Like a 19th-century traveler thrust into the modern world, I had electronic letters of introduction that helped ease my way during the first few months of my stay in Paris. My friend Ed White, for instance, wrote to several people he knew who then met with me or dined with me to help me not only orient myself in a new country but to feel a little more at home there.
One was Isabelle, a psychotherapist. A few weeks after Ed’s email introduction, and my follow-up when I arrived in Paris, she invited me to lunch at a bustling brasserie-café near her office, in the 3rd arrondissement, and we had one of those stop-start, push-me/pull-you conversations that I’d become rather used to at that time, with my fractured French meeting her half-remembered English. Isabelle had studied English literature, and has one of her several PhDs in it, so among our topics was her favorite 19th-century English authors (Austen, Eliot), which at least gave me something to talk about beyond the well-rehearsed story of what I was doing in France. Isabelle has a plummy voice, almost like a kinder French version of one the domineering aunts in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, and while at the time I couldn’t quite tell the difference among French accents, hers seemed to me to be so thickly posh you could balance a spoon in it.
During lunch, Isabelle had used her practiced psychotherapist’s ear to give me the illusion that she was paying close attention to what I said (though perhaps she was simply trying to decipher my French), and then had the psychotherapist’s trick of proposing idiotic suggestions that seemed to have no bearing on how the world actually works and people behave in it. At one point she said it might be good for me and Ed to speak entirely in French when I returned to New York, despite English being our native language. I explained that I thought this kind of thing wouldn’t really fly with us, though she didn’t seem to understand why.
After lunch (she treated me), Isabelle took me up to see her office, and sat with me for a few minutes, practicing some of the exercises I’d received that morning at Alliance Française. This was beyond kind, though she told me she had a few minutes before her next patient arrived, so why not fill it out by working with me (and with criticizing the quality of the materials I was given)? I was taken with her half-dotty professor, half-school counselor approach to me, but I had been more impressed just a few minutes earlier, when Isabelle had expertly given directions that even I could understand to a passerby who’d asked her how to get to Place de la République. For some reason, the knack of explaining simply to a befuddled pedestrian how to get from point A to point B always provides a truer impression of someone’s mental acuity than certificates attesting to any kind of educational achievement.
Isabelle invited me to a literary evening at the Café de la Mairie, to hear a translator friend of hers read from his new translations of Henry James stories. She seemed well connected among a certain French literary set, and I felt at ease with her (perhaps due to my own experience with New York literary life), despite not knowing many of the writers she called friends. Still, I felt I had been given an entrée into a life that might be mine should I choose to pursue it.
I saw Isabelle again after that literary evening, She invited me to join her for a movie, at an art-house cinema near Bastille. Isabelle was accompanied by her beautiful Italian friend Laura, who works as an anesthesiologist in Paris and whose French seemed to me to be perfect. Isabelle and Laura had a giggly kind of rapport. They’d collapsed into laughter over an anecdote that Laura had recounted of a trip that she and Isabelle had taken. Their merriment caused me to let my guard down and I asked if they were perhaps a couple. Laura stopped laughing, raised an eyebrow at me and said, “C’est compliqué.” I nodded and said that most relationships were complicated to the uninitiated.
Perhaps that was the reason for Isabelle choosing the movie we ended up seeing, “Le Mariage à Trois.” It was, to my way of thinking, mediocre: underwritten, under-dramatized, slight while pretending to be weighty. I gather Isabelle thought so as well. She found the film “un peu long,” she said. “Le Mariage à Trois” was about a playwright-director (played by Pascal Greggory), who entertains the actors of his next play, including his ex-wife (Julie Depardieu) and her new lover, during a weekend at the director’s (or the ex-wife’s) country house. Things become “compliqués.” You know, the usual.
The name of the character of the writer-director was Auguste, and later I said to Isabelle that it seemed to me to be an inadvertent spoof of Strindberg, or perhaps an homage that seemed ridiculous to my philistine eyes. Or perhaps it was a little tribute to Bergman, with some Chekhov thrown in for additional seasoning (a gun was introduced, but unfortunately it didn’t go off and none of the characters was killed).
Isabelle was puzzled at my comments. She looked at me as if I didn’t comprehend something that seemed evident to her, such as why two Americans wouldn’t want to speak French with each other in New York. I pointed out again, “Well, the writer-director’s name in the movie was Auguste, as in August Strindberg.” I then went on to say that the story concerned a sort of roundelay regarding the formerly married couple and the others, even the writer’s assistant, that it was all very self-serious without being self-aware (which is often the case with such things), and that we were to understand that something significant was being said about relationships, love, theater and maybe even something else, the perils of weekend getaway homes, perhaps.
At hearing all of this, light began to dawn in Isabelle’s eyes. She admitted I might have had a point. But she added that the movie was, in any event, “très français.” I took that to mean that this wasn’t a good thing here, or maybe that it was and that I simply didn’t get it, or that it was “trop compliqué,” which is sometimes how I learned to translate “très français,” when a French person explained away something in that way to me.
Isabelle and I rarely saw each other after that. Her own life had become, she told me, complicated, with various professional duties preventing her from doing as much individual counseling in Paris as she had when we first met (she also worked at a hospital outside of town). Or perhaps she realized that we weren’t destined to be closer friends. It didn’t matter, and I certainly didn’t expect every introduction to turn into something deeper. Nothing very complicated about that.