Fuck balls! That’s what I shouted during the early evening of Saturday December 31, channeling Deb from Dexter. Let me explain: in October I had entered a short story writing contest. Despite the incredible editing assistance I had received from Julian, RenMan, Bev, and my partner, as 2011 wound to a close, I learned that I did not win first prize. I was officially declared a loser. Fail! News of my defeat spun me into a shame spiral, and I experienced progressive stages of disappointment between 4 and 7 pm on ‘Happy New Year’s Eve,’ including: 1) a temporary loss of the will to live; 2) a general despondency enhanced by listless sighing; 3) a compensation bath; 4) a brief glimmer of hope, quashed immediately by a self-pity relapse; 5) an inspired idea to discover pornography featuring the winner in case I was the runner-up and could claim the prize, just like in the Ms. America contest; 6) a decision to drink and thus to forget. You already know what happened after that. My ever rational partner was only somewhat sympathetic, asking: ‘Did you really expect to attain a substantial reward for the first short story that you had ever written in your life?’ My answer: ‘Well…kinda.’ Delusions of grandeur aside, there is at least one positive outcome from this time consuming effort: you will now get to read and perhaps even enjoy the tale I penned about a remarkable Parisian woman. I consider it to be feminist in nature, celebrating embodied ladyhood in all of its historical and cultural diversity. [Aside: I love the corporeality of boys too, though not that of those jackasses who have recently been mean to my friends. They will never become the subjects of my literary experiments. Fuck them. And their balls]. And for those readers who have begun to tire of my recent and potentially sad literary efforts: Don’t worry. I will be whittering on about my honey badger next week. With accompanying photos.
Visit to Le P’tit Bar
The absence of Le P’tit Bar could have meant only one thing: the absence of Madame, and by absence I mean death. For Madame, the curly gray haired woman who tends the tiny establishment — it might be three metres squared — is very old. Eighty or ninety? She has translucently sagging skin, a wide wrinkled forehead, and an undersized body that appears to collapse in on itself, especially when she slumps on a stool behind the tiki-themed counter that has been faced with bamboo veneer and equipped with an overhanging thatched ‘roof.’ Once I found Madame snoring softly in the corner, sitting on some kind of lawn chair, her mauve sweater covered in baguette crumbs, with a corpulent Siamese cat named Raoul curled on her lap. She had fallen asleep while having her dinner, and that is when I fell in love with her.
Madame does not return my feelings. In fact, when I entered her workplace today and ordered a Campus beer ― a tasty Flemish brew uniquely sold here for the low price of 3.50 Euro ― she did not recall me at all. I was not offended, despite having visited her three times previously. The most notable encounter was last spring; my friends and I dropped in after finishing a superb meal at a nearby popular restaurant. ‘C’est trop chère!’ declared Madame, and she is probably right. In any case, we were entranced by the diminutive drinking hole, overflowing with liquor bottles untouched for eons, international bank notes attached to the wall, dusty potted plants buzzing with insects, tacky cat-shaped amulets, and numerous photos of cats, none of them Raoul. We had a lively conversation with Madame that night, entirely in French, for she disdains English and is appalled by the ease with which young Parisians speak it today. It became clear that Madame actually lives in the bar, sleeping and eating where she can. The bathing and clothes changing activities remain something of a mystery, but various coats, scarves, and boxes were, and still are, piled everywhere. Realizing that this bar was a special place, warmly hovering between the past and the present, we were reluctant to depart. When we finally left our bodies were spotted with mosquito bites, and our minds enriched with a few facts about Madame: 1) she was acquainted with another Canadian, from Toronto but he now lives in Paris and speaks French well; 2) she does not like the cold and refuses to go outside when the temperature falls below five degrees; and 3) she loves cats.
Here it was again, standing before me, in all of its dilapidated glory. With tattered posters scotch taped to its dirty front window, a wicker cat basket blocking half of its entrance, and a darkly stained wooden door left ajar, the bar was just as I remembered it. I had hesitated before making another trek down the rue Richard Lenoir, worried that Le P’tit Bar would be gone, replaced by something like a Happy Phone. Shuddering at the thought, I had continued to trudge along in a resolute fashion, steeling myself for bad news. I’d noticed that the neighbourhood was becoming a little seedier even as it smelled like the rest of Paris, suffused with intermittent wafts of freshly baked bread, stale urine, and diesel fuel.
