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They said Mussolini made the trains run on time and praised him for it. Sarkozy has made them run early, and no praise from me. I was cutting it closer than I liked, but I was on the platform at twenty past ten when the train was supposed to leave the station, and it was gone, long enough gone so I couldn’t see it, gone and making its way through the dismal path it cuts through the Eighth and Seventeenth Arrondissements. Swell, two hours to kill at Saint Lazare, one of the dumpiest stations I’ve ever seen.
The neighborhood isn’t much either. Other than Arman’s wonderful and goofy clock sculpture—a reply to Dali? an explanation of why there are fewer and fewer public clocks in Paris these days than in the good olds—there’s not much to look at here and besides with all the people lugging along bags on wheels and shoulders, the sidewalks can get bruising. Even with two hours on my clock, I don’t want to go far—this is the only train I have ever missed in my life and I can’t bear two in one day—so I rule out a church just a little farther away for comfort, a church I like because I think it is the second ugliest in Paris. A street or two down from where I am, there’s a café that’s anything you’d like it to be: on the awning it says Café Bistrot Restaurant—take your pick, I guess, whatever you want, so how can I go wrong?
The terrace is crowded and a touch too cool in the shade. I go inside and sit. The place isn’t ugly, just homely. The lights need to be brighter or darker, but not where they are. Other than two large mirrors, which were probably delivered the day before it opened, unloaded from the same truck as the stove and the espresso machine, there is no décor to like or not. The floor misses the broom. It is simply a café or bistrot or restaurant for transients, for people just off trains, waiting for one, or missing one. Unlikely that there are many regulars, the pillars of the establishment who hold up the bar, if not the roof, and pay the rent next month and the month after until the ending of the world or the advent of the wrecking ball. It needs me. It will do.
It’s also not the kind of place where I like to take a chance on the cooking. I ask for a glass of wine and a sandwich, figuring a wine bottled, rillettes chopped, a baguette baked, and a mustard ground up elsewhere are safer bets than the efforts of this kitchen. To my right, there is a girl with strawberry blond hair, an American, who is giving the waiter her order with a great deal of help from his café English. She is trying to explain what she does not want in her salad, which puzzles the waiter only slightly more than it puzzles me. She is adamant that there should not be any capers, anchovies, or horseradish. I’m not sure he understands, but he guesses these are things they don’t have anyway, and I think he’s right. He looks slightly disgusted.
The other waiter, the one who took my order, brings me my wine, looks at the girl as if his colleague has explained the exclusionary technique of ordering a salad, curls his nose and squints, then hustles off. I taste the wine, put it down, and take in the girl. She is prim, no other word for it. You’d expect her to be wearing white cotton gloves and a little hat, maybe with a veil. Her jeans and T-shirt do not do justice to her primness, once a commonplace quality, now as hard to find and root out as truffles, though not worth nearly so much these days. Her waiter returns with her salad and a glass of orange juice—ah, that’s why he looked disgusted… or maybe not—mumbles bon appétit, and bolts. I don’t blame him. She peers into her salad, looking for offense lurking in it, finds none, and starts drinking her juice as my sandwich arrives. I thank the waiter, and start to eat—not bad and the mustard helps. After a bite or two, I look over at the girl who has dug into her salad. That is not a metaphor, even a dead one. She holds her fork in her left fist and plunges it into the bowl with the force and intensity of a laborer digging a ditch, spears a bunch of greens the size of a pétanque ball, opens her mouth wider than I have ever seen a mouth gape, and stuffs the food inside. She chews broadly, with her mouth open, then lays down her fork. After very adequate chewing, she picks up the fork in her right fist and repeats. She eats like an ambidextrous lion. Amazing. I finish my sandwich in small, prim bites, and look away.
All I can figure is that I’m no longer annoyed that the train left without me. I can thank the girl for improving my mood or at least taking my mind off the perfidy of the SNCF and President of the Republic. Maybe I can return the favor somehow. When I can, promise. Meanwhile, I need to finish my wine and I have plenty of time to kill. I peer around the room.
