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Cross Country / A Memoir of France
4: C'est tout tout?

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

Chercher la femme

"Girls who travel the metro
Stroking white mice they carry in their pockets
Lost in a day dream."

-- Malcolm McLaren, "Paris."

Hand in hand with melancholy as the two dominant French moods is 'joie de vivre,' often associated with food. I've stalled trying to get into this subject because on first glance it doesn't seem so profound as the rest of the subjects I hope to treat in this memoir. But in fact, in France the food thing is not just a foodie thing -- as it has become, say, in my hometown of San Francisco, a temple for worship of cuisine. Food in France is not just about sustenance, nor is it about hedonist enjoyment or making food paramount above all other things, as sometimes seems the case in San Francisco. Rather it's about appreciation and savoring -- savoring not just the savories but every moment, every function, ritualizing eating to elevate it from routine, so that it's not just about putting fuel in the body, but injecting art into everyday living.

One morning during my first visit to Paris, living in the 13eme arrondissement, I decided to go for a jog. Running up the rue Glaciere, above my flat on the Square Albin Cachot, at the Boulevard August Blanqui I ran smack dab into the outdoor market and two humungous men in white aprons stirring a humungous vat of something in a bechemel sauce, the large metal pot matching their own circumference. They almost sang as they hawked the stew. This would become my favorite market for the way it meandered up the steep street towards the Place d'Italie. During the Sunday market, members of various Leftist parties and labor unions would hawk their journals, thus injecting a classic French political flavor into the mundane outing of stocking up on provisions.

On this first stay in Paris, I fell in love with two market vendeuses, one for the way she didn't just say "C'est tout?" after I had picked out a large head of red-tipped lettuce and a bunch of green onions from the vegetable and fruit stand she manned, but "C'est tout tout?," fanning out her hands to indicate "Is that it?"; the other for the winsome and sultry way she sighed regretfully, in English, "It's too bad you're returning to the States tomorrow" the last time we talked before I left Paris that first time.

In my feeble French -- did I mention I didn't speak any before I went there? -- and after being primed on the proper phrase ("Voulez-vous prendre un cafe avec moi?", Would you like to have coffee with me?) I made a rendez-vous with the vegetable stand woman, a.k.a. "C'est tout tout?" She proposed that I meet her at 'Le tabac" after the market wrapped up, and when I looked perplexed, pantomimed dragging on a cigarette to indicate that she meant the bar / cigarette stand up the street, Le Celtic. She didn't show and, again with the aid of my French friends, I left a note with her colleague at the stand asking if we'd peut-etre had a mal compris, a misunderstanding, the first of many peut-etre mal comprises I would have with French women over the next decade.

The second vendeuse, the one who regretted that I was leaving France was named Mur. When I returned to Paris to live eight months later -- my first visit was in the fall of 2000, the return in July 2001 -- I rushed to the market on the Blvd. August Blanqui to announce that I was back... and she was blase, apparently more comfortable in regret than realization. Later that year, seeking her out for another effort, emboldened to just ask her out despite her nonchalant veneer, I learned from the jolly towering French-Caribbean man who ran the stand -- which sold fried okra and dips -- that Mur was hospitalized with a cancerous tumor, leaving me to wallow in my own regret that I had not brazened it out and just asked her out earlier. Several years later she re-surfaced at the stand. My joy at finding her again was tempered by the simple impersonal "Hello" with which she greeted me. Of course it could have been that I didn't interest her, or that I had not loomed as large in her story as she had in mine. But there was a certain sad resignation in her aspect, in her regard -- in effect, the melancholy, the undercurrent that is always there in Paris pulling at us all, Parisians and Parisiennes alike, but that seems sadder in the latter.

"Effacement et prosperité" by and ©Catherine Olivier. Olivier's work will be on view in Paris in her atelier on the rue des Cascades during the annual Open Studios of Belleville, May 27 - 30, and at the Cite Internationale des Arts at 18, rue Hotel de Ville June 1-7, with a vernissage May 31 from 6-8 p.m. Learn more about the artist on her website.

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