Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.92.1: Pas Aloof: A Travel Memory

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In an earlier essay I (half) joked that American tourists to Paris often return home—usually to some very un–Paris-like town in the American “heartland” of Iowa or Missouri—grousing and grumbling about “those French.”  It might have been the indelible social bruise inflicted by a French waiter (who is usually a professional, not a college kid making some spending money), or perhaps a shop person who has had it up to her écharpe with Americans asking “how much is that in dollars,” who is responsible for a lifetime of anti-Gallic resentment.

Most ethnic groups receive some mockery and prejudice for their culture and history.  Some of it is good-natured; too much of it is not.  The Chinese will even joke about themselves that they will eat “anything with four legs but the table, and anything that flies but an airplane.” Germans, I have heard it said, “like to work off a heavy meal of sausages, spätzle and beer by invading Poland.”  “The favorite pastime of Swedes,” probably thanks to those gloomy Bergman films, “is suicide.”

One of the stereoptypes sometimes applied to Parisians is aloofness (altjough it might well be an aversion to speakikng to people who slaughter their language).  Nevertheless, Gabriel, who approached Patty and me in a supermarket in rue Pasquier in 1979, could never be regarded as aloof.

“Looks like you are making a shoppng for a ‘peekee-neek,’” he said from behnd us in the check-out.  At first, we weren’t certain that the movie-star handsome young man, that we learned later had been an extra in a couple of feature films, was speaking to us.  But he had heard us speaking our American-accented English as we loaded our purchases at the check-out.  He wanted to chat, to, as he put it, to “practice his American.”

Gabriel was an engaging young man, but Patty and I were on a mission—to buy some junk food for Laura and Lisa, back in the hotel with their school books—because Patty and I were going out for a long planned expensive French dinner.  Just the two of us, reprising a romantic episode from our first visit to Paris, sans filles, a few years before.  It was getting late and, as much as we would have enjoyed making the acqauaintance of this young man, we had been anticipating our romantic dinner for weeks.

“No, this is to feed our daughters, who are back at the hotel, so we can go out and have a guilty French meal at a nice restaurant,” Patty said as I counted out the francs and centimes.

“I’m sorry we haven’t the time to inflict practicing our high-school French on you, but we must be going,” she added as she bagged the last of the items.

But when we were out on the sidewalk Gabriel was right behind us.  “A French dinner.  Yes, I know a very good place nearby where I often eat.  Why don’t you be my guests?” he asked as if he does this sort of thing every day.  ”My name is Gabriel.  This is my boutique,” he said, pointing to the nice little shop we happened to be passing.  I couldn’t determine what it sold.

There was more than one thing wrong with this proposition as far as I was concerned, not the least of which was that I was anticipating having a romantic dinner with my lovely wife not looking across the table at a good-looking and agreeable Frenchman.  Or, we would end up listening to a pitch for some new condos in the Paris banlieues, or a time share in Senegal.

“That’s very genial of you,” I responded, “but perhaps some other time.”   I wondered whether my insincerity was detectable; we were leaving Paris in a couple of days, and the likelihood was that we would never encounter Gabriel again. Patty added that we would have to get back to our girls soon after dinner because we did not want to leave them alone too long.

But Gabriel was not that easily put off. “ I have an idea,” he persisted, “ why do we not collect your daughters and we can go to my home and have dinner with my family. I have three sons.  And my wife is a very good cook.”

Visions of ending up being drugged or poisoned began to flow into my mind. Patty took up the defense. “Oh no, we couldn’t be a party to having your wife having to cook for strange guests on short notice.”  Ironically, it was that very thing that I did to Patty a few years earlier when I met some new French acquaintances on a trip I had made to San Francisco and brought them home with me to San Diego.

Gabriel had a counter for that as well. “In that case, why don’t I just call my wife and tell her that we will come to her and get the children and we can all go to a very nice restaurant – very good but inexpensive – near my home. And my boys will be able to practice their American with your daughters.  Since we are near my shop I can use the phone there to call her to tell her we are coming.” Gabriel’s excitement and ingenuousness were in violation of all the rules of French aloofness, and Patty and I were looking at each other like we were each beginning to soften at the charming insistence of this young man. “ Please wait here a moment and I will go to call her.”   Before we could object any further he was running back a few meters to his boutique. We felt stuck; we could have easily grabbed a taxi, or just slipped around the corner, but there was something about Gabriel that made him either an extremely capable con man, or the most un-aloof Frenchman in all of France.

I said to Patty that no matter what he said when he came back we needed to decline this invitation because it had disaster written all over it. When Gabriel returned he was excited. He said that his wife and children were thrilled to be meeting “new American friends” and to be going to a favorite restaurant.  I was just about to shut this whole lark down when he said, looking at Patty, “I forgot to ask you, but do you like modern art?”

Aha!  That was it; we were going to be offered “good prices” on some fake Chagall or Dali lithos before the evening was over.  But Gabriel had struck the right cord with my artist wife when he said that he could show us some works by a modern French artist that were in his possession.

In a few minutes we were pulling up to the Hotel Des Arcades in Gabriel’s Mercedes-Benz sedan. At first I thought that Laura and Lisa were going to kill the whole idea by insisting that they wanted to stay in the hotel room, but Daniel it turned out was just as persuasive in working his Gallic charm on them as he had been with us.  Moreover, it was an opportunity for them to escape their homework.

