You can swallow the "gout du bonheur" for only five Euros at L'as du fallafel in the Rue de Rosiers in the Marais in Paris. The taste of happiness. A stubble-headed young guy in a baseball cap on the cobbles out front offers that and more - the doorway to Nirvana, your lost youth in a pita, and more prosaically, the best falafel northwest of Israel - to those passing by. But his barked seductions aren't needed. The line for the take-away window always snakes down the narrow street. Tourists, expatriates, locals, everyone knows L'as du fallafel, literally "the ace of the falafel," but more like "we ace falafels," and everyone seems to love it. But what's dinner without a show? And that's this guy's job: to joke with those in line in French, English, sometimes Hebrew.
The Marais is one of the few parts of central Paris that famed city planner Baron Haussman and his wrecking crew didn't get to. It's still clogged with medieval houses, twisting and turning lanes. No broad boulevards. It was a Jewish ghetto for centuries. Many conservative Jews still live there, dressed in black, some in broad hats, some with sidelocks. Jewish restaurants, fast food and not so fast, line the street and lurk around the corners in the alleys.
Now it's also the gayest part of Gay Paree. The two populations seem to get along well enough. Rainbow flags hang next to Stars of David. Around one tiny corner you go from a Jewish bookstore with sacred and profane texts to Les Mots à la Bouche, a gay-themed bookstore where the queer theory and canonical novels are upstairs, and the books you need to show an ID to see are in the basement.
I am in Paris with a group of undergraduates for the weekend. They're spending a semester abroad in Angers, a sleepy city in the Loire Valley an hour and a half west by high-speed train, and I'm one of their two American professors. It's my second spring semester teaching in the program. Once classes ended in late May the previous year, I stayed and lived in Paris for almost three months, learning the language in an intensive course, riding everywhere on a second-hand bike I bought, eating falafels, kebab sandwiches and merguez sausage, and falling more and more in love with a city I had already fallen in love with at first sight the first time I visited more than ten years earlier.
Now I'm back for a second term. It's February, and this new group of students is getting its first look at the city. We've taken a bus into the city which let us off in the Place de la Concorde an hour and a half before our scheduled Louvre visit. I'm hungry and decide I need a falafel. My colleague, her twin daughters, and four of our students tag along. My ten-week immersion course the previous summer makes me the closest thing to a Parisian in our group, so they follow me as I find my way through the Metro and the winding streets of the Marais. But L'as du fallafel is closed. It's Saturday. I should have known that a storefront with two Stars of David on the signage over the door, take-away window and plate glass window would observe the Sabbath. But there's another falafel place open just a few doors down. It's not quite the same, but it's good.
My falafel need somewhat met, my colleague, her kids and our students fed, we're ready for the Louvre. I set my path towards Ivres' "Turkish Bath." The gigantism of the Louvre made me decide on an earlier visit that the best way to experience it is to pick just one thing to see. Getting to it, seeing it, and getting out takes long enough to see all an eye can take. So this time, it's Ivres' wonderful example of objectifying Orientalism you have to condemn for its politics while marveling at its beauty. I wander with a few of our group through dozens of rooms, starting with Flemish paintings, then move on to French paintings from the fifteenth into the nineteenth century.
* * *
The next day we ride a boat on the Seine, and after that, we're all on our own. Some students climb the Eiffel Tower, others walk to Notre Dame. A group heads to look for Jim Morrison's grave in Cimitiere Père Lachaise. I'm just glad to be in Paris, speaking French, on my own. I've been avoiding places that cater to English speakers and intend to keep doing that.
I go to a coffee shop to work on a presentation I'll be giving soon via Skype to a colleague's class back home. I order my coffee competently, and even manage a brief conversation with the server about the difference between French cafés and American coffee shops. My French will probably never be beautiful. But from a foundation of "nul," or "worthless," I have risen to "debil," which is to say, "retarded." I was watching a documentary on French TV my third week here this second time around, and I understood everything two guys working a vegetable stand at a Saturday market in Lille were saying. I thought, "finally, I'm fluent in this language," then heard one of the guys say about a customer: "she's nice. I like nice people." That seemed more Candide than necessary. Then he said: "I'm not like everyone else; I'm different," and I realized this wasn't a documentary on open air markets, but on the functionally retarded, and that I was not fluent, only Franco-retarded. But I try to focus on the "functional" and the "Franco" and am finally getting along all right.
