C’est pas grave: How the baguette became my worse enemy or, Fear and Loafing in the Southwest of France

SAINT-PIC-LE-LOUPE (Dordogne), France — The main justification for my spending half of the last year in Paris has been dental work. Each time we think everything’s done, I’ve no sooner returned here to Saint-Pic-le-Loupe (not its real name) than something Dr. Cagney has just fixed falls off again, and the perpetrator is usually a baguette. I am not imprudent; first I only ordered bread that was ‘bien blanche,’ hardly cooked. Now I don’t even buy baguettes. But the sliced-up, soft, and very white baguette my friends served with the morbier and aged brie after a delicious palombe (a cross between a dove and a pigeon) confit which madame served and monsieur had bagged looked innocent enough. And when I noticed what felt very much like a morsel of tooth mixed up with the cheese and asked my friends if anything looked broken, they assured me, no. So it was only when I got home and looked in the mirror that I was able to confirm that the composite with which Dr. Cagney had filled out a chipped lower tooth and fallen off.

Hoping that getting out of the house would cheer me up, and needing to get some decaf and other provisions anyway, I decided to descend to the town center — I live in a medieval stone house up top the old city — and to the Carrefour Market. At least maybe I’d run into some people I know and be able to break the loneliness I feel myself succumbing to since leaving my friends’ dinner — and, more globally, Paris Monday.

So I was cheered to run into a 71-year-old cherub in a yaughting cap I know who, despite having to get around with a walker, is always smiling and then starts laughing when he sees me. He was crossing the street off the traverse, and when he saw me, he seemed to accelerate, anxious to chat.

“Ca vas?” I asked.

No longer giggling, talking tensely and his whole face turning red, and looking back at the route, he answered, “You have to watch out on this street, or they’ll run you over! See where the middle line is there? The other day I was there and a car just whizzed past! Doing 100 in a 50 kilometer zone. I could have fallen down and broken my leg, or my arm — straight to the hospital.” As I was about to expound, “Bloody tourists,” he explained, “And they were people from around here, not Brits. The English are usually considerate.”

“On est trop pressé!” I complained, trying to comfort him. The Paris speed-bug seemed to have spread.

At the Carrefour, I was still moping about my newly missing tooth morsel when I spotted my neighbor Sandrine, busy stocking soap. Sandrine has been working at Carrefour for more than 30 years. Her husband Fabrice, a stone-mason, recently finished building their lavish retirement house in Gordon, in the neighboring county of the Lot, as green as the Dordogne but more savage. “Shopping center not far away, but rolling fields with horses from the front!” exulted Fabrice, who used entirely recuperated sand-colored stones from other medieval houses. Retirement is only two years away, but they’ve already started spending week-ends there.

“Madame, est-ce que vous pouvez m’aidé?” I asked, to get Sandrine to turn around. The last time I’d seen her and Fabrice was for my birthday barbecue two months ago, right before my departure for Paris, and where I served Manhattans. But when Sandrine saw me, she didn’t seem particularly excited; we might have seen each other yesterday. “Ca vas?” I asked.

“Moi, oui, mais Fabrice, non. He’s been in the hospital for three weeks. He has leukemia.” Chemo has already started. Fabrice will come home next week for a week, then back to the hospital. After I offered my commiserations, Sandrine answered with the almost automatic, “C’est pas grave…,” then re-considered. “Mais si, c’est grave! Mais on n’est pour rien.” There’s nothing they can do about it. After asking her to give Fabrice my love, and purchasing my rations for a solitary dinner, I looked out at the parking lot, where the rain that had stopped right before I left Paris as soon as I bought an umbrella had found me and resumed here in the Dordogne. Of course, I’d left my umbrella in Paris, as there was no room for it, what with the books I’d picked up on or by Max Jacob, Leo Malet (a detective novelist — whose Nestor Burma is sort of a poor man’s Maigret, but whose wordplay matches Boris Vian’s), who I hope to translate, a Rex Stout Nero Wolfe mystery translated into French, just to have a taste of Ole New York and for ideas on translating crime stories from the other end (“Why not?” to quote Warren Oates’s reply to William Holden’s proposal to take on the Spanish army with their five-man “Wild Bunch” crew), peanut butter, three jars of Ajvar, my speakers, the book on the history of Parisian addresses I’d never opened because I was too busy writing about my adventures on the streets of Paris, a bottle of eau de vie from the Southwest of France and of an aperitif mixing eau de vie with prune juice both of which I’d scored at a Southwest wine fair in Paris, the rest of the cat food, several rolls of toilet paper, a Pernod carafe which I don’t really need but which at 1 Euro I couldn’t resist, and numerous DVDs I’d scored at vide greniers (neighborhood-wide garage sales; vide = empty, grenier= attic) for a Euro or less, including “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

As I sit here shivering after the wet walk home, I tell myself that at least there’s one good thing about being cold in the south of France in mid-July. If I’m not quite up to having rosé for the aperitif, at least it won’t be too hot for me to drink the last of the Manhattan mix. And if I get fucked up, Why not? Things already seem pretty fucked up anyway.            — Paul Ben-Itzak

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