The House on the Rue Fortuny

 

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The writer and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974) lived in this house on the Rue Fortuny between 1933 and 1950.

A few weeks ago, as I walked down the rue Fortuny, which I often take on the way to or from my gym or the Malesherbes metro station, I saw that the door was open at of one of the many private houses that still line this street in the 17th arrondissement.

I had often wondered what the interior of this particular hôtel particulier might look like. The writer and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol had lived there for about 17 years, which I had learned from the eye-level plaque beside the house’s bright red door.

The Rue Fortuny seems to have had more than its fair share of famous inhabitants, in a city dense with them. The actress Sarah Bernhardt had a home on this street. The writer Edmond Rostand wrote his most famous and enduring play Cyrano de Bergerac at a house on the corner of the Rue Fortuny and the Rue de Prony. A Mediterranean-looking hôtel belonging to the 19th century’s most notorious courtesan, known as La Belle Otero, still stands a few yards down the block (it’s now home to a financial services firm). The home and atelier of the renowned pâtissierPierre Hermé – who reinvented the macaron about a decade ago – sit across from where Marcel Pagnol once lived.

Under the diaphanous blue light of this Parisian summer morning an older man, the house’s owner perhaps, was chatting with a woman whose little dog sniffed, with the amiable curiosity of certain little dogs, the dust that was floating in dog-level puffs around the owner’s broom, now paused while he and the woman exchanged pleasantries. Passing them, I glanced inside the house to see gray stone stairs leading up to a shallow landing where a small table stood under a portrait-sized mirror.

I had the impression that the man’s house – the Pagnol house I think of it – doesn’t get much light, since the sun streams down the Rue Fortuny just a few hours a day. This notion could have also been a twinge of my green-eyed hope that not everything should or could be perfect in such a beautiful house on such a beautiful street. I don’t know what I expected to find on looking in. I was grateful simply to see the ordinary stairs and table and mirror. You’re not often given the chance to glimpse the interiors of the homes of the celebrated.

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The house on the corner of the Rue Fortuny and the Rue de Prony, where Edmond Rostand (1868-1918) wrote his most famous play, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Marcel Pagnol isn’t known to most Americans. Nor, perhaps, are the majority of the writers and artists whose names grace the streets, squares and boulevards of Paris. But that doesn’t matter. Fame, and even posterity, can be surprisingly local. Pagnol’s career took off in the 1920s and 1930s thanks to the popular and critical success of his plays and his films, especially what’s known as the Marius trilogy, which explores the lives of ordinary folks in and around Marseille. Pagnol’s films were precursors of Italian Neorealism and French New Wave. They often used natural light, real rather than studio locations, and portrayed the overlooked working-class with respect and humanity, taking care to emphasize and embrace the often-mocked accents of the region, making us aware that these people’s lives had value.

Pagnol died in 1974 and his former house on the Rue Fortuny has undoubtedly passed through several hands since 1950, when he moved out of it. In briefly looking through its open door I’d had the merest peek at someone’s else’s life, a life not Pagnol’s, I know. I had probably expected to inhale the still-lingering wisps of a long-departed spirit whose talent was far greater than mine.

I see these houses with a mixture of longing and resignation, for other lives, different eras, ones where I might myself have mattered more than I do, or created more than I have, or imprinted myself on the public imagination more than I am ever likely to.

I occasionally watch a popular French television documentary series, Secrets d’Histoire, or Secrets of History, which claims to uncover the hidden truths of certain epochs. Mainly it’s a chance for experts with uptight accents to provide speculative insights into the motivations of the high and mighty of another age, as if they knew them personally. They speak with confidential certainty of the Vicomte de Rien and the Comtesse de Machin while reenactments of certain historic incidents, or photos of lavish interiors, cue the viewer in on a vanished world. It’s ridiculous, of course, a supersized and overenthusiastic diorama, but I like to think I learn a little bit about these ghastly French monarchs and courtiers and swindlers.

My friend Jean hates Secrets d’Histoire – since it’s all about the aristocrats and not the people whose lives they ignored. He prefers to think of the numbers who lived faithfully a hidden life and who rest in unvisited tombs. I know what he means – because I am among that number. But we can’t help favoring the famous over the forgotten.