But as I settle into my coffee and a little work I have to do, I'm getting tired. I'm not sure whether it's an overload of French after a day and a half of English with/to/at my students, or the radical switch to reading Gayatri Spivak's particular version of academic English. For example:
No perspective critical of imperialism can turn the Other into a self, because the project of imperialism has always already historically refracted what might have been the absolutely Other into a domesticated Other that consolidates the imperialist self .
Maybe it's my "debil" French, or maybe it's the fact that yesterday was the Jewish Sabbath, but I'm feeling anxious and can't help feeling I ate the wrong falafel. It's just a year after my divorce, I'm 46 years old, and I need every taste of happiness I can get. Maybe if there were books like Eat, Pray, Love for men whose lives have sagged in the middle the falafel wouldn't be so important. But there aren't, probably since men do not read books to make themselves feel better. We hardly read books at all anymore, actually. I say this as an English professor teaching literature classes averaging 23 women and two guys. As everyone knows, we watch televised sports, drink beer, buy sports cars and date child-women to feel better, so I have to go back to L'as du fallafel. It's Sunday, most of Paris is shut down, but L'as du fallafel has to be open .
The Marais is close to the coffee house and the walk clears my head a little. And there it is, le gout du bonheur, open for business. I stand in the street in the wind, eating my falafel from its yellow paper wrapper and am happy. I think I'll be able to get some work done now, Spivak's prose style be damned, and how good it is to be in Paris again, walking down streets cars can hardly squeeze through. I wander a little, taking in the white building fronts and wrought iron balconies, the sounds of scooters buzzing through the canyon-like streets, nearly empty on a cold winter Sunday.
That's when the falafel starts acting up.
My stomach's usually reliable, but it's failing me. I've started walking towards the Rue des Archives, which seems like a good place to find a coffee shop that will let me work - if nothing else, there's a Starbuck's there. But after just about a block, sort of on the corner of queer and Yiddish, Spartacus and Abraham, just around the corner from a bookstore whose window displays a poster of Moses parting one lane of a swimming pool so a tubby rabbi in a union suit can run through and beat all the goys who have to swim across the pool, I have to stop in the street, bend over, and brace myself against a building as an aggressive cramp grabs my stomach. I don't know how long I stand there. A half minute, maybe more. At first I don't connect if with the falafel. I just think: "this is it, I'm middle aged and my body is falling apart, right here on the street." I used to say I'd know when I was middle-aged on my deathbed, when I would just divide by two, but it feels like I'm going to have to accept it sooner than that.
The cramp doesn't stop, but it eases. I look up and realize I've been stopped in front of the picture window of the gay bookstore, Les mots à la bouche, which is filled with its most provocative titles and covers. Passersby must think I'm ogling the bulging underwear on the cover of The Big Gay Book so intently that I've been physically overcome.
Fortunately, I'm able to stand upright and there's a little café half a block away. I had been in it once over the summer. The server had asked me then if I wanted to "boire un verre," or "drink a glass."
"Vous voulez boire un verre?" she asked.
"Non, je voudrais une biere," I told her. "No, I would like a beer. "
"Alors c'est oui, vous voulez boire un verre, " she said.
So I learned a phrase. Now it was my turn to ask if I could "boire un verre" before asking where the toilets were. "Downstairs," she said, and annoying me by speaking English after I've used the exact phrase she taught me a few months back, but it's too desperate a moment for argumentation, so I shuffle down a perilous spiral staircase to the toilet.
Somewhere in all this intestinal angst, or linguistic failure, or the realization that I'll never fill out a pair of underwear like the guy on the cover of The Big Gay Book, I start feeling expatriated. I haven't been homesick before, and have even been imagining what it would be like to stay in France indefinitely. Now, I want English, and more than the "downstairs" of the server at the café. English English. After I drink my beer, feel my stomach relax, and feel safe to wander the streets again, I go to the one place I know I'll find English on a Sunday. It's only a ten-minute walk to Shakespeare & Co., the bookstore whose predecessor published James Joyce and loaned Ernest Hemingway books to read when he was broke.
My recent reading had been putting titles in my head. I had been going through a biography of John Keats, and was struck by how fascinated he was with King Lear. Not light reading, to be sure, but more my language than even the most retarded French or the postcolonial theory speak of Gayatri Spivak. I'm sure that part of me was drawn to it by the stomach cramps and the fact that they had me feeling I was losing my power, dividing my kingdom, so to speak.
The bookstore's an inviting maze of old wooden shelves, overstuffed and overflowing, narrow aisles, a creaky stairway up to more books, nooks for reading. I've only been inside a couple of times because of my insistence on avoiding Englishness of any kind while in Paris, but I felt at home immediately then and do now.
