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Sunday, December 6, 2015

On the rue de Vaugirard

Au coin

Forgive the poor quality of this first image, cropped and blown up from a full-size print, itself of unexceptional quality. It was on the rue de Vaugirard (the longest street in Paris, my taxi driver warned when I gave him the street number, he trying to ascertain that I really did know where I was going), in the sixth arrondissement, that I encountered my first Paris kitchen. It was the kitchen of the first apartment I ever saw in Paris, the first Paris building I’d ever been in other than the train station, le gare du Nord.

For years I had been hoarding a few days a year of vacation time, never spending all I had available, until at last I had enough vacation time to go to Paris – for the first time! – for an entire month. All alone! I was going to have, at last, an adventure I had dreamed of all my life. “Where are you staying?” one friend asked. Airily I dismissed the question. I would find a hotel when I got there. The friend was aghast. Most of my friends were aghast, truth be told. One person, I was told years later, predicted that the city would “eat her alive.” “Her” being me, of course. Others told me I would hate Paris because Parisians were rude and hated Americans. I dismissed that silliness out of hand, sure that Parisians would love me, because I would be so happy to be there.

I did not take Paris by storm, but on that first visit I formed a friendship with a woman of my parents’ generation, a friendship that endured to the death.

Back home, the friend who had asked where I would be staying had been in Paris the previous year, and he contacted a woman from whom he had rented a room, although I already had plane tickets and would be arriving on the last day of April (2007), to stay through the month of May, whether or not that particular room might be available. Madame replied that she had only one month still available for the entire year – the month of May. I was in!

It was an exhausting flight on Icelandair, from Chicago via Keflavik to Luxemburg, where there was a long layover in a train station with waiting room seating accommodations only for first-class passengers. I hunkered down on the floor with my bag, willing the hands of the clock to move. Hours later the train to Paris began boarding, but I still had nowhere to sit: I had a ticket to ride but no “reservation,” a separate expense that would have guaranteed me a seat. Without a reservation I had to stand up, exhausted, swaying, almost until my destination was reached.

Midnight. Back in Michigan it was 7 a.m. I had been awake for two nights already. Yes, I assured the taxi driver, I was certain of the house number. And I had the all-important code that would get me into the building.

Un escargot
A beautiful stairway led up to the apartment of Madame Hélène P. Up and up and up I went with what now felt like a bag of cement. On her door was a little handwritten note, saying she was downstairs on the first floor, visiting a friend! I staggered back down, taking the bag along, unfamiliar with the city and the building and its inhabitants and customs. Mme. P. and her friend, Mme. L., tried to urge on me a cup of tea, a bite of something to eat, but all I had strength to do was to fall on a bed, and so, back upstairs and into – my room!

The room she rented out by the month – under the table, bien sûr, since the apartment was rent-controlled but because only with the income from the room could she manage to survive – was much larger and more generously furnished than her own bedroom. I had what seemed an enormous bed with small tables on each side, a fireplace surmounted by a mirror, a large table for writing, and a closet. The bathroom, c’est-à-dire, la salle de bain (not la toilette, which was in a separate, small, windowless room on the other side of the kitchen), with large tub and shower and bidet and window and rack for drying hand-laundered items, was between the two bedrooms, but my landlady seemed to regard it as mine, for some reason. Because I was a paying guest. When she asked me once, apologetically, if she might have a bath, I was shocked. “Mais vous êtes chez vous!” I told her. It was her home! And yet, dependent on her sub rosa rental income, she wanted her renter to be happy.

Hélène et Sirius, son chat
How could I not be happy? That first morning, hearing French voices through the open windows, the thrilling, chinking sound of spoon against coffee cup, the cooing and purling of pigeons and occasional flutter of their wings!

I would go out every morning, having studied my map and bus schedules and chosen a direction and one or more destinations for the day, but I only took a camera with me two or three times, near the end of my time there, because more than anything else I wanted to be where I was, immersed in the sensations of the moment and not viewing objectively through a mechanical lens. In the evenings, Mme. P. and I would sit together at her dining table, which also held her small television set, and she would watch tennis matches or work crossword puzzles, and I would write letters home, but our conversations gradually became more important to both of us. Hélène spoke no English, which was ideal from my perspective, as it forced me to rely on and improve the high school French I had been struggling to retain for so many years. We generally had a dictionary or two on the table between us, as well as a pad of “bloc-notes,” that peculiar paper the French seem to favor which instead of being simply lined for writing is broken up into a blue grid of small squares. If either of us could not make out what the other was trying to say, we would resort to pen and paper.