In Paris, however, where history is within reach of even your unintended touch, I sometimes feel during my walks that although my accomplishments are far more narrow than the breadth of even that one word, the plaques or signs that tell me who had profited enough from life to be remembered give me hope. That even I, in all my self-abnegation, might not be entirely erased by time. I don’t expect a plaque. I don’t expect anything, actually, since you can never control how others think or feel or write about you. This isn’t about being remembered, or not entirely. It’s about creating myself through writing, through acknowledging what I often don’t – my fears and my feeble sense of self, to craft something lasting out of the ephemeral me. It isn’t about being known so much to others, as being worthy to myself. Perhaps I see these homes of writers and artists as opportunities to think not just of who I might have been, but who these people were, and why it is important to remember how others have made life even more interesting because of how they saw it.

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The former home of the dancer, singer and celebrated courtesan Caroline Otero (1868-1965), known popularly as La Belle Otero.

Some of the people I’ve encountered in Paris and elsewhere in France, have asked me not to name them in my writing. One, whom I’d simply described as “a friend,” had seen himself in the few phrases of an article I’d written about a dinner he had taken part in. “I want to remain unknown,” he said, since even thinking that he had recognized himself in print was too much exposure.

Another who works at the French Senate, and whose marriage I had attended and written about, told me he prefers to be “un homme de l’ombre,” a man of the shadows, or someone who works behind the scenes. And yet another told me that even though no one probably ever reads what I write, he still didn’t want even those pathetic few who did to have any knowledge of who he was. Today I have no knowledge of him, since we’ve lost contact.

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But it strikes me as odd – or perhaps I don’t understand the profound craving for anonymity among certain others – that you would want to efface yourself from the world, even as you take part in it, when the world will not remember you for long regardless.

I realize that most people will be forgotten. Most of us will rest in unvisited tombs. But many of us, or at least me, will attempt to leave a mark, however slight.

I once visited the Villa Arnaga, the summer home of Edmond Rostand, in Cambo-les-Bains, in France’s Basque country. Rostand became not only wildly famous after the success of Cyrano de Bergerac, but quite rich. The sumptuous house he built on his earnings is filled with photos of then-famous friends and visitors, most now forgotten. There’s no guarantee that your proximity to fame will lead to your being remembered. Or even how you’re remembered. Rostand was remembered; his friends, not so much. But did they even think about it? Did they care if they were photographed for a fickle posterity? Did they wish to stay unknown beside the literary star in their midst? Did they prefer to be des hommes de l’ombre?

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In Paris, the plaque on the wall of the house where Rostand wrote his most famous play sits so high above eye level that you have to strain to read it. As if someone wanted to let pedestrians know that renown such as Rostand’s was unattainable to them. It certainly is unlikely for me – but that is more because my modest work is unacknowledged. I don’t choose to be unknown. I just am.

But living for a few months a year in a city that has chosen to remember those whom others may go on to forget isn’t so bad. Even the accomplished among us may be swept aside by the cruel indifference of time. All I can do is accept that I am nothing, at least in the grand sweep of things.

This makes me realize that my efforts to make sense of the small wonders of the everyday – a curious little dog lapping the motes of dust around his head, the half-open door of a lovely house I shall never enter, the way the plaques and street signs of the celebrated and even the forgotten incite in me an urge to be more than who I am – are worthy in themselves. They may help me to remember that despite my own self-sabotage, despite my dismissal of my gifts, such as they are, despite my regrets at having squandered so much of my life because I feared to change – I may find some joy in knowing that while I myself have not amounted to much, I can accept and even cherish what others have done.

If I chance to come across again the owner of the Pagnol house on the Rue Fortuny, perhaps I’ll stop to say hello, and let him know how much I admire the writer who once lived there. Or maybe I’ll just compliment him on his house. He may find it odd that a stranger speaking French with an American accent might even know who Pagnol was, but then he might also be delighted to meet a stranger who has surprised him by acknowledging that someone else’s life, even one from long ago, still matters.

Feeding the French a Bit of America

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The French are easy to cook for. They arrive ravenous (people don’t generally eat between meals in France) and they are happy to eat whatever you serve.

Most Americans are idiosyncratic about food. Most French are not. (Though one friend of mine, who hails from Normandy, confesses that he hates camembert, which is in the firmament among the stars of Normandy’s culinary heritage. There’s always someone.)