Madame perked up when I entered today, happy to learn that I had been there before. She reported with great pride that she has worked at Le P’tit Bar for 48 years. The business nevertheless predates her, founded in 1907. ‘Are these the original furnishings?’ I asked, tongue in cheek. ‘Oh no,’ she replied, ‘my husband did these renovations.’ I could only assume that he had undertaken a DIY project after being inspired by the sets of the Gidget movie How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. I pictured them working together, her precariously balanced on the countertop while holding a bottle of glue and some faux twigs, him standing below, wielding a hammer. Yet when Madame recommenced her story, she did not elaborate on her married life. Instead she noted that the original patrons had kept the bar open during both World Wars. This time I imagined the 1940s landlady tottering around in high heels, wearing a knee-length pencil skirt and shoulder-padded blouse as she served steins of beer to the Jerries, feigning compliance while passing coded messages through the back door to fellow members of the French resistance. I waited for Madame to correct my filmic fantasies, but she said no more on this topic.
The venerable serveuse revealed that the grandchildren of these founders had recently paid her a visit, shocked by the transformation of their childhood quartier, its parks replaced by apartment buildings. The 11th arrondissement, located on the right bank, has long been the most densely populated section of Paris. Packed with both people and commerce, this increasingly trendy area is crisscrossed by the wide boulevards that Haussmann plowed through the city during the nineteenth century, replacing the narrow medieval streets liable to shelter dissidents with more manageable panoramas. The installation of sidewalks was begun by earlier urban designers for practical as well as profit-driven reasons; they allowed pedestrians to eye the merchandise displayed behind large vitrines without being run down by carriages. Yet these limited border zones also had unintended effects; by making walking pleasurable, they simultaneously transformed the image of the city and the place of human bodies within it. Inhabitants can now traverse the length of the 11th arrondissement by strolling down the Boulevard Voltaire from the Place de La Nation to the Place de la République, potentially detouring onto the tree lined Boulevard Richard-Lenoir to sample the wares of its vibrant produce market. Named after the cotton industrialists François Richard and Joseph Lenoir-Dufresne, this thoroughfare is at least twenty minutes away from the modest street that bears the same name and harbours Le P’tit Bar. When I later performed a google search of the street rather than the more famous boulevard, I found only a black and white photo of Madame and Raoul taken inside the bar. Apparently I was not her only admirer.
Quick to defend her quartier, Madame insisted that its working class nature and diverse population ensured that it was not ‘trop snob.’ She used this Anglicism without ironic intent. Madame nevertheless had to admit that her arrondissement was becoming expensive, although it had not yet been overrun with tourists, like the rest of Paris. I tried not to flinch as she made this pronouncement. Blending historical time, the wise bartender invoked the past, present, and future of her neighbourhood. It had launched revolutions and was home to the first spinning jenny in France, which had transformed a convent on the rue de Charonne into the lucrative Richard-Lenoir textile enterprise. Little trace remained, however, of the 11th’s three prisons. The vicinity of the Bastille was now an impressive square, its centre marked by the tall bronze ‘July column’ meant to commemorate the overthrow of the Bourbon Dynasty, replaced with a constitutional monarchy that was itself soon deposed. In spite of its written inscription, this monument continues to provoke multiple interpretations, given its location in a place marked by death, regeneration, revolt, counter-revolt, and, more recently, festivals and antique fairs — consumer spectacles highlighted by the nearby opera house, a gleaming silver mass of modernity. Even as I appreciated Madame’s characterization, in my opinion the legendary 11th as well as the adjacent 12th arrondissement were primarily filled with trendy shoppers and fine diners. The French would call them bobos (les bourgeois-bohème ), middle-class bohemians with a nostalgic attachment to their working-class heritage. At least, that is who I saw while jogging down the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Antoine each morning, circling the green patinaed column as a half-way marker before returning to my rented apartment. I imagined that the people rushing to work — men with dark suit jackets over pink or purple shirts; women dressed in more sedate form-fitting designer wear — were new to privilege and not yet entirely comfortable with it. They would be the types to install thickly scratched wooden butcher blocks in their renovated kitchens, disdaining the Brazilian granite countertops preferred by wealthier but less educated contemporaries. In other words, they would be more or less like me, though I did not mention this to Madame.
