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I’m on my way out of the public toilet in the park, a poor replacement for le pissoir d’antan, but there’s only one of them left in all of Paris and I am nowhere near it. So I went in, paid my forty centimes—it’s sixty for a stall, but I was in a position to save the twenty—and now I’m leaving. The gardienne, or whatever her title, who gets paid to be there—to stand guard over the fixtures? protect public morals? promote hygiene?—sees me off in Italian. I stop and ask her why. “Didn’t you say buongiorno when you came in.” No, remembering I muttered something under my breath that was inaudible to me. “So you’re not Italian?” No, I’m not Italian. I’m Abyssinian, but, you see, we were occupied once by the Italians. Maybe that’s why you thought that. You know, the Italian accent “Oh, of course. But you speak French like a Frenchman.” I’m Franco-Abyssinian—on my mother’s side. “So do you say bonjour and au’voir in Franco-Abyssinian?” We speak Amharic and we say selam and debna yisenbëtu. “Oh…” I say debna yisenbëtu again, smile, make a gesture that I hope can be taken as a show of East African warmth, and leave.
This feels good. Indulging my inner anarchist, and no harm done. Better than what I used to do, like breaking windows and sometimes bones or scaring the daylights, crap, and bejesus out of people with out-and-out crazy or violent stunts in the middle of the public sidewalk, making people dodge and juke out of the way, figuring if the threat isn’t real, maybe the insanity is contagious. Sweet and harmless now, all in your mind—and who’s next? There’s a couple, middle-aged and so Sixties crunchy, I think they could be Americans if they were just a few shades more sallow, doing t’ai chi in a triangle of small trees. Crunchy or baba cool, here goes with my best attempt to speak broken French with what I hope will pass for a Chinese accent.
I bow and greet them: “You do t’ai chi, wery good.” They nod or, I think, stare. T’ai chi, as far as I have ever figured out, requires at least the appearance of a trance—stony face, eyes unfocused, ears flapped over, hearing nothing, just at one with the Supreme Ultimate, the actual meaning of t’ai chi. “Important, you know, you flick end of finger and foot when finish t’ai chi gesture. No flick, you do t’ai chi chuan, Supreme Ultimate Fist, wiolent, martial art, kill people.” I move my right arm up slowly and give a little flick—it’s hard to keep a straight face when it occurs to me I’m looking like something escaped from a Marx Brothers movie—with the ends of the fingers, my hands palm down. They keep staring, but only at me, and then both, rather nicely synchronized, raise their right arms and flick their fingers at the end of the arc. “Good, good. Now you do foot,” and they do. I back away bowing, beaming, full of Asian gladness and benevolence—our culture is much older, after all, and we have much to teach. They continue.
Better and better. It’s interesting to live in an age when people are avid to learn, to run panting after the new, the correct, the best—the age, of course, of the consultant who has displaced the deus ex machina and the Muse, who arrives (who knows from where or how) at the charismatic moment, speaking just the right word or making the perfect gesture, lifting the scales from the eyes and, if he plays his cards right, bringing the house down around everyone’s ears, which no one notices till he’s safely out of sight. A growth industry, plenty of work, and I look around for my next client. Not hard to find on a lovely day in the park.
A group of six or seven men and women are seated and sprawled on the grass, two of them with guitars. They are singing folk songs, a little too rousing for my taste and much too loud, more or less on key, though I think one of the guitars could use some tuning. This group is American, and I wonder why they have come to Paris to sing “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and “Clementine” in a park on a sunny day. Do they even sing those songs at summer camps and scout jamborees in America any more? Some mysteries are greater than my understanding, which hardly condemns them, but I approach and greet them in my fluent but still—after all these years—noticeably accented American English.
I tell them they are nice songs, but, pardonnez-moi, do you think it is truly à propos or even something to get you into the spirit of Paris to be singing old American songs? “We don’t know any French songs,” says a rather toothsome women in her early thirties, a few years too young for me, but if we could ditch her pals, we could close our eyes and think of something. That, I tell her, is a pity, but I could teach you one if you like. “We don’t really speak any French, except Eric,” and she points at a man of about her age with too much carroty hair. I address him in rapid French, and he says, “Well, I don’t speak it all that well.” It’s not a problem, I assure them with an inward flush of delight, you will just be learning sounds, just like the notes of your guitars. Simple, no? Would you like to try?
Yes, they would. They are so good and earnest that I am a little worried that before I can get down to business they will convert me to evangelicalism or vegetarianism or colonic irrigation or marathon volleyball. I have chosen a tune, a pretty Cajun song called “Mam’zelle Zizi,” with words I make up on the spot. Not the best lyrics, but singable to the tune, grammatical if not really idiomatic, and to my point: just sounds to learn. The first verse of three:
Ah, petit minou, minou,
T’as la ‘tite, rose chatte
Ah, mon Dieu, bon Dieu, mon Dieu
Que ta rose chatt’ je batte!
They are not the dirtiest lyrics you will ever hear in any language, but good enough to offend three bourgeois Parisians out of four. As I take my leave with their thanks and the milk of human kindness dribbling down my chin, I can hear them belting out grognasse and gonzesse (second verse) a hundred metres away and I am not the only one. Soyez les bienvenus à Paris and here are the keys to the city.
A good day for my hidden Kropotkin and for the world. We are all better off, more enlightened than when we rubbed the sleep out of our eyes this morning, filled with belief. Encouraged and feeling I’ve earned a treat, I think of a bar where the wine is actually good, not too far away, and wonder if the waiter will believe me when I tell him the two Swedish krona I found on the street last week are worth more than two euros. It might be worth trying—I’m having a good day. Off I go and…
…Oh. She’s aged—but so have I—not badly at all in her case and hoping for the best in mine. Even so, it’s like looking in a mirror after a bender: I see my old self reflected in her face all these years later—is it twenty-five years, more?—and wonder who is that guy peering back at me, why do I think we have a family resemblance, and do I know you? I hope she does not recognize me. Seeing her, abruptly here in the park—where did she come from?—has sucked the marrow out of my bones, thrown a brick through my window. I can’t move. She looks right at me, swallows, and says barely audibly, “Hello, Joe.” Hello, Amy—and neither of us takes a step towards the other. No wonder. We were never Amy and Joe, not once, always sweetie or darling or babe, lovers though married to other people, lifeboats taking on the heavy weather, sank later.
What do we do? Catch up? Count up the divorces, degrees, jobs, houses bought and sold, stock-market losses, hobbies? I don’t want to know that you play golf. Braver than I—she always was—she walks up to me and kisses my on the right cheek. Having gone semi-native, I immediately move over to kiss her left one, but she’s not in the French loop, our lips brush, and we’re both embarrassed. At this range it’s easy to tell that’s she’s still wearing L’Air du Temps, a fragrance which on any other woman always brings her back and erases the other woman. She moves back a little, takes me in from top to bottom. “You look good, Joe, but your face… you look like the roof just fell in on you.” It didn’t?
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