I have sometimes wondered if Americans are afraid of food, or simply choose to be fussy about it because they can afford to picky when so much is available to them. Maybe the French are less fussy because their collective memory involves so much privation – including two devastating wars in the last century when millions went hungry. So, in France dining remains less of a quick fuel stop than a cherished part of the day that you linger over. Or dining rather than feeding is simply a matter of national character, at least in how the French approach food.

The French are interested in other cuisines, though. Once my friend Pierre asked me to make something American for him and a few other friends. This was a rather broad request. American cuisine can mean so many things, at least to an American. It ranges from Italian-American to Southwest, to Southern, to the Mediterranean- or Asian-inspired cuisine of California and the Pacific Northwest, to Amish cooking or New England fare or the influences of so many Latin countries that you see in cooking from Florida to Arizona and even to Illinois.

Of course, for the French, American cuisine, such as it is, reflects the American national food character, which usually means hamburgers. Just as Americans picture France as a land of scrawny beret-wearing smokers carrying baguettes, the French see Americans as a nation of fat gun-toting philistines gobbling cheeseburgers. But I wasn’t going to make hamburgers for my guests. Besides, I feel that hamburgers are things you eat at restaurants, which are better equipped to handle the splatters from grilling the burgers and from making the proper French fries to go along with them. So, I decided to serve my friends meatloaf.

This wasn’t as easy as getting a meatloaf mix at the supermarket, since meatloaf mix is something unheard of in France. As is meatloaf – though the French do have an idea of what a pain de viande is, since variations of meatloaf (not to mention pâtés and terrines and such) have surely been served in France and pretty much everywhere ground meat is available. Another little quandary was the ground beef itself. I’ve found that ground beef in France can be grainy when cooked. I can’t quite figure out why. It’s probably the particular cuts they use, though I still haven’t figured out how French cuts differ from American ones. I haven’t had an opportunity yet to befriend a butcher savvy to the different approaches in butchering in the two countries who could explain it all to me.

Many meatloaf recipes call for proportions of half ground beef, one-quarter each of ground veal and ground pork. At my neighborhood Monoprix supermarket, I asked the butcher to grind a half-kilo (roughly a pound) of beef (bœuf haché or steak haché). Ground pork is less readily available in French supermarkets, and you can find ground veal shaped into patties and sold in little packages in the refrigerated meat aisle, but I didn’t want something that had been prepacked at a factory. Luckily, most butchers in France offer a seasoned mixture of ground pork and veal for stuffing vegetables – it’s usually displayed next to samples of stuffed tomatoes for sale in the butcher case. So, I got a quarter-kilo of that (about a half pound). And there was my meatloaf mix à la française.

Rather than use packaged bread crumbs, I decided to bind the meatloaf with a panade, which is a mixture of bread soaked in milk. I never remember the science of why exactly this keeps meat tender – something to do with how the milk and the bread when mashed together in this way prevent certain protein strands in the meat from seizing up when cooked. Whatever – a panade has the ability to offset the potential graininess in French beef and provide it with a more pleasant texture.

I made my meatloaf in the usual meatloaf way, with parsley, garlic, onion, a little Worcestershire sauce, an egg, salt and pepper. I’m not fond of sweetish glazes on meatloaves, so I made a variation of Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce recipe – good canned tomatoes, half an onion and  a few tablespoons of butter simmered together for half an hour – to serve alongside it. The meatloaf baked nicely and was just finishing up, browned and aromatic, when my guests arrived for their apéro.

For potatoes I made a gratin dauphinois, which is really just a dish of scalloped potatoes with a French name. I also made green beans – the skinny French kind, which I told myself worked as an American vegetable since you can get them in New York too.

There were six of us at dinner. And the meatloaf disappeared. As did the sauce – which I have a feeling my guests preferred to the pain de viande. (Who wouldn’t? It’s sensational.) Pierre told me that his mother prepared something like the meatloaf I had so carefully sourced and fixed for them, though hers was made with what was left over and chopped up and fashioned into a mound from a weekend pot au feu, a boiled-beef-and-vegetable dish, and served like penance for days after Sunday dinner. It didn’t sound at all like my meatloaf, and I didn’t know if this comparison was meant as a compliment.

