Some light snow had just fallen. Having quickly crossed the street in the chill gusts of wind, I entered the now-familiar warmth of the big café just by the Sorbonne, filled with the animated buzz of the students who assiduously frequented it.
The start of the academic year, my first at university, seemed distant already, even though I had not been haunting the steeply raked lecture theatres of the monumental building for very long at all.
Free. I felt free. Free to satisfy my curiosity. Free to choose, to choose what might suit me or please me; what might be useful. I was no longer being educated, like at school; I was my own guide.
“Couldn’t find the way out, eh? It’s at the top, at the back!”
Coming from the nearby tables full of coffee cups and students, the merry voice of an energetic-looking lad – quicksilver! – invited me to join them. They all shoved up so that I could find at least enough room to sit down. Not having immediately understood his jest, I answered innocently:
“I had something to ask the prof...”
“Oh, nobody would have suspected otherwise!”
I felt myself blush. As I was casting about for an answer, a girl with a serious and self-contained air – an amethyst – interrupted my thoughts:
“Did you ask him about the fourth equation?”
“There was nothing particularly difficult about it,” broke in Quicksilver.
“It’s how it’s used in physics...”
I didn’t let her finish:
“Yes, it’s full of mystery.”
Quicksilver tossed his head:
“May I remind you that our degree is in science, not philosophy!”
“And maths is quite sufficient right now; there’ll be time enough later for physics,” sighed Hubert, another boy in our little group.
Everyone agreed. I was bombarded with questions, as some of them hadn’t understood everything.
The colour of the conversations changed, shifting to films and excursions… Other conversations were taking place at the neighbouring tables: were they similar? The hubbub had filled the big room… I wasn’t in a living-room, either at my house or at one of my friends’, in pleasant company, and yet I had the same sensation of well-being that you only get in places where you feel at home.
I emerged from the café into a darkened street. The sun would be setting soon and, had it been there, the thick clouds heralding imminent snow would not have let it show itself. I scampered into the easy warmth of the metro. The ticket-collector was kind enough to let me through even though the train was already in the station; having had my ticket punched, I jumped into the carriage just as the buzzer sounded to announce its departure. Vaugirard. Getting off the train while it is still moving gives you the impetus to take the stairs at a run. As it had not yet started snowing I didn’t have to hurry home. The little unpaved cul-de-sac took me to my house; I could hear the sound of the neighbouring sculptor’s chisel as I passed by.
The literature lecture is coming to an end. The lecturer has talked about a world and the people who live in it. That is what books talk about here. They talked to us about the same things at high school too; but we didn’t have time to think, never mind dream, about that world and the people who live in it; our thought was not supposed to remain, and perhaps flourish, within ourselves, it was supposed to be constantly on show, out there in the open, in front of the teacher who asked questions and, oh yes, expected answers. Here, I haven’t so much listened as drunk; I have drunk the life the book recounted; I have drunk the life the lecturer talked about. We had time; the questions would not come until much later.
“Yes, it’s true, you can drink…,” says Dryad thoughtfully, as though she were looking for…
I smile at her:
“After all, they talk about ‘drinking someone’s words’!”
She smiles back:
“Yes, but are they thinking about the words or about the someone?”
We look at each other without speaking.
No, I hadn’t changed courses, just that Dryad was reading literature. She hadn’t been in Paris for very long at all, and it was from the forests of Annecy that she had brought her green eyes speckled with golden flowers; flowers named after a free and immortal nymph who lives with the trees in the woods, a dryad.
Opposite the Sorbonne, near our usual large café, lives Amethyst. Not in a palace, though, just a maid’s room which her parents have fitted out for her right at the top of the big building they live in. But how vast it is, her room, with its elegantly sloped ceiling and high window overlooking a courtyard filled with light – though not today, the light having rather got lost on the way…
Amethyst has made coffee for Quicksilver and me. Now, to work!
The fourth equation was indeed full of mystery for things to do with physics. It was about the fourth dimension of a space which apparently existed but could not be understood. Was it really so important, then?
“Not just for physics but for the whole of our life,” begins Amethyst.
“Our life right now is the maths problem, and it’s not the angels who are going to solve it if we don’t,” mutters Quicksilver.
“The problem isn’t going to go away.”
I butt in:
“Are you so afraid for your life?”
“No, not afraid... But then again maybe. I remember, when we were at school, the three of us used to talk about what use our studies would be.”
“Yes, they were supposed to give us something useful, not just knowing how to solve a particular problem.”
“Problem-solving teaches us how to live,” remarks Quicksilver.
“Yes, but as long as life remains a mystery, arithmetic will be useful only if isn’t used purely for itself,” replies Amethyst.
She adds forcefully:
“Physics may be able to explain life to us; maths alone can’t.”
I break in:
“There’s not only physics, I reckon.”
“No, of course not. But not…”
“But not just doing for the sake of doing.”
Our usual café was loud with the noise of our little group.
“We can do what we like, but now it’s up to us to know…” says Odile in a strangled voice.
“Know what?” rumbles Hubert. “We have to learn what we’re told, just like before!”
“And what if I don’t feel like it?” says a big fellow with a loud voice, banteringly.
“You can do your learning elsewhere,” Odile tells him. “All you have to do is pass your exams!”
The rain had eaten the snow, this morning. Dryad and I had gone to the bookshop near the Sorbonne to buy a book she needed. But there was none to be had: out of print. Dryad was worried:
“It often happened to me in Annecy. I love reading. What a bore!”
I reassured her, with a dash of bravado:
“This is Paris. We’ll easily find one.”
“But if it’s out of print, the other bookshops…”
I cut in:
“We’re not going to a bookshop.”
She shot me a startled look.
“So where do you expect to…?”
I answered in the manner of an explorer taking non-initiates to a special place no-one knows about except him:
She gave a little nod and we set off.
The Boul’ Mich’ was full... of businesspeople.
- Businesspeople? inquired Dryad.
- No, no, this isn’t the financial district, it’s the Quarter!
She broke in, her tone implying ‘I may come from the sticks, as people are always so ready to point out, but I know stuff too!’:
“I know, the Latin Quarter, though I can’t say I’ve ever seen many Roman citizens round here!”
I was going to reply but she went on with a hint of nostalgia:
“And there’s no lake alongside your boulevard Saint-Michel…”
Oh, yes. Her lake, back there…
“Oh, yes. Your lake. It must be beautiful… I checked on the map, you can see the midday sun reflected in your lake…”
She turned to me with a pensive look:
She smiled, then said:
“Back home, I didn’t pay attention, I was used to it. But now I miss my lake…”
She fell silent for a moment, then went on:
“I’m always expecting to see mountains when I look out, but they’re never there.”
I was surprised. Yes, really surprised. So it was possible to live somewhere other than Paris? My question seemed silly. Of course it was possible to live somewhere other than Paris. Why ever not? Why had that thought come into my head, even though I myself was not from France?
“I’ve never been out of Paris much.”
Now it was Dryad’s turn to be surprised:
“Don’t you ever go for walks?”
Go for walks? I didn’t understand what she meant:
“Yes, I do, I often go for walks.”
“So... Why are you asking?”
She gave me a long look:
“Where do you go for walks? I go into the mountains…”
“Into the mountains… Oh, I see… I… I walk… in the Luco… by the river…”
“The Luxembourg Gardens; you know…”
“Yes, I see. I haven’t been there yet.”
I was a little lost. I added mechanically:
“The riverside… That’s where we’re going…”
“The riverside? What about my book?...”
I wake up:
“Your book? Look, there, it’s right in front of you!”
As we spoke we formed part of the crowd of students and boys and girls from the nearby schools, busily buying books in the many bookshops on the Boul’ Mich’, or note-pads or other things, hurrying to class or heading to the metro to go home, or elsewhere. “There they are, the businesspeople!” I had explained to Dryad as we walked along.
We had arrived in sight of the Seine embankment and I pointed out the little shops, no more than canvas-roofed stalls, set up on the parapet, piled high with books, music, prints and a whole host of other items, postcards, souvenirs of Paris and I don’t know what else…
Dryad stared, wide-eyed, uncomprehending. Then it clicked.
“This is where you can find books you can’t find anywhere else,” I announced triumphantly.
And indeed we did. It was a pleasure to see her rummaging in the booksellers’ wares as though hunting hidden treasure. She ended up unearthing other books she had long wanted to read but never been able to find.
“I had given up hope!” she said with a bright smile.
Then, after giving a slight shake of the head:
“It isn’t the first time I’ve found things in Paris that I can’t get at home.”
“For me it’s like your lake: I’m used to it.”
I added after a short pause:
“If ever I were to miss it… I don’t know what I’d do.”
The rain, which had waited patiently until Dryad had finished her errand, had started to fall again. We went into the nearest café to dry off and warm up.
“What do you do in the mountains if it rains?”
She laughs softly:
“Don’t you ever walk in the rain in Paris?”
“Yes, I do. The rain doesn’t bother me; I rather like it, actually.”
“So it’s in Paris.”
I was puzzled; it seemed so obvious…
“In Paris you can always find shelter if you want, in a doorway or in the metro or in a café – like here!”
She pondered for a moment:
“And do you?”
“No. Or rather sometimes… like today… because you’re here.”
I was puzzled. So… what I might miss, if I wasn’t in Paris, didn’t interest me? But what about books then?
“Maybe you live in Paris the way I live in Annecy, just without knowing it.”
I was puzzled. I know, don’t tell me, I’m repeating myself. I tried a feint:
“You said yourself that here you found…”
“I also said that I didn’t find my mountains.”
“Are there wolves in your mountains?”
“Wolves? Why wolves?”
“There aren’t any in Paris.”
She looked at me blankly. I went on:
“I don’t know why I said that either.”
There was a moment of irresolution. We looked at each other in silence.
“In Annecy you have another life than mine.”
She said nothing. I went on:
“The houses surround me here. I’ve got the metro to take me where I want to go. I can find books. I can call out and it won’t be a wolf that answers.”
“You can’t see the sun go down, you can’t see the flowers grow in the forest.”
It was my turn to ponder:
“Perhaps Paris isn’t part of the world…”
“I know what Paris is, I don’t know what the rest of the world is.”
“And yet the rest of the world exists.”
“Yes, but it’s like a language I don’t know. I can learn it one day but it will never be mine, the one I was born with. You only have one language, all the others are foreign languages. There may be somewhere better than Paris, but it’s somewhere else. Lutetia et orbis, in the language of the Latin Quarter.”
“Quand nous chantero-ons... le temps des ceri-ises... Et gai rossigno-ol... et merle moqueu-eur... Seront tous en fê-ê-ête...”
She often passed by my little unpaved cul-de-sac; in a voice that was no longer that of her distant youth, she sang long-forgotten songs. People would throw her a few coins, wrapped up in paper.
Her song, fading as she slowly moved away, was gradually replaced by the tuneful warbling of my finches, flitting in the tall trees of the garden opposite me.
Having left my house, I gave a little wave to the sculptor who, like a demiurge, was releasing a goddess from a shapeless block of marble; I was fascinated by what seemed to me like a mystery. One day, he offered to teach me his art; I managed to make a few holes; he did not insist.
The bus or the metro? I was due to meet up with my parents not far from the Bois de Boulogne for lunch with friends. I mulled over the question as I crossed the garden my finches were so fond of; it was a convenient short-cut and my neighbours had no objection to my taking it. The bus or the metro? It was a question worth asking; the bus made a dent in my pocket-money, but there were two changes on the metro. No matter, the bus it is. Reaching the corner of the street, I see it starting to pull away; my decision is confirmed – there will be no need to waste time waiting. I’ll have to be quick, though; I hare after it and leap onto the back platform, then all I have to do is close the chain which acts as a door and let the wind whip my face. The Mirabeau Bridge; before taking it, the bus rounds a little garden right in the middle of the square, like an island lapped by wave upon wave of cars. The little garden is a haven of peace and quiet where children can play unconcerned by what goes on beyond the gaps in the fine wrought-iron railings which protect them.
I have arrived. The last time I came here I was still in high school; now I’m a student, reading natural sciences. The change is visible, very visible. Not in me, of course… But… Don’t be silly! Of course it is visible in me too. Didn’t I say that I felt free? So that may be why the change is visible… in them. They no longer ask if I’m working hard at school but talk to me about my career, my future scientific research, they ask me my opinion. The young lady of the house, who is still in high school, has found out that I exist; her brother, younger than her and also in high school, looks at me covertly and anxiously: his parents will certainly hold me up as an example and make a comparison that will leave him with no illusions as to his abilities. After lunch the… children go to their room while I stay, though I might have had more fun with them.
Sunday. Lunch with my parents. I have thought about yesterday; I hadn’t realised that my parents no longer questioned me about my studies the way they used to. They have seen that I take my studies seriously; but I always have. So? I’ve grown up; but I’ve always been growing up. So? I watch them; they seem calm. My mother no longer has the anxious look I’ve often seen her with. My father seems more absent-minded when he talks to me. I felt free, did I say? Had my freedom cut bonds?
Before splitting up and going home, our little group of scientists had decided to go and see a film on the boulevards. “Go and get Dryad,” Quicksilver had whispered. I went.
“Parisians are always going to the cinema,” commented Dryad with a frown when I asked if she wanted to come with us.
“Don’t you like the cinema?”
“Yes, I do… Well, not that much. Not too often.”
“What sort of films do you like?”
“I like films based on books. Books I haven’t read.”
I was surprised:
“That you haven’t read?”
“Yes. With books I’ve read, I imagine the characters myself. Seeing them would bother me.”
“We can do something else if you’d rather.”
“No, I don’t mind coming at all.”
She paused, then added with a smile:
“We can do something else another time.”
The metro took us to Opéra in a few stops. Despite the cold and the mist that shrouded the Grands Boulevards, the place was very lively: delivery boys rushing past; strollers not rushing past; newspaper-sellers crying the name of their particular rag; people eating and drinking on the terraces – enclosed at this time of year – of the grand cafés from which scraps of music issued, languorous or brisk; prowling taxis trying to guess which of the passers-by might be a fare; traffic jams at intersections, “Move it, move it!” yelled the policeman jauntily. It was a far cry from the quiet roads around my house; no question here of playing football, as I used to in my almost deserted streets when I was still at school.
