We entered the Metro station near Tati and headed towards line 10. No newfangled sleek trains here, unlike line 1. The trains were older, more rattley, without the completely automatic doors.You had to physically push the handles to trigger the opening. It made for a few anxious moments when the door wouldn't respond. Would we be swept away to the next station before we knew it?
But the names that flashed by as the train raced on looked more and more familiar : Issy-les-Moulineaux, Michel-Ange Auteuil, Passy, Michel-Ange Molitor, Porte d'Auteuil. That's where the line would have stopped, 30 years ago. It now had two more stations beyond, and the one at Jean-Jaurès was our stop.
We stepped out into the sunlight at the street corner. I was dazzled, and dazed. So many buildings, sharp corners, angled facades that couldn't possibly house apartments. I recalled none of this. Worse, we were lost in an area of Paris that I had convinced my family that I 'knew very well'. I probably knew it very well, but only if I could walk around on my knees to bring myself to kid-size again.
Taking a chance, I said "Let's go this way." as the kids and my husband grumpily tagged behind. A restaurant "Le Relais" sat on the corner. I crossed the road and entered to ask for directions to the only intersection I could recall from having the blessed foresight to check on the Google street view "Rue de Paris". The gentleman told me to walk straight ahead for about 5-10 minutes and make a right.
"Are you sure this is the way?" my husband asked, "Maybe you should check at that market too", about 5 minutes of walking later. I entered the crammed 'Alimentation' and tried to get the attention the cashier who ignored my hopeful expression and continued to chat with the beefy customer ahead of me. He went off to the back of the store in search of something. Now only the customer was left and I tried a hopeful query "Rue de Paris?"- met with a Gallic shrug and "Sorry, I don't know".
"Must not be a local", I muttered to myself as I walked back.
"He probably didn't understand you. You mumble too much, you should speak louder."
"Since when does yelling help them understand you better?", I shot back, exasperated. At this rate, we might spend the next couple of hours going round in circles. So much for my grand plan of seeing the old apartment complex I had lived in.
Then, I saw the sign "Rue de Paris" and yelped in delight. "Here it is, just like the restaurant owner said".
So we took the right turn and continued down for a little bit till we came to a most familiar board "Residence Arc-en-ciel" (The Rainbow Homes)
"This, I remember". It was the side entrance, so we continued to the front, and there it was, looking just the same as I remembered from 30 years ago.
We entered the gate and the kids jumped around in glee. "Is this where you used to live?"
"Yes, and those are the paths that I used to bike around too."
"Are you sure this building is 40 years old? It looks too modern."
"It's definitely the same building that I remember, with some new things- steel shutters on the sliding windows on the lower floors, I don't recall those. Let's walk behind. Our apartment was on that side, maybe the 3rd or 4th floor."
We followed the winding path that I had biked on practically everyday while we lived there. A solitary orange cat sunned itself in the lawn. M and S caught sight of a low circular wall around some gravel and jumped up on it, running around in a game of tag.
It seemed faintly surreal that they would repeat something that I recall doing occasionally, with the few other kids that were my playmates. But then, kids are kids no matter what their background and the innate ability to enjoy the moment far outweighs any sense of awe and solemnity that adults might try to impose on them.
"I don't recall that", I said, pointing at a huge apartment complex to the north. "That must have been built after we moved."
"But that looks older than your complex", my husband persisted in trying to prove my memory was more fallible than I thought.
"No, I'm pretty sure that wasn't there." It took checking with my mother later to confirm that I was indeed right. There had been no building on that side at the time. Perhaps it was the shadows cast by the building that had seem out of sync with my image of the garden. I remembered a brighter, much sunnier play area than what we saw that day in the Parisian suburbs.
A few photographs later, it was time to get back to the metro and the hotel. But before that we decided to stop for a very late lunch, heading for 'Le Relais' where I had stopped to ask for directions.
The owner was very friendly and patient, while we pored over the menu (Steak this and veal that, nobody felt like trying anything on the menu) We settled for the everlasting 'salade-vert and frites' ( salad of greens and French fries).
I decided to pay a visit to the toilet and headed through the door to find what looked like a broom closet with a tinier door just beyond. It looked as though I had jumped back in time by a couple of centuries, judging from the old-fashioned hinges on the door. I opened it to find:
A squat toilet!
A pink nose and couple of beady eyes peering up at me from the hole!!
A rat, that promptly dived back into the hole on seeing me!!!
I shut the door, took a deep breath to preempt any scream, and quickly marched back to the table.
"You'll never guess what I saw", I announced.
"What, what?" begged M and S.
"A rat in the toilet."
"Maybe it was Ratatouille, coming to take a look", an impish suggestion from my husband.
We laughed rather hollowly in unison, hurriedly finished our repast and headed eagerly for the exit after paying our bill.
(A thing about restaurants in Paris is that they are never in a hurry to bring you your bill, unlike the American ones, where the bill is brought so promptly at times that you may still be only half-way through your meal. In Paris, asking for 'l'addition' appears to be akin to pulling the teeth of the waiter, something to be put off till the last painful minute.)
In this case, we stepped up to the counter near the bar to collect and pay our bill,. No doubt the extra alacrity had something to do with my encounter with 'Ratatouille'.
And with a click, the faint odor that I associated with Paris fell in place. It was 'Eau de Rat Mort', or 'dead-rat'. With the maze of metros and underground sewers more than a few centuries old, it was probably a fact of life in Paris that I had never quite registered before. Now I knew.
I also now knew how those ladies in the bouffant wigs and panniered skirts managed their privies without tripping over their skirts. No doubt, they had to contend with the be-whiskered intruders more often then not and didn't reach promptly for their smelling salts each time. Or maybe that's why they switched to chamber pots.