Still, my French friends did get to taste a very small sample of what might be considered American food, and they liked it. They’re generally more impressed, however, when I make Italian food, since the proper cooking and saucing of pasta eludes most French. A meatloaf isn’t all that different from certain ground-meat dishes with which the French are already familiar. But for some reason, making sure the pasta is al dente is beyond the majority of home cooks. But they would say the same about anyone outside of France trying to make a proper French baguette. And they’d be right.

Pretending in France

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“You can now go back to pretending to be Parisian,” this woman I’d just met said to me as we settled up the bill for coffee at a little café adjacent to the Musée du Luxembourg. Dana was the friend of a friend, and she was in France for a brief teaching assignment.

She was, in fact, an art teacher. I had been given passes to the museum, so it seemed as good a place as any to meet up.

A friend of mine in California had suggested that we get together while this friend of his was in France, so we’d arranged a date. I’d described myself to her beforehand so I might be easy to recognize, as did she. Dana didn’t match her description nor, apparently, did I. It had taken us a few moments to connect as we each stood on the sidewalk outside the museum.

I’d told her I didn’t look French (which I don’t), even though I was wearing the usual French-type scarf. Dana said she had been told that she, in fact, did look French (which she doesn’t). She said she didn’t think I was the right person since to her I seemed Parisian.  I only figured it was she who was waiting for me because she had the slightly puzzled air of someone who wonders if she had the time wrong. Anyway, we finally introduced ourselves and visited the museum, then chatted over coffee.

I filled her in on my background and my life in France as we took in the exhibition, and she told me about her work as an artist and teacher, and this chance to teach at an art school just outside of Paris. She had some insightful things to say about the paintings of Tintoretto, and I was glad to be able to see some of his works through her expert eyes.

But her way of seeing me took me slightly aback just before we headed our separate ways, she to visit the Catacombes in the 14th arrondissement, me back to work in the 17th. I later asked myself how I might be pretending to be other than I am. Perhaps the only sort-of French thing about me was my wearing that scarf, like most people in Paris when the weather turns slightly cool (it was unseasonably frisky that day). And perhaps that I speak French pretty well. But the thing is, I never feel that I’m actually French on any level. I feel Parisian, certainly, as a lifelong urbanite who now calls both New York and Paris home. But I don’t presume to be the product of French culture, even as I’ve studied it and tried to comprehend a French point of view.

But that’s only my perspective. I can’t control how others think about me. Dana’s comment about my pretending to be French struck me as odd, and even a little hostile in an offhand way, coming as it did after a conversation in which I made a point of saying how being in France allowed me to gain a different sort of understanding on how I see the world, and how I regard myself. So, I learned for the umpteenth time that I cannot see myself through someone else’s eyes. Maybe she saw in me someone with pretentions to cultural sophistication, someone given to correcting the way Americans pronounce French words. I am often guilty of that irritating habit, certainly – and I did correct her pronunciation of the city of Lille where she was going to visit a French friend who lives there. (I have a feeling her French friend probably later corrected her pronunciation as well.)

At the same time, I probably do adopt certain habits and acquire certain French traits or tics by spending so much time in Paris. Like scarf-wearing. Or cheese-eating. Or pronunciation-correcting. Despite maintaining a ridiculous American optimism (slightly battered recently, but still there nevertheless), which is at odds with a general French attitude of blasé, smoke-infused pessimism.

Even though I’m always an outsider in France, I don’t feel an outsider in Paris. I felt at home in Paris even before I could speak French. At the same time, I have probably worked to fit in. I don’t want to be seen as the non-French-speaking American. I want to be someone who fits in despite not fitting in. Is that pretending of some sort? It could be.  Perhaps I’m pretending to be something I’m not, although I’m not sure exactly what it is I’m pretending to be. I wonder too sometimes if I like living in France because there I don’t have to face my failures in quite the same way, even if they accompany me everywhere. But that’s avoidance, not pretending.

I think one of the reasons I have wanted to create another life in Paris, a parallel life to mine in New York, is because I have always longed to be more than I was. At the same time, I’ve always feared that I’d be found out to be a fraud of some sort. So it was probably inevitable that at some point someone would say I’m pretending to be something or someone when all I’m doing is trying to be a better me.

Extra Cheese in France

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The interior of Alléosse, a noted cheese shop on the Rue Poncelet, in the 17th arrondissement in Paris. 

