‘Le carte pour le manger, s’il vous plait,’ – ‘the menu for food, please,’ were the first words that left my lips this morning.
I love ordering food, always have. I don’t mind cooking it, but there is something to be said for someone making dinner for me and then enjoying too much of devilish things like butter (how can I have feelings of guilt about the butter content if I didn’t actually have any control over it).
And, I really love butter.
Which leads me to a non ‘butter related’ matter – I met a mind reader last week. Well, he wasn’t really- he was and still is (as far as I know), a photographer. He told me that at my age I will start to ‘do the screaming,’ ‘you know with the hands in the air,’ followed by, ‘what am I doing, I’m woman, I’m 37,’ before he laughed like a guinea pig (or at least how I imagine a guinea pig would laugh).
He didn’t know me until after I’d climbed the arc de triomphe of stairs up to his studio, but he knew exactly what I was up to- he must have met someone like me before? I laughed along with him – it was amusing, particularly the way he said it with an air of such confidence (probably, only because I had stars circling my head after all those stairs). He was playful with his foppish hair and bouncy little demeanor. Maybe, he was just really French? Anyway, his name was Nicolas without the h, and he was not the first to silence me or at least render me speechless.
At this point in time, I’m often frozen (it is cold, but not that type of frozen). You see, in this beautiful city there are so many things to do and to see, but I find myself caught in horrible moments of self doubt- ‘your French is abysmal, don’t go in there the lady will speak to you,’ or ‘don’t climb all those stairs, you can hardly count in French and they might ask you how many stairs there were’.
In English, on the other hand, I make up everything so why on earth wouldn’t I do the same in a language that I know so little of, I mean surely that makes sense? ‘Je n’est sais pas’ (I do not know) would be the best answer to any question posed with even the slightest hint of ‘are you even sure you’re alive- mute one?’. And that, would be that. With all of this overthought nonsense in mind, I’m slowly coming to realise that if I actually worry too much about the question at the top of the stairs (so to speak), I probably wouldn’t do anything.
Today (just like every day), I have spoken only French and at lunch I was handed for the milliontieth time- an English menu (again, just like every day). ‘You little so and so’ I muttered under my breath and ordered my risotto and glass of wine in French- this war of language is ongoing, and when the waiter went on to smash a glass he followed it up with a little dance ‘sorry Madame,’ teamed with a giggle and a smile, to which I replied, ‘pas de problème, Monsieur.’
This morning I finally returned to la Grande Mosquée de Paris- the most tranquil place and one I always love visiting.
Confused, I shuffled through the back door and wove my way through the (quite muddy and woody) garden before emerging in the main hall where, to my left, the the prayer room was just beginning to fill with men for afternoon prayer (les dames go to another room down the side). I couldn’t help feeling a bit of an intruder- I was sure on prior visits I’d always entered through the main door at the front? With continued perplexion, I walked around waiting for someone to tell me that on Sunday it was forbidden for someone as white/purple and orange as me, to enter such a sacred space. The outcome was quite the contrary- when I found the caretaker he told me (in a manner so matter of fact), that the caretaker stays home on Sundays and I needn’t pay him a cent.
‘Thank you for your visit’ he said, before waving me off.
The mosque was built in 1926, following the mudajer style, as a token of gratitude to the Muslim tirailleurs (the colonial infantry- 100,000 of whom died fighting against Germany). Then, during World War 2 when France was occupied by Nazi Germany, the mosque served as a secret refuge for Algerian and European Jews- at this time, the rector Si Kaddour Benghabrit, managed the mosque and ensured that each exiled Jew was provided with shelter, safe passage and fake Muslim birth certificates to protect them from German prosecution.
This bit of history is helpful in restoring my faith in humanity and, in a world where we have instagram short memories, it is important for me to revisit passages of history just like this as a means of recognising brave acts that I feel are lost in an era of selfies and a false sense of happiness. I can’t help feeling that the most important stories are not told frequently enough, which makes it harder to understand the past as I try to bring relevance to today.
Afterwards, I sat in the courtyard of the mosque while sipping on the sugariest mint tea and I had a long think about all of this (just me and a pigeon surrounded by the groaning of prayer). I concluded that through times of sadness comes an opportunity to be a better informed person – we are put on this earth to be challenged, and without challenges- we will have little desire to learn.
