that he, too, had been moved close to tears.

This is what I wrote in my little notebook: “I don’t think I’ve ever felt this manic happy. I’ve just overheard the most amazing conversation—am still hearing it, in fact. The previously snooty couple across the aisle has been having one of those tell-all talks about their love and life. I could cry… fighting back the tears. I’ll blame the Sancerre.”

So we're all nearly crying, and they were speaking French, of course, so I began writing in French but have translated it here: “Among the most beautiful moments of my whole life. At first, I didn’t want to strain to listen, but I couldn’t help myself... ‘You’ve brought me so much… I think we've succeeded at making a nice life for ourselves, and that’s no small thing.’” She went on to say that yes, they had had their difficulties, but that they had surmounted all of it to arrive at this place today.

And that’s how I chose Le Chien Qui Fume. Their soup de poisson—fish soup with croutons, aioli, and shredded cheese is the best I’ve tasted, but if you’re not careful, they’ll sell you the most expensive wine to go with it. I’ll blame the Sancerre again for what happened next. I gushed to my server about the afternoon I had passed and how I wanted to come back again and again. Then I asked him where I might find my favorite dog statue—they move them around—gauche-ly calling it “le chien qui pisse.”

I love the statue because when he sits on the deck behind the bench seat, it looks like he’s piddling on the head of whoever is sitting there, their back to him, probably completely unaware. Apparently, there is only one pissing dog in the place because the server knew exactly what I was asking for. He laughed while clearing the couple’s table and said he thought it was upstairs, even insisted on bringing it down for me in lieu of my searching.

I took my picture (for you!) and headed for the door with my Filou, and the server said “à la prochaine, alors—see you next time then!” Maybe one day when I’m famous and dead—because I would have to be both!—this place will become lovingly known as Le Chien Qui Pisse. I think it has a certain ring!

When Horses Fly

Oh my gosh. Outside, the sun is shining in a rare and absolutely cloudless way. It's falling through the windows and warming the new quilt I bought at the local shabby chic shop on Tuesday. I want to go out and just be in it, but I need to tell you some things! Yesterday, I saw a flying horse.

I often see them three at a time, not flying of course, but with Gendarmes all saddled up on top, clattering down Avenue Victoria. In fact, I just filmed a group the other day patrolling the Boulevarde du Palais. I didn't have my camera in hand for the rapturous moment, but it probably wouldn't have made much difference if I had. She was flying pretty fast.

It struck me funny that a lone officer was standing at the corner of the quai and the Pont au Change like that, looking up the Seine more than at the people bustling in all directions or the cars. It was about a quarter to noon and his whistle hung on his lips. I passed him, maybe twenty paces, before I heard the noise that signals a flying horse--The approaching sirens were nothing out of the ordinary, but the whistle, and some shouting followed by a strange absence of movement and chatter on the wide sidewalk, the interrupted flow of traffic.

Just as I turned, there she flew, limbs stretching beyond her barely touching the ground... The moment was suspended. Everything stood still as her police escorts cleared her path, and there she went up the quai towards the Hotel de Ville. I can't say where to after that. Her yellow rain coat flapped only a bit, so graceful were her strides. It must have seemed, to her, that the whole world had stopped. She had gotten loose of her Gendarme and was running. I wonder if she knew where to.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Religious Experience

or, Flashmob in Paris the 18th of February.

At my high school reunion a couple months back, an old "friend," after learning that my boyfriend is Muslim, asked me in the most judgmental way, "So what religion are YOU?" It took me a few seconds to respond, for a few reasons... And when I came up with "Literature is my religion," apparently my time to respond had run out and I was thought a heathen. Now I know it's true... at least the religion part! And I don't think S/He will hold it against me ;) This is why.

You see, I went to this Flashmob thing. I had nothing better to do, not until three anyway. So I took my favorite book off the shelf--Jeanette Winterson's Art Objects and chose which passage I wanted to read--pretty much the whole book is worthy and I could never have anticipated how very perfect her voice would be for the occasion. I had no idea what I was in store for.

When I arrived, the Place St Michel was more crowded than usual... more like a Saturday night than a Wednesday at noon. Riot police had lined up their paddy wagons, clearly preparing for the worst. Who knows what can happen when you get a bunch of readers together, right?! I had a few minutes to wait for the whistle and was hoping to run into someone I knew, but alas, I stood alone and smoked a festive clove cigarette while the people came. I wished I had invited that group of students that I passed in front of Sainte Chappelle. I wished I had brought Filou. I wished I had enough courage to walk up to the Addonizio'esque French mom and her daughter with the oh-so-French embroidered beret and to tell them, "Comme vous êtes belles !" Each with her book in hand.

