C’est la Vie


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When my friend Louise was studying mime in Paris in 1979, I went to visit her. She explained in advance that I could stay with her, but we would only have time together on the weekends. She worked as a governess for a French family and was studying under Etienne Descroux, the great Marcel Marceau’s teacher; she had a very busy schedule.

Louise had asked her English friends Patrick and Helen to hold an overnight welcome party. Patrick and Helen lived in the suburbs in a ground-floor bungalow which accommodated my crutches quite nicely.

That first night outside Paris I stayed up late and read The Tao of Physics, while Louise tossed and turned with leg cramps from her exacting physical discipline and with nausea — probably due to nerves getting us from the airport to the Arc de Triomphe in a small Peugeot with Blondie singing “One way or another, I’m gonna find ya, I’m gonna getcha, getcha, getcha,” matching the whirling beat of traffic around the Parisian traffic circles.

That night I began stereotyping the French. The French, it seemed, ate so late, the food was so bland, the vegetables cooked until the colors bled out — or maybe the whole meal was leeks — I don’t know, but the next morning I felt like the typically ugly American asking where we could have a Denver omelette with hot peppers for breakfast.

When I finally got to Louise’s place — oh, mon Dieu! She lived in a six-floor walk-up one-room apartment called a “chambre de bonne” (maid’s room) on the Avenue Marceau. Her street was one of the spokes in the arrondissement of the Champs Elysees, not far from the Arc de Triomphe and the “bateaux mouches,” or flyboats, on the opposite side of the Seine.

There was no elevator; the stairs were so steep you could eat dinner on the one above you, the room so tiny, I had to prop my artificial leg, Carolimb, up in the bidet. After a second night of floor sleep, Louise went off to work, and I headed out to get a “carte orange,” a monthly bus pass, so I could ride around the city sightseeing first class from the windows of the autobus, without a tour guide, as it were.

The next day, I wore Carolimb down the stairs of Louise’s building and figured that while Carolimb gave me a lap and a rear end good for sitting in the cafés, she would be a burden once I needed to walk. I looked for a place to stow her after I had my coffee in the Café Marceau, but I was not very successful. So, I dragged her around Paris, to the Tuilleries and the Eiffel Tower, where I considered creating a public sensation by throwing her off the monument. I settled for an éclair at another café, where I met Brenda, an Englishwoman whose husband’s company had moved them from South Africa to Paris. Brenda was visiting Paris on her own, too. We compared notes and both agreed that only French women knew the right attitude with which to travel alone in Paris.

The problem was the men. Everywhere I went, if I was alone, I was followed by a strange — foreign of course, but usually Middle Eastern — man who would make a fool of himself if I acknowledged him with as much as a glance. I told her about the first “follower.” I was trying to find a park in Paris that allowed people to lie on the Parisienne grass. They didn’t mind dogs on the grass, but human beings would be scooped up by the local police if they stepped on a blade. I was followed from fenced park to fenced park by a stranger whom I had smiled at and said hi to in response to his greeting.

Finally, at Pont Neuf (one of the bridges over the Île de Cité Park where the hippies and European traveling bums hung out), I saw people sitting on the grass. As I headed down the long cement steps and took my place on the green, my talking shadow sat down next to me. I politely answered questions until I asked him to leave so I could take a nap. He wouldn’t leave, so I got angry. Naturally, he wanted to nap with me, thought I was beautiful when I was mad. Searching out a policeman at one of the boats on the river, I got up in frustration and prepared my speech for the policeman.

In French I asked him, “Could you help me? I have asked this man to leave me alone, but he keeps following me.”

I was surprised when the gendarme seemed to understand my French, even more shocked when he responded in a Maurice Chevalier flourish of English. “Eef I wahr heem, I wohd follow yoh, too!”

Brenda and I laughed over that one, and we both began a practice of watching as French women shot their noses up in the air and brushed off every man who approached them. Brenda and I performed the past tense of the verb “rendezvous” nearly every day after that. We looked at tourist brochures and our bus passes and figured the routes to Place des Vosges, Centre du Pompidou, and the Louvre — and then we made a morning and afternoon of each.

Lots of stopping to rest at cafés, I was always looking for a bathroom in Paris. “Monsieur. Ou est les toilettes?” was my most practiced phrase next to “Si vous parlez lentment, je peux comprendre.” If you speak slowly, I can understand. Invariably the answer to my question regarding the nearest lavatory was “La bas,” which means “down there,” or “over there.” It seemed to always be said in such a gruff, low tone, I half expected people to say “up there” in a high-pitched voice.

The public restrooms, I learned, were almost always down steep cement steps into the sewer-like basements of centuries-old restaurants and cafes where you had to squat over a hole in the ground covered with a grate. Carolimb, my artificial leg, wasn’t a squatting kind of a gal, so I had to take her off, disengaging my right leg from her pair of pants and, once we were separated, prop her up, etc. After the first day dragging the dead weight, I put Carolimb in the trash room on the first floor of Louise’s building. I then walked up the stairs and didn’t put her on again, except to have coffee at the Café Marceau in the morning. After coffee, I rechecked her into the trash room before going off for the day.

When I got back one afternoon, the concierge was standing in the lobby, certainly not waiting for an elevator. When she saw my crutches her eyes widened in frightful realization — no, I think relief.

“ Cest votre jambe!” It’s your leg!

“ Oui,” I said, in the off-handed breathless French manner that sounded like “whey.”

“ What happened?” She exclaimed in French.

“ Motorcycle,” I replied, pronouncing “cycle” (see-kel) with an excellent French accent.

“ Oh, non! C’est triste!” she gushed.

She looked to me for confirmation of her opinion on “how sad” it was, and I shrugged, “Non,” I corrected her, “C’est la vie!” Then in French I said what I never had even said to myself, but it was just right, “le mot juste,” at that moment.

“C’est ma vie!” I headed up the stairs aware I’d set the scene for how natural it was for my leg to be resting in the trash room. Carolimb, the steep stairs, the trash room, the English-speaking policeman, and the coffee and basement bathrooms. “That’s life! That’s my life!”

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