“There are more cars on this single road than in the whole of Annecy…”
Dryad had spoken in a voice full of wonderment. She nodded for a good while, then said:
“My father has been to Paris a few times; he said he never quite managed to know where he was; now I understand!”
“First you have to have a car,” said Amethyst. “Not everyone has got one.”
“Oh, yes!” exclaimed Jeanne, a girl who can’t stand still. “I would’ve liked to have one all to myself!”
The assertion caused general laughter. Odile protested:
“As if there weren’t enough already! You can hardly cross the road without getting run over!”
Armand, a determined young man, declared in a voice that brooked no contradiction:
“I’ll get a car as soon as I’ve passed my test.”
Doubtful looks from the other boys, interested looks from a few girls.
“Chestnuts, hot chestnuts! Chestnuts, hot chestnuts!”
Quicksilver had already rushed over to the brasier that stood in majesty on the pavement of the boulevard Montmartre; chestnuts crackled softly on the great copper plate pierced with holes that let through little flames now blue now red, acquiring a beautiful, mouth-watering, burnt brown colour. Ahead of us, a delivery boy who had just arrived, whistling gaily, was joking with the vendor.
The chestnuts burnt our fingers; delicious!
We continued to make our way to the Vivienne, a cinema not far away, in the Rue Vivienne, of course.
I turned round to see what had caused Dryad’s exclamation.
“There, that man, with a leather bag around his neck!”
“Oh, the man in livery. He’s a stock-exchange messenger.”
“He must be carrying gold at least! Did you see the chain around his neck?”
“Yes indeed! You guessed right.”
“Is he really carrying gold?”
“That’s right. Gold ingots, and coins too, and foreign currency…”
“What, just like that, in broad daylight? And everyone knows?”
“There are policemen everywhere, the messengers don’t need to worry.”
We continued down the boulevard.
“At least that one won’t get wet on his way home!”
“On his way home? Who?”
She pointed to a seller of trinkets, his stall an open umbrella on the ground holding gloves and scarves and other bits and bobs.
“Petit Papa No-ël...”
A street singer had just set up with his accordion in the middle of the pavement.
“He sells music too!” exclaimed Dryad.
Turning to me, she said:
“I love this song; let’s buy the music and we can play it together.”
The film at the Vivienne was not based on a book that Dryad had read; somebody wanted to do something at all costs and succeeded; I never knew what it was; it’s true that we had arrived half-way through; which hadn’t stopped Hélène from immediately bringing us up to speed on what had already happened; and don’t imagine for a moment that she had already seen the film; not at all, no; she guessed; it was as simple as that.
After the cinema, the inquest in a nearby café.
“Don’t you like the cinema?” Dryad asked me, having noticed my inattention.
“He only likes things that make you think,” answered Quicksilver in my place, in an amused tone of voice.
“Not much chance of that there,” commented Amethyst.
“It was funny,” remarked Armand.
“Yes, well, it was your choice, so that explains why you had to find it funny,” said Jeanne sarcastically.
Beer and lemonade accompanied a peaceable conversation, far removed from maths. Tomorrow would come soon enough.
It was time to go: theatre time on the boulevard. When I say “theatre time” it’s just an expression; I’ve yet to see the curtain in a theatre go up on time. The audiences were gathering as the metro trains arrived; the taxis were flocking. We went home.
The problem posed by the professor during the maths lecture, though ordinary enough, still called up the mystery of the famous fourth dimension.
“What is the point of it all, since we will never know?”
Quicksilver made a disillusioned gesture towards the books in which, at Amethyst’s, we were searching for the answer to the mystery.
Amethyst looks at him with a slight frown:
“Just to search, I think.”
“But since we can’t find!”
“Animals don’t know why they search for food; it’s hunger that drives them. They don’t know what hunger is; it’s just hunger. They can’t do otherwise; otherwise they stop existing – they die.”
“So does that mean we will die if we don’t keep searching?”
I say dully:
“Antigone is dead.”
They both give me a questioning look. I answer:
“She didn’t search for what there was behind her brother.”
“Behind her brother?” says Quicksilver with surprise.
“You mean what her brother represents?” Amethyst asks me.
“Yes. A person or a thing.”
“A thing? Do you mean a symbol?”
“No. An inert object, that you are shown and have to contemplate; like our problem would be if we didn’t search for what there is behind it.”
“That’s true,” confirms Quicksilver. “Our problem teaches us what we don’t understand.”
“Antigone didn’t understand what she was doing. She did it, as Amethyst said, because she was hungry. But she didn’t do it on her own initiative, she had obeyed the gods.”
“Amethyst was talking about food.”
“Yes, she was right; but animals don’t obey anyone, they know what they have to search for.”
“What else are people hungry for? Do they even know?” murmurs Amethyst.
A lovely winter sun, cold and bright, cut Paris through the transparent air. I had taken Dryad on a walk to see the furthest reaches of the capital from the top of the Eiffel Tower. From Montparnasse, where she lived, we had set out at a leisurely pace towards the Champ de Mars. The chestnut trees that lined wide avenues took us to Lycée Buffon.
“Is that where you went school?” Dryad asked me when she saw it.
“Yes. Do you like it?”
“Very much. It looks like a stately home!”
“Is the school you went to as big?”
“Oh, no. Annecy isn’t a very big place. My school is smaller but I like it… after all, I spent my youth there.”
“Indeed, madam! But that was a long time ago…”
We started laughing, happy to take the mickey out of ourselves. Once we’d stopped, an idea came to me:
“Since you’ve just seen where I went to school, do you also want to see where I live?”
She answered simply:
Off we go. A smaller street; the Pasteur Institute. Dryad was surprised:
“I’d heard about it, back home. It’s odd, seeing it for real.”
She added wistfully:
“It’s marvellous to have… all that.”
I couldn’t see what was so marvellous about it; after all, I passed by every day.
My little, unpaved cul-de-sac. Dryad stopped at the entrance and was looking without moving. After a moment she said softly:
“You live in a village…”
She advanced without haste, looking at each house. The sculptor could be seen through the skylight of his studio, chisel in hand, carving the marble. She stopped and looked at me:
“Do you think I can go in?”
I was not surprised, given my fondness for sculpture.
“He’s really nice. Come on!”
She loved the visit – “It’s the first time…”; I liked that. The sculptor showed her some techniques; she tried her hand at them. I was surprised; she had managed to produce a shape, still rather vague, to be sure, but in which the intended form could already be discerned. The sculptor showered her with compliments.
After leaving the studio I showed her the garden; my finches were perched in a branch high up – cats were roaming!
“You let your birds out!...”
“Oh, they come back, you know…”
She broke in impatiently:
“Yes, no doubt!”
I said nothing. I was surprised by the sharpness of her reaction and did not know what to do. Had I said something wrong? Was she cross? A short silence ensued. She was still looking at the finches. Then she turned slowly towards me and said in a confidential tone of voice:
“Your birds know you’re someone who can be trusted.”
Without transition she turned round, gave a broad smile and asked me, pointing to my house:
“Is that your house?”
Seeing my surprise, and before I had time to answer, she said, impatiently again but much less sharply:
“You told me your house was opposite the garden.”
Again without transition she said brightly:
“Let’s go and see the Eiffel Tower!”
Having crossed the garden, a little further on we turned into a long, narrow street
“It’s a gift from Abbé Groult d’Arcy to the village of Vaugirard.”
Dryad looked at me blankly.
“He gave this street as a gift.”
I had said this in a serious voice which was intended to make an impression. She thought for a moment, then said deliberately:
“You mean he paid to have the street built.”
Talk about making an impression… But I didn’t have time to ponder my disappointment because she was already asking me with unruffled curiosity:
“Where is the village of Vaugirard, then?”
I answered off-handedly:
She thought again then, in the manner of someone who has found a simple explanation:
“It’s like Old Annecy.”
All my attempts to impress were clearly doomed to failure, and now it was my turn to look blank. She went on unconcerned:
“Old Annecy used to be outside Annecy, but now they both form a single town.”
She added, after a brief pause which gave me no opportunity to butt in:
“How long has Vaugirard been part of Paris?”
As it happened, I knew the answer: just under a hundred years.
“So the people who live in Paris haven’t been Parisians for all that long, then.”
I didn’t know what to say. She gave me a warm smile:
“That means we’re both strangers here.”
The subject was exhausted, and me too.
We had already been walking for a good while. Passing by the Square Saint-Lambert, I suggested a pause. “If you like,” said Dryad. I asked her if she was tired. “I’m used to walking in the mountains,” she answered with a smile. But as she found the square to her liking, we sat down on a bench. There were not many people about that day; it was too cold.
“It’s nice, this little park.”
“Usually it’s full of mothers with their little ones, and bigger children running after their hoops or playing ball…”
“And the pavilion thing over there?”
“That’s a bandstand. There are often concerts there in the summer.”
“There’s no water in the pool.”
“There never is in winter. In summertime there’s a big fountain in the middle, and the gargoyles you can see on the rounded wall make lovely little waterfalls.”
I went on:
“You see that little wooden stall on the left?”
“Yes, I noticed it when we came in. I know what it is: it’s a puppet show.”
I was going to add something but she got in first with a smile:
“But there are never any shows in winter!”
I had to agree.
“Is there a school nearby?”
I was slightly surprised by her question. I mentioned the Lycée Camille Sée on one side of the square.
“Those who stay at school for lunch must certainly come here; in Annecy I went to the Champ de Mars.”
“The Champ de Mars?”
“Yes, it’s a big park next to the lake.”
“Well, we’re going to the Champ de Mars too!”
For a moment she looked slightly taken aback; I wanted to prolong the misunderstanding, as a joke, but:
“So there’s one in Paris too, is there? How funny!”
Too bad; but I was starting to get used to it. Making the best of a bad job, I said:
“It’s right next to the Eiffel Tower.”
“Oh. I look forward to seeing it.”
After a moment’s silence I asked her:
“Didn’t you go home for lunch? Was it too far? Is Annecy very big, then?”
“No, no, it’s not that. I don’t live in Annecy, I live in Veyrier-du-Lac, it’s about three miles away, on the edge of the lake. I never mentioned Veyrier because no-one’s ever heard of it. My house is right at the top of the village. In the evening, I can see the sun set on the lake. The lake is my friend. Parisians call it a view, a lovely view, they’re always looking for views. Up there in the mountains, we look for places where we feel safe, sheltered.”
She allowed a silence to settle which I did not interrupt, then said softly:
“I felt safe in your street. It must be nice to look at the garden from your window and see your birds coming home at night.”
We continued our walk. A wide street took us up to Cambronne metro station.
“Well I never!” exclaimed Dryad.
And, as if an excuse were needed:
“I’ve only been in Paris for a few days.”
She watched the metro train passing over our heads.
“It’s nicer than when it’s underground.”
She added with a frown:
“But I wouldn’t like to see it going past my window.”
Not living in front of an elevated line, I had never thought of it that way.
One more street and I announced proudly:
“The Champ de Mars!”
The Eiffel Tower appeared.
Dryad was staring at the Champ de Mars; she had taken a few steps then stopped and was staring all around her. I said nothing. After quite a long silence she said wistfully:
“It’s very lovely…”
“It’s very lovely…”
She turned towards me:
“Do they come here, from school, after lunch?”
I had no idea, and told her so. She seemed astonished:
“You don’t know? And yet you live here…”
I felt slightly lost, as though guilty of something. But she gave me a warm smile and said:
“It’s big, Paris.”
The Eiffel Tower was still there. Dryad contemplated it and said:
“It’s bigger than on postcards. Shall we go up?”
There was a crowd at the ticket booth. I explained that you had to pay to take the lift.
“Can’t we take the stairs?” she asked, as though it would be odd to do otherwise.
Seeing me hesitate, she inquired:
“Are you not feeling well?”
“I didn’t know you wanted to walk up. There are three hundred steps per level up to the second.”
“How many levels are there? I can see three.”
“Yes. There are about a thousand steps on the last staircase; it’s a spiral one.”
Dryad looked at the lift prices:
“And it’s very expensive!” she declared. “Let’s climb up, if you don’t mind?”
Well, I wasn’t going to say no, was I? I remembered my schooldays, when I used to run races with my classmates. Now, though…
She climbed quickly, not seeming to tire. We reached the first level without stopping. I asked her if she wanted to look at the view before continuing. She gave me quick glance and answered: “Yes, of course, I’d be glad of a rest.” Me too, and how! I thought to myself. She didn’t seem the least bit weary.
She paid no attention to the view, and off we went again. There was no option but to take the lift from the second level, since the spiral staircase was deemed dangerous and hence closed to the public. Work was being done on it, however, so it wasn’t chained off. Suddenly I saw her starting to climb. I called to her and she came back down. “I just wanted to see the staircase,” she said simply. Seeing my irresolute look, she added quickly: “I shouldn’t have, I’m sorry.” I flapped a hand to show that it didn’t matter. The third level. I told her the name of the different places we could see, adding a few explanations. She listened attentively, asked questions, made comments. “It’s interesting to see the places where you live,” she remarked, before adding: “But you can’t live everywhere all at the same time.” She looked around one last time, then said slowly: “Parisians like views.”
“I would very much like to see your house again,” she said to me as we climbed down.
Our usual café.
“A ham sandwich, please!”
While waiting for his sandwich, Quicksilver jokes:
“At least I know what I’m hungry for.”
“Because we don’t?” Jeanne says spikily.
“No, not you; Antigone!” answers Quicksilver with an air of mystery.
“Antigone?” questions Jeanne again.
“Yes, Quicksilver could at least give us an explanation,” says Amethyst.
Our little group is all ears. Hubert acts as its spokesman:
“We want to know! We want to know!” he chants loudly.
“Not us! Not us!” someone shouts back sarcastically from a nearby table.
Quicksilver continues, still with his air of mystery:
“Antigone was hungry; she ate what the gods gave her and then she died.”
“What are you on about?” exclaims Odile disapprovingly.
The someone from the nearby table protests knowledgeably:
“Nonsense! She wouldn’t have died if Creon hadn’t made the meal in his own particular way.”
A vehement protest comes our way from another table:
“Oi, none of that! We’re not in a lecture here!”
