Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 18: Prete-a-habité

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By Paul Ben-Itzak 
Copyright 2013, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

Pam and I were walking back from Barbes — the French Arab section of lower Montmartre immortalized in Marcel Carné’s “Les Portes de la Nuit,” in which Montand misses the Last Metro at the Barbes station and a nocturnal phantasmagoria ensues – after an unexpected feast at the Cafe Royale, which was celebrating the end of Ramadan by augmenting the standard couscous royale dinner with a lemony lentil soup and sticky honeyed pastries, arrosed with complimentary fresh mint tea served in lacquered glasses. (As I learned later, the resto was located right below the Fondation Barbara, named after yet another legendary French chanteuse.)  I was about to learn that with Pam I had found something I’d not known since my childhood best friend and I walked into a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon that was more greasy than we’d anticipated outside Durham, North Carolina, starving and sleepless after a harrowing night with a black bear in the Pisgah National Forest where we’d been camping out before returning to college, and quickly realized that if we didn’t want to get very sick, we would need to figure a way out of there that wouldn’t offend the owner/grease ladler without being able to communicate out loud: that kind of relationship where your points of view are so synchronized that you can be in any situation and telepathically devine what the other’s thinking.

In the present case, after turning down the rue Condorcet, a street divided by a grassy milieu which paralleled Rochechouart / Clichy (home to the Moulin Rouge), Pam and I were approached by a thin young man in a suit and tie who invited us to enter his house, which was parked at the curb. In fact it was a sample unit for an outfit called, “La maison qui vous suive partout,” the house which follows you wherever you go: Not a mobile home in the classic sense, nor a winnebago, nor a trailer, but a petite pre-fabricated portable box house, with a downstairs kitchen and living room and upstairs loft, from which emerged, as we entered, a middle-aged, unshaven, balding man in a magenta bathrobe, rubbing sleep out of his eyes with one hand and cradling a coffee mug with the other. “I hope we’re not disturbing you,” Pam offered politely. “Pas du tout,” the man assured her with a wave of his hand. “It’s part of the job.” For better verisimilitude, the House Which Follows You Wherever You Go had hired actors to pose as real-life inhabitants. While I marveled that we had somehow shifted from Marcel Carné noir to Jacques Tati prototypical hyper-modernity, Pam switched into journalist mode — after 17 years in Paris, she was still curious and able to be surprised — and posed simple questions about the portable housing pod. It was not the first time we’d find ourselves in a droll situation, made more funny because we both saw the humor in an event that to the French might seem ordinary. This is one of the many gifts Pam brought me: with an American gal pal in Paris to cavort with, I was no longer the Oddity. They were.


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