I mentioned life in Paris and the myriad stories I could write about it and Kid asked me yesterday, in comments, to blog some of them….here’s one you might have read already. If not, I hope you enjoy it….I published it first in January 2008. It was written halfway through our four wonderful years in Paris. Z
At ten thirty, she sweeps up the torn Metro tickets, the crumpled, empty cigarette packs, and paper sugar cube covers. I watch her every morning, as my husband and I have our morning café crème and baguette with butter. That is to say, as my husband has those delicious things, and I have a bitter, black café served with a glass of cold water, a taste combination I have grown to savor. We say “bonjour” to everybody who’s behind the counter as we walk in, to the proprietor, Serge, the black-vested barman, Brigitte, the blonde woman with a braid down her back which brushes her waist, and a little blonde woman with overly pinked cheeks. Every morning, this overly pinked face says “bonjour,” or “merci,” “au revoir”, when we leave through the crowds standing at the bar getting their morning fix of caffeine and nicotine. She never leaves the back of the bar except to sweep, and we’ve never come to know her name.
We do know the names of our favorite servers we have come to know well in the 2 ½ years we’ve lived near the Place Victor Hugo in Paris. We have felt like family for the last year, with Jean Paul, Mayda, and Jean Claude. They kiss our cheeks, or my hand, as we come in every morning, or on the evenings when we have dinner there. We talk about recipes, discussing the benefits of adding an egg yolk to mashed potatoes, or chestnuts to red cabbage at Christmas (Jean Paul went almost down to his knees in rapture when he talked about that!).
In the 2 ½ years we’ve come in to the café, I know the little blonde woman with the rouged cheeks has learned we’re not French…one only has to listen to my ‘Bon Jour’ to know that. I like to think that whatever else Jean Paul or Mayda might have said about us is kind. We have deep affection for these people and I think they do for us, too.
This morning, the blonde woman and I spoke for the first time. My husband and I sat fairly close to the bar and she had to sweep around our table so I lifted my purse off the ground to get it out of her way. “Don’t move, Madame, it is fine there,” she said in French. My husband made a comment about the mess on the floor, “there are ashtrays on the tables, why are there cigarette butts on the floor?” he complained. “The Parisiens,” she said. We laughed, my husband and I, but she was very serious. “No!” I said, “not just because they’re French…people from other countries are messy, too!” She looked at me and said “I knew you’d say that, I knew I’d get that reaction!” Apparently, Jean-Paul has told her what a fan of the French I am! “I’m from Normandy. You won’t see this there. Have you been there?”
“Normandy,” I said, “yes, we have been there. There are so many beautiful towns, and I love the specialties in Normandy, all the wonderful butter and cream, the blanquette de veau.” She looked proud. Tell the French you love their food, they’ll be yours forever. “Ah, oui, blanquette de veau…c’est magnifique!” She dragged her broom around floor under my chair and then stopped again. “In Normandy, we like the Americans,” she said, smiling.
“OH, I don’t think so!” I said to her..“I thought the French don’t usually like Americans,” I said, baiting her a bit but enjoying the compliment. She stopped sweeping, held the broom straight up in front of her, and looked directly into my eyes. “In Normandy we do…we will never forget what the Americans did for us. In Normandy, we like the Americans very much.”
I watched as she continued sweeping. She looked up from the floor and caught my eyes again, “very much.” I was almost moved to tears. She stopped again, leaning the broom stick in the cradle of her arm. “In Normandy, we have a statue of Patton….THIS high,” she gestured to about 7 feet in the air. We will never forget what the Americans did for us. Maybe in Paris they forget, but never in Normandy.” Suddenly, I felt seven feet tall, too.
I watched the blonde woman as she finished sweeping and brushed everything into the dustpan and into the trash. She put her broom away in the corner and went back behind the bar where she, again, became a one-woman perpetual café machine……never stopping, never ceasing to be pleasant, to offer a croissant, telling people to have a good day “bonne journee!” on their way out.
She looked up through the crowd and smiled at me, as she leaned forward, wiping off the bar top with a towel. How proud I felt this morning, like I’d actually helped the French myself! Who was I to take the compliment, I thought? Who am I? I wasn’t even born then. But I am an American. And, this morning, it felt even better than usual.