A wave of approval all round. Calm is restored. Amethyst gives a brief summary for our little group. Deep thoughts. I propose the results of my own reflection.
“Did she look for what lay behind the gods? Or, as Amethyst said, what the gods represented? People or things? I mean inert objects, that you are shown and have to contemplate.”
“Antigone did not know the gods,” remarks Odile.
“She knew Creon,” declares Hélène sententiously.
“Go on then, tell us about the film,” says Armand sarcastically.
The waiter brings the sandwich.
At Amethyst’s. We’re busy with maths. Not all maths leads to the fourth dimension. Some exercises are just games; they’re fun, great fun even; but you can get tired of them. There! Done! The problem is solved. Amethyst makes coffee.
I return to my idea:
“And yet didn’t the gods represent something for Antigone even so?”
“You already said that,” objects Quicksilver.
“Excuse me, I asked whether she had searched for whatever it is, not whether she had found it.”
Amethyst points out:
“You talked about things, and about people who could represent the gods.”
“Didn’t Odile say that Antigone didn’t know the gods?” breaks in Quicksilver.
After a moment he adds:
“How could Antigone have formed any idea of what they were like?”
“She could imagine them.”
I break in:
“What you imagine is an object, even if it’s a person…”
Quicksilver immediately replies mockingly:
“And vice versa!”
“I beg your pardon! First, reciprocals are not always true – so that’s a big, fat zero for you – and second, what you imagine is not alive, you can’t even touch it, it comes from your brain…”
I get ready to make a good joke, but he’s way ahead of me.
“Yes, I quite understand, you’re short of imagination…” he says in an affectionately pitying tone of voice.
“Boys soon get tired of serious talk,” Amethyst affects to conclude.
As the boys can’t come up with an answer, she goes on calmly:
“You can believe what you have imagined.”
This time I can come up with an answer:
“In any case, you can imagine what you like. I paint a person; the image is real, you can see it, some people imagine that the person is alive. And the person will live, in some people’s brains.”
Quicksilver comes up with a conclusion:
“And my brain tells me that the image is an object, not a person; the person is Creon, who wants me dead. Antigone’s brain has told her that the image was a person, not an object; and she died of it.”
In the silence that followed, Amethyst says slowly:
“Antigone didn’t know the gods, Odile said… Was it the unknown Antigone was hungry for?”
Odile had asked Dryad and me to dinner this evening. After the tutorial I went to the literature block with Jeanne because we were to pick up a book from hers on the way to Odile’s. We took the metro to Duroc, then walked towards Avenue de Breteuil, where she lived. As we passed the Lycée Victor Duruy, Jeanne told us a little story.
“That’s where I went to school. It was very strict. Girls weren’t allowed to meet boys at the school gates. But look at the café on the corner just in front. There are several doors; one gives on to the school, the other is on the other side. The monitors can’t see it…”
“I get it!” laughed Dryad. “You went in one door and came out the other!”
I assumed an air of surprise:
“That’s odd. No-one stopped us from meeting girls.”
To which Jeanne replied off-handedly:
Dryad gave me a mildly ironic glance. Oh well, better luck next time.
Having picked up the book, we left Jeanne to her maths. We were going to wander over towards Plaisance, Odile’s neighbourhood and long-standing bastion which she had inherited from her Parisian craftworker ancestors.
We were in no hurry; it was only five and dinner wasn’t until seven. Having passed under the cover of the great trees which marched down the Avenue de Breteuil, missing only the leaves borne away by the winter to shade us from a sun which had already fled behind the imposing dwellings that lined the broad avenue…
“Where was I?”
Dryad, to whom I was describing, as we walked, a scene that she could very well see for herself, gave me a long smile without any trace of irony.
“You’re quite the poet...”
I answered as best I could:
“You’ll make me blush!”
Then added very quickly:
“But, you know, I want so much to show you Paris…”
She looked at me thoughtfully, then said:
“I’m happy to see the city where you live.”
We were in smaller streets now, where we could disdain the pavement and walk in the middle of the road without being disturbed by the occasional cars. Though in one of them it was we who had almost been the disturbers – of a hotly disputed game of dodgeball that was taking place right in the middle of the road.
“I have my little story to tell too,” I announced to Dryad.
As we walked discreetly past the players who paid us hardly any notice, I pointed to the big building on one side of the street.
“That’s the Lycée Buffon.”
Seeing her surprise, I explained:
“It’s the back of the school; it’s the front we passed the day before yesterday.”
Pointing to the players, I added:
“And that’s where I used to play too; sometimes even during lessons!”
She looked at me for a long moment without blinking. Then an open smile appeared on her face.
“You’re not afraid of life,” she said softly.
More small streets; losing the broad avenues we had just left behind seemed to have tightened up the city.
“The Ox Bridge!”
Dryad said nothing, awaiting the explanation. I did not let her down.
“Centuries ago, oxen were brought from Normandy to Paris on foot. The road has long disappeared, but you can still see traces of it here and there if you look closely at maps. So it was called the Ox Road and this bridge is the last remnant of it in Paris.”
I got the impression that she was looking far off into the distance as she listened. After a moment’s silence, she said dreamily:
“We could have come all that way on foot…”
Her eyes suddenly crinkled.
“Is it flat, Normandy?” she asked with a slight hesitation.
She went on without waiting for an answer:
“You can see a long way here; your gaze can never get stuck on anything.”
I was very surprised. Around me, buildings, nothing but buildings. I never saw anything far off.
“You’re never really outdoors in the streets of Paris,” she went on. “You can’t see the sky. When we were on the Eiffel Tower my gaze went looking for the mountains, and got lost.”
Under the Ox Bridge, we were suddenly battered by the racket of train.
“It’s more like the Aurochs Bridge!” Dryad yelled.
“And there are lots of them!” I yelled back.
“Did the aurochs replace the oxen a long time ago?” she asked when the train had gone.
“I don’t really know… no, actually, I think I did read something about it, but I’m not really sure. It must have been about a hundred years ago.”
Oxen and aurochs may not have prevented us from passing, but the same could not be said of horses. In the street that took us to Odile’s house, a merry drayman, his face as ruddy as his cart was wan, was using an articulated drawbar to turn his team around. The street was not wide and the horses could not help mounting the pavement, so we had to wait until the brave beasts got out of the way.
Hardly had the horses clopped off than a woman hurried out of a doorway to collect the still hot and steaming droppings that she would use as manure for her geraniums.
“Odile’s gone to get firewood!”
A little girl playing hopscotch pointed to the nearby café.
“Come on!” I urged Dryad. “Let’s give Odile a surprise!”
Two drinkers are leaning against the counter, chatting quietly over two thick glasses of red wine. Odile is just next to them, in the narrow alcove where coal was piled up together with little bundles of sticks – the firewood – that she used to light the stove. The owner had finished serving her and she greeted us cheerily:
“Evening! We’d forgotten to get some. We’d have been frozen tomorrow morning!”
She goes on with a mock frown:
“Always me that has to think of everything!”
The table is already set. Pretty roses which decorate the plates emerge from under the napkins. The smell of the pâté that Odile’s mother has just brought fills the air.
“I forgot the butter. Odile, can you go and get it from the cooler?”
“I’m on my way, Mum!”
“The butter will be hard,” remarks Odile’s father. “It’s cold out.”
“We ought to have a winter cooler that’s not outside,” laughs her mother.
Roast veal and chips. I love chips. I’m sure potatoes were created in order to make chips.
My enthusiasm has not gone unnoticed. Odile’s mother is concerned:
“Oh dear, I didn’t make enough…”
I feel myself blush. I tried to salvage the situation but only managed to dig myself in deeper:
“Oh no, I don’t like it when there’s too much.”
I was expecting the silent reproach that was bound to follow, but heard instead an amused laugh from Odile’s mother:
“Looking at you, I’d like to know what you call too much!”
Everyone started laughing. Saved!
Cheese, or rather cheeses, because there were three or four.
“What do you expect,” whispers Odile conspiratorially, “in a country that has as many cheeses as there are days in the year!”
The apple pie for pudding has just appeared. Just as the mother was about to serve her husband, however:
“Hurry up, Jo, or the pie’ll get cold!”
‘Jo’ got up… It was in fact Odile’s father, who the café proprietor had just called from outside.
“We haven’t got a telephone,” explains Odile, “but the café owner is very kind and helpful.”
Sunday. No lectures today. A lot of snow had fallen during the night.
“Did you have your rackets?” Dryad asked me.
She did not answer but looked at me with an amused smile. I was lost.
“You want to play…”
She interrupted me, still with a smile:
“No, I don’t want to play tennis; I mean racket…”
I had got it! It was my turn to interrupt:
“Right! You mean racket snowshoes!”
“Well, of course. Since you said there was a lot of snow.”
I understood even better:
“Yes, it’s true, in Annecy...”
She did not let me finish:
“I was just teasing you...”
She corrected herself:
“Not you, or at least not only you; but if that’s what you Parisians call a lot of snow… And as it’s not the first time I’ve had people at the Sorbonne going on at me about snow, I ended up finding it funny.”
Seeing me silent – I didn’t really know what to say, actually – she added, looking into my eyes:
“I hope you aren’t cross…”
I had got a grip on myself:
“No, of course not. But you’re right; no-one in Paris is ever happy to see snow. And yet when I was a child we loved to have snowball fights…”
“Such a long time ago,” she responded ironically.
That reminded me of something else…
We both started laughing.
“Well, since you don’t need to take off your snowshoes, at least take off your coat.”
“It’s true that the cold has got warmer in the heat of our conversation.”
“The heat of the stove, more likely. I’ve filled it to the top because I know you feel the cold.”
“No, I don’t!”
She gave me a sardonic look.
“And how do you know, anyhow?”
“You didn’t take your coat off, the day we first met.”
As I clearly didn’t understand, she added:
“It was at the library.”
At the library… It seemed such a long time ago already…
“Come on! My mother is in the drawing room.”
I knew that her father had died.
Her mother had not yet seen me. She looked at me with penetrating curiosity. She asked me seemingly ordinary questions which nevertheless warned me: “Who are you? What do you want?” But it was perfectly normal, after all, that she should want to know me. So why did I feel slightly uncomfortable? Only ever so slightly, but uncomfortable all the same.
Everything was very tidy; no, orderly. Text books were separate from books on general knowledge, which were separate from recreational reading. All of them were within easy reach if you wanted a particular book. And yet I was looking… for what? I didn’t know. I was looking… What’s that? Down there, at the back of the shelf, hardly visible. I squatted down for a better look.
“The books I loved when I was a child…”
She had said these words without looking at the books. Then, without a word, went over to her violin, picked it up, gently plucked the lowest string, took her bow and looked at me for what seemed like a long time…
“Shall we play?” she asked me.
I went to the piano; the music was open: Mozart, Sonata for piano and violin K. 380, first movement.
I had been practising it for several days, or at least the first few pages. Dryad knew the whole movement.
“I’m less familiar with the rest,” she had told me.
Her playing was steady, unshowy, with no pointless flights of fancy; each phrase was full, leaving no scope for distraction.
We played together.
Dryad’s mother had listened. She paid a few compliments, without insisting. I stayed a little longer. When I was on the threshold:
“My daughter played well…” she began.
She stayed there without moving, then said:
“You both played well.”
A lot of work this week. No time for walks. And it has snowed the whole time. “You see! It doesn’t snow only in Annecy!” I declared solemnly to Dryad yesterday. She smiled. I muttered: “OK, OK, so we don’t need snowshoes!” She smiled again, a reassuring smile: “It doesn’t always snow as much as this at home.”
Today we have to do maths. Fortunately I like maths, because I don’t feel like it.
“Where are you?”
I must have started at the sound of Amethyst’s voice. Quicksilver whispers ironically:
“He’s lost in the snow.”
“What snow? It’s just a few stray flakes.”
“The gentleman has just returned from the land of eternal snow!”
Amethyst brings us back to earth:
“Come on, we’ve got work to do!”
Quicksilver and I assume the air of naughty schoolboys and say as one:
Back to work. Our heads are full of equations; the equations are full of formulae; the formulae are full of numbers.
“And numbers are infinite…”
“No, no, we’re done with maths for this evening,” Quicksilver chastises me.
“If he’s right, we’ll never be done!” exclaims Amethyst.
“It’s up to him to prove that numbers are infinite.”
“How am I supposed to do that, since we’re done with maths?”
“We aren’t done with exams, though.”
“Exams are just a means to an end,” says Amethyst. “They’re just to make sure we know.”
I believe her remark needs elucidation:
“Who wants to make sure?”
“The teachers, of course.”
Amethyst is less categorical:
“We do too. We have chosen what we do.”
Quicksilver nods. I agree too:
“And we are satisfied with it. A rare thing in this day and age, as the great thinkers say in every day and age!”
“Satisfied with what? Believing in it?”
Quicksilver says with surprise:
“Believing in what?”
Then suddenly, in a quite different tone of voice:
“We could have something to eat! If we’re going to embark on that type of conversation…”
He turns to Amethyst:
“Unless you’re tired… Would you rather…?”
“No, no; you can stay. It’ll make a change after the maths.”
“We could go to the flicks,” he suggests.
“We couldn’t find anything we wanted to see yesterday. We’ll have to wait till the programmes change, next Wednesday.”
She gets up:
“I haven’t got much left here. I’ll pop down to my parents, it won’t take a moment.”
She is soon back with everything we need for a first-rate cold supper. I have just noticed that I too am hungry.
“Something to eat will do us good,” she concludes.
She’s right, so much so that we forget to think.
“About maths or philosophy,” says Quicksilver in response to my comment.
“Or the cinema either, since there’s nothing good on.”
We spend a good while doing nothing. The snow carries on falling.
“The stove has gone out!”
Quicksilver is right and the room is beginning to feel cold.
Amethyst goes over to the stove.
“No, it’s not out, actually, but it’s not so far off!”
“Quick, let’s get some coal on! I don’t want to have to light it again.”
No sooner said than done, and Quicksilver is already heaping coal into the stove.
“Thank you, it’ll save me from having to do it. But don’t put too much in, I don’t get cold at night.”
