Sunday, December 18, 2016

Good Luck in the City of Light

 What a great day; everything I expected and more. So lucky.
Up at sunrise. That is, when the first light slips over the top of the building next door, around 9:30 a.m. I find that I’m totally responsive to the rhythms of nature. Dark = tired, Light = awake. Late light means better sleep and that surprises me for some reason. For the past year, since returning from always-loud Italy, I’ve used earplugs at night and hours go by without the slightest disturbance. I’ve never been a sound sleeper, five or six hours is a good rest, and now, with low light and less sound I am putting in an easy seven or eight. Dark and quiet, highly recommended. In Paris, the garbage guys begin with broken glass at six a.m., traffic horns at seven and by eight the drills of the remodelers and workmen are in full cacophony. I sleep right through, until the sun. Learning to live better through travel.
It takes a while to wander around the apartment and get dressed. My underwear is in a cabinet in the foyer, sox on a shelf in the kitchen, shirts and pants hanging in a giant armoire with sliding doors that stick and rumble. Bathroom light sucks so I always look unwashed and badly groomed, poorly shaved. Don’t care. It’s Paris. Everyone looks tired, hassled, windblown. Four floors down from our apartment to the busy street where I walk to the convenient metro No. 1, Champs-Elysees-Clemenceau, at the end of our street, Rue Miromesnil, named after Thomas Hue de Miromesnil, deputy to the Chancellor of France from 1774 to 1787. He abolished the use of torture during the interrogation of the accused. Thanks Tom. Because you never know when you’re going to be jacked up in this city. There are security people everywhere, two by two, armed, chatty, laughing and flirting with each other.
The metro is crowded since there are, of course, too many people everywhere in the world and Metro Number 1 runs east/west, the much-used area from the Bastille, along the Seine, to the Arch de Triumph. I was going the opposite way, opposed to the workers, and I found a seat. It is rare not to be mashed up against strangers with varying degrees of hygiene. I got off at Chatelet, one of the crowded stations that connects to most other metros and trains. One learns to walk in a mob without being jostled and or bumping into others. There is a way to move that is simultaneously aggressive and respectful. Not everyone employs the technique, particularly the very young and very old, but for the most part I can cruise at a brisk pace through the maze of underground passage ways from train to train, up escalators, down stairs, across platforms and mezzanines, and I surface into the city on the Rue Rivoli without knocking someone over or being pushed onto the tracks. There are confrontations, but we’re in Paris and moments of rudeness and hostility are part of the charm.
I was early for a lunch appointment so I walked to Shakespeare & Company, “famous bookstore, tourists, used to be better”, blah, blah but it’s a great store and well stocked. Most of the other English language booksellers traffic in blockbusters, popular pulp, YA bestsellers, but Shakespeare et al proudly carries obscure translations, experimental fiction and classics.
Last week I was in London and visited the Tate Britain Museum where I was blown away by roomfuls of paintings by J.M.W. Turner and sculptures by Henry Moore. In one room there were drawings, etchings and watercolors by mystic, poet, printmaker and illustrator William Blake and I had a chance to see his phenomenal work up close. I now feel driven to read and study more about Blake and I have looked in several other stores in Paris but they don’t carry his work. I knew Shakespeare & Co. would and they did. I picked up an illustrated copy of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and stepped to the counter to pay. The clerks at S&C are generally English or American students who speak very good French and are smug and dismissive to anyone who isn’t a young English or American student.
“Eight Euros, please.”
“Here you go.”
“Would you like me to stamp it?”
They have a stamp that is a drawing of William Shakespeare and proudly lets anyone who cares know that the book was purchased in Paris at the famous Shakespeare &Co. They assume that we all want that stamp. Why not? Nice souvenir. She pounded the stamp on the inkpad and I said, “No, no thanks, that’s fine.”
I didn’t want to cross-pollinate William Blake with William Shakespeare.
The woman looked at me suspiciously.
“Do you want a bag?”
“No, I’m good.” I love going into Shakespeare & Co. and treating the clerks like clerks and not as self-appointed privileged superstars of the booksellers international confederacy. I put Blake in the bag that I carry everywhere. A lifeline in a crowded metropolis. Inside my bag are a hat, a notebook and pen, my French phone and a small camera. And a copy of William Blake. I am secure.
My friend, JB, was already at Chez Gladines, 44 Boulevard Saint-Germain. JB and I have been good friends for several years and we meet at this restaurant for lunch a few times whenever I visit Paris. The place is amazing, seriously terrific. We have to get there right at noon, at the latest 12:20, or else we join the crowds waiting outside, rain or shine. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations and is pretty laid back. The food? A couple of idiots have bitched on Yelp and Google Reviews about the food, the service, the crowds, but those people are fucked up and wouldn’t know how to appreciate a good restaurant or food that doesn’t come in a bag. JB orders Escalope Montagnarde, which translates, to “Mountain Climbing” on Google Translate. Fairly accurate. Specialty of the house with potatoes, ham, veal, cream sauce and mushrooms. Just ask for The Mountain. It’s a mountain of food and looks delicious. I have my usual, the Cassoulet Basque. White beans cooked in duck fat, duck legs, pork breast, chorizo and Toulouse sausage. I cannot write about it. It is so goddamn good. I’m looking forward to having it again next week. I cannot write about it in the same way that Muslims cannot make drawings of Muhammad.  