Then things took a bizarre turn.

Gabriel suggested that, since his home was in a small town to the south, we follow him in our car and then we could drive ourselves back into Paris after dinner. That sounded reasonable enough, but when I pulled my car out from the parking garage to the street behind Gabriel’s car he suggested that perhaps Patty and one of the girls might ride with him.  From a catalog of ill-considered decisions in my life to that point I added what ranks as “most stupid” when I consented to let Patty and Lisa get in Gabriel’s car.

It is in the DNA of every French male that he grows to think he is a Grand Prix driver, and Gabriel was no exception.  We had only gone a few blocks from the hotel when it became abundantly clear that my Volkswagen diesel “Rabbit” was no match for Gabriel’s Mercedes-Benz. At one point he was nearly out of our sight and Laura coldly admonished, “Dad, you just gave my mother and my sister to a man we don’t even know!”  I pushed the Rabbit’s accelerator to the floor, where my confidence, intelligence, and sanity sloshed in a bilge of self-reproach and terror.

Soon we were in the countryside, where there were fewer lights and the roads were narrow and unfamiliar, but it only seemed to urge Gabriel and his Mercedes-Benz to increase the pace.   It was also becoming clear that, rather than the suburbs of Paris, Gabriel’s residence might be in the suburbs of Bordeaux.   It was dark now and I locked my eyes on to the taillights of the Mercedes-Benz like a cruise missile, afraid that at some turn in a rural road or intersection in a dark village half my family would disappear forever, that my wife and youngest daughter would be trafficked to some bordello in Marseille.

Then, suddenly, off a dark street on the edge of an ancient village, the Mercedes-Benz pulled into a walled courtyard in front of a fieldstone house and stopped.  We followed suit.  There, in the doorway, silhouetted by the light from within stood Gabriel’s wife, wearing an apron and holding oven mitts. From her appearance and the saliva-inducing aromas wafting out into the courtyard it was clear that Gabriel had deceived us about going to a local restaurant.  Rozamund, Gabriel’s wife, had been cooking since before we left Paris.  Terror, that had given way to relief, was now replaced by appetite.

Soon the two newly met families were assembled around a large wooden table in the spacious rustic kitchen partaking of a magnificent meal that left no regret for the restaurant dinner we had been anticipating in Paris.  The kids—Rozamund’s teenage son by her deceased first husband, her twin boys by Gabriel, younger than Laura and Lisa—chatted mostly in English.  Most of the adult conversation centered on the respective biographies of our families.

As if it were to be some surprise dessert that should not be mentioned until served the art in the house was not discussed for some time.  Patty had whispered to me a couple of times “I know this work,” and “there’s even stuff in the bathroom.”  There was excitement in her voice, but she was the artist and familiar with art history.  I, too, seemed to recognize the large, avant garde paintings that were on every wall in the rustic farm house

We were saved from the gaucherie of asking about the art when Rozamund asked Patty “Do you know the word vernissage?”  I had no idea either, so Rozamund explained that its literal meaning is “varnishing,” which refers to the final coat of varnish that French artists applied to their paintings before they were to be exhibited. But in the French art world he it also referred to a party the artist held for friends and fellow artists the evening before exhibition.  As we were to learn she might have been referring to our dinner that evening as sort a vernissage.

Rozamund, who was still a strikingly beautiful woman, had actually been the young model, then the wife, of a famous French avant-garde, painter, sculptor and performance artist of the 1950s and 60s who died in his thirties. She was now an artist herself. As she and Gabriel explained about his art I recalled having seen a large spread in Life Magazine about his unconventional method of painting.  The large collection of art in the house was the estate she had inherited and must have had considerable value. But we also learned that the French government had recently passed restrictions on the sale and movement of French works of art outside of France, which perhaps explained why some of our conversation revolved around the possibility that our new French friends might be acquiring property in the Western U.S.

As we drove back toward Paris late that evening Patty and I laughed at how we had mis-gauged things.  Not only had it turned out that we had not been pitched time shares or counterfeit art prints, not been robbed, and my wife and daughter had not been kidnapped, but we had enjoyed a wonderful French meal in the company of a French family that seemed genuinely interested in us as new friends.  Indeed, that proved to be precisely the case, as it happened, when Gabriel and Rozamund subsequently invited us to their home in the American southwest, and another (sort of) vernissage, and also introduced us to another French family, with daughters, that resulted in exchanged home visitations and friendships. The lesson lingers: it was we Americans who had been aloof and, had we not been open and trusting (and maybe a little foolish and naïve) we would have missed out one of the great blessings of foreign travel.

Those associations have faded with time and with Patty’s death just a few years after we returned from Europe. She only got to return one more time to her favorite city. Time changes everything, but Patty and I, along with Rick and Elsa in Casablanca, and Gabriel and Rozamund too,*  “will always have Paris.”

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© 2014, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 11.10.2014).

This essay is adapted from my forthcoming book,  Mon Cahier de Paris (UrbisMedia, 2014)
*Gabriel and Rozamund are not their real names to respect the privacy of my friends, and specifics about the artist and his art are not given because the art mentioned is frequently on international exhibition.

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