During my first few weeks in Paris several years ago, my lunch was often a half-baguette slathered with brie or camembert, which I’d wolf down before heading off to the Alliance Française on the Boulevard Raspail for my language class. I was in thrall to the deeply flavored cheeses I’d discovered at the Monoprix supermarket around the corner (before I found the cheese shops in the neighborhood). These cheeses had a taste much more pronounced than what passes for brie or camembert in the U.S.

Today I don’t consume cheeses in France with quite the same abandon as when I first started spending time there, but I do eat more cheese in Paris than I do in New York. Just not so much at one sitting. Cheese is a significant element in a French meal. My Parisian friends might not always offer a first course to their dinner guests, but most do make sure to have a cheese course just before dessert.

In France you generally purchase the cheese you’re going to consume for that day, or perhaps the next. Cheese isn’t something you buy to keep for weeks, unless it’s a wedge of parmesan. When I buy a camembert, I specify whether it’s for that night or the next day – the fromager will press on the cheese to determine if it’s sufficiently ripe to consume in the next few hours or 24 hours later. And although you can find some non-French cheeses, such as parmesan or gorgonzola or English cheddar or stilton, more than 90% of the cheeses you’ll see at the fromager are French. A Parisian friend of mine visiting me in New York was astonished at the variety of cheeses he could find at Zabar’s, the fine-foods store near me on the Upper West Side. “I had to come to New York to find a Spanish cheese,” my friend Roland told me. But France is a land of more than 400 different cheeses, so it’s natural that its fromagers will favor French cheese.

Within a 15-minute walk of where I stay in Paris, I have a choice of about five or seven different fromagers, or cheese shops. The one I prefer is Alléosse, on the rue Poncelet, a rue commerçante with a variety of bakeries, patisseries, fruit-and-vegetable stands, a coffee roaster, wine shops, butchers, fishmongers and supermarkets. There’s even another cheese shop a few steps from Alléosse. But Alléosse, which has its own caves d’affinage, or aging cellars, in the same arrondissement, has the most flavorful, perfectly ripened cheeses.

As with much in French life, there’s a certain way of doing things, and this applies even to a cheese course. You generally stick to odd numbers of cheeses: one, three or five (I’ve even seen plateaux de fromage with seven different cheeses). And you mix them up: hard, soft, mild, tangy, cow, sheep, goat. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, however. My friends Jean-Paul and Dominique generally put out a platter with a variety of small rounds of goat cheeses. That’s a little extreme for my taste, although I like goat cheese. Still, people do sometimes serve just one cheese: a nice ripe camembert or perhaps a large wedge of brie. They’re both cow cheeses.  In my experience you’re less likely to see a single goat cheese as your cheese course (unless you’re serving a dozen little goat cheeses). In any event, you’re more likely to put together a plate of three different cheeses, as I do.

If I offer any more than that, I’m left with more cheese than I can reasonably eat over the course of a week. My friends Pierre and his brother Michel solve that little problem by making leftover cheese part of their breakfast. They might place slices of remaining camembert on the baguette from the night before and have it with their morning coffee. (It turns out that coffee and camembert go well together.)

A simple cheese course of mine might include a ripe camembert, a blue-style cheese (such as a Roquefort) and a hard cheese such as an aged comté. I look for comté that’s been aged for more than 24 months (which you can’t get in the U.S. – most of what you see in the States is at most six or nine months old), since I really like its rich, nutty flavor. Sometimes instead of a comté I’ll choose a Salers, which is a semi-hard cheese from the Auvergne, in central France. It’s a little like Cantal, but saltier and tangier. I might offer a brie de Meaux or a brie de Melun instead of a camembert. Brie de Meaux is an unpasteurized brie, as is brie de Melun. The brie de Melun is much sharper in flavor, sometimes even with a hint of ammonia, which can be too much for me, despite my liking strong-flavored cheeses. I also have a fondness for runny goat cheeses such as Saint Marcellin or Rocamadour, which come in small rounds that flatten and spread as they come to room temperature. Sometimes I’ll offer the Brillat-Savarin, but only rarely, since with its high fat content it’s as indulgent as butter.