I’m pretty sure the pigeon nodded earnestly before devouring crumbs on the ground.
On my way home today in a sweet cafe at the Place Monge in the 5th arrondissement, the oldest person I ever did see sat down at the opposite table. Her right middle finger was adorned with an enormous rock, her eyes sat behind glasses framed with horn rim and her head was warmed by a corduroy hat- Madame coughed loudly as she chewed on at least four menthol sweets and she grunted like Winston Churchill whilst lighting a cigarette like her life depended on it. Maybe it did?
It is very easy to assume that Parisienne women are all as pretty and delicate as Coco Chanel- that’s what the movies told me. They all dash around like Amelie, wincing at the sunlight as they emerge from the metro and they read lots of books in cafes with their poodles.
I’m not a quick learner by any stretch and don’t get me wrong, these petite femmes do exist but they by no means form the majority. My first experience of ‘la femme Parisienne’ (in a moment of pure humiliation), was in the ‘cabin’ at the Benetton section of the Bon Marche in 1998 after a diet of mainly potatoes on my gap year. Trying on a tee-shirt, the fiercest Mme almost chased me out of the store because (I think) she could see the potatoes bursting through the seams.
Whilst this type of behavior is not common (I’d die if this happened to me today), Parisienne women are not to be messed with. Some are tall and strong and almost Napolian like, others are caped in couture and wear little booties while choking on cigarettes – but the best thing is, no two are the same. Last week I met Sherazade, a big lipped and pouty receptionist at the medical center down the road. Sherazade was all sparkling eyes and lipstick and she was totally disinterested in me as she paraded her new Monoprix cardigan to her fellow receptionists. ‘Hurry up’ I thought to myself, ‘don’t you know I’m really busy’ I huffed in my mind, before realising I actually had nothing to do except to make the doctors appointment she had no clear interest in aiding.
Ten minutes later, I was swallowing my words and best friends with Sherazade- not only had she let me speak in little bits of English as I tried to explain that I was ‘really silly, because you see I’m Australian and before I left Melbourne I was meant to go to my doctor and get a whole lot of injections because I’m going to India in three weeks and I really don’t want to get Polio,’ but she had also typed a comprehensive list of all the injections I would need, including a list of those they didn’t keep on hand at the surgery before sending me off to the pharmacy to buy typhoid, tetanus and measles boosters. ‘Come back at 6.30 Madame Affleck, I have someone who will see you’.
Dr. Heisse is one of the most beautiful and intelligent women I’ve ever met. Not Coco Chanel beautiful- but she is she is smart and earthy and she definitely knows her stuff and I felt immediate comfort with her.
I returned to the surgery at 6.30 and was dragged, (almost by my hair, thank god it’s short) to her rooms with Sherazade running behind with my refrigerated tropical diseases. ‘You speak French Madame’ Dr Heisse asked in French, ‘oui, un peu’ I replied, a bit like a dead tiger. ‘What you want from me?’ she asked, to which I replied in such a meek and sad French monologue, ‘well, you see, I’m going to India, and I have the medication you need to inject in me, please can we speak in a bit of English- I feel as though I might make a mistake in French?’.
‘Oui, Madame, but you need to practice your French, otherwise you are passive in this country’.
I got it, and I made my best darned effort to not order tea rather, typhoid and I suddenly found myself rather enjoying it. Dr Heisse was curious ‘did you know I am tropical disease specialist?’, ‘who sent you, did they know I am tropical disease specialist?’.
Twenty minutes later, I was full of every inoculation known to man and both arms were numb, ‘you remind me of my mother’ I said, ‘if she spoke French, I think it she would speak just like you – you don’t speak like my tutor, you’re different’.
Dr Heisse turned to me and said ‘Madame, this is the greatest compliment I will hear, you are a lovely girl, I like that- please, come and see me next week’. With that she was off, but I now know I have the best doctor in Paris – thank you Sherazade, I think you understood me from the beginning. Much as I thought you were a Monoprix cardigan loving femme Parisienne- you’re actually ‘un très bon juge de caractère’.