Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)

NIGHT 1: SOUND

Chapter 12. Raspberry and Rose Petals

Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples; for I am sick of love.

Song of Solomon 2:4–6, King James Bible

One morning, we woke to a new sound, a dull repeated thud that reverberated through the thick walls, throbbing like a sick headache. When I took my coffee out on the balcony, I saw that, almost overnight, scaffolding had appeared on half a dozen buildings. There were skips up and down the street, some of them already filling with rubble.

Marie-Do joined me and took in the chaos without surprise.

“August,” she said, as if that explained everything.

Catholics call their important feasts “holy days of obligation.” Even for the godless, however, the summer break is just as obligatory, ruled by an unspoken Eleventh Commandment: In August thou shalt faire les vacances.

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The Paris plage

From late July to early September, cafés, shops, and theaters crank down shutters and put up signs announcing Congé Annuel—annual vacation. Jackhammers rattle along empty boulevards like machine gun fire as cafés use downtime to install new bars and extra tables, preparing for their busiest season, the autumn and winter. For citizens unable to escape, the city covers a few hundred meters along the Seine with sand for the Paris plage—the Paris beach. For the deprived, however, it’s more of a torment, a vision of the paradise from which they are barred.

Spending July and August in the village of Fouras—pronounced “Foo-rah”—on the Atlantic coast has become second nature to us, a kind of migration as unchanging as the equinoxes. But not to take Paris with us on vacation would be unthinkable. The British, the Americans, the Germans abandon their metropolitan habits when they go on holiday, but the Parisians, snail-like, carry their city with them. Each resort from Le Touquet to Juan-les-Pins becomes Paris on Sea.

Preparations commence with the end of the school year. Louise, who’s studying in London, returns home. Her day begins around 11:00 a.m. Standing sleepily in the kitchen, she prepares a brunch of Krisprolls and herbal tea. Two hours later, she admits the first of a succession of friends with whom she retreats to her room for most of the afternoon, segueing into preparations for an evening around the clubs of the grands boulevards.

But even Louise puts social life on hold for August. “When are we going to Fouras?” is followed by “Can I invite some friends?” and then the ominous supplementary “How long will you be staying?”—a hint that, depending on her guest list, there might not be room for us. Following some tight-lipped negotiation and occasional shouts of “J’en ai marre”—I’m fed up—we establish our right to one bedroom but cede the rest to les filles.

Like a sleeper agent reactivated as a prelude to war, our femme de ménage in Fouras, Henriette, is alerted to the imminent invasion. During the rest of the year, she drops in periodically to check on the house, but in summer she’s at work three days a week, mopping the tiles on the ground floor, sweeping the cedar floors upstairs, summoning a gardener to mow the ankle-deep grass of the lawn and trim the overgrown hedges that hide us from the street.

Propane tanks for the stove are replenished, last year’s rice and pasta dumped from the larder. Liters of mineral water and tetra-packs of long-life milk accumulate in the cave. The other essentials she leaves to us, knowing we enjoy browsing markets for fresh-pressed olive oil, powder-like fleur de sel from the salt pans of Brouage, honey scented with wildflowers, wine from local cooperatives, decanted by the liter into plastic Evian bottles, and jams, homemade from whatever the maker has scavenged from end-of-season windfalls.

These jams are the sole source of friction between us and Henriette. We buy some from the lady in the market who sells tomatoes, basil, and eggs from her own garden. Others come from street markets. Hand-lettered labels detail the often outlandish mixtures of fruit that went into them—abricot, framboise, pêche. Some combinations—bananes et petales de roses— verge on the surrealist. A kiwi or mango in the blend justifies fruits exotiques. Some simply give up and say fruits mixte.

Henriette scorns these home productions. Who knows what goes into them? And what’s wrong with factory-produced confitures such as the popular line made by Bonne Maman? We justify our enthusiasm as part of that urge to reconnect with our heritage. Eating them reminds us of times when decisions were simpler and choices less various. The more authentic the objects surrounding us during the vacances, the more powerful the impression of simpler days. Big food companies have been quick to exploit this. Shrewdly, Bonne Maman jams copy the octagonal jars used by country housewives. Their labels use imitation handwriting, and all their packaging—jams, cake mixes, biscuits—imitates the red-and-white gingham with which amateurs traditionally wrap the lids of their jars.

Our holiday enthusiasm for the antique extends even into the lavatory. It’s novel to yank a chain rather than push a button, and no chill vinyl seat can compare to warm, well-worn oak. In Fouras, we even embrace the antique in our choice of lavatory deodorant. Instead of aerosol air freshener, we burn papier d’Arménie—Armenian paper. Colored slips—purple, orange, deep green—are torn from a booklet, set alight, and dropped into a saucer, where they smolder with smoke that smells like vanilla but is actually benzoin resin from the Styrax tree. Even the Armenian inventors no longer use this, but to us its very obsolescence makes it attractive.

In most country markets, someone is usually selling locally made soap, heavy, sharp-edged, semitranslucent blocks, odorous with their primary component, olive oil. We lug home a few slabs and, virtuously, use them next time we shower—no easy task, since they produce about as much lather as a brick and leave one coated with oil, smelling like a badly dressed salad. Generally a block survives only until the first time it slips from your fingers and lands on a toe. After that, it’s demoted to the edge of the sink, to squat like a cubist toad, yellow-green, a silent rebuke to our foamy store-bought Dove and Palmolive.

Mental time-traveling is at its most potent in brocantes. Most of the year, Parisians throng such electronic-goods stores as Darty, insisting on washing machines or microwaves so technically advanced one needs a science degree to understand the manual. On holiday, however, they crowd into flea markets that convene in village squares and football grounds. Scrambling under tables and ferreting in cartons, they’ll coo with delight over chipped tureens or dented lamp bases, reverently installing their finds in the trunks of their Alfa-Romeos and Mercedes.