I See France

My First French Friend

I am too swollen with pride and excitement to keep the news to myself: I have a French friend. The relationship, which I never expected to mushroom into anything so grand as that, began early one morning nearly two months ago. I was seated at my desk, as usual, pretending to be hard at work but actually waiting for someone to send me an e-mail so that I could be certain I still existed. So hungry for human contact had I become here in Paris that I was reduced to calling up old messages and rereading them. To generate the illusion of an active and busy social life, I had taken to keeping my AOL inbox empty, so that each time a new message arrived it talked to me.

Anyway, there I sat, waiting to be noticed by my computer, when the doorbell rang. Up until that moment, when our doorbell rang without warning it meant only one thing: Some FedEx deliveryman had miraculously freed himself from the grips of French customs with a 10-day-old package from the United States. The arrival of a FedEx package, exciting as it is, is a poor substitute for human company. I signed off AOL and trudged down in my bathrobe to sign for whatever had arrived, only to find that what had arrived was a little old lady. She stood with both hands clasping the bars of our tall iron gates looking about as decrepit as a human being can look. Her thinning hair hung limply down to her slumped shoulders, shrouded in a dusty pink sweater. Opening her mouth, she revealed a row of black stumps. Her frail appearance, however, masked her ferocious intent. Taking not the slightest notice of the fact that I was not yet dressed, she began to jabber loudly at me in French. I had no idea what she was saying, but whatever it was, it was clearly important to her.

I stood listening to what appeared to be a tirade for 30 seconds or so, picking up a word here and a phrase there, before I realized who this woman was: my next-door neighbor. The last I’d heard of her, Raskolnikov had been muttering about having the Parisian fire department break down her door and turn off her gas burners, which she had a habit of leaving switched on when she went out to do her shopping.

At length, the woman finished her speech and nodded with what appeared to me to be satisfaction. I was fairly certain I had just been read some riot act, but couldn’t be sure. In any case, she did not appear to realize that I had no idea what she had just said. Without waiting for a reply she simply turned on her heels and retreated step by painful step into her home. Well, I thought, that’s that: another bizarre social encounter with some French person who wishes I didn’t exist. I was on my way back to see if I had any mail when the doorbell rang again. This time the woman grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back into her house.

The odor that greeted us inside was overpowering, that sickly sweet wet-dust-bowl smell peculiar to the elderly who have abandoned personal hygiene. The room was dark and dank and strewn with papers and books. Piles of old French historical reviews that appeared to have gone untouched for decades took up fully one-quarter of the floor space. Except for a few withered photographs on the mantelpiece, and the old woman herself, there was no sign of life. My wife says that Paris sometimes feel like a city that belongs to its dead—one giant tomb—and has set out to prove her point in pictures. Here, I thought, was more evidence for her.

We passed through the living room and up some stairs into an equally chaotic kitchen. The problem—the reason the woman had rung the doorbell in the first place—was that the light had gone out over her kitchen table. She pointed to the fixture, which had come detached from the ceiling and now dangled from a ganglia of exposed wires. She announced, in French even I could understand, that I needed to fix it.

It was hard to say which was more extraordinary, that this perfect stranger was making such a wild demand on me, or the notion that I was even faintly capable of electrical repairs. I climbed up on one of her kitchen chairs and examined the treacherous fixture sagely, trying not to touch anything that might kill me, while the woman clucked away in French. Plainly there was nothing I could do here; the only question was how to extract myself gracefully. I figured that if I made a stab at fixing her problem, I could then offer up a Gallic shrug and return to my solitude. And so I did the only thing I knew how to do when faced by a light that doesn’t work: I unscrewed the bulb. Telling her to sit tight I darted next door—still in my bathrobe—into the hardware store, and bought a new bulb.

Returning, I found the old lady still clucking away in the darkness of her kitchen. I climbed up on the chair again, jammed the new bulb into the nasty socket and … voilà ! The light came on.

The elation that attended this event was wildly out of proportion to its significance. The old woman grabbed one of my hands in two of hers and told me, over and again, not merely how kind and generous I was, but how intelligent. For that brief moment, I was an American GI arriving to liberate Paris from the Germans. I had fixed the light!

Then I went home. For the next week I did not see or hear from the little old lady.

One day about a week later, the doorbell rang again. There she stood again, clutching the iron bars of our garden gate, moaning about yet another sophisticated electrical problem that she could not solve. But this time, after I’d replaced another light bulb, she was waiting for me with a stack of literature. These, it turned out, were the many books she had written about Christopher Columbus and the discovery of the New World. Would I, perhaps, care to read them and then discuss them over tea?

To be continued next week.