“Now that you’ve got your own room, the heating’s up to you. It’s more of a bother than when you were still with your parents.”
“Yes, when the gas felt like working!”
“It’s like at ours,” interjects Quicksilver. “If the gas goes out my parents don’t light it again for the night. And unlike you, I do get cold!”
The stove has started humming, as though the room were already warmer.
“Believing in what?”
We turn towards Amethyst in surprise. She smiles:
“Quicksilver wanted to know just know what we were supposed to believe in.”
We had clearly forgotten. She recalls the conversation.
“I had asked what we were satisfied with, and added ‘Believing in it?’”
“I remember. Well, you didn’t answer my question.”
“Probably because I didn’t know,” Quicksilver answers calmly.
She gives an ironic little smile:
“And you were starving, of course, and we had to find you something to eat, fast!”
“And now I’m full I’m listening.”
“Believing that what people tell us exists.”
“You mean that what people tell us is true?”
“No, exists. Whether true or false.”
“If our calculations could never be used, what would it matter whether they were true or false?” suggests Amethyst.
“What do you mean, what would it matter? I’m done with maths!”
“What else would you do? The question would still be there.”
“If what we do has no point, we have no inclination at all to do it.”
“Only if we can be absolutely sure that it has no point,” Quicksilver objects.
“Do plants know if what they do has a point?”
Amethyst has spoken these words slowly. We say nothing. The stove is no longer humming. It has stopped snowing.
Lovely sunshine is waiting for us this afternoon when we finish our lectures. We’re going to Palais-Royal this evening to see Feydeau’s Le Ruban. We have decided to walk there to take advantage of the last rays of the winter sun. Our little group has gathered at the big café close to the Sorbonne, where Dryad has joined us. A few sandwiches – ham, sausage, pâté, butter – give us strength for the journey.
The neighbourhood is covered with snow, swept up here and there. “I can understand that Parisians don’t like snow; you can’t see it here,” Dryad has said. “You can see it all too much!” Odile has retorted. “You get wet feet. I can’t see where the pleasure is,” Hubert has chipped in.
But it is a pleasant walk. The air is keen and doesn’t encourage you to dawdle. There aren’t many cars about, even though we’re on the broad boulevard Saint-Germain. The pedestrians scurry, eyes down. At the entrance to the metro the newspaper vendor, whose apparel could make you think he’s just come from the North Pole, is shouting the headlines, as usual, telling passers-by the day’s news. “Government still in criiiii-sis!... All the latest neee-ws!” A squeaky voice can be heard in the moments of silence: “Get your street guide here! Where they start and where they end! With the nearest meee-tro station!”
“Don’t Parisians know Paris, then?”
As one, our little group has turned towards Dryad with surprise.
“Why do you say that?” asks Jeanne.
“Do they really need a street guide?”
We have looked at each other without knowing what to say. Armand is the first to react:
“Paris isn’t Annecy, you know! There’s more than just three streets here!”
Slightly embarrassed by the virulence of his remark, even though there could be no doubt it came from the heart, he sought to soften the blow:
“Sorry, that’s not what I meant to say…”
As he stammered on, Hélène came to the rescue:
“It’s not just because Paris is big, you know…”
She hesitates for a moment then goes on:
“In Paris, when you go from one neighbourhood to another, it’s like a different city.”
“It’s still Paris, though,” Dryad insists.
I try to explain:
“Do you remember when we talked about a village at Vaugirard?”
“I remember. Are there other villages, then?”
“Paris is made up of villages,” answers Amethyst.
“We’re at Saint-Germain-des-Prés; that’s the name of the church we’ve just passed. It’s not far from the Boul’ Mich’, but life here isn’t the same at all.”
“That’s true,” cries Armand. “Here you can have fun, it’s not like the Sorbonne!”
Jeanne, answering Dryad’s silent question, says:
“Here, it’s clubs like the Tabou, you listen to music, dance…”
She adds brightly:
“We’ll go together!”
“Dancing, that’s all girls think about!”
“Oh, and of course you would never dream of dancing!” exclaims Hélène, pretending to look shocked.
“Girls are just as capable of talking about serious things. There’s no dancing at the Deux Magots.”
“The Deux Magots?” asks Dryad with curiosity.
“It’s the café on the corner opposite the church. There are often literary get-togethers there.”
“In the café?”
“Oh yes, it’s quite common in Paris,” Jeanne explains. “Each neighbourhood has its cafés…”
“Though they’re not always literary,” smiles Amethyst.
“Yes, but they’re still where you get together with friends,” states Quicksilver.
“It’s not too cold today…”
“You reckon? That’s not what I would say!” Odile cuts in.
“Don’t you remember?” says Hélène. “When we were at school? The winter when the Seine froze?”
“Yes, I remember!” exclaims Armand. “I went skating on the lake in the Bois de Boulogne!”
Everyone remembered. Who hadn’t gone skating on the lake that year? Dryad had probably done the same. I ask her:
“I guess you must have gone skating on your lake too?”
“Oh no, the lake is much too big to freeze over!”
“Well, what’s the point of having a lake then?” jokes Armand.
She starts to smile but her eyes have misted over. I have taken her hand and squeezed it. She smiles as thought to say thank you, then says brightly:
“What’s your lake like, then?”
Quicksilver makes an expansive gesture:
“Vast, absolutely vast! Ships pass each other off the coast of desert islands only I know about!”
“Don’t mind him,” says Amethyst calmly. “He spent too much time on his own on one of those desert islands and has never been the same since.”
Everyone laughs. The explorer feigns contrition.
The Carrousel bridge. The Louvre. Dryad is impressed:
“It’s big. Paris is a capital.”
We reach the square in front of the Théâtre-Français.
“This is where the Comédie-Française performs,” says Hubert.
“Look there, at the other end of the avenue, that’s the Opera,” says Jeanne, pointing.
Now we are under the arcades of the Palais-Royal garden.
“It’s like a cloister,” says Dryad in a low voice, as though not wanting to change its mystery.
“The Palais-Royal Theatre where we’re going is at the end of the garden.”
She turns to me:
“I won’t have so many lovely things to show you if you come to Annecy one day. I’ve only got my lake and my mountains.”
The curtain has come down on the last act. We’re in the square outside the theatre again.
“That was a good laugh,” says Armand.
“Just what we needed after our lectures,” adds Odile brightly.
“The end was a bit too obvious, though…”
We can’t help laughing.
“Of course, for a specialist like you!” declares Hubert.
Jeanne says hotly:
“I’m glad the girl got to marry the man she loves. It really irritated me, the way they wanted to stop her!”
I have a doubt:
“How do we know she loves him?”
“If we’re going to have a discussion, let’s at least do it in the café opposite,” exclaims Quicksilver.
We all agree that’s not a bad idea. When we’re nicely settled with hot coffee in front of us, the discussion begins.
“She must love him, since she wants to marry him,” says Armand.
I was ready for him:
“That doesn’t prove anything. The other chap, the one she’d been promised to, had asked for her hand even though he didn’t love her; he said so himself.”
Hubert doesn’t agree with me:
“We don’t need proof. It’s a play.”
“Even in a play you want to know what the relationships between the characters are.”
“The relationships between the characters are defined by convention. In the list of characters it says ‘Joseph, a servant’ just like it says ‘Dardillon, Simone’s lover’.”
“And what if the person watching hasn’t seen the list?”
“It doesn’t matter; you can see them – the relationships, I mean.”
Hubert feigns surrender:
“Of course, I’d forgotten about the specialist!”
His sarcasm is acknowledged only by a few small grins and nods.
I return to the fray:
“Putting ‘Joseph, a servant’ in the list of characters doesn’t stop Joseph from being dressed like a servant or talking and acting like a servant so that the audience know what he is; especially, as Odile said, if the person watching hasn’t seen the list.”
“Absolutely!” nods Odile. “And what has the girl, Simone, done for us to know that she loves him?”
“Yeah, well, we’re not here to study literature,” grunts Quicksilver.
“Should studying maths rule out studying feelings?”
Dryad has said this as though to herself. Quicksilver tries to reassure her:
“I was only joking,” he says.
“Maybe I was too,” she replies with an elusive smile.
Silence falls. No-one knows how to go on.
“You could hear a pin drop…” whispers Amethyst.
The short silence that follows is quickly broken by Armand:
“Come on, guys! The mathematicians laughed just as much as the others!”
The good mood is restored. Comments on Feydeau’s play pick up again. Hélène criticises Paginet fiercely:
“Turning his niece, poor Simone, into a gift, just for a gong!”
She takes a deep breath and says, turning to me:
“And, as you said, for a guy who doesn’t even love her!”
“Aha! You didn’t get that bit quite right,” interjects Odile.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Paginet didn’t know that the boy didn’t love Simone.”
“He didn’t care to find out, in all events. It’s hardly any better.”
“That’s true!” exclaims Hubert indignantly. “I don’t think any of us would have done anything like that.”
Jeanne nods vigorously:
“All that for a gong!”
“For a gong!” repeats Quicksilver. “Of course, it is the Legion of Honour, but I don’t see what interest there can be in chasing after it.”
We all seem to share the same opinion, though Amethyst adds:
“And what if it weren’t a gong but a degree?”
The scattering of snow that covered patches of the still-wet Rue des Saint-Pères glistened softly in the light of the gas lamps. We were walking slowly in the quiet stillness of a night-time Paris that I was so familiar with and so much wanted to show Dryad.
At the stroke of midnight, the sight of the last metro disappearing as resigned eyes looked on had decided our little group to break up. In any case, the conversation had rather languished after Amethyst’s question, which nobody had answered. I had suggested to Dryad that we walk home. She accepted immediately, saying “I like the night.”
I had given her my arm and we were walking without haste up the middle of the Rue des Saints-Pères. The large, dark buildings on either side benignly watched us passing.
Dryad nodded thoughtfully:
- Hélène was right. I don’t feel as though I were in a street but in a town – another town, as she put it.”
After a short silence she asked:
“Are we far from the Boul’ Mich’ here?”
We reached the boulevard Saint-Germain. I turned left. After a few steps, I pointed out the looming church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés:
“Do you recognise it?”
She started in surprise:
She went on:
“In that case we’re really close by!”
She nodded again:
“Yes, she was right…”
She had stopped. She stood for a moment lost in thought then, looking all around her, said:
“Annecy isn’t like here, there aren’t all these big buildings… And yet I really like it.”
She looked up at me:
“No, it’s my lake and my mountains that I love.”
Sunday. I have got up early. Daylight has not yet made an appearance. Was I woken by the neighing and the clatter of the horse that brought the great block of ice for the icebox? The aroma of the coffee my mother is preparing fills the house. My finches come to see what’s happening.
It’s market day on Rue de la Convention. I like to go there with my mother from time to time; on those days her bag is fuller and heavier, and I carry it. And of course I take advantage of the opportunity to get her to get a few little treats, things that I love and that it is not always reasonable to buy, like sweets, for example.
We leave the house. Day is breaking, stealthily, so that you can’t really see it happening. Actually, that’s not quite true. Someone has seen it and here he comes now, carrying his long pole. It’s the lamplighter, though he’s here to put them out. Yes, indeed, day has broken.
Little snowflakes whirl around us. My mother is never cold; as for me… well, hardly ever, but even so I have carefully buttoned up my heavy winter coat and knotted my scarf tightly. We don’t have far to go, though we have to take care not to slip on the pavement that is gradually turning white under the triple leather soles of my shoes which keep my feet nice and dry.
The vacant lot between the two tall buildings we are passing in front of is already echoing, despite the early hour, with the cries of children playing football. In the gutter where the road sweeper has turned on the water which has not yet frozen, other, smaller children are sailing away on large paper boats for distant lands, so mysterious to the grown-ups who give them a glance as they pass by. What about the girls? Girls don’t play in the street; they are certainly helping their mothers with housework – an occupation which, I confess, does not greatly appeal to me.
We reach the market, which has invaded the pavements. And lining the pavement, all down the street, are the greengrocers’ little handcarts; their fruit and vegetables follow the seasons but the vendors are there come what may, come snow, come rain, come shine, without even an awning for shelter; and winter is not a very generous time of year for fruit and vegetables…
Shopping at the market is a slow business. We stop before a pumpkin: too dear; we would spend less further on; but my mother, who knows about these things, has found the produce less than fresh, so… A vendor solves the problem: “Buy my fine pumpkin!”, she cries in a voice already weary. Endives; I love endives; lovely and white and inexpensive; done! Here, large bags full of legumes – beans, split peas, buckwheat, not forgetting millet, for my finches. That’s how it is: winter is not conducive to banquets in the big trees in the garden opposite. Apples; not cheap, but fruit is hard to find when it’s cold. Fortunately there are plenty of chestnuts and walnuts – and I love them! A few more items and we return home. I’ll eat with a good appetite at lunchtime.
Thursday. The whole morning had been taken up with lectures. I had a quick lunch at the café near the Sorbonne. Dryad had got out earlier than me and was having lunch at home. She had some shopping to do in the afternoon: clothes, sewing stuff, a tablecloth, a pen, other things. Yesterday we had agreed to go together. “I don’t know what to do, I’ll need to go to different shops…” she had started to tell me. I had cut her off, saying as though it were the most obvious thing in the world: “Here you can get everything you want in a single store.” She had answered, sounding slightly worried: “I know one in Annecy where I can find all kinds of things, but not really everything.” I had told her haughtily: “In Paris you have the Grands Magasins; you can find everything there!”
I went to pick her up at about one o’clock. On the way I dropped into the post office on the Rue de Rennes. Standing at a vacant desk, I wrote a quick note to a friend. With the pneumatic post he would get it in a couple of hours; not as quick as the telephone, to be sure, but he hasn’t got a telephone…
The metro took us to the Madeleine and from there we walked up the boulevard and through the side streets that led to the Galeries.
After a moment she turned to me with an enquiring look:
“All I can see is shops; is that what you call the Grands Magasins?”
“No, it’s not the same thing at all. These are just shops, like you find anywhere. I suppose you must have them where you come from.”
“Yes, that’s right. But not so many, or so close to each other.”
She waved a hand at the street:
“I get the impression I could find everything here, without going much further.”
A few more steps and we reach the Galeries.