JB and his wife have lived in Paris for many years. They are both schoolteachers, fluent in French and educated. He teaches Literature and our friendship is a surprising bit of good luck. We had a two and a half hour lunch and as Chez Gladines filled to the walls with those Parisians who respect good, inexpensive, perfect French/Basque food, we talked about politics, literature, health, philosophy, relationships and how goddamn good the food was. Great afternoon; we sat down at noon and didn’t leave until 2:45. The waitstaff and management were busy, friendly and efficient.  A nice antidote to the Shakespeare & Co. pretensions.
JB walked me back to the metro and we stopped and looked at buildings, wove our way through the crowds in front of Notre Dame, peeked into Album (a terrific comic book store), checked out the river from the Petit Pont. He bid me goodbye, a bientot, until next time.
I was out of metro tickets and bought some from a vendor, waited for my train and got another lucky seat on the Metro. Such a great day, such good luck. A few minutes later and I was heading out the sortie at Champs-Elysees-Clemenceau with the rest of the Christmas shoppers, workers, tourists. It was pretty busy. Ahead were a couple of young metro cops. A man and woman, short, uniformed, asking people at random for their tickets. This happens occasionally, to make sure that everyone isn’t jumping the turnstile, cheating the city. I’ve never seen them checking tickets during the day; usually they roam the platforms of the metro at night to make sure that bands of drunks and kids aren’t making trouble.
And they pinned me.
I’m a nicely dressed older man with a bad back and good shoes. What the hell?
“Monsieur, please step over here.”
“Oui. What do you want?”
“Your ticket please.”
“My ticket?”
“Your ticket, we must see your ticket.”
Not a problem, I just bought a carnet, a package of ten tickets. When I use a ticket I put it in my left pocket so that, if need be, I can show it to the cops. See, here it is. It’s supposed to be big trouble if you don’t have a ticket.
I bumbled around in my coat, came up with a ticket, handed it to the guy. His partner was a slim, nervous woman. She was holding a card reader, looked like a Taser at first and scared the shit out of me, but they slipped my ticked into a slot and he said:
“Non. Non, monsieur, this is an old ticket.”
“The fuck? I just bought a carnet at the Chatelet and that’s one of the brand new tickets. The hell you talking about?”
Things begin to escalate. He’s getting pissed.
“This is not a valid ticket. You must pay a fine.”
He shows me a card with a list of fines for various infractions and points to a number. 35. Thirty-five euros for not having a valid ticket. Except that I did.
“Well shit, man, I just used that. I don’t have that kind of money.”
I had only 35 euros after my lunch and book shopping, but I wasn’t totally sure what was up and wasn’t about to fork it over. I asked for their IDs, they showed them, big smiles. I took out my camera to snap a shot of them, what the fuck, another souvenir. A copy of William Blake from Shakespeare & Co. and a nice photo of the assholes who were hassling me in the metro.
Well, shit, you’d think I pulled out a gun. They freaked out.
“NO, NO, monsieur, no, I will call the other police, this is a big fine, you cannot take our picture.”
He pointed to another number on his laminated card. 180 euros. Holy crap this was spinning out of control really fast.
“Wait, let me check my wallet.”
I took out 35 euros and handed it to the guy.
“There you go. Thirty-five. Wow. You guys. What the hell?”
I was hoping that I could skate, roll back the clock, get that original fine and be on my way.
“I’ll get you a receipt, monsieur.”
I was relieved. Never know what might go down. I leaned against the wall and waited.
He is still suspicious but takes the money across the hall to his supervisor who is currently jacking up a couple of youngsters. They mutter in French, the boss takes my dough, tears off a receipt.
Meanwhile, I’m baffled. I just rode the metro with a valid ticket. I wondered if I was being played. Assholes. I fiddled in my pocket for a while, keys, gloves, a napkin. A metro ticket. Another metro ticket. Wow. Christ.
Short cop comes over with a yellow slip of paper, the receipt, and I’m holding out a metro ticket.
“Here. Try this one.”
Everyone has a pocketful of old metro tickets. It’s a pain in the ass, we’re always putting a used one in the slot, getting a nasty buzzer sound, and then you have to step out of line and find an unused ticket. That’s what happened at Chatelet and that’s why I bought a stack of fresh billets pour le metro.
I know he doesn’t want to take new one, but I’m holding it in his face and it looks legit. He shifts from one foot to the other, nods, takes the ticket over to his boss. They are both looking at me. Where will this go?
Boss puts the new-old ticket through the card reader and bingo, a green light, I’m good, it’s a valid metro billet. All the cops are gathered together, some giving me the eagle eye. The supervisor takes out a cheap purse, the kind you buy for a few euros from a discount store. It was striped and ugly and he unzips it, takes out some bills and hands them to the original officer who comes back and gives me my 35 euros.
“You may go. You had the valid ticket.”
“Fuckin A.”
He holds out the bad ticket that I had first given to him.
“Here, this is yours.”
“Nah, of course not. Jesus. You keep it. It’s a souvenir.”
I climb the stairs to my apartment on Rue de Miromesnil and think, “Respect,” to Thomas de Miromesnil, the guy who abolished the torture of detainees between the years 1774 to 1787. Today could have been worse.
A delightful day in Paris. Good books, healthy walking, beautiful city, a fine friend, great food, a little metro agro and no torture.
An almost perfect day.

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