Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 1: SOUND
Chapter 14. Time and Tide
It bothers people—friends, I mean—that I spend every August in Paris. They think it is unhealthy, surely lonely, probably eccentric. The truth is that I prefer being in a city, all the time, more and more, and “city” means Paris. I am frequently offered an airy room in a country house, in Normandy, in Brittany, and sometimes the house itself. I am assured that I would be able to work in peace, that no one would ever bother me, that I could just turn up for meals. Thank you, no.
Life in Fouras pulses lazily to the two-beat rhythm of the tides. Every twelve hours, water from the Atlantic surges into the estuary and brings to life the beaches, bays, and moorings that line the bay and riverbanks. Each house has a leaflet giving times of high and low water, and it’s consulted religiously. As the tide advances, the lanes fill with people hustling seaward, determined not to waste a minute of high water. For three or four hours, kids splash in a modest surf, sunbathers discreetly expose to the sun breasts pale as scoops of glace vanille, families gather under huge umbrellas, while up on the esplanade the less active drowse in cafés and bars until the water recedes and the town shuts up for lunch.
As the hour of high tide moves with the moon, a little later each day, mealtimes lag. We eat lunch at three and dinner when we should be in bed. I protest, but Fouras is all about the beach, and a cook can no more defy the tide than King Canute, who rebuked his courtiers by demonstrating that, no matter how forcefully he ordered the ocean to recede, it ignored him.
On the last Saturday of my stay, Claudine, my mother-in-law, invited Louise and me to lunch at a crêperie on the esplanade. Though it is a kind gesture, I recognized an element of self-interest. At ninety-three, she’s uncomfortable at our crowded summer table in the company of young people, some speaking English she doesn’t understand. After one long passage of Franglais, she muttered, “I understood two words of that—‘television’ and ‘cheese.’” By paring down her companions to Louise and me, she hoped for conversation rather than cacophony.
Since last summer, the crêperie had gone Australian. Aboriginal-style drawings of kangaroos and lizards decorated the windows, and pancakes were named for Australian towns. I scanned the menu, wondering if, in its embrace of antipodean cuisine, they were offering authentic Aussie fillings—bogong moths, perhaps, or witchetty grubs—but the makeover was merely cosmetic. They still served paper-thin slightly crisp pancakes of sarrazin—buckwheat—folded over eggs, cheese, or charcuterie, eaten with dry cider, served, in the tradition of Normandy, in bowls.
I opted for the Canberra, puzzlingly filled with merguez, the North African sausage spiced with red pepper. As Canberra, the political capital, is also the center of corruption and graft, I instructed them to slip in an additional egg.
“Why Australian?” I asked the waitress.
“The owner has two brothers living there,” she said.
It was a flimsy pretext, but a shrewd one. While the French admire aspects of Britain and the United States, there’s too much shared history for any real rapprochement. Australia, however, has a clean slate.
That’s not to say the average French person knows much about the world’s largest island. Just as, to them, the American west is inhabited entirely by Native Americans and cowboys, Australia is exclusively the domain of its aboriginal people. The Australian embassy in Paris seems to have an exhibition of tribal paintings year-round, and the nearby Musée du Quai Branly includes whole galleries of art and craft work.
As Louise chatted to Claudine while we waited for our crepes, I looked across the now-shallow bay toward a horizon as smearily undefined as a landscape by Australia’s preeminent artist of the 1940s and 1950s, Sidney Nolan. During World War II, the army exiled Nolan to the Wimmera, the flat wheat country of Victoria. Deserting, he hid out for a year and then sailed for England, to become famous for paintings of those limitless plains, inhabited by the ghost of their most famous outlaw, Ned Kelly, a lumbering shape in black homemade armor hammered from ploughshares.
Nolan discovered something I later noticed myself. Asked what inspired the Ned Kelly paintings, he said, “Rousseau—and sunlight.” He meant Henri Rousseau, the postimpressionist primitive who painted only on Sundays, since he worked weekdays collecting tolls, a job that earned him the nickname Le Douanier, the customs officer.
Australian light defeated most painters. English light was for us returning exiles what the madeleine was for Proust: a key that unlocked our past. No longer squinting into blue-white glare, we saw our native country with new insight, even affection. Reticent about praising our native soil while we lived there, we sometimes became, as expatriates, nostalgic for it, even sentimental. “I say ours is a bitter heritage,” wrote the Australian novelist Randolph Stow, “but that is not to run it down.” Another expatriate, T. S. Eliot, an American who relocated in Europe, put it even better.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The French, for whom no country could be even a fraction as interesting as their own, wonder if we foreigners really have the stamina and commitment to live here. Life for the newcomer can seem a succession of pettifogging linguistic puzzles, pointless social usages, and mindless bureaucracies, throughout which the French watch narrowly, waiting for our tempers to crack. “Aha!” they say as we throw the latest government form to the floor and stamp on it, “We knew you weren’t sincere. Secretly, you despise us.” An American journalist, interviewing a French starlet, found her so charming he almost believed she was sexually interested in him—until he confessed that he hadn’t seen a couple of her films. Her manner became arctic. “You are like all the rest,” she pouted. “And to think I believed you were doing this out of love!”
Even my adoptive family took its time deciding I’d come to stay. In their minds, Marie-Dominique was already cast as glamorous and footloose Tante DouDou. Always off to Africa or America on some journalistic project, scattering doleful lovers in her wake, she’d be far too busy and independent to marry. My abrupt appearance in her life was puzzling enough, our marriage and the birth of Louise even more so. Their expectations frustrated, my potential in-laws regarded me with suspicion. I could have been packed off back to America or Australia, smarting from wounded vanity, instead of relaxing here, enjoying the comfort of my family, in the great good place. Fortunately, however, I married into a family of academics, painters, journalists, and educators, none of whom could cook. By the time my second French Christmas came around and Claudine asked me to cook dinner for twenty, I knew I had become indispensable.