She was looking around pensively:
“Everything’s always so big in Paris; and there are buildings everywhere…”
She thought for a moment:
“There are buildings where I come from too, but they leave room for you to breathe.”
“That’s laying it on a bit thick! You haven’t suffocated here yet!”
She gave an amused smile. I went on:
“These buildings embrace us. A Parisian is part of the city.”
“Annecy is my town. I feel myself there.”
Inside the store, the customary bustle.
“There aren’t as many people…” Dryad started saying.
She broke off, then, after a short pause, said:
“There are more people in Paris than where I come from…”
“But there are also more shops; they’re everywhere I look, like just now.”
I gave her a knowing smile:
“I told you you could find everything here, and everyone knows it!”
“Aren’t there stores like this elsewhere?”
“Yes, this isn’t the only one, there’s another one close by, just as full of people as this one.”
Dryad had clearly forgotten the purpose of our visit. She was looking around without saying anything. Suddenly, with a smile full of irony, she said:
“I haven’t only lived in the sticks. I’ve already been to department stores. In Geneva, for example…”
She stopped. Her eyes became sad. Then, with a little shake of her head, she said:
“My father didn’t like going to Geneva any more than to Paris; he also said that it was too big and that he felt lost there.”
She stood for a moment, her mind elsewhere. I remembered that her father was no longer alive. It spared me from expressing thoughts, unflattering for Geneva – and even more so for Annecy – about the comparative grandeurs of Paris and a city which, for the Parisian I was, seemed no more than a provincial town. And the provinces, seen from Paris…
So I kept my counsel, which, to cap it all, Dryad may have taken for affectionate discretion. She was silent. Finally, in a pensive tone of voice, she said:
“Is Paris made only for Parisians?”
I did not know what to say. After another moment’s silence, she went on:
“Come on, let’s get my shopping!”
So there we were, going from one department to another. Dryad now seemed to find it quite normal that she should find everything she had come to get, to the point even, not having immediately seen the pen she wanted, of asking me with a trace of irritation:
“So where can I find my pen?”
I didn’t know exactly and, slightly embarrassed, was about to ask when the saleswoman we were standing in front of, having heard the question, pointed out the relevant counter with a pleasant smile.
The pen counter, which also offered a host of other items such as pencils, rubbers and exercise books, was under assault from pupils from the nearby schools.
“Of course, it’s Thursday, the kids are out and about…” commented Dryad.
“We’ll have to wait a while,” I fretted. “Does that bother you? Perhaps we should have come another…”
“No, no,” she broke in quickly. “On the contrary, it brightens things up.”
She went on, giving me a smile:
“It reminds me of my youth.”
There was no shortage of pens. I helped with the choice. Dryad was delighted:
“You’ve got good taste…”
She went on, giving me what might have been a slightly mocking look:
“A true Parisian.”
But the warmth of her smile took the sting out of any mockery and she immediately added expansively:
“I would never have found such a lovely pen for that price in Annecy.”
Yesterday Dryad came back to Paris after three weeks with her mother in Annecy. It was getting towards mid-January and winter was hesitating between a reluctant mildness and a bracing cold that would have been less disagreeable.
This Sunday I was at hers; we had agreed to get together and play some music in the afternoon and were waiting for Quicksilver, who played the cello, and Amethyst, who would alternate with me on the piano. The music was all set up: Schumann’s Trio for piano, violin and cello, op. 110, first movement.
“Is it always this damp in Paris?” Dryad asked me, snuggling into her jersey.
“Are you cold?” I asked, surprised.
“No, not really cold; I’m never cold as a rule. It’s the damp. Actually, I think it’s not cold enough.”
“Were you caught in the ice, in Annecy?”
“Of course, but fortunately we have an ice-breaker on the lake.”
Having laughed a little at these fine remarks, we stood there looking at each other with a silly smile. At least, that’s how my smile seemed to me. Dryad looked as though she wanted to tell me something… Me too perhaps…
“I’m happy to be back,” she finally said.
She went on immediately:
“We can play some music…”
I went over to the piano and leafed through the score:
“I love this piece.”
“Me too; I love Schumann.”
The bell rang. It was our friends.
Hugs all round after such a long separation. “How was it?” “Did you have a lot of snow?” Dryad answered. I don’t think I listened. The conversation took a while.
Quicksilver was taking out his cello. He also played the violin. “Bring it next time, I would love to hear you play,” Dryad told him when she found out. “Do you have other friends who play an instrument?” she asked us as well. We went through the list; most of them did. Not Albert, though – “The only thing he can play is records,” said Quicksilver pityingly. “He’s got a record-player?” she exclaimed. She told us she had one too but almost never used it; the spring had broken one day and since it had been repaired you had to wind it up twice just to listen to a record that only lasted four minutes. “And then you’re constantly having to change the needle; and it costs a bomb!” she added, nodding. And records were even more expensive, and hard to find. “And in any case, I’d rather play myself!” she concluded.
Who was going to play the piano? I made way for Amethyst. I enjoyed listening to her dreamy, soft and seamless playing; she never played anything energetic, but her Chopin Berceuse…
Schumann is speaking. The cello embraces the violin, the music swells and the piano tenderly enfolds its profound mystery.
It’s pleasant to listen to your friends…
Dryad had broken the glass of her watch. “I’ll have to wait a whole week… And it costs a bomb!” she had told me sadly. I had reassured her: “We’re in Paris!” She hadn’t been reassured in the slightest and had replied reproachfully: “The watchmaker I asked is here in Paris, not in Annecy.” I had answered back with authority: “I have a plan!”
So I had gone to pick her up at the end of her lecture. But there was no-one there. The lecture theatre was empty. Had I gone to the wrong place? It wasn’t like me… No, after enquiries, the lecture had been given somewhere else – a last-minute decision for some obscure reason or other. Nothing for it but to go hunting. The lecture theatre opposite was half-empty; the course had the misfortune to be somewhat philosophical, and hence somewhat technical, and to cap it all the professor seemed to be a very serious sort; so as you can imagine, by mid-January, two full months after the start of the course, the benches had long been deserted by students who had registered only, shall we say, on a whim. It was quite usual among scientists, but I was surprised to see the same thing with those who had come here in order to think…
The hunt was on. A quick look at the Chapel, where I saw a small group of students hurrying towards the exit, but of course Dryad was not among them. Having quickly crossed the main courtyards – it had started to snow again – I took refuge under the gallery arcades to think. Of course, if the lecture had finished she would wait for me; but where? I immediately thought of my maths lecture theatre; it didn’t take me long to run up the stairs, despite their number, but when I got to my destination, scan as I might the depths of the theatre, much bigger than hers and already holding students waiting for the next lecture – no one. Nothing left but to look in the seminar rooms, all warm with their lovely wooden panelling polished by the centuries. I was wasting my time, and also starting to feel a bit lost… I thought for a moment of the labs at the other end of the Sorbonne – no, don’t be silly, they’re physics labs. No literature students to be found there! And I wasn’t very sure that I would be able to locate them either, through the labyrinth of corridors that led to them, confusing enough even when you knew where you were going. A chance scrap of overheard conversation gave me the key to the puzzle: “They could have told us it was in the Great Amphitheatre!” I heard. What “it” was I did not know, but I hurried to the place – and it was there all right.
A surprising sight met my eyes. The vast and ornate room, all ready to receive distinguished guests, accommodated a handful of students who looked lost.
The lecture hadn’t quite finished and I hurried down to find Dryad, who was mightily relieved to see me. “I was expecting you sooner,” she said. “I didn’t know you were here,” I replied in surprise. She seemed equally surprised: “They were supposed to put up a sign saying…” I shook my head; she shrugged her shoulders: administrators…
The snow shower had been short. On the way to my… whatsit – I hadn’t said anything – and having crossed the Seine at the end of the Boul’ Mich’, we reached the Île de la Cité. Passing in front of the Law Courts, I showed Dryad the inscription GLADIUS LEGIS CUSTOS.
She stopped and stood for a long while without moving, staring at the inscription on the Law Courts building, then walked on slowly. A little later, as we were walking along the Boulevard de Sébastopol, she stopped again, gave me a wan smile and said dully: “Must only the sword be the keeper of the law?”
We arrived at the Rue Saint-Martin.
“Another village!” exclaimed Dryad, pointing at the little shops that lined the narrow street.
“I see you’re starting to get used to Paris. Yes, you’re right. We’re not far from the Place de la République and most of the city’s craft workers have their shops and workshops around here. You can find everything…”
She broke in, smiling brightly:
“So we’re back at the Grands Magasins!”
Slightly taken aback, I did not react immediately. She took advantage of the fact:
“I know Paris better than you do now!”
I raised an eyebrow:
“In that case you no longer need my advice. Where are we going, then?”
She answered, slightly anxiously:
“To get me a watch-glass, of course!”
“And where are we going to find your watch-glass?” I asked innocently.
She caught on immediately:
“In one of the shops on one of these streets, of course!”
“Which one, then, and in which street?”
“Come with me, I’ll show you,” she said off-handedly.
I smiled inwardly; she would never find the place, amid the countless craft workers who peopled this tangle of streets. Whereupon, as we passed by a gilder’s, she darted into the workshop and asked the craftsman, quite simply:
“I’m looking for a watch-glass.”
Without showing the least sign of surprise, the gilder immediately pointed out the shop I had been intending to go to. I had been beaten at my own game.
“Don’t sulk! It’s thanks to you I was able to find it,” she reassured me kindly.
I put a brave face on it:
“All the same, I didn’t think you’d be so quick...”
She was ahead of me:
“To find your whatsit?”
I didn’t have time to answer. She went on:
“Once we were here, among all these craftspeople, it was easy; but we had to get there first.”
We had barely turned the corner of the Rue de Turbigo when a big lad appeared, chiding his mate in a loud voice:
“Wot’s this then? You got lead in them boots? Gerra move on, we 'ain’t got all day, it’s past deuce o’bells by my ticker!”
I saw Dryad open her eyes wide. I wondered what she would think of Paris street slang, which she was doubtless hearing for the first time, and certainly couldn’t understand.
The mate was standing still and looking at his watch.
“Flippin’ 'eck, 'as yer 'ead gone AWOL or wot?”
The mate stammered:
“Gorra get me kicks from the cobblers, ain’t I?”
“Yeah, ri’, we’ll go later. 'Ere, gimme a bite o’ that there, me belly thinks me throat’s bin cut!”
The big lad took a bite out of the crusty stick of bread his mate had proffered to him. The mate muttered something; the big lad threw up his hands in exasperation.
“So wot if I got a dollop of egg on me chin?”
Crossly, he wrenched up the zip on his trousers.
“An’ wot’s it to you anyway, eh, yer squinty git? If you din’t 'ave one eye on the train and the other on the platform, you wouldn’t be coppin’ wot’s not there to be seen!”
A cream-coloured American car drove past us, long and gleaming with chrome. The mate couldn’t help admiring it, open-mouthed.
“An’ yer can put yer eyes back in yer pocket! Yank jam jars ain’t for the likes o’ you! Go on, git a move on!”
The two lads moved off quickly and disappeared. Dryad turned to me, full of curiosity:
“So that’s what Parisian dialect is like?”
That was certainly unexpected. Parisian dialect, indeed! As I didn’t answer, she went on, nodding:
“Where I come from, the old people speak Savoyard, a language you would understand even less. My grandmother’s French is very poor; I spoke Savoyard when I was little, but now I have less and less occasion to use it.”
She had hardly finished speaking when she gave a little wave of the hand:
“Go on, git a move on!” she said with a wry smile.
I replied with an admiring grin:
“You catch on quick! Well then, let’s scoot!”
She gave a little chuckle and we set off again.
The shop where you could find watch-glasses didn’t sell only that. Dryad was contemplating the many display cases that covered the walls.
“It’s like a bunch of wild flowers from the mountains!” she exclaimed suddenly in front of the main counter.
“What do you mean, a bunch of…”
But the shop assistant had understood:
“It’s true; you’re right, Miss. The flowers in the mountains are always small and all of different colours, like the rings round each screwdriver to distinguish them from each other. And the carousel that holds them could indeed be a vase.”
Dryad looked at the assistant with a smile that was almost laughter. The assistant noticed, blushed and stammered:
“I… I was just talking to myself, really. You must know much better than I…”
“There isn’t much in the way of… landscape around here. What you said reminded me of my holidays… I love the mountains.”
There was another hesitation:
“Perhaps you yourself live…”
He left his sentence unfinished. Dryad gave him a warm smile:
“I’m from Annecy…”
Her eyes clouded over and she went on very quickly:
“Do you have watch-glasses?”
The assistant assumed an air of unconcern and answered her as one would a very long-standing customer:
“Of course; a batch of a hundred and fifty? What size?”
It was not a joke. Now it was my turn to laugh. Turning to Dryad, I said:
“This is a wholesaler’s here, you know!”
And to the assistant:
“Three hundred, rather. Her customers often break their watches!”
But Dryad had already gathered her wits again:
“I came on the metro, my van wouldn’t start, so today I’ll just take one, as a sample.”
She went on, assuming the same air of unconcern as the assistant, and in the same tone of voice:
“That way you won’t need to trouble yourself to enter it into my account, since samples are free.”
It took a moment for the assistant – and me – to react. In the end, we both had a good laugh. Dryad kept up her innocent look, though not for long. When our laughter had subsided, we got back to business: the watch-glass. The assistant took a measurement.
“Eight points,” he declared.
Not having understood, I wondered if this was another joke. Dryad was keeping her counsel. The assistant went on unperturbed:
“Royal foot, of course.”
But he wasn’t expecting what came next.
“Yes, Charlemagne of course,” said Dryad equally calmly.
He flung up his arms in a comic gesture:
“I’ll just go and get your glass, then, you’re such a fount of knowledge!”
“Not all that much. How much is it in centimetres?”
He tapped the side of his nose:
“You’re such a fount of knowledge!” she said admiringly.
Suddenly she pointed to a box full of funnily shaped little dials:
“What are those?”
“Watch calibers. Have a look.”
He showed her the watch movements, all ready to be fitted.
“Then we finish the watch, it’s called mounting.”
He went on, lifting a magisterial finger:
“Without forgetting the shiny new crystal!”