It looks like a first date a couple of tables to my left. I had noticed them when I first sat down and before the girl with the strawberry curl distracted me. The girl, a little past twenty, I think, had been sitting bolt upright, her back a little swayed, her eyes wide and barely blinking, an unmoving smile on her face—all the cues of interest or possibly the desire to persuade herself that she’s with the right guy and this could be it or at least pretty nice sex, once. He had not been able to decide between leaning forward, full of interest and desire, or leaning back, being cool, leaving him looking like a slow-motion movie of a pious visitor to the Wailing Wall. Now they have arrived at the same posture, both of them slouched, hunched, immobile.
I can’t say for how long they had been there when I arrived, and Strawberry had held my interest for no more than twenty minutes, if that. But with the passage of not very much time—thirty minutes or forty at most?—their first date makes you wonder what chance marriage has or even a long weekend. The starch has been rinsed and squeezed out of the girl, and the guy’s cool is now more or less tepid and about as magic-making as the puddle in the coffee cup you finished and put down ten minutes ago. Less than an hour, and they’ve come to an impasse and neither seems to know what to do—continue, pack it in, try another approach, get first-date counseling on a smart phone. I wonder how long this can go on when the girl gets up and heads toward the stairs at the back, which means for les toilettes. I fish a book out of my shoulder bag and start to read Auden.
I read several poems, not quite aloud, but my lips move and I can hear, or think I can just hear, my own voice making ink poetry, trying to get the pitch right and take the music off the page and into my ear. This takes time, a fairly long time to be in the potty, and I look up from the book and catch the guy’s eyes—actually, he’s looking at me, hangdog, pleading. Ah, of course, I am older, have been through this before, and here I am alive, in a homely café—and why did you choose this dump for a first date, if I may ask?—reading a book, with no telltale scars of slashed wrists, and grinning, but charmingly, to boot. If my continued existence and my cheerful state of mind, all things considered, are to be trusted, I am the man to reassure him. Glad to help.
I shrug, turn my hands outward, palms half up, then I smile again—never smile when shrugging—and he leans a little toward me as if he wants to say something, but can’t. That’s my job, of course, to find the reassuring words. Some things, I say to him, take time, you know. Perhaps she’s just changing her tampon… It’s hard for me to keep a straight face, not because I am referring to tampons, but because tampon in French also means rubber stamp—and why would a girl go to the head to change a rubber stamp and why does she have one anyway? This does not cheer him up at all. He furrows his brow and shows me the most vivid visual definition of glum I have ever seen. But probably not, I tell him, probably something else. Perhaps diarrhea, I say, shrugging again and gesturing toward the litter of oily fries left on her plate. I’m sure she’ll be back soon. I’m pretty sure there’s no back door, you know. Of course, I have no idea, I could be wrong.
That does not help. I have not got his mind off his misery. He looks as if he would like to get up and leave, but he can’t do it. I could, of course, suggest that as long as he’s waiting he could go over and introduce himself to the strawberry blond, get to know her, teach her some French—and we all know the best place to learn that, don’t we? The help I’ve tried to give him hasn’t worked, and better to leave now. It’s just not my day. And I do, thinking, or hoping, that his girl never comes back, so he moves over to court the redhead. I’d like to stay, to see what happens, to see if perhaps he’ll click with her and one beautiful day will marry the girl with the strawberry curl. But I have twenty-five minutes to walk the ten or so it takes to get back to the station and I’m not taking any chances.
Fat Tire Bike Tours are great for seeing Paris in a different light. You’ll see more, have more fun, and not feel tired at the end of it. These are highly recommended and truly a great thing to do during your stay.
If you’re coming to France (or for that matter anywhere) you can reserve your hotel here. To rent a car, Bonjour Paris recommends Auto Europe. Paris Shuttle will whisk you to and from the airport and other locations.