Monday, April 29, 2013

Diet Aids and Pickpockets

Full moon over Pont Neuf as viewed at a"Full Moon" party
            What is French women’s secret to maintaining their svelte figures? It must be that potion whose magic of melting fat happens from just two sips, or that body-shaper that evaporates fat. Or could it be that pill or chocolate bar that make a whole female population lose four dress sizes in seconds? Illustrations and testimonies accompany these claims galore made on TV. The French don’t seem to have heard about “truth in advertising”—and for that matter, neither is tort law noticeable here, as witnessed by rickety staircases, broken sidewalks and teetering window planters. One windy morning, my friend was hit on the head by concrete debris that flew from the top of St. Sulpice church, restored a couple of years ago. The stone left a bump, but luckily did not knock her out….

            If high-end style has made French famous, the focus is not consumer oriented as we know it in the States. This shift in focus, this off-perspective that celebrates the decrepit and keeps the new off stage, is what makes Paris. Whole blocks around my apartment, which is adjacent to the Sorbonne, are overflowing with book stores. New books, literary works, used paperbacks, old manuscripts, science and liturgy tomes remind me that not only the literary world is alive and pulsating with accumulated and new knowledge, (albeit in elusive French,) but that the digital age has not swallowed it all up into its carnivorous belly—or onto its endless open clouds. My Metro station, which serves the Sorbonne, is decorated with mosaic signatures of writers, philosophers, poets and scientists.

            The patina of Paris is not wearing off. But life begins to bleed into the surface when charm becomes routine, when the paths I take each morning to class are not viewed with the newness of first blush. Like old love, it is there, always present, permitting me bit by bit to take some of it for granted. But then there is the surprise of discovery: Friday afternoon, instead of a classroom French lesson, the teacher—a lovely and smart young Frenchwoman—took us on a stroll of the Latin Quarter. And right there, merely a few blocks behind my apartment, I found an exotic neighborhood, hidden plazas, and charming alleys whose ancient walls buckled outward over cobblestoned pavement.

            Last Saturday morning, when Ron was here, we witnessed three separate events of potential pickpocketing, two of which were directed toward me. In one such incident on the Metro, a pretty young couple began to fight, she claiming he’d pushed her, he denied. The French student in me listened to the quick language, as I often do when trying to decipher the locals’ fast-tongue exchanges. The novelist in me heard a stilted dialogue that made me perplexed rather than suspicious that the incident was actually a planned distraction while someone tried to put his hand in my handbag. (It was zippered, but had an open side-pocket.) A passenger noticed, yelled, and the man ferreted away. In a second case, Ron was the one to notice a small man following me closely to peek into the same handbag. In a third case, we approached an ATM when we saw the customer at the machine being accosted by two clean-shaven travelers with backpacks, men I would not have suspected and might have been the one to get accosted (which is why I never use outside ATM machines in the USA.)

            Yet this past weekend, perhaps because of my being oblivious, still deliriously drunk on the notion of being in Paris, nothing like this has taken place. Starting at the Bastille, I walked along the gentrified canal St. Martin in the eastern part of Paris, a part of the 130 km waterway system. With trees shadowing the water, foot bridges, walkways and small parks, this was a fascinating place to stop for a Sunday brunch at the historical Hotel du Nord which is to Paris what the American Hotel is to Sag Harbor—except that here history is measured in centuries, not decades.

            In another memorable evening last week, I was invited to a “Full Moon” party, at the Pont des Arts. (That’s a pedestrian bridge where thousands of lovers have place locks on the chain-link railing and threw the keys into the water.) As the moon rose over Pont Neuf across from us, we drank wine, nibbled at the assorted covered dishes brought by the group members—mostly expats and their visiting friends—and listened to the many guitars and singers among the other groups spread all over the bridge.

            And I thought of Ernest Hemingway’s words that “Paris is a moveable feast.”



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