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They say there’s a bakery, and a good one at that, on every corner of Paris. It’s lore, it’s law—it’s la-la. They—and God knows They are everywhere on all the continents—remain anonymous sources, impossible to pin down or corroborate, and in general wrong. Lore is even worse because what it says was probably true at one time. In the case at hand, I grant it was the truth around 1895, maybe even as late as a few years after world war one. But They and Lore have a kind of persistence that’s hard to squelch let alone knock over the head and throw in the river. As Faulkner put it, They endure, and so does Lore. And the pity of it is that they endure in the expectations and day-to-day transactions of people who should know better, and that, I’m sorry to say, includes me.
It took a particular catastrophe for me to realize how lame-brained, how lore-driven, how they-directed I had become over the years in Paris. Imagine: the famous baker fifty metres down the street from where I live decided to close for nearly all of August. As with so many Parisian businesses, the month-long fermeture annuelle had slipped into M. le Boulanger’s past. A month off with nothing coming in, but the rent still due, had crossed the tracks one time too many and been mowed down by the freight train of economic history, modern phase. Two weeks would do fine—and considering all the other jours fériés in the official calendar, the baker along with the butcher and the brewer was not working his fingers to the bone or the rest of himself into an early grave.
The new dispensation was grand. August was not such a bad month in Paris, with good restaurants and bakeries open and the crowds down. As I walked by La Sainte Chapelle a year ago, I became disoriented and thought I had swung over a street because there was no line to get in, just people walking in and out through gates. But something dispensed with the new dispensation. The Great Crash and Bailout, the Widespread Recession, the Faultless and True Correction To End All Corrections found its way to my blameless corner of this innocent Arrondissement and sent M. le Boulanger—and a few others—off to his native village or more likely to take the cure somewhere for a month. Business was beyond lousy—and selling baguettes at a fixed price does not line the pockets, but the profitable pastries were sitting pretty, alas, in their vitrines. He may have to pay rent on a closed store, but why pay salaries to workers in a deserted one? Besides, the time off will do them good.
Maybe so, but not so for me. I had been blinded by bread, or by the convenience of buying my bread right down the street. I had not been paying attention to the presence of other bakeries, figuring I’d be no better than Jimmy Carter lusting in my heart after off-limits brioches and tartes aux pommes if I even looked in a window of another bakery. Like the contented spouse—maybe the word is complacent—I knew nothing, desired to know nothing, and didn’t worry a bit.
That’s when They and Lore tipped their hats, said Bonjour, and told me not to worry. Just walk down the street a block or two or around the corner if you prefer and, voilà, a fine bakery, smelling rich of bread and eggs and sugar and fruit and of charcuterie and cheese for sandwiches. It will be as lovely and lip-smacking as two pages out of Zola. Go! And so I did, back up the way I had come, three blocks north to a bakery I remembered well—so well that I forgot that ten years ago it had become a tea-room with a silly English name which the patronne was unable to explain to me because she did not, and probably does not to this day, know what it means. But surely not far up the same street, heading west now, there was another, one of the very old neighborhood bakeries, never fashionable, never really all that good, but as atmospheric as a sepia print, pure mom-and-pop, authentic they-don’t-make-them-like-that-anymore. They don’t—and they probably haven’t since the opening of the ghastly Centre Pompidou in 1977, which is the last time I can remember going in there. Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth—heading north, but crisscrossing on every street two or three blocks east then west, back and forth. I found some ghosts, or maybe I just imagined remembering a bakery in the middle of this block or on that corner. No, no, and no again.
The bakery I found after a footsore hour was one I had never known, about a kilometre from my apartment, supposing I set out for it on purpose in a direct line, but probably four on this day of zigzag ghost hunting. Yet I did make another discovery which, over the next few days, wandering here and there in the Fifth Sixth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Arrondissements (and plan to carry into the remaining sixteen), revealed a new truth, an absolute set of facts, beyond denying, about the true Paris of the twenty-first century. There may not be a bakery on every corner or even every two blocks—and don’t begin to try to count the absent butcher shops that have become even scarcer except on unfashionable and aging shopping streets like Lecourbe and Passy—but it is impossible, no matter how twee or down-at-the-heels the quartier, to walk much more than a hundred fifty metres and not see a pharmacy—and I am not including the parapharmacies, which sell over-the-counter meds, cosmetics, and a small stick deodorant for more than 13€, but (pity) no tuna fish, greeting cards, or disposable video cameras like a fine American drugstore. The only competition I saw for pharmacies, and it was limp, came from podiatrists whose density seems to be no greater than one every third block.
It is beyond me to know if the Parisians care more about their medications and about their corns and bunions than about their daily baguette—though surely it helps the spread of podiatry offices that a visit is covered by the national health plan, meaning a pedicure, minus the nail polish, is on the house or rather the State, which is more than you can say for bread and pastry. Even so, more research is needed, should funding become available. But I have my own shoe-leather evidence, the testimony of my own eyes, that pharmacies et podologues are thriving, yet They and Lore have been remarkably silent about them. Not a word, a penumbra, an emanation. I’m through with them for good. Not another whisper of theirs will I ever believe again even should I have the misfortune to live to be a hundred. Enough. Àdieu, M. They, and you too, Mme Lore, hold hands and go jump in the lake.
© Joseph Lestrange