I head over to the Shakespeare section. It's on the ground floor, a bit back to the left from the front of the store, high on a couple of shelves. Several editions of Lear are up there, just too high to reach. There's a ladder behind me, but someone's clearly marked it: "DON'T MOVE FROM HISTORY SECTION PLEASE, "with magic marker on masking tape. I'm always law abiding in a bookstore, so I stretch up and get a copy of Lear, only then realizing that Shakespeare is shelved right above half of the history section.
The failure to see both the sign on the ladder and the HISTORY label is a kind of blindness I have today, fitting with my sudden interest in Lear, its blinding of Gloucester, and Edgar's leading Gloucester to what he thinks is a cliff. Those are the lines that haunted Keats:
"Can't you hear the sea?" in Keats's memory, though it's a bit different in most versions of the play. They stand in for something to me, something just out of reach which I can't hear, touch, or understand on this ever more disorienting day.
But more than that, I think, as I walk to the checkout with King Lear and a copy of Saul Bellow's Herzog, a book I read years ago and feel like rereading,
it's the middle-agedness that came over me in the street in the Marais.
I once met the editor of the edition of Lear I've chosen. He was speaking at a conference when I was a graduate student. He had just won a fellowship that would allow him to spend five years just researching and writing. I have a job where I teach four classes every semester, one little book published, a recent divorce, and intestinal issues. But at least I haven't had my eyes gouged out and I have a daughter who's much more Cordelia than Regan or Goneril. Is this the day's lesson? The reason for choosing Lear? A sort of: "It could be worse"? Or is it that I've become Moses Herzog, who is, after all, a drifting, recently divorced professor of Romantic literature in his late 40s?
On the way out, I see a book cover that makes me laugh: Drink, Play, F@ck . No, there are no books for middle-aged, newly divorced men. We aren't supposed to wallow. King Lear and Herzog are the closest I'm going to get to self-help books. I don't buy Drink, Play, F@ck . I can't imagine the contents living up to the title,
but it's a nice jolt out of myself.
It's one of the ideas Keats is best known for, negative capability: "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." I'm not there, but it could be a useful destination.
I walk down the quay after leaving Shakespeare & Co. It's still cold and gray.
But it's also still Paris and I'm being paid to be here.
I tuck my new books under my arm like a security blanket.
Down the quay I know of two expat pubs. I consciously pass the Galway. There's an American flag flying outside, and that feels like too much of a capitulation to homesickness, so I keep going toward the Highlander. When I get there I understand the American flag back at the Galway. A chalkboard sign outside on the sidewalk says this is the place in Paris to watch the Super Bowl tonight. I hadn't even realized it was Super Bowl Sunday. It's bizarre seeing the Green Bay Packers' and Pittsburgh Steelers' logos drawn in colored chalk a block from the Seine.
But it's hours until the game. I'll be back in Angers by then. I get a pint of Guinness and stand there in a crowd of Scots cheering on the Rangers against the Celtic in a game of rugby. "Life's too short not to be Scottish," reads a bumper sticker pasted up over the bar. It's next to a poster for Guinness, "Pilier de l' Irlande" - "pillar of Ireland."
The crowd cheers loudly for the Rangers. On the wall next to me a framed glass case backed with green velvet displays relics from St. Andrews Golf Course from the mid- to late-19th century. Little cards captioned in hand-written ink tell me I'm looking at a "comb niblick" - a club head designed to reduce drag when playing from shallow water or other difficult lies. It looks like a mix between a sand wedge and a steel comb. There's a water iron with a hole in it called a "guttie mould. "A bunch of other bizarre artifacts.
There, drinking my pint, surrounded by aggressive expatriated Scots, I feel myself finally come to terms with my own dislocations, at least for the afternoon. One Guinness becomes two, and I learn a few of the rules of rugby. The Rangers and the Celtic look like underpaid club teams, like the hurling clubs that compete for glory in Ireland. I have Shakespeare and Saul Bellow in my bag and am reminded that back home a few hundred million of my countrymen are getting ready to arrange their days around the event I'll be missing on the road between Paris and Angers.
The discord of guttie moulds, brogues braying for home, the wrong falafel and a tongue that gets tied every time it tries to order a beer, the knowledge that when I get home it won't be the home I left, offer no comfort.
The hope that someday I'll be "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" has to be enough as I watch the Rangers crush the Celtic and order another Guinness.