Of Life and Pain (Tradition) in Paris

So I had to haul myself out of bed after crying my eyes out yesterday (us writers are sensitive, we cry a lot), for reasons I shall expound on if and whether the mood strikes.

I weave past and greet the painters in the corridor who stop work to say “Bonjour, allez-y.” I walk to the end of Rue de la Faisanderie with my petit Monoprix shopping sac to get pain tradition, confiture de fraises, coffee, and red wine. Along the way, two military guards with machine guns, in the aftermath of Je Suis Charlie, return my quiet smile and nod solemnly. “Bonjour madame,” they say, as we pass. This district houses a cluster of embassies, diplomats, international law firms, and a liberal university. I now intuitively sense the energy and temperament of different arrondissements of this city. Like how ordering dessert first can disrupt a whole kitchen and serving staff into mild confusion. Etiquette and protocol are extremely prized. And for that, I do love this culture.

Of course I run out of la monnaie (change) because the lady at the Tabac passive-aggressively does not want to let me use my bancaire (debit card). In all my months in Paris, I have yet to experience a Tabac that does not accept a bank card. D’accord, pas de probleme. I’m not a local in the district yet, I cannot expect such privileges. I just have to dig in my purse to find 7 euros in change before going to Franprix next door to buy prosciutto. I am too fatigued to argue or run to an ATM. But I don’t back down, backing down and scuttling away humiliated just means I haven’t lived here long enough. My Parisian friends would probably have argued with her over that point. Mais j’ai la chance! I have the seven euros after sifting through Singaporean and American coins.

At Franprix. Of course the lady made all of us wait in line while she stocked up the fridge…un minute..deux minutes…trois…Customer is not king in Paris. Me and the African guy behind me await patiently, seasoned enough not to be too offended or too accomodating, as he yells something to his mother and little sister who are waiting quietly outside in West African dresses and headbands.

One has to understand that Paris and all its boulevards, metros, boulangeries, and cafés have a rhythm somewhat like a metronome, but at the same time, has its volatile moods, its honored traditions, its unspoken customs and bubbling tension. Like New York City, everyone is tired in Paris. Everyone. As they say, metro boulot dodo (subway, work, sleep). So it’s easy to understand the clipped attitudes, aggression, or passive aggression.

Once at a McDo (one should always try McDonald’s once in every country outside of the USA, most times it is absolutely delightful, I kid you not), a Parisian-Asian friend and I ordered sparkling pamplemousse (grapefruit) just to use the free wifi. The counter person at the McCafé served everyone before us, then on seeing our faces, swiftly turned around and proceeded to stock the shelves. I was unfazed. I was used to it. I don’t think it is truly racism, I think there are many other factors involved, which I will delve into next time. She made us wait 5 minutes, while my friend asked, incredulous, “Excusez-moi madame?” Turning to me, she muttered, ” She’s doing it on purpose!” To which I responded with a shrug, “I know.” Then I proceeded to be polite and kind to the counter lady when she finally gave us attention. No point getting mad. I’ve found that graciousness in the face of hostility can many times bridge people. Note I said many times, not all the time. Not to a demented crazed meth addict trying to grope your crotch on the E train coming from Jamaica (Station).

So I proceed to the boulangerie right next door to my flat. I just want to stuff fresh pain tradition into my mouth and crunch down into soft doughy goodness while eating prosciutto, confiture, and cheese. I am starving. But upon arrival, I realize I have used all my monnaie at the tabac. And it would be ludicrous to use my bancaire at the boulangerie for a mere pain tradition which costs €1.35. The boulangere might bar me from entering again for being an annoying tourist/non-native. I live right next door. I can’t afford to make enemies, not least my local boulangerie in the 16eme arrondissement.

Alors, I go back upstairs to look through all my bags for euros. Nothing. Finally I find two euros somewhere in a purse. It feels like a miracle. I mean, once you have lived in cities where there are 24 hour 7-Elevens, it is a little difficult to adjust to somewhat rustic slower living in Paris. But when you get into the groove of Paris, like Rome, or Istanbul, things get wildly interesting.

I go back downstairs triumphantly and burst through the open boulangerie doors and chirpily say Bonjour! Without too big of a smile, of course. You have to adjust your smiles in Los Angeles, New York City, and Paris, accordingly. Then I quietly wait in line and drool at the various quiches, and a noisette-orange pound cake that is €22 per kilo. I am sure it tastes every bit as good as every cent it is worth.

I take my pain tradition and return home, a small victory! Then I warm up the bread slightly and bite into it.

Je suis deçu. (I am disappointed. But don’t tell them I said that! ) So far the best pain tradition I have had is from this tiny sleepy French North African boulangerie in Bagnolet, or this other bright boulangerie in my old neighborhood of Belleville. I guess tomorrow morning warrants a trip to Belleville (which is really now China, or Flushing in NYC) to get pain tradition for my two guests visiting from London.

There is a centredness, doing one or two things a day which you enjoy are luxurious triumphs, time is prolonged and magnified, a few fruits and herbs in your shopping stroller, crisp summer dresses and going to the park at 8pm since the sun is still burning, and fizzles at 10 or 11pm. A brisk laziness. Such is summer in Paris.

All of this, and more, I just wanted you to know, and I’m sure you know, that when you died, I was just learning how to live.

(In memory of Joanna, sister, friend, saint. 1984-2015)


One thought on “Of Life and Pain (Tradition) in Paris

  1. Alicia,

    I’m so sorry for your loss.

    I read this when you first posted it last week and have been meaning to write and tell you how meaningful it is too me. But it all reminded me too strongly of how I simply couldn’t adjust to life in France. I didn’t live in Paris. But your experiences mirror mine in the south of France. (Apparently) I was never able to find that delicate balance between scuttling away and arguing.

    Thanks for writing this,

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