My cordial hostess shifted on her stool and I wondered if she was in pain, perhaps suffering from arthritis or another illness linked with age. How did she manage to live in this city? Paris was convenient, with practically every quartier brimming with fresh produce and meat in locally owned shops or ethnically inspired markets, but it was also crowded, noisy, and filled with unavoidable stairs, particularly in the labyrinthine metro stations. My own residence was located on the sixth floor of a building that lacked an elevator. Every day I greeted a determined man in his seventies as he slowly made his way up each flight, usually with a bag of groceries or bottle of wine in hand. Luckily Madame lived on the ground floor, and I presumed that she foraged in a manner not dissimilar from that of Toronto-based raccoons, making predictable trips for food by following the same path within a strictly delimited urban territory. I quickly revised this image when Madame announced that she was looking forward to the weekend, when she would go out for a meal with a friend who was younger than her but not a relative. They would venture over to the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis in the 10th arrondissement, in search of more moderate prices. Madame had a lively spark in her eyes as she relayed this information, contradicting her steeply sloped back, draped in wool even though it was June. I wagered that she still had legs sturdy enough to walk to the selected restaurant, and almost peeked over the bar to see them. Strong calves and hamstrings were a point of pride for Parisian women, developed by purposeful walking rather than the group exercise classes favoured by my North American associates. All the same, the Club Med health club that I had recently joined in Paris featured hourly cuisses et fesses workouts, inviting patrons to perform choreographed donkey kicks and hip raises. As far as I could tell, the fitness-minded women participating in this collective dance normally took a devil-may-care attitude toward personal grooming, displaying, for instance, impressively untrimmed pubic hair in the crowded steam room, where nudity was mandatory.
My locker room reveries were interrupted when Madame suddenly sprang to her feet. Two unshaven men dressed in coveralls had squeezed into the bar beside me. After opening their beer with expertise, Madame remained standing as they methodically swallowed the contents of the squat brown bottles ornamented with golden graduation cap labels, as if consuming a prescribed tonic rather than a post-work libation. Le P’tit Bar fell silent. The patroness nevertheless waited alertly behind the counter, its mirrored backdrop duplicating her presence while reflecting the unused glasses placed there years ago. My art-historical mind recalled Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, a painting that depicted a young blonde waitress standing in front of the viewer, while the large mirrored surface behind her revealed a moustached male figure who might have been ordering a drink or else requesting a more illicit favour from her. From my current vantage point, however, I was struck that these working men did not presume an unfettered access to all walks of life, but were instead quietly respectful. Though Madame’s stance might have been mistaken for subservience, I had seen it before, notably at the local Franprix, a low-cost grocery store in which female cashiers offered their physical labour as a gift to customers, while signaling that their emotional labour was not for sale. I too was included in the mirrored image, appearing somewhat out of place as a middle-aged professor seated rigidly upright on a backless bar stool, crossed legs clad in leather boots and patterned tights. Before leaving my flat I had dressed carefully in unspoken deference to Madame, and now waited attentively for the two men to leave. They did so rather abruptly, glancing at each other and thanking Madame before exiting the bar as swiftly as they had entered it.
By then I was itching to engage Madame in a more political conversation, especially since Mélissa, a vivacious Acadienne who temporarily lives in Edmonton and receives twenty dollars an hour to speak French with me, had informed me that while Parisians do not like to discuss their private lives, they will eagerly debate sex, religion, and politics. Sex seemed like a non-starter and I felt prohibited from questioning Madame about any children she might have had, neither pictured amongst the bar’s decorations nor mentioned in previous discussions. So I asked her what she thought about the recent manifestations in our neighbourhood, protesting against the government’s plan to raise the official age of retirement from 60 to 62. ‘The French do not like to work,’ she raged. ‘They win the gold medal for striking. They only wanted a day off and know full well that the retirement age has to be changed!’ Just last week I had returned from my daily trip to the Bibliothèque Nationale to find the Place de La Nation overflowing with thousands of Parisians carrying flags, blowing plastic trumpets, chanting, and dancing. The atmosphere was at once festive and suffused with righteous indignation. It occurred to me that the staff at the library had staged its own ‘work to rule’ protest earlier that morning, refusing to deliver books or assist readers for the first twenty or thirty minutes. I pondered Madame’s outburst, wanting to inquire about her own retirement plans, or obvious lack of them. Recalling the grandchildren who had made a point of dropping by, I wondered if they kept the bar open primarily for her sake, an act of caring stubbornness rather than profitable enterprise. Yet I ultimately decided to forgo this line of inquiry, worrying that I might venture too far into the private realm.
I glanced down at my watch, gathering up my purse and depositing what would likely seem like an extravagant tip before thanking Madame for the delightful banter. She beamed in response, encouraging me to drop by again, suggesting that I bring some nice Canadian friends with me. I certainly will, for Madame has become a landmark that I plan to revisit during all of my research-inspired pilgrimages to Paris. Despite my longing to know her better, she remains elusive, a quality she holds in common with my other Parisian favourites: Philippe de Champaigne’s painted image of smiling nuns in the Richelieu Wing of the Louvre, Niki St.-Phalle’s whimsical fountain beside the Centre Pompidou, the Cluny’s unicorn tapestries, and, of course, Dan Brown’s inverted pyramid in the Louvre’s shopping mall, where Mary Magdalene is secretly buried. I doubted that Madame would be aware of this most recent remaking of Parisian history, a pleasant thought filling me with hope as I made my way back home.