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Cross Country / A Memoir of France
22: Le jour se leve

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak

Portable houses & New Year's Eve in Saint-Germain des Pres

Pam and I were walking back from Barbes -- the French Arab section of lower Montmartre immortalized in Marcel Carne's "Les portes de la nuit," Montand's screen debut in which he introduced the original French version of "Autumn Leaves" (in French called "The Dead Leaves") -- after an unexpected feast at the Cafe Royale, which was celebrating break Ramadan by augmenting the standard couscous royale dinner with a lemony lentil soup and sticky honeyed pastries, arrosed with fresh mint tea. I was about to learn that Pam had given me something I'd not known since my childhood best friend and I walked into a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon that was more greasy than we'd anticipated outside Durham, North Carolina, starving and sleepless after a harrowing night with a black bear in the Pisgah National Forest where we'd been camping out before returning to college, and quickly realized that if we didn't want to get very sick, we would need to figure a way out of there that wouldn't offend the owner/grease ladler in chief without being able to talk it out: that quality where your points of view are so alike that you can be in any situation and divine what the other's thinking.

In the present case, after turning down the rue Condorcet, a street divided by a grassy milieu which paralleled Rochechouart / Clichy (home to the Moulin Rouge), Pam and I were approached by a thin young man in a suit and tie who invited us to enter his house, which was parked at the curb. In fact it was a sample unit for an outfit called, "La maison qui vous suive partout," the house which follows you wherever you go: Not a mobile home in the classic sense, nor a winnebago, nor a trailer, but a petite pre-fabricated portable box house, with a downstairs kitchen and living room and upstairs loft, from which emerged, as we entered, a middle-aged, unshaven, balding man in a magenta bathrobe, rubbing sleep out of his eyes with one hand and cradling a coffee mug with the other. "I hope we're not disturbing you," Pam offered politely. "Pas du tout," the man assured her with a wave of his hand. "It's part of the job." For better verisimilitude, the House Which Follows You had hired actors to pose as real-life inhabitants. While I marveled that we had somehow shifted from Carne noir to Tati hyper-modernity, Pam switched into journalist mode -- after 17 years in Paris, she was still curious and able to be surprised -- and asked simple questions about the unit. It was not the first time we'd find ourselves in a droll situation, made more funny because we both saw the humor in an event that to the French might seem ordinary. (This is one of the many gifts Pam brought me: with an American gal pal in Paris to cavort with, I was no longer the weirdo. They were.)

The key to a successful New Year's date is for your companion not to be your official escort, which makes the occasion less loaded with expectations. At 11:50 p.m. on December 31, 2004, Pam's nebbish official date for a party hosted by a French woman - American man couple (rare; it's usually the other way around, voila my challenge in finding the femme de ma vie in Paris) in a chi-chi apartment in Saint-Germain des Pres, a Canadian named Horton she'd met volunteering at the American Church, announced like the vieux garcon he was that he had to go home, neatly avoiding the ritual midnight smooch. To Horton's khakis and engineer's drab button down, Pam was sleekly sheathed in ankle-length black velvet (which serendipitously matched the authentic Flamenco boots I'd worn in anticipation of the promised live music for the party, not to mention setting off Pam's fiery red-brown bobbed hair) -- except that the hair was longer and raven black a perfect echo of the 20-year-old Juliette Greco posing with Miles Davis in St. Germaine des Pres 55 years earlier, before the Flamenco-loving bourgeoisie supplanted Boris Vian's jazz-devouring Bohemians -- prompting a slick 50-ish Harvard man with close-cropped hair on his head and grey curls peering out from his chest to demand, "What's a girl like you doing with a guy like that?" (As for the unofficial escort who remained, the haughty 40-something French hostess had met me with, "And you're with....?," no doubt fearing I was a party-crashing clochard looking for free booze before greeting the New Year under a bridge on the Seine.) (Pam's boyfriends were not all so recalcitrant; Bill, a tall, bearded American social worker who had lived in Paris for 25 years, the last 15 so he could continue to see the children he'd had with the French woman he'd married and quickly divorced, once regaled me as the three of us nervously walked home late on the night of the 2005 riots with how Georges Simenon had a different set of 400 key words for each of his Maigret novels. An ex, also a Princeton alum from an earlier generation, volunteered his ritzy, large-windowed first-floor flat on the rue Vavin quelques pas from the Luxembourg Gardens for the Christmas movie fete Pam and I organized that year.) We didn't kiss at midnight, but after the long Metro ride (it's the only night when the subway stays up past 1:45 a.m., and the Chatelet station was still busy) back to the Right Bank -- Pam's station was Notre Dame de Lorette, below the church Van Gogh once stopped in front of on his way from brother Theo's Montmartre apartment to the Goupil Gallery on the Boulevard Montmartre, to try to sell his paintings -- Pam did invite me in for 2 a.m. leftover chicken soup and monster gin and tonics in her cozy sixth-floor flat off the rue des Martyrs before I walked home along the rue Lamartine to Paradis.


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