Tuesday, October 11, 2005

My father headed out the door this morning at eight o'clock to catch his train at the Gare d'Austerlitz for his trip to the Dordogne region of southwestern France. He'll be gone for four days, penetrating the area's deep caves for a look at the ancient pictographs there. I'm somewhat regretful that I chose not to go along, but he loves, and needs, his solitary ventures, and I'm eager to discover what it's like to be on my own in Paris.

The moment I close the door behind my father, I'm filled with panic. Will I survive the separation? Will I be overcome by loneliness, boredom, or anxiety? As fears race through my head, I turn to the task that has seen me through many of life's travails. I dig out the Ajax and a scrubber and attack the apartment bathrooms. In time, the sinks and mirrors are gleaming, the toilets sanitized, and the floor tiles returned to their lustrous glow. I feel I can take on the world.

Today is the day I've arranged to meet Michael for lunch. Michael is an American writer new to the publishing house I work for, and he is in the city on sabbatical with his wife and two young children. We meet at the fountain in front of St-Sulpice, just as the noon church bells ring, and we walk to a neighborhood restaurant just around the corner from my apartment. It's the kind of restaurant I love best--small, family run, and offering simple and limited fare. I order lamb chops, and Michael chooses the cassoulet, a traditional white bean and sausage stew typical of southwestern France.

We talk easily across a range of getting-to-know-you topics, while Monsieur DeSilva, the restaurant owner and its sole waiter, seamlessly serves the entire lunch crowd. For dessert, we choose the tarte tatin, a sort of upside-down caramelized apple cake, served during the fall--warm--in France. Though somewhat unorthodox, I like creme fraiche with mine, to cut the sweetness of the caramel, and Monsieur DeSilva obliges me.

In France, meals are served in courses, so even a simple lunch like the one Michael and I share can stretch across two or three hours. Coffee comes last and is generally served in small cups, usually with a saucer, but sometimes in small stand-alone porcelain beakers. Espresso is the drink of choice and comes with sugar cubes and often a bite-sized piece of chocolate on the side. (Lemon is an Italian accompaniment.)

Even lustier coffees, such as cafe creme, are served in small cups. A person lingers over coffee here in a way not possible with the jumbo approach to coffee at home.

Michael and I part mid-afternoon with plans to meet later in the week for an evening of jazz with his wife and her colleagues. I run the day's errands--stamps at the post office and groceries at Monoprix, France's one-up on Target. I'm planning to make my own version of cassoulet, substituting lentils for the white beans, and I know that Monoprix's prices will beat those at La Grande Epicerie--Paris's version of Dean and DeLuca--where my father (normally penurious) loves to shop. As an unanticipated treat, I buy a bunch of dark, near-black grapes from Provence. They are filled with seeds, but I rediscover how intensely sweet a grape can be, and the seeds of these Provencal beauties seem only a minor distraction in pursuit of their pleasures.

Walking home up the Boulevard St-Michel toward the Luxembourg Gardens, I feel confidence in my stride and turn my face toward the sun and the sky in a sort of salutory gesture of happiness. It's almost eighty degrees today.

I like to enter the gardens from the Senate side. There's less of a human crush, and by going that way, I can again enjoy the photo exhibit mounted on the gates of the garden along the rue de Vaugirard. The exhibit is always changing. This month, it's photographs by the likes of Henri Cartier Bresson, Elliot Irwin, Andre Kertesz, and other masters, free for all to enjoy.

The garden is peopled with sun worshippers today, and new plantings of petunias and salvia have appeared in bedding that was bare yesterday. Up ahead on the gravel path that passes the Orangerie, small forklifts are moving giant potted palms into the pavilion. A group of elegantly clad dowagers is watching the process, and in response to my query, agree that the gardeners must be pulling in the more delicate species in preparation for winter. And indeed, when I peek into the pavilion, it is filled with other palms and large potted orange trees. On a warm day such as this, winter seems incomprehensible, and the ladies and I shake our heads in wondrous disbelief.

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