My mother told me years back that things are better nowadays than in the past.
Though I reckon she was thinking of the bad-tempered draught-horses that scared her as a little girl, her words have bucked me up through the trouble I’ve seen so far. Besides, I can’t remember a moment when that woman has been straightforward about what concerned herself. There seem to have been things in the worse old days that disturbed her little-girl self even more than her Dad’s horses.
I’m maybe meeting Karine for lunch, I believe, unless she can’t.
It’s already late morning, so I’ll walk both toward possible lunch and the office. Up, then, down, the rue de Belleville.
Karine has the strongest, most competent and loveliest woman-hands in the world. No woman under 50 can have hands like hers. Just in front of me: a very patient mother taking her good-humored 8 or 9-year old to school. She’s trailing her long-fingered unadorned right hand to feel the special smoothness of a worn metal fence-rail – nice, sure but some beauty can only be acquired by aging.
Looking away, right: concrete public housing. All oblique walls, water stains & grey dust & business-like businesses on the ground floors. Everybody here is living off the side-effects of life as it’s organized today: medical services & fluid analyses, computer-repair and copies, nicotine injectors, unblocked cell-phones. There’s a little communal garden at the south-west corner, on rue Haxo, I think it is.
A big hand-painted sign, now part-hidden by bushy roses tremière, reads “Nous sommes tous Charlie” – “We are all Charlie”. “We all” underlines Charlie’s inclusive nature, I guess, for the middle-aged, white French women who keep this garden going for this heavily-immigrant neighborhood. The fact is, all over the world les femmes d’un certain âge, white or not, keep the sweet things of ordinary life going. I bet a lot of them have hands almost as lovely and skillful as Karine’s.
“Je suis Charlie” brought together almost three million men, women & children to show publicly their belief that Liberté, Egalité, Solidarité are universal values. To my knowledge, this has never been done in such a straightforward way in such circumstances & spontaneously. And no-one was even sick.
And, as far as I know, never in the checkered history of this lovely country have political murderers provoked so little fulmination against the friends, families and presumed ethnicity & religious orientation of the murderers. Fulmination ranging from the truly venomous to unintended comical being something people here will do against their political and cultural enemies. Viz., Charlie Hebdo.
And then, too, Charlie were a mass of self-organized people standing up for right, not against wrong.
“My golly,” a woman spoke to me as I shuffled there in the crowd. Quite bon ton, bon genre, she is, but old and twinkly-eyed enough to have picked up a cobblestones or two in ‘69.
“It’s so strange to smile at the police,” she says, “I can hardly believe it’s me.” Well, it won’t do to encourage them too much, I reply. “Of course not,” she says, rather primly. “But in spite of everything, Monsieur, we are all Charlie. So there you are.”
I weep as I think of this.
I’ve come to the intersection of rue des Pyrénées & de Belleville.
Go to the office? Bet that she calls me?
If I go straight on down the rue de Belleville and she doesn’t call, I can always have a coffee, even lunch. Yes?
Yes, thank god. Nobody’s got me in a position that if I don’t go into work I’ll be sleeping out of doors.
It’s a spectacular view of the Eiffel tower from up here. Below the sky-line, kebabs compete with Asian delicacies and brasserie fare & organic chic.
I step into to the view. It disappears. On the left, the house where Edith Piaf was born.
Her respectable biographers don’t believe it. I do.
Because of my mother, if you like, because such misery is part of almost all pre-contemporary literature even if they’ve never noticed it. After all, until I read a squib about it in some newspaper not too terribly long ago, it never occurred to me that in the Slave South there was – Christ on a kebab! – a perfectly legal, perfectly necessary “slave correction industry”. Sweet Old Dixie was well spiced with artisanal torture & murder businesses! A fact, like those nine million bicycles in Beijing.
In Edith Piaf’s day, of course, and in my Grandad’s too, it was still universally acknowledged that the shamefulness of most people’s origins was ordinarily rewarded by poverty unless supported by work considered humiliating, as for Dalits or Gypsies today.
Lucky for Edith Piaf, her grandmother was madam of a brothel and could feed & care for her properly in those crucial first years, which neither her mother, a street singer, nor her father, a circus performer then serving in the Great War trenches, could do. Mon dieu, a family of mountebanks!
Karine texts “I’m free”.
I hurry, fly along.
“Grisette” meant/means “a seductive working girl, often with a connotation of prostitution”.
You’ll find Grisette’s phantom in almost every French popular novel until she disappears into the memory- hole: better work opportunities & social protection & so on towards the beginning of the 20th century.
Grisette’s disappearance was lamented, by the way, notably by an early socialist – “Damme, Dominique. These whores cost a fortune! In my day we could have them for half the price! Better looking & better service, too!” Hence, the nice statue, ordered by the state for the 1909 Salon.
By then, respectable people have stopped alluding to the casual sexual exploitation of young women as any more serious than the witterings of weak minds - just like, say, government institutions, the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts talked of allegations of systemic child rape.
I wonder why does that happen?
But enough of that.
“Karine, “ I call, trotting now, “Seeing you is to love you!”
Tracy Danison lives and works in Paris. You can find out more about his Paris walks here.