In any event, in Paris I find myself thinking about what cheeses to serve with dinner, something I’ve never done at home in New York. We Americans have cheese before dinner as an appetizer. It’s a different way of organizing dinner, although I’ve come to prefer the French way of serving cheese, as part of a meal. Still, in New York I don’t offer a cheese course if I’m hosting a dinner. It would feel off.

This past Christmas, my sister Deb who was hosting the family gathering, asked me to bring cheeses. I asked her when she was going to serve them – before or during during dinner.

I could sense her rolling her eyes at me over the phone. “During cocktails,” she said. “Like normal people.” She may have added, “you pretentious idiot,” but that might have simply been a bad connection.

Days Off in France

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I’ve learned quite a bit from the French through splitting my time between New York and Paris, but I still cannot come close to mastering that particular French way of knowing how to relax. Perhaps I’m too American to understand the benefits of downtime. The French take downtime quite seriously.

Today is a national holiday in France – the first of May, which is devoted to workers (and to the struggle to create an eight-hour workday). The first of May is actually celebrated around the world – just about everywhere, it seems, but in the U.S. And it kicks off a month in France with four national holidays that also lead to four days off, if the calendar aligns with certain dates and these days don’t fall on weekends. In addition to the first of May, there’s May 8, which marks the end of World War II in France; May 10, the Feast of the Ascension, and May 21, Pentecost Monday (Pentecost is celebrated the seventh Sunday after Easter). That’s two public holidays and two religious ones. For a country that calls itself laic, France manages to celebrate all of the major Christian holidays with days off. And why not? Any excuse not to work.

This year, two of these May holidays fall during a workweek – Tuesday, May 8 and Thursday May 10. In general if a holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, many people do what’s known as “faire le pont,” that is, make a bridge, and take an additional day off to create a longer weekend.

If it’s a year in which all four of these May holidays happen to fall during the workweek, you’ll see opinion articles in French newspapers that, in a feeble way, lament this abundance of days off. Such a profusion of national holidays could affect the economy, they argue. And it could be worse this year, with the continuing railway workers’ strike causing inconvenience for people who are “making a bridge” and trying to find some time for themselves away from the obligations of the office. But these articles aren’t entirely serious. No one would willingly give up a day off, including concerned French newspaper reporters who like to raise questions that don’t require answers.

When I was taking French classes at the Alliance Française on the Boulevard Raspail during my first few months in Paris, I was irritated to find that I had to pay for an entire month of study in which four of the 20 days I was being charged for were going to be holidays. I had to pay for classes that were not going to be held. But that’s the way things are done: you are responsible for the days off of others.

Well, good for them. People deserve a little rest. And yet I myself can’t seem to enjoy days off. Perhaps it’s because I’m self-employed and always concerned about whether I’m actually working hard enough to support myself, or perhaps it’s because I don’t feel I’m worth a little relaxation. Or perhaps it’s just a too-ingrained sense that time not spent knocking yourself out is time wasted.

The French know better. Nothing is worth knocking yourself out over. Unless it’s an argument over an idea, and better if dinner is involved. But as for days off, those were each hard won, and that leisure will be honored.

Striking in France

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Just about everyone I know in France has been affected by the current rail strike. They’ve rearranged schedules, exchanged tickets, changed travel plans, dealt with interminable lines and navigated harried crowds. They have little sympathy with the strikers – but at the same time they support them, or at least their right to strike. It’s a very French attitude: admire the idea and complain about the reality.

But strikes in France are an ingrained part of life. Strikes are written into the constitution as a fundamental right. Strikes also arrive with startling regularity – usually as soon as the word “reform” is uttered by the government. There is indeed a “gréviculture française,” that is, a culture of strikes that’s particular to the French.

The current railway strike – by the SNCF, the public train company – was organized to protest changes that the government plans for rail workers (known as cheminots). These changes would affect new hires (existing staff would be unaffected for the most part), but they include changing the railway workers’ coveted early retirement (as early as 52), extra vacation days, and free travel for family members. The unions fear that these reforms will lead to others that will be more burdensome, such as being fired summarily (it’s very hard to fire someone in France). The government argues that the SNCF is drowning in €46.6 billion in debt and needs reform. The SNCF currently runs trains at a cost that’s 30% higher than its European neighbors.

