Monday, November 30, 2015

Paris in the Rain

Rainy weekday mornings, as far as they go, are never as good as they are in Paris.

As a kid, a rainy morning meant I would be walked to school instead of going there by myself. The seldom-washed windows of the école communale were streaked with the residue of too many coal-fired furnaces, and when it rained recess was held indoors instead of in the school’s courtyard. No big sacrifice there. The French educational system back then did not include phys ed, so time spent outdoors was mostly either standing around or chasing each other without much gusto in lackadaisical games of tag. The teachers supervising us smoked their Gauloises and Gitanes cigarettes in a corner and tried to look properly angst-ridden (existentialism was very big), prompted to move only if a pupil’s fall included blood and sprains.

On rainy days recesses held inside, a mayhem of paper airplanes, spitballs, pushing, shoving and tripping reigned in class. The teacher left and would return a half-hour later to restore order by whacking a long, straight ebony ruler against the blackboard. I remember that my fingers were permanently ink-stained; each school desk had a built-in ink pot filled by the teacher in the morning. We learned cursive writing with ink spreading on skin, class apron and under fingernails. To this day, I recall the bitter taste of the dark liquid when I licked and tried to rub it off my hands.

At home it was different. My mother had an atelier, a dress-making shop that catered to the middle class and aped the fashions of better-known couturieres. I’d come home from school, shed my rain cape (a real woolen cape that would get sodden and smelly) and do my homework on the fabric-cutting table.

I loved it in the atelier. There were two part-time models—living mannequin—who to my delight walked around in a state of constant déshabillé. Neither had finished school, but they helped with my homework, doing multiplications and divisions that always came out wrong. I didn’t care. I was fascinated by barely concealed breasts and derrieres, the curve of a leg or a spine. The math was checked by the enterprise’s gay designer and chief tailor whose facility with numbers was more pronounced than those of the models. When the homework was finished, the models and I played cards—war, usually, which requires neither intellect nor knowledge of mathematics.

Rainy days kept everyone indoors. The sewing machines clattered, fabrics hissed while cut; the atelier smelled of café-au-lait, croissants, chalk dust, and garlic from the model’s saucissons sandwiches. I gathered remnants and made fringes for my pants so they’d look like cowboy chaps. Long strips of discarded fabrics became headbands, belts, sashes, bandannas and skinny neckties. Squares became parachutes attached to lead soldiers hurled towards the ceiling or out the windows, because on rainy days in the spring and summer, my mother would throw open the large windows to let in air and the wet sounds of the city.

If Proust had his madeleines, I had and still have the sensory memory of diesel fumes, wet cobblestones and smoldering anthracite. I remember tires on water, the rushing of storm sewers, the streams escaping from the mouths of the gargoyles. There were seas of black umbrellas, the soaked flooring of an adjacent café, the aroma of the local épicerie and the sweet and tart tang of the vintner’s shop.

And that’s a Paris no terrorism will ever touch.


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