“Yes, that’s what we call the glass. When you repair a watch, you always have to replace the crystal.”
He adds with a wink:
“That way, the customer thinks the work’s been done properly.”
So many things that were unusual for us: spiral springs, screw dies, needle files, magnifying eyeglasses, sets of extrafine tweezers…
“We also have wide range of left-handed screwdrivers and glass hammers.”
Seemingly taken aback for a moment, Dryad then gave a broad smile:
“I’ll have to learn to be wary of Parisian jokes!”
At last the crystal arrived, all mounted, all shiny and new.
“And since you’re such a big customer, I’ll give you a thirty-two percent discount!” said the assistant with a big grin.
Sunday. After the family meal, our little group meets up at the garage. “What do you mean, at the garage?” Dryad had asked me yesterday, incredulous. And yet my proposal had been simple enough: to play table tennis. Satisfied with the reaction I had elicited from her, I had added off-handedly: “Yes, at the garage, my bat’s being repaired,” and quickly changed the subject. She had looked at me askance but said nothing.
So here we are, at the garage. We see Amethyst and Quicksilver coming. We go in. I am watching Dryad out of the corner of an eye; she is looking around with a slightly mistrustful air. Nobody pays any attention to us. After crossing the main workshop – hullo, there’s Jeanne – we climb up an endless staircase. A door. And behind it, a large and comfortable room with deep armchairs, a bar, huge windows through which you can see the nearby Eiffel Tower, and a large glass screen behind which keen young people are doing battle with each other on either side of a number of table-tennis tables.
Dryad pulls a face, nodding the while:
“I supposed the garage must be a front for something else, but…”
She breaks off for a second then holds out a bat to me, as naturally as you like, and says:
“I brought it just in case the garage hadn’t finished repairing yours.”
“What do you mean, the garage?” exclaims Hubert, who has just arrived.
“Didn’t you know they repair bats? Look at the sign. It says: ‘ALL REPAIRS’.”
And, as naturally as you like, indicating me with a thumb, adds:
“He told me this is where he always gets his repaired after losing a game.”
“And now we know why he slips away so often,” jokes Armand, who has picked up the end of the conversation on his arrival.
And of course, the joke being an easy one, everyone has a good laugh.
“You all seem pretty happy today,” says Hélène, who has come with Odile to complete our little group.
Odile has noticed Dryad’s watch:
“You’ve already had it repaired?” she asks in surprise.
“Did you have a problem with your watch?” says Jeanne with concern.
“Yes, I’d broken my glass…”
Someone sniggers briefly. Dryad has heard:
“It wasn’t funny…”
Seeing the boys looking slightly embarrassed, she stops, surprised. Amethyst steps in:
“It’s just the boys being silly, as usual. Breaking your glass in Parisian slang means falling on your bottom – there’s a rhyme there, if you see what I mean.”
“I get it,” says Dryad knowingly. “Their 'eads gone AWOL, eh?”
This time everyone laughs.
“A real Parisian!” exclaims Hubert.
It’s time to stretch our legs. Armand and Quicksilver decide to have a game of tennis.
“Tennis! Where?” asks Dryad.
“There’s a court behind the partition, over there at the back. I like it, it’s made of wood so it’s very quick,” Armand tells her.
“It’s free; I asked,” he adds for Quicksilver’s benefit.
They go off. The rest of the group gets organised. Two doubles.
“But there are only seven of us,” frets Dryad.
“Eight of us,” says Hubert authoritatively. “You’ll see!”
He was about to head off towards the table-tennis room when a tall, sporty-looking girl came over and said:
“You’re one short, I heard; my friend has to go home, so if you don’t mind…?”
Hubert plunges in:
“Absolutely not! You can play with me, together we’ll whip their hides!”
“Well, you certainly don’t waste your time here in Paris,” Dryad says to me in a whisper.
I didn’t have time to answer. Just as well, because I didn’t know how to take her comment. Around us, the players were teaming up.
“You can play with me, together we’ll whip their hides!” calls Dryad suddenly, looking me straight in the eyes.
Battle is joined. Hubert misses everything; Dryad has a lovely game, sure and accurate; my game is powerful and unpredictable. We ought indeed to have whipped their hides, except that the tall girl did not only look sporty. “I’ve played tournaments…” She could have told us earlier! That’s right, it’s our hides that were whipped. Yet Hubert seems not to be too proud of himself: “I’ve never played so badly!” he complains.
“If only you’d been watching the ball!” says Dryad slyly.
Hubert tries to defend himself but finds no answer; the tall, sporty-looking girl takes her leave: “I have to go now…”
On the other table, the girls haven’t quite finished yet. Jeanne sends down a smash; Odile tries desperately to defend but the ball was already way past her, as though it had gone through her bat.
“There’s a place on Avenue du Maine where you can get bats without holes,” Armand advises her cordially.
Our two tennis players are already back, fired up by their battle. We go back into the main room. An old classmate from Buffon is shoving the wood on a chessboard; he hasn’t seen us, too caught up in his powerful extrapolations. We make sure not to disturb him; we’ll say hello later. The table-tennis players join us, having finished their game.
The café. What will we have?
“A cream cake for me,” cries Jeanne.
Of course. I tell Dryad:
“The cream cakes here are out of this world. You hardly take a mouthful and it disappears, leaving just the taste, which lingers and lingers…”
I add enthusiastically:
“They’re the best in Paname!”
“Paname is Paris!”
Amethyst makes good coffee; after our mathematical endeavours, we do not disdain it. Some thoughts come, of a, shall we say, philosophical nature, perhaps encouraged by the black brew.
“Yes, well, as for philosophical...” says Quicksilver, dissenting.
“You don’t like Balzac?” asks Amethyst with a touch of sarcasm.
“That’s not the point…”
I step in:
“His coffee was probably too strong.”
My suggestion fails to spark a more detailed study; the maths seem to have tired us out. We drink our coffee.
“I like your coffee, it smells and tastes great…” says Quicksilver.
I agree with him:
“Yes, you’re right, it does smell and taste great, and I like it too.”
An earnest silence follows these profound reflections.
“More coffee?” asks the lady of the house.
We hold out our mugs.
Silence falls again. We drink our coffee.
“You’ve been out and about with Dryad quite a lot. What does she think of Paris now?”
Amethyst’s question arouses us from our lethargy.
“She seems to miss Annecy,” says Quicksilver.
The question bothers me. I’m not a Parisian myself, though I have always lived here. What does Dryad think of Paris? “We’re both strangers here”, she had said to me last year. Last year… already! She can think of Paris only as a place you visit. I don’t visit because I live here; I have lived here ever since I was born. But is it really my city, properly mine?
“Are you still here with us?” Amethyst asks me.
Was I with them? Yes, yes, I was with them.
“I never left you. I was wondering what I thought of Paris myself.”
Quicksilver is aghast:
“What do you mean, yourself? You’re a Parisian, you are! The three of us have known each other for years. We talk about Paris every day, not with words, with our everyday life. We don’t need you to tell us what you think about it; we know, we all three think the same thing. And we don’t need to think about it anyway, Paris does the thinking for us!”
I didn’t know what to say. Quicksilver was right. And yet…
“Our friend has known Paris only since he was born; we knew it before we were born,” says Amethyst.
Yes, she too is right. I am Parisian, but something keeps me apart from it. And what does Paris represent for my two friends? More than anything else, they are at home.
“Don’t you feel at home, then?” Amethyst asks me.
Quicksilver has given me an anxious look. I reassure them:
“Yes, yes indeed, I do feel at home. Quicksilver is right; we don’t need to talk about it, about Paris, it’s there. Only, as Amethyst said, my Paris isn’t quite the same as yours…”
Quicksilver interrupts me spiritedly:
“Amethyst exaggerates; I wasn’t there before being born either!”
“You know very well what she meant.”
“Yes, of course; but that doesn’t stop us from being together in Paris. We see the same things, we do the same things…”
“Yes, we make use of Paris, of all its advantages; advantages that you don’t find in the provinces, as I have found out with Dryad. Yes, all three of us live in the same way, Paris gives us what it has, things that others don’t have. It’s like a good school, you know you can find better teachers there than elsewhere. I think we have everything in common, as long as we’re talking about Paris itself.”
“What do you mean, Paris itself?” says Quicksilver in surprise.
“Yes, a moment ago, when we came into her house, where Paris is no longer there, where there are only those who are around you.”
“You mean the parents,” says Amethyst.
“No, the family.”
“What’s the difference?” says Quicksilver, surprised again.
“I can go to a cousin’s, to an aunt’s…”
They have both looked down. I exclaim brightly:
“I’m here with my friends; not everyone’s so fortunate!”
Amethyst has given me a long smile. Quicksilver thumps me on the shoulder:
“Come on, you are a real Parisian all the same!”
I shake my head:
“Just a Parisian, then…”
A memory comes back to me:
“Dryad said to me the other day that the people who live in Paris hadn’t been Parisians for all that long.”
“Why did she say that, then?” asks Amethyst.
“We were on Rue de l’Abbé Groult; I was telling her that Vaugirard used to be a village and had not been part of Paris for long.”
“Yes, at the same time as Annecy…”
“Really? So Annecy’s become Parisian, has it?” queries Quicksilver innocently.
I fall for it:
“No, that’s when Annecy became part of France!”
“Are you sure,” he says sarcastically.
I pull a face… That was silly of me…
Amethyst breaks up our interesting discussion:
“Yes, well, joking apart, I’d really like to know the rest of the story.”
“Well, the rest of the story is this: in that case, what is a Parisian?”
After a short silence, Quicksilver ventures:
“It’s living in a certain way, thinking in a certain way…”
“That’s true,” nods Amethyst. “And that’s what you often hear said, too. But is it true for everyone who lives here?”
To answer, I put forward an example:
“The craftspeople I saw last week don’t lead the same kind of lives as cinema artists; when people talk about Parisian Life, they don’t mean the life that craftspeople live. How many Parisians are there in Parisian Life?”
“There aren’t any!” exclaims Quicksilver. “Parisians live in Paris, not the cinema!”
“You talked about a way of living, a way of thinking; each town or city, maybe each village, has its way of living, its way of thinking.
“Paris has been the centre of power for the whole country for centuries; Parisians have got used to having their way of life, their way of thinking, considered superior to all others.”
This morning, Hélène arrives at the Sorbonne in a state of high excitement:
“Hey!” she calls to us. “Remember the film we missed the other day on the Boulevards? Well, it’s playing at the Convention!”
She turns to Quicksilver:
“You could’ve told us!”
I look at him; he gives me a wink. He knew!...
“That’s too much!” exclaims Jeanne reproachfully.
Odile puts her oar in:
“You live near the Convention metro station, right near the cinema! Don’t tell me you didn’t see anything!”
“I guess the boys don’t like that kind of film,” concludes Amethyst.
The boys say nothing.
“What kind of film is it then?” asks Dryad quietly.
Since Hélène is there, the answer is soon forthcoming:
“It’s about a man who loves a woman…”
“How original!” Quicksilver was heard to say under his breath.
“You see! What did I tell you?” interjects Odile.
Hubert makes as if to calm the ladies:
“We’ll go, we’ll go, I’m sure it’s fascinating…”
“Yes, but does the woman love the man?” asks Armand seriously.
I head off the argument:
“OK, let’s meet this evening at Convention metro. And in case you hadn’t noticed, the lecture’s already started.”
That decisive piece of information sends us scurrying into the hall.
People wanting to watch the film arrive from the neighbouring streets… as neighbours… and join the queue for tickets.
“If there weren’t so many people, and if I didn’t know we were going to the cinema, I would have thought I was seeing friends getting together for a party,” says Dryad.
“You’re pretty much right there,” Odile tells her. “They’re all people who live near each other, and there are bound to be some who know each other.”
“Each neighbourhood has its cinemas,” adds Hélène. “It’s not like on the Boulevards; here, people come to spend the whole evening…”
“Oh?” says Dryad in surprise. “And yet at Montparnasse…”
Jeanne breaks in:
“At Montparnasse, it’s like on the Boulevards, not like in a local cinema where you come when you want, to see a film, or even a bit of a film.”
“And then here we have the great good fortune of seeing two films,” comments Armand innocently.
“Absolutely,” continues Hubert in the same tone of voice. “The second is to find out whether the woman loves the man, as Armand was asking.”
The cinema bell, calling latecomers and announcing the start of the programme, put an end to the disingenuous discussion.
The cinema is quite big and not full; we have settled at the back, keeping away from the other cinemagoers, so that we can exchange whispered comments without bothering anyone.
The evening starts with a newsreel: everything that happened in the world before last Wednesday, the day when the programme changes, passes in front of our eyes.
“Do you know the Cineac?”
“Yes, it’s in Montparnasse station,” says Dryad in answer to my question.
She goes on:
“I’ve never been, but I’ve been told they only show newsreels.”
“Not at all! They also show cartoons,” says Armand, putting her right.
“That’s where the boys go when they skip a lecture,” whispers Jeanne.
Quicksilver corrects her:
“That’s where Albert goes...”
He leans over to Dryad:
“He’s the one who plays records.”
The newsreel has been and gone during our banter, with none of us paying the slightest attention; the world will continue to turn without us.
The first film is a documentary. Hélène isn’t happy:
“The main feature’s romantic…”
“More’s the pity,” mutters Hubert, but without interrupting her.
“… so it should’ve been something in the same mood.”
“Hush, you’re disturbing everyone!” whispers Armand, feigning indignance.
Hélène gives him a good thump for his pains.
Calm was restored as the documentary, a fast-paced and detailed look at sardine canning, plunged us into a deep and restful lethargy.
An impressive series of bangs from a six-shot revolver wakes us with a start.
“Aha! Action at last!” cries Quicksilver, forgetting to whisper.
A few heads have looked round, giving us curious looks, then returned to the massacre.
A cartoon. Now it’s the girls’ turn to wake up – the revolver shots, despite being so skilful that not a single one missed its target, have hardly filled them with admiration. “You really do have to be a boy to take an interest in such nonsense!” opines Odile.
“Ice creams, toffees, mints!... Ice creams, toffees, mints!...”
It’s the intermission, and the usherettes who had shown us to our seats earlier are going round offering their wares. We stop them as they pass by.
