Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Choses vues

15 October


At the market this morning I was buying fruit to replenish my fruit basket. The provenance of every item in the stalls tends to be written in chalk, along with the price, on a little blackboard overhead, so I could see that the clementines were from Spain, the figs and pears from France. But I wanted to strike up a conversation, so I asked the vendor, where in France? Normandy? No, from the southwest. Then I asked for bananas, and he said, these are from Martinique. Yes, I nodded, I suppose bananas don’t grow in France. No, no, he answered, surprised. Martinique, c’est la France.


In the Gardens

It was a gorgeously sunny day yesterday, but I was hurrying through the Luxembourg Gardens, head down, thinking about some project or other. I must have been pretty absorbed; at least, that’s the only way I can explain what happened next. I was passing a group of girls, young teens, gathered around a bench near the pétanque pitches. Suddenly a couple of them jumped out into the path, one carrying a little cardboard sign hand-lettered in English: Free Hugs.  Monsieur, she addressed me in rapid French, they were offering free hugs and would I like one? Deeply suspicious, I stopped, said “Oui, d’accord,” and let myself be hugged by this charming dark-haired beauty, not a day over fourteen.  And then I kept going. For the first and no doubt the only time in my entire life I had the chance to engage a whole band of pretty French girls on the subject of hugs, for goodness sake … and I kept on walking. I’ve gotten over it, but I don’t think I will ever quite forgive myself.



Chez Fernand is up on the boulevard Montparnasse, but it’s still a neighborhood place. Several gentlemen, like me, are eating by themselves, and people passing on the sidewalk stop to chat with the maitre d’. It’s a cozy, old-fashioned-looking place with big oak sideboards for waiter stations and cut-glass semi-partitions that reduce its size. The large framed sepia-tinted photographs add to this feeling—but as I look closer at the one nearest me, I realize I am looking at a famous portrait of Jean Cocteau by Man Ray. It looks perfectly normal until you notice that Cocteau is holding a pane of clear glass in front of himself. I ask the waiter about the photos, and he tells me that back in the Parnassian glory days of the 1920s this place was the Jockey, one of the famous haunts of the avant-garde. Fernand has only been here 8 or 9 years. I have just read something about the Jockey, and I suddenly feel one of those Proustian tremors as I realize I have stumbled into the sort of urban palimpsest that makes Paris or Rome so endlessly surprising.

When I get the chance I decide to learn more about the Jockey, and I discover that what the waiter told me was true—sort of. The famous Jockey relocated to the other side of the Boulevard Montparnasse around 1920, where it may indeed have been a scene for a few years, but it lost its lease and closed. But then an arriviste bought the place where Fernand’s is now and set up a new Jockey, which never had the authenticity of the old one. It was, my source tells me, “un bar americano-nègre égaré au plein far-West” (whatever that’s supposed to mean), where “the bourgeois came to play at being artists” until the Crash closed it for good.

So my waiter gave me a good tip after all: Chez Fernand is the model of an urban palimpsest, illustrating how successive layers of fact, not least the photographs on the wall, give rise to legend.


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