And then the whistle blew. At first it got quiet and I felt self-conscious. This is what I read:

“To begin with the reader. The ordinary reader is not primarily concerned with questions of structure and style. He or she decides on a book, enjoys it or doesn’t, finishes it or doesn’t, and is, perhaps affected by it.”

Second by second the din of dissonant voices rose and within just a few lines I was crying, yes crying... happy to have worn my dark sunglasses despite the ever-present rain clouds.

“When the fiction or the poem has a powerful effect likely to be lasting, the reader feels personally attached to both the work and the writer. Everyone has their favourite books to be read and re-read. Such things become talismans and love-tokens, even personality indicators, the truly bookish will mate on the strength of a spine… The world of the book is a total world and in a total world we fall in love.”

By this time, I was no longer sure if it was the mob or the book that was making me so emotional. I assure you, I could barely hear my own voice and my mouth was trembling and falling all over the words…

“Falling for a book is not the nymph Echo falling for the sound of her own voice nor is it the boy Narcissus falling for his own reflection. Those Greek myths warn us of the dangers of recognizing no reality but our own. Art is a way into other realities, other personalities. When I let myself be affected by a book, I let into myself new customs and new desires. The book does not reproduce me, it re-defines me, pushes at my boundaries, shatters the palings that guard my heart. Strong texts work along the borders of our minds and alter what already exists. They could not do this if they merely reflected what already exists. Of course, strong texts tend to become so familiar, even to people who have never read them, that they become part of what exists, at least a distort of them does. It is very strange to read something supposedly familiar, The Gospels, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, and to find that it is quite unlike our mental version of it. Without exception, the original will be as unsettling, as edgy as it ever was, we have learned a little and sentimentalised the rest….”

I read on through tears… and simultaneous laughter! Giddy does not begin to describe it. I felt much like I did almost twenty years ago coming out from under the anesthesia used by my oral surgeon when he pulled all four of my wisdom teeth! I looked around me and others were giddy, too. Probably not crying, but I didn’t want to stop reading long enough to look so closely. Instead, I pushed through the rush.

“… I do not mean to say that any of this is conscious; mostly it is not, and therein lies a difficulty. Art is conscious and its effect on the audience is to stimulate consciousness. This is sexy…” [and at this moment, I KNOW the older gentleman next to me was listening! I began to calm down.] “… this is exciting, it is also tiring, and even those who welcome art-excitement have an ordinary human longing for sleep. Nothing wrong with that but we cannot use the book as a pillow. The comfort and the rest to be got out of art is not of the passive forgetting kind, it is inner quiet of a high order, and it follows the intensity, the excitement we feel when exposed to something new. Or does it? Only if we are prepared to stay the course, not give up and doze off, not leap from rock to rock after new thrills. Books need to be deeply read which is one reason why it is wise never to trust a paid hack.”

In the unyielding din, I found myself wondering what others were reading, if they had chosen their books as appropriately as I. In the moment, I had given up understanding exactly what I was reading. Everything related to that moment. Every word was about that moment. We were making art… many without even knowing it.

“Our unconscious attitude to art is complex. We want it and we don’t want it, often simultaneously, and at the same time as a book is working intravenously we are working to immunise ourselves against it. Our best antidote to art as a powerful force independently affecting us is to say that it is only the image of ourselves that is affecting us. The doctrine of Realism saves us from a bad attack of Otherness and it is a doctrine that has been bolstered by the late-twentieth-century vogue for literary biography; tying the writer’s life with the writer’s work so that the work becomes a diary; small, private, explainable and explained away, much as Freud tried to explain art away.”

Just as I reached the white space, the second whistle blew and the crowd gave up the joyful noise of a Flashmob well executed, myself included, hooting, hollering and clapping—the muffled clapping of hundreds of hands on the books they were holding, and then the crowd began to disperse.

I’ll post a link to the video once I find it. Or if you find it first, please send it along. I’m just left of the fountain in a red coat and camel colored hat… with dark glasses, of course. Not hard to find in a crowd of black-clad Parisians! In the meantime, here is a quickie video of a Flash-freeze mob at Trocadero.

Short story long, if you have a chance to be a part of a flashmob, do it. Just do it!