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It’s an old habit, giving directions. There’s no telling if it’s genetic or something I learned at my mother’s knee or, more likely, at my father’s pointing index finger. And there’s no telling why it is such an old habit other than coming from an unexplained but innate desire to help my fellow man and woman or, for those who have studied not quite enough psychology, a sign of being a control freak and possibly a crypto-fascist. Having avoided psychology altogether, I have no opinion. I give directions.
Sometimes I will volunteer them, asking people with a flapping map or an unhappily cross-eyed look if I may help them or at other times just declaring that they are lost and suggesting that I am not. But more often than not someone will come up and ask, probably because my own habitually confused expression makes the poor lost soul less insecure about being confused himself—confused as in holding a map upside down or as in thinking the blue thing in the middle of Paris is a park, not a river.
It is strange how often requests for directions come in clumps. Within twenty-four hours, four different women ask me for directions to rue Jules Chaplain. The first of them has a hand-written map that she does not have oriented to any point of the compass, a failing which makes no difference because the map is wrong, not that I need it. Jules Chaplain is a little dog-leg of a street, and a little dog-assed when you get there. Most people who live in this quartier probably do not know it, and there’s only one reason I can think of ever to consider going there—a movie house.
And that is the reason, I’m pretty sure, the women asking for Jules Chaplain have in mind. The movie house has four screens, and I’m betting they’re going to see a gooey film with Gérard Depardieu and the ancient Gisèle Casadesus playing an ancient woman with a different name, but that’s about it. I’m trying to think of an American film star as fat as Depardieu—maybe Rosey Grier, but he wasn’t a heartthrob for middle-aged ladies even if he did do needlepoint—but it doesn’t matter: Gérard is roping them in, admittedly with my help.
But I want to help more—all of us who give directions want to, our deep secret. I want to explain to the middle-aged ladies bounding off to the motion picture palace that Jules Chaplain was the great designer and engraver who was responsible for the last French gold coins that went out of circulation in 1914. And, amazing, he was the son of a baker from the boondocks of Normandy! Imagine that! It doesn’t matter to them—it only matters that I point, since the short end of the street is right over there.
It’s the same with the man crossing the street in front of my building. He wants to know how to find rue de Vaugirard—left at the corner, then bear right—but does not care that Vaugirard is the longest street in Paris, 4360 metres or 2.7 miles, which may not seem very long if you’re from the States but is really quite amazing in Paris, which by the way, excluding the two Bois, is not quite… He doesn’t care either what the supérficie of Paris is in square miles or kilometres, only how to get to a certain spot where there is a restaurant or something. Nor does the driver who pulls over, only blocking two lanes of traffic, want to hear that the Notre-Dame des Champs subway station he’s looking for actually got its name from the quartier, not the current church with that name, but historically, you see, really from the priory that fell down a few centuries back and gave its name to the quartier…
All of which means that giving directions comes down to little more than pointing—or, you could say, giving directions, like virtue, is its own reward and doesn’t give one’s inner tour guide a voice, let alone a megaphone. Pity, but not always, because some requests are so wonderful, so improbable, or simply so unaccountable that they make you forget to explain that the namesake of rue Joseph Bara was painted to look like a hermaphrodite by the great Jacques Louis David.
The olive vendor in the open-air market could tell you I’m right about this. He’s about to close up for the day, and I am unearnestly looking over his plates and bowls and buckets, when a man comes up to him and asks in an accent that could be Russian or Arabic if he speaks English. The vendor says no, but I tell him I can manage a little. So the man, with his Kirghiz accent, if that’s what it is, asks me about the vernissage. You’ve got to admit that asking an olive vendor in a street market if this is also the place for a private art showing is a truly fine piece of direction-asking. The rest of this encounter is anti-climax—okay, tomorrow there will be bad artists displaying their works here—but some good things do happen all by themselves.
Like the ponies, five of them, being led down a street, then taking a hard left. It’s a little before ten in the morning, and I’d never expect to see five ponies heading down rue de Fleurus except of course that it is a direct route—given that direct route in Paris can only be used with a lode-stone of irony—to the Luxembourg Garden where they will be giving rides and unforgettable photo ops to little children at, if I remember, four euros a whack. Odd, but later in the day, coming back from the bakery just past where the ponies made their turn and being asked for directions to le Jardin du Luxembourg in English, I am able to utter a sentence I have never before pronounced in my life and may never again: “Follow the road apples.”
But Tinker Bell is even better than the ponies. She has red hair, strange red hair, which is not usually strange in Paris. Parisiennes are passionate about red hair, especially shades that are never seen outside tropical fish tanks, paintings by Bosch, or catastrophes in chemical plants—and certainly not on someone else’s head. Tinker Bell has done them all one better—and she’s a foreigner, a Brit, no less, when I finally hear her speak. The hair is simply brilliant. But it’s her dress I love. It is several gauzy—pardon, I mean diaphanous—layers one atop another with little sparkly things on the top layer. The color would be pink, but it wants to be beige too—so girly, so spun-sugar sweet. This dress puts Disney’s Tinker Bell to shame—and with the red hair she is one of a kind. It gets better. She is pudgy and carrying the largest, thickest backpack I have ever seen—a metre deep—and is accompanied by a boyfriend who seems to be dragging his knuckles on the ground. He is not Peter Pan. A lovely pair and really fun to watch, but a friend and I are trying to eat dinner in a café on a busy corner, while Tink and the goon are parading up and down in front of us, trying to make sense of the streets, the street signs, and a book of maps, the pages of which they seem to be turning a little too often. She’s sort of getting to my stomach.
So I haul myself up and ask them where they want to go, observe that they want the next street over and then a left, and omit the fascinating histories of the chemist and the goat which gave their names to the streets in question. They go, teaching me that there is more than virtue as a reward for giving directions: it can remove eyesores and ease an upset stomach. Or so I think. Twenty minutes later they are back, her Tinker Bell skirt sparkling even more brilliantly in the evening street lamps, her posture still bent forward as if the mighty backpack were still attached—and again they begin to pace up and down, trying to decide, I guess, where to go next. Something strikes them and off they go, and the red-headed girl with the Tinker Bell skirt stalks out of my life forever.
Just two days later I see another Tinker Bell skirt, and who could have predicted that? The girl wearing it is very pretty, wears no undies, has not had a Brazilian wax, for sure, and doesn’t upset my stomach—or need my directions.