I live in a narrow street on the Left Bank, in Paris, closer to Montparnasse than St. Germain des Prés. We all look into the rooms of near neighbors, know the programs they watch, the musical instruments the children play, but we never acknowledge one another in the street. We do, however, nod and smile (but never speak) if an encounter takes place at Le Midi, the café-bistrot at the corner, on the Rue du Cherche-Midi. So much for local customs. In an apartment just across from mine, a distraught, lonely, barking poodle has been keeping us all awake at night. Like half the quarter, the owners have vanished, probably for the whole of August, leaving just one of the sons–he looks 17 or so–to mind the flat and the dog. Alone at last, he seldom comes home. The dog, alone and dismayed, lets the world know. Yesterday I met them both, boy and dog, in the street. Nothing was said, but he stopped, pointed to the poodle, raised the leash, as if it were evidence in a trial, and gave me a look that conveyed apology, bewilderment, and gloom. If I were not constrained by local etiquette, I’d have said, “Yes, I know. You don’t want your parents to know. Yes, I am one of the people who complained to your concierge. But I am not the one who made threatening phone calls or said the word ‘police.’ I am the one who said to the concierge, ‘If he wants to stay out all night, tell him to take the dog.’ ” That may be what he is doing, because last night the street was as still as a village. It is a village, in fact. There used to be a writer nearby, a woman, who was an old friend of François Mitterrand. Everyone knew when he paid the neighborhood a visit, because she would order duck with orange sauce (a favorite of his) from Peltier, the wonderful traiteur on Rue de Sèvres. How did the story get around? By midafternoon, every storekeeper knew and had told every customer. He died, she moved away, and duck-with-orange-sauce has moved into the limbo filled with dead gossip.
My birthday. What occurs on one’s birthday sets the tone for the next 12 months. So far, so splendid. The apartment is like a garden and smells of lilies and roses and even sweet peas. I had a successful tussle with French bureaucracy and left them smiling. (The trick is to say, “I knew this was going to make me miserable,” and just stand there, looking as agreeable as one can, under the circumstances.) My German publisher has issued a friendly press release, announcing my birth date, with a photograph in which I look nothing so much as a boiled potato with earrings. Inland Revenue, the British income tax, has refunded me a sum I never expected to see again. I shall be dining at a place where there aren’t too many bright lights, so that I can see the August shooting stars. That ought to make for a fine year.