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Friday, September 25, 2009

Past Meets Present - II

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."
"Ewwww....."
"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.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Past meets Present-I

It was the last day of our recent stay in Paris. We had climbed the steps to the Sacré-Coeur basilica and back down, started walking back to the metro station, when I spotted a man saunter by, dangling a pink and blue plastic bag in his hand, emblazoned 'Tati'.
"That's where Amma used to bring me sometimes for shopping!", I exclaimed. My husband stopped and looked at M and S. 'Shall we walk to Tati and see what it's like?'
"Yes, yes!" chimed S, who is normally quite allergic to shops. He must have been addled by the ice-cream to agree so soon to such an enterprise.
We walked down the road,past the store fronts overflowing with draperies,yards of poplin and muslin practically spilling over into the sidewalk ,turned the corner. et voila 'TATI'!
We entered the store with much anticipation, and I was mildly disappointed to see a huge banner saying everything was 50% off the marked price. The store didn't seem to be how I remembered it. My memory was of a narrow hall with a large counter down its length, salesmen pulling down items on one side and customers on the other, rummaging through the piles of clothing.
The store we walked into was organized in aisles and shelves, bearing all the hallmarks of the typical 'dollar store' and filled with cheap Chinese and Taiwanese goods. Tati must have changed their merchandise over the thirty years since I had last seen it.
For old times sake, I picked up a couple of knicknacks and stood in the queue for the cash register. The lady in line ahead of me asked me to hold her place for a moment while she dashed off for some forgotten essential, smiling cheerily as I let her back in place.
I took the opportunity to ask her whether Tati had always had been like this, since I didn't remember the dollar-store ambiance from 30 years back. She insisted 'This has always been there.' So much for 'infallible memories', I thought.
We stepped out and glanced at the bins overflowing with more merchandise and I suddenly saw why my memory had played tricks on me. Or not. There was a now-empty section of the store, bare to the walls, with a narrow hall that could have hosted a counter and with empty shelving on one side...
Tati was getting ready for a major makeover, promised to reopen 5 weeks later. They had completely cleared out the merchandise in the clothing section, which is the part I had seen as a child with my mother.
That's how I got the bag with the famed logo with a couple of photo display stands and power strips to carry home to my mother, as a souvenir of the future from the past, all for the truly tati-price of 5.15 euros.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Time for another Bookish Post

Inspired by punarjanman's list (Via Blogpourri):

I most definitely remember, not the Chalet School stories, but the Maids of La Rochelle books. There is something very appealing about leaving your hot, humid country, as I subconsciously imagined myself doing, and going off to live on a windswept craggy island with an exotic name like Guernsey, where people speak a variant of English that bears more resemblance to French than the language as we know it.

And then, I remembered a book about a horse. Not Black Beauty, though that must have started it all, but a story about a moonlight pale, silver horse, so silent that he slipped through the mists, evading all men who tried to capture him on the Australian highlands: The Silver Brumby series, by Elyne Mitchell (available only second-hand now, sometimes at exhorbitant prices. I ordered my copies, which will be M's, from alibris.com)
Eva Ibbotson's delightful "Which Witch", and her other 'The Secret of Platform 13', and 'The Beasts of Clawstone Castle'. The latter was inspired by real beasts, the Chillingham cattle, who are as gorgeous as they sound (see pic.). M adored these (books,not beasts!) and gobbled them up in short order.

Despite the fame accorded to his Paddington books, about the bear from the deepest darkest recesses of Peru, but a very English sensibility, my favorite Michael Bond book remains "Thursday in Paris", about an enterprising mouse family that is on a grand trip to a Mouse Cheese exposition at Les Halles, Paris, and run into trouble with an Irish-Chinese mafioso by the unlikely name of Shamus O'Wong- 'At your service', he says with a sweeping wave of the paw, Irish and Chinese brogue evident in his speech. There is a whole series about young Thursday and his family, but the one above is the only one that I've read, and loved.

The Narnia series is now much talked about, now that Hollywood has made it into a movie series, complete with glitzy computer effects and pitch-perfect casting. But the only book I enjoyed without reservation in the series was the curious little standalone "The Horse and His Boy". Never mind the faintly racist overtones of having an obviously light-skinned kid enslaved by a rather Mid-eastern sounding crowd ( echoing the Crusades, perhaps?)- I was oblivious to all those echoes of history that become obvious to the older reader, and thoroughly identified and enjoyed the antics of Shasta and his horse ( or rather the Horse and his Shasta.)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Vignette

We sit idling in the traffic. The intersection is jammed, and it is definitely going to take more than 10 minutes to clear. The lurid mix of diesel and petrol fumes outside leaves us unaffected, no more than a faint dribble through the air-conditioned air of the car.
Outside, a woman in a black cotton veil picked over with tiny embroidered mirrors in red makes her way past the cars. She is dressed in a colorful patchwork blouse and skirt, balancing a tousle-haired toddler on her hip and waving a pair of crossed over miniature Indian flags at the stalled traffic. She glances hopefully at us and turns away in a split-second recognition of our disinterest.
On the other side, a man in a polyester shirt with buttons missing, unidentifiable colored pant is criss-crossing the road between vehicles, waving the same type of flag. Again, no takers.
Ten minutes later, the car slowly inches into the intersection, and it finally picks up speed, I catch a last glimpse of the black-veiled lady. She is seated comfortably on the median, her toddler flat on his back, legs waving in the air. She is doing what all mothers do with their babies, sharing a moment of glee and happy gurgles, oblivious to the speeding traffic on either side.