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Cross Country / A Memoir of France
13: Turkey feathers in a glass cowboy boot

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

La merde qui tombe

In November 2001, I decided to host a Thanksgiving party for my cool new French friends, all Anglophiles. I'd met Lucie and Lionel through Beatrice, whose seventh-floor flat in the Square Albin Cachot I'd stayed at in the fall of 2000 while she got my Greenwich Village digs. Like her, they were English professors at Paris 5, a Sorbonne-affiliated university on the rue Jussieu in the Latin Quarter, not far from the neighborhood in the 13eme arrondissement where we all lived. I'd dined in their flat on the rue of the White Queen near the Metro Gobelins, just down the Boulevard Arago from the rue Glaciere. Like most French who speak English, L&L had learned from an English as in England teacher, so had English accents, which meant that when I was speaking with them I always felt like I was speaking with English people. Lionel, who liked to crack jokes, thus seemed to me like a real English wag. The pantherine Lucie, with her olive complexion and lithe figure, not to mention lilting accent, intimate smile, and penetrating eyes, changed my mind about short-haired women. On my first visit to Paris she'd taken me to see Claude Chabrol's "Chocolat," in which the addictive elixir, manufactured by an industrialist played by Isabel Huppert, is both sexy and lethal, especially when she uses it to try to slowly poison to death her husband, played by the star '60s singer Jacques Dutronc, France's equivalent to Bob Dylan (and the reason Lucie'd thought I'd like the film; it was Dutronc's music, as well as that of his wife and fellow '60s icon Francoise Hardy, that started me fantasizing about living in Paris). This time I was in an apartment on the first floor of the Square Albin Cachot belonging to Beatrice's friend Marc, a 30-year-old artist-painter. I'd finally found a permanent place -- on the rue de Paradis on the Right Bank -- but it was not quite good to go. Marc was happy to stay with a friend and earn 3,000 francs while I camped at his place for three weeks. I invited him, Lucie and Lionel, Beatrice, and Benedicte to my Thanksgiving debut. L&L brought a couple of their smarty-pants students, Juliette, who had lived with an American family in Chicago for a year in high school, and Pierre, a pip-squeak who would later get offended when I played Malcolm McLaren's version of Serge Gainsbourg's classic "Je t'aime" from the former's "Paris" album, the other music that had fueled my own Paris fantasy.

But that was later at the party. First I had to find a turkey. Exiting the Square Albin Cachot on the rue Nordmann and heading towards Glaciere, you first passed a boulangerie whose only attraction -- Beatrice had warned me the bread was not that good -- was a shrine to French rock legend Johnny Hallyday. Then you came to a long window for the butcher shop on the corner, filled with aged chevre cheese rolled in in green herbs and grey ashes, bottles of red wine, and a bevy of fresh feathered fowl. On Thanksgiving Friday -- Thanksgiving in France not being a holiday, I'd scheduled my party for a Friday, when the next day wouldn't be a school day -- I lucked out: One of the birds was a scrawny-looking Turkey. It wasn't as plump as store-bought American turkeys, but it had one thing they didn't: glistening black Feathers. In my pigeon French, illustrated with hand gestures, I asked the butcher behind the counter to clip the bird's feathers, but to then give them to me to use as a centerpiece, which I did, placing them in a cowboy boot-shaped mug I'd saved from my NY farewell dinner at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Most French ovens sport two dials, one with numbers from 1 to 7, the other with funny pictures that, I presumed as I puzzled over them that November morning, have something to do with whether you want the heat to come from below, above, or both directions. After I burned the first pecan pie (made with corn syrup from a boutique in the Marais called "Thanksgiving," whose American owners bilked their fellow ex-pats by charging $7 per bottle), I scribbled drawings of both dials on a napkin and, rushing back to the butcher's and pointing to the napkin and to the window with the birds, asked him to indicate which settings I should use so I wouldn't ruin my turkey as well.

The only disaster at the party itself turned into an opportunity: When I fumbled the plate of deviled eggs onto the floor, Benedicte insisted on rolling up her sleeves, getting down on her immaculately stockinged legs and cleaning up the mess, prompting Lionel to take me aside and whisper, "She came dressed to kill and doused with Chanel No. 5, she insisted on mixing the egg yellows for you, and now she won't let you clean up the mess you made. I think she likes you mate. She wants to show that you need her to take care of you."

Of all the dishes I served up to my new French friends, the one they found the most exotique was the sweet potatoes with pineapples and melted marshmallows on top -- or, as they're called in French, "chamalows" (pronounced sham-a-lows). Considering that in France the chamalows come only in multi-colors like pink and green, this was no mean feat, as the melted result of green-pink gloop looked pretty gross and unappetizing.

I was supposed to move to the rue de Paradis, and Marc to return, the following Monday and, right on cue, I had my ritual moving day disaster. First the toilet stopped up. I poured pink "De-Stop Ultra" liquid down it and flushed, whence the toilet flushed in the opposite direction and the bathtub also erupted with dirty water, followed by the washing machine, which began spinning with it. Panicked, I knocked on the door of a neighbor I'd only seen in passing, a petite older lady with a short black curly hair-do who spoke no English. When I pointed to the water seeping out from under my doorway and onto the hall carpet, she got the message, grabbed some of her own fine towels, sank to her knees and began scrubbing and soaking, all the time shaking her head and singing "Oh lah lah, oh lah lah lah lah lah," as she made the aller-retour between the hallway and her apartment to wring out the towels and return for more muck.

Finally the guardian returned from his late lunch, and hurried over bringing a vacuum-cleaner type apparatus with a skinny 12-foot long suction hose. It inhaled, but the water kept spitting out. "I will have to call the plumbing squad," he said, and within 15 minutes, a troop of at least 10 African-origin men in bright green jumpers chanting lively water sweeping up songs marched in holding a much sturdier, one foot in diameter grey hose, stuck it in the toilet, and sucked it dry, then marched back out laughing.

The flat still reeked of dirty toilet water, and the cats and I had to skedaddle for our new digs on Paradis. So I left a note for Marc apologizing for the mess, discouraged that yet another French person would hate me for stinking up their flat.

When I returned the next day to explain to Marc in person, he smiled drolly and laughed. "Don't worry, it was not your fault. It seems that there was a lady on the top floor who put something in her toilet she shouldn't have, and it fell all the way down through all seven floors and didn't stop until it got to ours."

I remembered something my father, an architect, had once said: "Paul, in plumbing, it's important to remember one thing: Shit runs down." So far, it felt like an awful lot of it was falling on me.

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