I See France

The War Hero Next Door

I took the little old lady’s collected writings on Christopher Columbus and hauled them back to our place. I’d agreed blithely to read the whole lot and then return to discuss the many questions about Columbus they raised in my mind. The initial thrill of the idea—not merely a new French friend but a French intellectual friend—blinded me to the reality of this task. Once installed on the glass table beside my desk, the collected works of Madame M____ took root, barely touched. It’s hard enough to read a whole book. Layer onto that the need to consult a French dictionary every sentence, and you have the ingredients for a mental block the size of Kilimanjaro. Week followed week, and the little old lady’s collected works only gathered dust.

Now, of course, there was no avoiding her. For nearly two months, we’d lived side by side and I had not so much as laid eyes on her. Now, whenever I went out, she was somehow there. Soon she acquired a curious public manner. She declined ever to notice me unless I noticed her first. Rather than look up and say hello, she focused intently on whatever she happened to be doing. As what she usually happened to be doing was standing outside our gate, or walking past me on the street outside our building, I was unable to neglect the possibility that each day that passed without a serious discussion of her works was, to her, a deep and unforgivable offence.

A few weeks into what appeared to be a mounting social disaster, I summoned the nerve to pay a call on her, which is to say I walked four steps outside our place and rang her doorbell. After what seemed like forever she opened her door. At that moment, the barometric pressure of our relationship changed forever. Her Parisian street reserve vanished; suddenly, she was all high-pitched bonjours and giggles. Christopher Columbus time!

She led me to her dusty sofa and took a seat right beside me and clasped my hand. There we sat, side by side, as awkward as a pair of corporate executives who have been mistakenly seated on the love seat in the corner of the restaurant. I waited for her to say something; she replied in kind. The air was stifling with dust and the strong odor of gas, the room as dark as night. Someone had to say something, and so, at length, I did.

“Christopher Columbus is much more interesting than I ever realized,” I said.

The torrent of French unleashed by this remark lasted fully 10 minutes. On and on she went, about the founding of the New World and Columbus’ problems with his father. Or maybe the problems were with his son. The truth is I had no real idea what she was saying, and the longer she spoke, the less I understood of it. Washed away in a flash flood of French, I floundered for survival. With one arm, I cast about for a word or phrase to cling to while, with the other, I guarded myself against the real danger of an unexpected question. When someone speaks to you very rapidly in a language you do not understand, you can nod and smile and they never know the difference, unless, of course, they ask you a question.

To my great relief, the lecture ended not with a question but with some sort of declaration. She then smiled and giggled and tossed her head back against her sofa, flirtatiously. This was followed by 30 seconds of silence, all the more awkward because it was so dark. It was the middle of the afternoon, but in the home of Madame M____ it might as well have been midnight.

Finally I said, “I would like to replace all your light bulbs.”

A ridiculous non sequitur in any language, of course, but it did the job. She lit up the place with a toothless grin and began to cluck-cluck with the most intense pleasure. Whatever interest she had in Christopher Columbus was nothing compared with her interest in her lighting problems. And so off I raced to the hardware store, where I bought a sackful of bulbs. Thirty minutes later her place was ablaze, and she was telling me how intelligent and kind I was. As I left she handed me another stack of literature, written by herself. Would I read them, she wondered, as I had read her works on Columbus?

Bien sûr! Our relationship now had a clear pattern. I pretended to read Madame M____’s work, and she pretended to believe I had done so. Once a week, I knocked on her door and we sat on her sofa talking about God knew what until I ran out of things to say in French, or ceased to understand what she was saying, whereupon I set about replacing her light bulbs, switching off her gas burners, which she always left on, and generally doing whatever a technically incompetent person can do in the way of household repairs. At the end of each session she handed me a stack of reading materials, none of which I ever so much as glanced at.

A month into this curious arrangement, our landlord paid a call on us. Over a cup of coffee she told me the history of her dealings with my new French friend. Madame M____’s habit of leaving on her gas burners had been a concern for some time, she explained. A few years back, certain that one day the little old lady would blow the whole building sky-high, our landlord went to the makeshift board that administers our building and asked them to demand that the little old lady exchange her gas stove for an electrical one. “They refused,” she said. “When I asked them why they were willing to put the whole building at risk of an explosion, they said things like ‘She fought in the Resistance during the war, you know,” and ‘She saved the lives of many Jews by hiding them in this building.’ “

The members of the condo board were sentimentalists to a man. They felt that the old lady’s heroism during the Second World War exempted her from the ordinary rules of apartment building life. If she blew us all sky-high, so be it. Vive La France!

I have made a note to ask Madame M____ about all this, the next time we meet.