Duly fortified, we go out to stretch our legs.
The cold has become less keen in the last few days; the air is almost mild – for late January, of course. The little square in front of the cinema is like a big living-room, in the glint of the gaslights. Yes, I know, there haven’t been gaslights any more for a good while now; those in my little unpaved cul-de-sac are among the last. Now, they are clear street lights… which many of us still call gaslights, or worse, electric gaslights! Actually, it’s because of the old-fashioned shape of some of the lamps… What is progress for? Why, to see more clearly, don’t you see? And yet how soft the lights of my little unpaved cul-de-sac are…
We aren’t the only ones to have come out to stretch our legs; a fair number of the audience have spilled out into the little square and the nearby cafés, clutching their ticket stubs so as to be able to get back in again. Full of people, the place has become even more lively than during the daytime; people are drinking, smoking, talking loudly; the children, those who are big enough to go out, are running between the trees, shouting and laughing together – and if they didn’t already know each other, they have soon made acquaintance.
A long ring of the bell; the intermission is over. In small groups, the cinemagoers have unhurriedly made their way back to their respective seats. The show is late starting; impatient young voices start chanting “Get a move on! Get a move on!” A piano can be heard from behind the curtain. The curtain rises.
A vivacious hostess appears, beaming. “And now, the Master of Magic, the great, the famous…” she announces in a voice that sings.
The “Attractions” have begun; the Magician, elegant in his tailcoat, has taken, with the tips of his fingers, two shining steel circles held out to him by his assistant, whose long, sequinned dress flashes and sparkles, dazzling us. A sleight of hand and the two circles are linked.
“It’s a trick!” exclaims Armand.
“Of course it is,” says Odile calmly. “The only question is whether you can do the same!”
Armand’s answer is lost in the audience’s applause. The children – they don’t think of tricks – are bouncing up and down in admiration.
The Magician has gone, taking their dreams with him…
The adverts, on the other hand, are real enough; here, it is washing powders that are magic…
The feature. “Aaaah!” goes the audience.
An attractive living-room. The characters come and go, talking about the latest film they have seen. A frail young girl had not understood why… “I’ll explain!” breaks in a young man who is the very picture of health. She gives him a smile that opens up like a flower on a spring morning. Everyone has understood.
“She wants to make him jealous,” Hélène tells us.
Seeing our surprise, she goes on:
“If he were the one she loved, she would be shyer.”
Armand would like to know more:
“Who will she make jealous? There isn’t anyone…”
She interrupts him with authority:
“There isn’t anyone for the moment. But just wait, you’ll see!”
Accustomed as we are to Hélène’s prophetic gifts, we ask no further questions. And yet, a few moments later, I couldn’t help asking her:
“So what have you seen in particular to make you think…”
She interrupts me likewise:
“Nothing, in particular. But in this kind of film the feelings are always the same. It’s like in maths, when you do lots of exercises there’s a good chance one of them will come up in the exam.”
She added with a smirk:
“People aren’t always overburdened with imagination…”
All that was left for me to do was to ponder these wise, though rather curious remarks.
Quicksilver asks in surprise:
“If you know everything that’s going to happen beforehand, why do you go the cinema?”
Hélène remains silent for a moment, then says hesitantly:
“Perhaps it’s reassuring to tell the future when you know it’s without danger…”
While we were whispering our thoughts, the film carried on… without surprise for us, since a sickly-looking young man appeared, looking around with anxious eyes, while the frail young girl simpered at the young man who was the very picture of health.
Hélène had got it right.
“Watch it! Yer squeeze’ll see yer!”
A boy sitting in front of us with a few mates has shouted out to warn the frail young girl. A few giggles can be heard. Suddenly:
Baby, who had been sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms, has woken with start and is yelling its head off.
The whole audience bursts out laughing. The mother, not too bothered, gives her offspring a brisk shake. Peace is restored.
Dryad takes advantage of the interruption to whisper:
“Why did he say ‘squeeze’?”
I whisper back:
“It’s slang for a boyfriend or girlfriend.”
She frowns, glances at me and goes back to the film.
Meanwhile, the scene has changed. The frail young girl and the sickly-looking young man are in the middle of another living-room, smaller, this one; they are alone, they kiss.
“Mmm...! Mmm...!” goes the same boy as just now, the usual neighbourhood joker, doubtless to encourage the two lovers…
Scattered laughter can be heard again; but this time urgent “Shhh”s from the fairer sex shut up the offenders, incapable of properly understanding the importance of the scene.
In the hush that has fallen, I hear Hubert mutter:
“She can’t have had a good look at him.”
“Well, of course he’s not as good-looking as you,” whispers Jeanne, “but he’s nice…”
The girls smile ironically, the boys sulk…
“Are you coming with me to the Galeries tomorrow?” Dryad had asked me.
“With pleasure. What do you need?”
“Some fabric for a skirt. I believe there’s a lot of choice there.”
I had answered her immediately:
“We should go to Montmartre instead.”
“To Montmartre? I’ve never been, but one thinks of it more as a place foreigners go to see…”
She had taken my arm:
“Or provincials, like me!”
And she had added with a laugh:
“Show me the curiosities of Paname!”
So this Thursday I had come to pick her up. There was nobody there. How silly of me! I had got the time wrong – her lecture finished an hour later than I had first thought. And as her mother was clearly not at home, there was nothing to do but wait. Too bad for me.
Where should I wait, then? Not in the stairwell, that’s for sure. Walk up and down in the square? No; the terrace of course! Memories of my schooldays took me to Montparnasse station. How many times had I stayed there dreaming, leaning on the railings of the terrace, watching the people go by on the Place de Rennes when the prospect of a history or geography lesson made me blanch with boredom – dates of battles, over and over again, lifeless names on maps…
But I wasn’t dreaming this time. It was indeed Dryad whom I could see in the square. I ran down the stairs six at a time – at least – and just managed to catch her as she was about to go in.
“Where on earth are you running to like that?” she exclaimed, seeing me barrelling up to her.
“I wanted to surprise you before the stairs!”
“You wanted to race me like on the Eiffel Tower?” she asked me, smiling brightly.
We left for Montmartre, taking the North-South.
“The North-South?” said Dryad with surprise.
“Oh, yes, of course, I’ve never told you about that line.”
She waited. I went on:
“In the early years of the century there was a private company; it was known as the North-South because it crossed Paris…”
“…from Porte de la Chapelle to Mairie d’Issy.”
“Absolutely. You know Paris better than I do!”
I quickly caught myself:
“No, no, you’re putting words into my mouth. The line didn’t go that far at the time.”
I added, in a normal tone of voice:
“Knowing that we were to go from your place to Montmartre today, they hurried to build the line between Montparnasse and Abbesses, which is where we get off.”
“Oh, how considerate of them. You asked them to, then?”
Dryad, convinced, continued:
“I had noticed that the stations, and even the trains, weren’t the same as on the other lines.”
After a moment:
“The station names are really very pretty. Are the tiles earthenware or ceramic?”
“I love the blue background.”
“You can only find these tiles on the North-South, you know.”
“I see. And what’s more, the carriages are particularly comfortable; it’s more like being in a sitting room than on a train.”
“That’s true. I like taking the North-South, and as it goes through Convention… and Montparnasse…”
“Yes, and have you also noticed the frieze around the name Pasteur?”
“Yes; I’ve seen friezes like that in all the stations on the North-South; I’ve even noticed that they have different colours, but I thought it was only for decoration.”
“Yes, it is decorative, but it also has a meaning; when it’s gold, it’s an ordinary station; when it’s green, it’s a connecting station or a terminus…”
“But at Madeleine it’s blue.”
“You’ve got sharp eyes! Yes indeed, Madeleine is the only one to have blue.”
“Why?” she said in surprise.
I put on a crestfallen look:
“I don’t know…”
“I know Paris better than you do!”
“Oh, that’s wonderful. Why, then?”
“I’ve no idea!” she giggled.
We both started laughing.
The North-South set us down at Abbesses.
“If you want a race up the stairs, now’s the time.”
“The stairs of the metro!” she laughed.
“Well then, let’s go!”
Not waiting any longer, she started to run; I let her forge ahead. A few flights later, she turned to me and said:
“There’s no-one else on the stairs; isn’t that a bit odd?”
I let her have her say, laughing up my sleeve. Another flight and she went on, in a slightly anxious tone of voice:
“Are you sure we’re still in the metro?”
I did my best to keep a straight face:
“In the metro? I was asking myself the same question. I think I may have got the wrong stairs…”
She stopped and said, with an amused little smile:
“From my experience in the mountains, I’d say we’ve climbed twenty metres; as the Abbesses metro is thirty-six metres deep, you as a mathematician will easily calculate how many metres are left to climb…”
I gaped, of course. She briskly resumed her climb, calling over her shoulder:
“Go back down if you’re tired, there’s a lift from the platform!”
My answer was to bound up the steps. My small consolation was to reach the top first.
“Is this where we’re going?” said Dryad with surprise. “It’s smaller than the Galeries.”
“Yes, but it only sells fabrics.”
She gave an approving nod and we went in.
“Yeeees…” she said after a few steps.
“And there’s more on the upper floors.”
We had started to rummage; I like to see fine fabrics too. Dryad was over the moon:
“We’ve got a very good store in Annecy, but you can’t find this many lovely things there!”
We had stopped, on the first floor, in front of a display of rolls of attractive, very similar-looking blue-grey woollen cloth; Dryad asked for my advice; our discussion was heated. Did the sales assistant notice our discomfort? He had come up to us discreetly and, smiling, asked Dryad:
“Are you looking for material for a skirt?”
She nodded. The sales assistant noticed her hesitation:
“These fabrics are sold by the metre; perhaps you just need a length?”
Dryad having nodded again, he went on:
“Come with me. We have some remnants back there, I’m sure we’ll find something suitable.”
He added confidentially:
“They’re the same, but a lot less dear…”
Then, leaning towards us, he went on:
“Watch out for the strings.”
Back there, we did indeed find a host of remnants.
“Take your time,” said the sales assistant. “If you need anything, I’ll be over there.”
And he left us, as discreetly as he had come.
“Strings?” Dryad asked me, slightly surprised.
“They’re threads left on the edge of the fabric to indicate a slight flaw.”
“Is that a problem?”
“No, the flaws are hardly visible, but you can always take advantage of them to ask for a discount.”
Around us, the comings and goings of the many customers filled the store with a muffled hubbub. You could see they were regulars from the way they would exchange comments and opinions with each other. Women whose youth was long behind them and who, from what you could make out, came from all over, sometimes from quite some distance, walked slowly between the displays, perhaps hoping to chance upon the simple and inexpensive fabric from which they could make the dress that would replace the one, already slightly tired, that they wore every day. Other women, more middle-aged, seemed to know for certain what kind of fabric they had come to buy.
“Dressmakers,” murmured Dryad.
I was surprised; I had never made that distinction before on the few occasions I had visited the store.
“Dressmakers do as they’re asked…”
She paused for a moment:
“The mother of one of my schoolfriends in Annecy is a dressmaker. I’ve already been with her to our draper’s there; things happen pretty much the same way as here, and yet everything seems different, I don’t know why.”
She fell silent. I offered an explanation:
“More people, perhaps?”
“Yes, that’s so, but it’s not only that, it’s also what I feel here.”
“You told me just now that there was more choice.”
“Yes, that’s so too, but there’s something else.”
Still hesitantly, she went on:
“Where I come from, it’s like having a little rest; here, I get the impression you aren’t allowed to stop.”
“You aren’t allowed to stop? What do you mean?”
“Oh, I’m exaggerating, you can do that, of course you can, it’s just…
She took a breath:
“It’s just that you don’t really want to!”
We weren’t the only ones to be rummaging around in the big wicker baskets full of remnants; a fellow-rummager, seeing us looking insistently for our fabric, said to us affably:
“Here, you come to look for what you want and you leave with what you’ve been able to find.”
Fortunately, the remnants couldn’t have been more varied. Some gently caressed the hand, others held on to it affectionately; some, though still affordably priced, clearly manifested their class; others, more modest but so precious for the smaller budget, did all they could to show off the qualities they nevertheless possessed; and every colour under the sun was present.
Leaving the store, Dryad asked me, feigning surprise:
“When we arrived I saw a cable car; is there a mountain in Paris, then?”
I didn’t immediately understand:
Oh yes; the funicular. In my best lecturing voice I said:
“Absolutely! The Mons Martis, on top of which is situated the Templum Martis, a hundred and thirty metres above sea level. The mountain being steep, the Romans let down a little rope to help people climb up – funiculus in Latin. That is the rope you can see; and as people nowadays are lazy, carriages have been attached to it. In Parisian, it’s called the funicular.”
She broke in quickly:
“Let’s go up on foot; it’s too dangerous!”
“Too dangerous? And you a mountaineer!”
“Absolutely. When we’re in the mountains we don’t take little ropes, we take good solid ones!”
She added, before I could react:
“Funes in Latin...”
My countenance was… discountenanced. She squeezed my arm, smiling kindly:
“Never mind… You know, thanks to you it’s not only Paris I look at, it’s also life…”
She mused for a moment:
“You don’t always see it when you’re on your own…”
Then, very quickly:
“And as for Latin, it’s one of my subjects, since I’m doing liberal arts!”
We have climbed up on foot. We are in front of the Eglise Saint-Pierre. I hadn’t noticed the journey.
“What an austere church…”
Dryad hadn’t finished her sentence. I… The church?
“There’s nothing to distract you when you come here to pray,” she went on.
I commented mechanically:
“It’s the church of Montmartre...”
She gave me a look of surprise:
“You don’t say!”
I had recovered my wits:
“Yes and no…”
“Yes and ?”
“Yes and no! Saint-Pierre is the real church of Montmartre.
“Not only; it was founded in the third century by St Denis, apostle to the Gauls, patron saint of France, first bishop of Paris, and a martyr to boot.”
She seemed interested. I carried on:
“It was in his memory that Dagobert declared Montmartre a place of refuge; and it is where the Castilian saint Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus.”
She looked at me with… No, I won’t tell.
“I didn’t know you were such an expert historian.”