The strike, which is to run until the end of June, every two days out of five, is not only a test for the government – especially President Emmanuel Macron’s resolve to see the strike through to the end, and not give in – but also for the unions, in particular the CGT. The CGT is one of the main national unions. It has seen its membership drop and wants to show that it can still maintain its hold on keeping things as they were.

Keeping things as they were is a powerful idea in France, land of patrimony, long tradition, complex and unwritten social cues and doing things a certain way simply because they’re done a certain way. Such as being free to exercise your right to strike regardless of how someone else is affected by it.

The current railway strikers have not mentioned the terrible disruption these strikes have on the lives of millions of people who need to travel by rail to work (and who aren’t protected by union agreements). The inconveniencing of other people is nothing next to the idea of protesting a reform that might change at some point how you work. I find myself siding with the inconvenienced here, since although the railway workers have a point – hard-won rights, once ceded, are impossible to get back – the majority of the population is being held hostage by the egos of many union leaders who are more used to inconveniencing than the other way around.

Strikes, walkouts, demonstrations, work slowdowns are so much a part of French life that I wonder if in the end they have any effect at all. If so many people express displeasure so often, can anything be done to appease anyone? Or is that even the point? Strikes can be as effective as shouting into the wind, but sometimes that’s all you’ve got. And sometimes they can actually work. Years ago I took part in a brief reporter’s strike at the Wall Street Journal, despite my fear that we striking reporters could be replaced (the Journal, like most newspapers, considers reporters expendable, like cheap furniture). But the strike had its effect, and we were given a modest raise in pay. We were still expendable, but for a brief period we were also slightly better remunerated.

Twenty-five years ago, a nationwide strike brought France to a standstill, and prevented reforms to, among other things, the railway workers’ contracts. But that was then: life is more precarious for workers everywhere now, even those who are protected by longstanding accords. I don’t know if these striking railway workers will be able to prevent the changes that will likely become law. But for now, they’re doing what they can: disrupt.

I’m not yet at the point where I shrug my shoulders at the latest strike by whatever group has decided it’s had enough of whatever it is that’s causing them misery. That is, I’m not French. But like my French friends I too have arranged my schedule to accommodate the availability of trains. The SNCF has provided a calendar for the days of the strike, so you can plan accordingly. At least in this regard the strikers are thinking of others.

A Time for Cherries in the 13th

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I spent a week recently cat-sitting for friends in an area of the 13th arrondissement known as La Butte-aux-Cailles. The name can mean quail hill, but it’s also a part of Paris that belonged to a landowner named Pierre Caille in the 16th century. More people think of it as the plural than the singular, of the birds rather than the person who owned the land. So quail hill it is.

What it is, quail hill, is a small neighborhood within a neighborhood that conveys more than the geographical space it makes up. It’s an idea of a neighborhood. That idea is one of resistance – the spirit of 1968, the spirit of the Commune of 1870. And the spirit of letting your hair down – to judge by the large number of people smoking in clusters as night falls outside dingy bars on the Rue de La Butte-aux-Cailles.

But that doesn’t make it any more special than a lot of other streets or neighborhoods of Paris or anywhere where people get together, smoke on the street and make a little noise. What La Butte-aux-Cailles has is a determined hipness. The area reminds me a little of parts of New York’s Lower East Side. The difference is that much of the iconography in the Butte-aux-Cailles references old left-wing revolutionaries, where the Lower East Side today evokes in a only the most glancing way a tenement history.

It comes down to the same thing, however: an evocation that’s a nod to a past rather than an actual engagement with it. It’s as if the neighborhood of La Butte-aux-Cailles were wearing a Che Guevera t-shirt, or a Chairman Mao cap. Though here the shirt would probably have an image of Léo Ferré, a noted anarchist songwriter whose image appears on walls here and there in the neighborhood. But this is normal, isn’t it? Using symbols as fleeting reminders of something we may only half remember, or half know, to center us somehow or to add color to how we choose to remember our experience?

La Butte-aux-Cailles maintains a village atmosphere of low-rise houses and apartment buildings. Graffiti is tolerated, even encouraged – such as one street mural showing Tintin, clad in a rose-colored jacket, in a near embrace with Captain Haddock, another character from the Tintin graphic novels. It doesn’t make for a typically Parisian street scene, but its appeal comes from its not jibing with the proscribed French sense of order.