I saw myself in that era of my life as remarkably independent and self-sufficient. Hadn’t I gotten myself across the Atlantic Ocean, and wasn’t I making my way around a cosmopolitan world city day after day, all alone, in an acquired second language? Mme. P. saw me, I later learned, as “fragile,” and in a number of small ways she took me under her wing. When I brought home a bottle of red wine one evening, wine I thought incredibly cheap, she told me not to waste my money so extravagantly, that she would keep a bottle filled for me from her supply of bulk wine. She cleared a shelf in the refrigerator for me and kept a bottle filled with wine for me on that shelf. Next she offered to take me to the nearest neighborhood produce market, her favorite, one alas! now replaced by modern apartments. And after carefully noting my generally frugal (apart from that first bottle of wine) and tidy ways, she extended kitchen privileges to me. Cooking in Hélène’s kitchen did not come automatically with room rental. It was a privilege that had to be earned.

Another “alas!” is that I have no photographs of the kitchen, nor did I keep any kind of record of what I cooked in it. I remember an artichoke one evening. Another time I returned alone to the market Hélène had introduced me to and requested an avocado of a Vietnamese vendor. “Pour manger quand?” he asked. When I intended to eat the avocado determined the one he would choose for me. I also had a little beguin (a weakness) for all kinds of French sausages and related products. The variety dazzled me.

Later I would come to know the wonderful market street of the ninth arrondissement, la rue des Martyrs, and when to pronounce or not pronounce the final ‘s’ of the word plus when buying a tranche of cheese, the difference being more or no more.


About halfway through May, Hélène and I had progressed to addressing one another by the familiar tu, and it’s hard to say which of us was more touched by the conversational intimacy. For me it marked a first; for her, it might have been one of the last. When I returned to Michigan, we began an exchange of letters. And earlier this year, when I plucked I Know How to Cook, the English translation of the basic French cookbook, Je sais cuisiner, off my shelf, out fell letters from Paris.

I was transported. My friend, who died at the age of 90 about a decade ago, was alive again as I re-read the letters. The last one, I realized more than I had when first I received it, was one she knew would probably be the last she would write to me. It expressed how deeply she valued our friendship, how much I meant to her, but she also admitted that she had little desire any more for her own life, that she had become “a bit of a spectator of the end of [her] life” (un peu spectateur de ma fin de vie), though she retained her love of nature – the sky, clouds, cats, and “animals in general.” Always she closed sending kisses to my dog, a dog she knew only from snapshots.

I saw her last in September 2000, but Hélène is with me still, in my little Paris kitchen in my old Michigan farmhouse. It was Hélène who encouraged me to eat asparagus with my fingers, peasant-style (Hélène was artistic, well read, politically and socially well informed, and the same year I met her I began graduate studies in philosophy, but both of us came from peasant stock and were proud of that heritage), and even now, in spring, when Michigan asparagus is so tender and green, I wish I could have introduced my Parisian friend to the way we know the vegetable here Up North.

Ma chère amie, Hélène, tu es encore dans mon coeur et vraiment dans ma vie quotidienne. Quand je faire du pain, quand je bois du vin, je pense à toi.

The kitchen in my Michigan farmhouse, small as it is, overflows with dear, ghostly presences, and for that I am grateful. I would not have it any less crowded for the world. Here is the pasta maker given to me by another friend back in the 1970s. I think of her every time I use it. She died this year, but she also is alive in my Paris kitchen.

Pasta maker from Linda

Homemade noodles

Noodles and gravy


  1. This was a lovely read. I spent one week alone in Paris in 1985. Would do it again in a heartbeat, though my French was never as good as yours, it was enough to get me by. Today I would have to hope most there speak English. Still, what an adventure you had! And the friendship was (and still is) priceless.

    1. The whole experience enriched my life, as the memories continue to do. You know!

  2. Quelle belle histoire! C'est moi, Edmond. I hope this finally goes through! It was good to see you on Saturday and to find a nice stack of books to purchase.

    1. Cher Edmond, ta commentaire m'est arrivée!
      Merci mille fois. Et j'espère que les livres tu
      as acheté samedi dernier t'ont plu.