Tuesday, May 5, 2009

new friends

Just over a week left. I will try not to be maudlin as the end of this phase draws nigh, particularly as I'm moving on to new adventures. But this one has been pretty special, partly because it has been a journey backwards for me. Yesterday morning I went to the Lycee Claude Monet, which I attended from January to June 1965; I wanted to see it with my middle-aged eyes, see if it triggered memories. Then it was an all-girl's school with a stultifying number of rigid rules; my schoolmates were a cowed bunch. 

Strangely, the lycee has changed somewhat in 44 years. The very nice secretary told me the building has been considerably renovated, and I could see that the demographics could not be more different - there are boys, first of all, and let me tell you, no one looks cowed. I saw two girls flicking away their cigarette butts on the school steps, the same steps on which I trembled before entering the huge doors. The kids looked like high school kids everywhere - jeans, t-shirts, sneakers, one boy with extreme dreads, a girl wearing a skimpy top and ripped black tights under short shorts. I saw student lounges, TVs and computers, oil paintings on the walls and graffiti too, though in chalk, not paint; pictures of Obama, a notice about the theatre club... unrecognisable from the regimented tedium of before.

The secretary told me they are having more discipline problems each year, though not as bad as the ones in "The Class," the recent marvellous movie about the French education system. "It starts at home - kids who don't have the cultural background or any kind of parental support and who don't know how to behave - we inherit those problems," she said, and then apologised that she couldn't show me the actual Claude Monet painting that's usually in the director's office - it has been lent to the Monet homestead in Giverney.

I left chastened, glad to have seen the school, but there's not much I can use as research for a memoir, it's just too different now. On the way home I passed a western-style shopping centre and took a look to cheer myself up; did a little shopping. Okay, I bought a pair of purple linen pants of great perfection. After lunch I just had to show them off to Paris, so, wearing my new purple linen pants, I went out to get the bus. I felt pretty good - new purple pants, silk scarf, what a stylish Parisienne ... until I discovered on the bus that the tags were still attached, hanging out at the back. Very embarrassing, trying to tuck shopping tags into your underpants on the #21 bus.

Safely tucked, I went to the Samaritaine department store, to do what's recommended in my guidebook and get the elevator to the roof for a free, great view of Paris. The Samaritaine store, however, has been closed for years and won't re-open for many more. Shows how old my second-hand guidebook is. So I walked, in a very purple way, to Les Halles which is nearby. Too bad they knocked down the old grocery depot which used to be there. Luckily, when I visited Paris in 1971 on my way to Lynn's wedding, my friend Daniel said they're going to tear down Les Halles, you have to have some onion soup there now. So we went very early one morning for the classic experience - thick chewy onion soup in a caf√©, surrounded by butchers in bloody aprons also chewing soup. Now there's a nice park, and underneath, apparently, another shopping centre. 

I came upon a beautiful church called St. Germain l'Auxerrois - and here is another marvel of this city: there are thousands of people lined up at Notre Dame, yet all over the city there are churches of similar vintage, not quite as spectacular but with so much to offer, with no one inside. At one point I was the only person in this vast cathedral founded in the seventh century, then three more tourists arrived. It's packed with treasures - stained glass, carvings, 
statues. I stood for a long time looking at a simple folk art style carving of a man fishing for souls; I later learned it's of St. Germain himself and was carved in the fifteenth century. It was just there, no notice, no guards, just these beautiful things and the smell of time.

Close to home I made another, more practical discovery - a Picard store on the Rue Mouffetard. Picard is something completely different, a grocery store that sells only frozen stuff. But what stuff - freezer after freezer of divine packages steaming in the cold. Today I had a tuna gratin for lunch, unthawed in the stove, with spinach in cream sauce which, like the vegetable soup I had yesterday and the ratatouille tonight, comes frozen in big pellets in a plastic bag. You simply pour out however much you want, heat it up and keep the rest in the freezer. How come the French just simply do all these things so so so much better than we do? 

This afternoon, to cheer myself up on a very cold, grey day, and after an unsuccessful battle with French bureaucracy this morning, I decided to check out the discount stores on rue d'Alesia. But as I approached the bus stop, I could hear chanting, and sure enough, here was another "manif" as they call them - manifestation. This time all the midwives of France were marching in pink t-shirts, shouting and passing out leaflets; Sarko is trying to change the hospital system, but they also have specific issues with the length of their training period. And they shut down central Paris for the afternoon. No busses were running on Boul' Mich' or the vicinity. I was standing there looking at my map, wondering if I should walk, when a woman came up and told me it was easy to get to the bus or the metro on the other side of the Jardins, and so we began to walk. She told me she lived near Alesia so we could go together. When we got to the other side, there were the midwives - they'd marched around and shut down this side! So we continued walking - through Montparnasse Cemetary, like a town of tiny, ornate houses. 

Half an hour later I was having tea in this woman's living-room, had met her husband and heard about both their lives. He used to teach in a film school and is trying to start another, she is working with Jean-Paul Sartre's adopted daughter to unearth unpublished Sartre works. They wanted to hear about my book and my journey. People say that Parisians are closed and snobbish, but my experience has been the opposite; twice now, people have simply stepped forward to offer their help. Mind you, speaking French makes a huge difference, and also, with these two, I was reminded of the enormous respect the French in general have for writers - far more than people at home.  

A great new friendship was made today, thanks to the midwives of France. Annie and Paolo and I hope to see each other again. 

I bought nothing on rue d'Alesia, but returned deeply satisfied with my day, except that the bus driver on the way home nearly shut the doors in my face and wouldn't open the back doors to let people out. Passengers were shouting and banging to get his attention, so I got out a few stops early rather than battle him at the door. You win some, you lose some. But mostly, there is a lot of winning in this travelling business.  


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