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The Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles where it crosses the rue des Cinq Diamants is where the area has its heart: old buildings, narrow streets and arty boutiques alongside popular drinking spots, upscale restaurants and chic patisseries. I’d stayed in the neighborhood once before several years ago, when these same friends whose cats I was minding were vacationing.  I’d flown into Paris to attend a wedding.

I was glad to be back to rediscover it. I was also glad to see another arrondissement than the ones where I spend most of my days now. Back when I began spending a few months a year in Paris, I would swap apartments, which allowed me to discover various parts of the city. Luckily, I’m less of a vagabond now. For the last few years, I’ve been staying for a month or two at a time at the apartment of my friends Bob and Loraine, so I’ve in a way become a part of the 17th arrondissement. Still, I was happy to reacquaint myself with another area that I generally just walk through to and from the metro, rather than inhabit.

The character of this part of the 13th is quite different from the 17th arrondissement. The 13th feels more youthful, but also more pointedly aware of itself than the area around Parc Monceau, at least to me. La Butte-aux-Cailles is proud of its symbols, just as the area around Parc Monceau seems proud of its beaux-arts buildings and its wide avenues that could have served as models for a Caillebotte street scene. But those are just my impressions – others might see faux-hipster dilapidation and bourgeois complacency. I was structuring my memories differently.

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On my first night in the funkier Butte-aux-Cailles I ate dinner at an unprepossessing restaurant called Le Temps de Cerises, which gives you an idea of how the locals cling to ideas of the past. A similar restaurant in some American city might call itself Yankee Doodle (or perhaps Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death).

“Le Temps des cerises” is a song that was popular during the Commune of 1870-71. The title, the time of the cherries (or cherry time), written just before the Paris Commune, became widely sung during the Commune after new verses were added. It’s about what life is like after a revolution changes everything.

The Paris Commune was a brief violent period when a socialist-revolutionary government led Paris after the collapse of the Second French Empire and the defeat of Napoleon III, and during the war with Prussia. It involved many violent clashes, much destruction of property and loss of life.

The restaurant named Le Temps des cerises, however, was peaceful, if animated. In walking past it I’d noticed that the daily specials included paupiettes de dinde, or turkey bundles (a paupiette is a little package of thin cutlets of meat with a filling of vegetables). So, I thought I’d give the place a try. It had a well-worn look bordering on shabby, but it also had a lot of people at crowded tables who seemed to be enjoying themselves under the scribbled slogans of earlier revolutionary times, and the faded photos of lefty singer-songwriters.

The servers at the restaurant seemed as they’d recently been or would soon be homeless, or at least former roadies who never quite kicked the heroin habit. They had the air of people who’ve lived tough, eventful lives and were nonplussed by whatever fickle demands a restaurant client might have. They were efficient, pleasant if not quite warm, but the paupiettes de dinde were actually quite good. In any event, as I dined I created a mental sketch of their career trajectories that ended with them working here.

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I realized, however, as I watched them at their work, that I was ascribing to them something symbolic without knowing a thing about them except their appearance and manner of interacting with the clientele.

Because I was sitting in a restaurant whose name evoked a terrible time in French history, I assumed the servers were socially engaged revolutionary types rather than experienced waiters who might be too busy earning a living to devote time to upending the government. But what did I know? Maybe they were part-time anarchists. They for their part could have considered me as just another American with a passable French accent who was passing through this part of town absorbing the atmosphere of another age. Which isn’t too far from the truth, but which isn’t the whole story either. Though if they thought of me at all, beyond someone who’d ordered the daily special, their assessment would probably have been more accurate than the stories I was telling myself about them.

But then none of us ever has the whole story, so we make up what we want. Which may be why symbols are so important in places like La Butte-aux-Cailles, or elsewhere.

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For example, there’s a bust of the singer Dalida in Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement, where she lived. The statue is well-polished from the hands of countless admirers caressing her bronze bosom, as if by doing so they remind themselves of a particular moment in life when her songs meant something special. Her symbolic presence is real enough.

The same might be true in La Butte-aux-Cailles. No one is still around from when the Paris Commune raged, but France still has a sense that change can only come from revolution. You’re not likely to revolt over the plat du jour at a homey restaurant with grizzled waiters, but on seeing on its walls the slogans of a revolutionary age, you may be reminded that little remains the same over time, and that nothing is ever exactly what it seems.