Assuming an air of false modesty, I said:
“Mathematicians aren’t only interested in maths.”
She nodded approvingly. I went on in a more natural tone of voice:
“And actually, I like Paris a lot; it irritates me to see what the places that have contributed to its history have become, even if they haven’t always been part of Paris.”
She was listening to me attentively.
“And,” I finished off in a rush, “I want you to know the places where I have spent my life.”
And without a pause I went on:
“Come to think of it, you haven’t had anything to eat!”
“At the speed you were going when you came to pick me up, it wouldn’t have been easy.”
“Mademoiselle, if you think that your honoured mother would not object, may I take you to lunch?”
“Monsieur, I accept with pleasure; I am sure my mother would have no objection at all.”
The sun, which had imparted a little warmth to the lovely winter day, was sinking lower in the sky.
“The days are getting longer,” Dryad pointed out. “Soon I’ll be able to see the sun reflected in the lake on my way back from school…”
I did not understand. She smiled:
“No, I’m not going back to Annecy; that’s how it was when I used to live there.”
“You miss… Yes, I know; you miss Annecy very much.”
“Let’s go and get something to eat!”
Only a few bare-branched trees filled the deserted Place du Tertre. From a half-open window came the sound of an accordion playing a nostalgic waltz. We went into a café whose door was closed against the chill. The heady smell of chips decided our meal. “It’s here in Paris that I found out about them, they’re delicious!” said Dryad confidingly.
Thursday. We’ve had our noses to the grindstone for the past two weeks; those heady times in high school when we could slack off for a few days are long since past. And yet today I can see a break in our schedule; we’ve managed to get slightly ahead of the programme, so here we are at Amethyst’s, contemplating with satisfaction the pages of calculations that accompanied our labours.
“Coffee, and make it strong!” orders Quicksilver.
“One strong coffee coming up!” replies Amethyst with the serious demeanour of a good waiter.
I too get a strong café – she knows I only like it strong.
“What makes us do what we are doing?” Quicksilver asks his cup between two sips.
“We have exams…” starts Amethyst.
“Same answer. We have a career.”
I chip in:
“My finches would say the same thing: We’re hungry!”
“Your finches will never do anything more than they already do,” replies Quicksilver.
“Why ever should they? Their reward is always the same.”
“We hope for more than just seeds or gnats,” protests Amethyst.
“I dare say my finches would give the same sort of answer to those who eat neither seeds nor gnats.”
“Your finches die if they don’t have seeds or gnats. And will we die, without exams?”
Silence answers his question, broken by Amethyst:
“People want something else...”
“But why exams?”
Quicksilver expands :
“And why that exam in particular?”
“What a question! We chose it ourselves when we were at school!”
I ask again:
“But why did we choose it?”
Amethyst looks at us thoughtfully:
“Wanting to know… do you remember?... we were searching, searching everywhere, never letting up; we were searching for that which was not what we wanted to know. We knew that it was impossible for us to know what we wanted to know: ourselves.”
Thursday. Our little group had arranged to meet at the Louvre at ten o’clock. As I was leaving my house, I could hear my finches twittering excitedly in the trees. I glanced towards the end of the street – and yes, there was the pedlar they had recognised, now crying “Birdseed! Seed for the little birdies!”
“They won’t be the last to get their feed, your little birdies!” he says to me with the rictus that passes for a smile.
Having duly bought the birdseed, I go back up to my room, where I find my finches in their cage, waiting impatiently for me.
I go back out; the sun is already high in the sky. The mildness of the day heralds a spring that has only a month left to chase winter away. In the middle of my little unpaved cul-de-sac, Loulou and Mounette are taking advantage of the fine weather to play hopscotch – a noble game at which I excelled in days gone by. The sound of a neighbour’s piano – he gives concerts – follows me…
The sun has put the passers-by in a good mood. Bright and cheerful on his moped, a delivery boy whistles a merry tune as he pedals along; two locals, walking fast, exchange lively banter; a motorist, seeing a pedestrian lingering in the roadway, calls out with a half-laugh: “Move it, mate! You got lead in yer boots?”
There is a wait for the metro at Convention. From opposite platforms, the two ticket-punchers talk about the latest film they’ve seen; the station-master has come to join in the conversation. The station is almost empty.
Montparnasse. I get out. Dryad is not yet there. I settle myself comfortably on the bench to wait for her, a bench of varnished brown wooden slats with rounded edges, running almost the length of the platform. A minute later, I see her running towards me.
“What’s the matter? I’ve been looking for you all over!” she cries.
I answer uncomprehendingly:
“What do you mean?”
“Have you seen what time it is?”
I glance at my wrist:
“Nine o’ clock.”
“Quarter to ten!”
“The station clock says the same as me!”
I have to admit she is right:
“Then we’re late…”
“Come on, look sharp, let’s go!”
“We haven’t time to take the metro!”
“I was thinking of walking…”
“Come on, get a move on!”
The 48 is about to leave. We jump onto the platform at the back, full of people. As the ticket-collector is at the other end of the bus, I pull the chain which tells the driver it’s time to leave.
“Pull it three times, the bus is full,” Dryad advises me, now well aware of the custom.
I pull, perhaps a little jerkily in my haste.
“Watch out! Don’t break it!” she laughs.
She says that because one day, the ticket-collector having pulled too hard, he was left holding the fine wooden handle, much to the passengers’ amusement.
Dryad had been right not to continue in the metro. The bus speeds down the Rue de Rennes, a wide street with little traffic; as the driver has been warned – by me – that the bus is full, and as no-one wants to get off, it does not stop.
“I’ve come from Denfert; I had a book to take to Gisèle. Do you want the ticket to give to Marcel?”
I take the ticket, which shows the name of the station in large letters. As I had recommended, Dryad has asked the ticket-puncher not to leave a hole in the name, because it was for a collection.
“Do you really think he’ll be able to complete his collection? There are so many stations!”
I can only shrug in response.
Palais-Royal. We run to the Louvre; our little group is already there.
Armand comments smoothly:
“Ah! When there’s too much to do, being late comes as no surprise.”
The great halls await their visitors in silence. We move without haste from one to another, like in a park where you go from grove to grove, enjoying nature. Is the painter, having planted his pictures one day, there to see them grow in the eyes of those who now contemplate them? This smile, painted by love: what does it say to this visitor? Does he see in it the smile, which resembles him, of she who was once in his heart and is no longer there? That river which flows gently through the meadows: did she call it to come and sit next to her and weep at her sorrow? Or does this visitor see only the magnificent painting by a famous painter whom he admires very much?
In one of the groves – a small room slightly off the beaten track – a young painter has set up his easel in front of a canvas that he is copying carefully. What does he hope for from the artist who guides his hand? Some skill that he lacks? Eyes to see better with? Or did the master at his school just say: “Go and learn to paint the way the great painters do!”
Saturday. Jeanne had said to us the day before yesterday: “We’ve done enough work! Let’s dance, at my place the day after tomorrow!” “Down with maths!” we had roared enthusiastically.
And now we are dancing.
Actually, that’s putting it a bit strong; our waltz and tango skills, to say nothing of the paso-doble or samba, are rather limited. But no matter, the music carries us along and the girls are born to dancing.
Physical effort makes you hungry. Jeanne has thought of everything and the cook has outdone herself. We stuff our faces.
“I don’t understand! I’m never hungry normally but I can’t stop eating!” cries Odile.
Surprised, but of like mind, I nod:
“Yes, it’s funny, isn’t it? I’m hungry too! It’s not as though tripping the light fantastic…”
“Trip being the operative word!” interjects Armand, causing a ripple of laughter.
“And if we’re having such fun…” starts Hubert.
Hélène cuts him off:
“I reckon we just never have time to think about fun, or food for that matter; our minds are elsewhere.”
“Music!” commands Jeanne, who doesn’t like breaks that last too long.
Jeanne is the most relentless; no respite for those who might think to rest even for a moment. Odile dances with conviction, Hélène conscientiously; I think she’s the only one to have had lessons. Amethyst smiles kindly at her escort to persuade him she’s happy to be dancing, which she does very sparingly. “It balances things out”, Hubert has said. “One more girl than us is more than I can handle!” Dryad dances with me. At least, that’s what Armand says.
What about the boys then? They do the best they can; they aren’t born to dancing like the girls!
“Move it a bit, will you?” urges Jeanne.
“I am doing!” retorts her panting escort, who this time is none other than Quicksilver.
Having got his breath back, he adds:
“You need to know what you want! Are you dancing with me or all on your own?”
“The boogie-woogie’s not for you then! We’ll put on a smooch, that’s all the boys know how to do.”
“They also know how to wind up the gramophone,” says Armand sarcastically, suiting his action to his words.
The afternoon advances; the ladies gradually lose their ardour. Hubert has come up to Jeanne and offers her a drink, asking with a slightly ironic grin:
Wrong move! She bounds into the middle of the room and throws herself into a furious, albeit idiosyncratic, dance.
“Come on, then!”
Hubert beats a retreat:
“No-one’s put a record on!”
“Then we can go even quicker!”
And she seizes him by the arm.
Everyone has started to laugh. Jeanne magnanimously and graciously relinquishes her escort:
“Good sir, I am most flattered that you should have elected me for this dance.”
He bows respectfully:
“My lady, the honour you bestowed on me by accepting leaves me to regret that it did not last longer.”
“We’ll soon see about that!”
Laughing, she takes a step towards him; but he has seen her coming and is already at a safe distance.
We all laugh.
Armed with drinks and snacks to sate our reviving appetites, we sit down – at last – in the comfortable chairs of the living room which Jeanne’s parents have kindly allowed us to occupy for the evening.
Conversations float gently through our languid minds. Words get lost, like smoke which dissipates in the air without anyone noticing. Movements are slow, words lazy. Silences are no longer the smouldering hearth of thoughts. And yet…
“How do you learn to dance?”
Hubert’s question seemed as indolent as the rest of our conversation. And yet…
Hélène’s voice, suddenly alert, has shaken us out of our torpor. Quicksilver has declared, somewhat randomly, I think:
“I’m not learning anything this evening!”
A few titters. Odile turns to Hélène:
“You told me you’d been to dancing class…”
“I didn’t stay long, and it didn’t help.”
“You were right not to carry on,” said Jeanne. “Dancing is natural.”
“Ain’t it just,” says Armand sarcastically, “and then you’ll tell us, like Quicksilver, that there’s no learning involved at all.”
“Excuse me! I said ‘this evening’!”
“It’s not only this evening that I’m no good at dancing,” mutters Hubert.
Jeanne breaks in hurriedly:
“I was only joking. You dance really well. It was me who was just doing any old thing!”
I find she’s overstating the case:
“To see you, it looks like your any old thing must be something you can learn all the same.”
“That’s true enough,” confirms Hélène, “though it’s not the kind of thing I’d have learnt at dancing class!”
“You don’t learn how to dance but you learn maths,” comments Amethyst. “Does that mean reasoning isn’t natural?”
A surprised silence follows her question. After a moment, Dryads nods her head thoughtfully:
“So why do I, who – as the mathematicians all know – is not called upon to reason, being in liberal arts, why do I have to learn?”
No-one knows quite what to say. Odile is the first to react:
“When you read a book, do you learn it as though it were a lesson?”
“And you mathematicians, when you learn a lesson, are you aware that you are reading a book?”
The assembly is plunged into deep thought. Quicksilver makes up his mind:
“A maths text book gives explanations.”
“Who can explain a book of poetry?” asks Armand urgently.
“It doesn’t explain anything; it conveys feelings,” Dryad answers calmly.
Hubert pulls a face:
“My teacher’s going to love it when I tell him how deeply I feel the elegance of a parabolic curve.”
“On the contrary, your example seems to back up what Dryad says.”
“Nonsense! That’s just girls backing each other up.”
Stung, the girls respond vigorously through Odile:
“When you trace a curve, you take care not to include a point that could be felt to be out of place.”
Armand says under his breath:
“An artistic curve, eh?”
The girls do not give in. Hélène is next up:
“When you’re riding your bike, you don’t suddenly turn the handlebars. If you did, you’d fall off!”
“And that,” goes on Jeanne, “is something you feel, not something you calculate as you’re riding along.”
“Huh!” grunts Quicksilver. “If it were me doing the calculation, I’d be sure to fall off!”
I try to defend the boys:
“So if maths can be felt, why does it have to be explained?”
Armand returns my serve:
“Oh, just so that the girls can understand!”
The girls treat his remark with the respect it deserves. I insist:
“And how is it explained?”
“What are you on about? You’ve already explained stuff, haven’t you?”
“Yes, of course, but I wasn’t trying to find out how I was explaining it, I just wanted to make sure that my pupil understood.”
“Me too, when I explain stuff I want to know whether my pupil understands, but it’s by doing everything I can to make sure my explanation is clear…”
“Absolutely,” agrees Hubert. “If the explanation is clear, the pupil will understand.”
“That depends on the pupil,” says Hélène. “The same explanation…”
“You adapt,” breaks in Quicksilver. “Every pupil understands in their own way.”
“That’s true,” agrees Jeanne. “In lectures, we don’t always understand things in the same way, as we can see from our discussions afterwards.”
“If something depends on how it is understood, does it exist in itself?”
Amethyst’s question has surprised Armand:
“Where do you get the idea that the thing can change? It will always be the same, however it’s understood.”
“A knife can be a weapon or a tool.”
“It’s still a knife.”
Silence falls for a moment.
“It someone tells me that X is holding a knife,” Odile says, “the knife for me will be death or a piece of cheese that X is cutting.”
“The object is the same, though what it represents isn’t,” adds Hubert.
“In that case, is the object itself what it is or what it represents? Which of the two is to be explained?”
“Both,” Hélène tells me.
Amethyst doesn’t entirely agree:
“Hang on a minute. Is the point to explain the object, in which case there is only one, as Hubert has just said, or to work out what it represents?”
Quicksilver joins in:
“It’s like in maths; a geometrical shape and its properties. Only in maths, that’s as far as you go.”
“Yes. And in physics, you only talk about the applications of those properties.”
“Here, it’s the consequences that matter,” says Jeanne.
“Applications of properties are consequences,” points out Armand firmly.
Dryad shakes her head:
“As far as the knife is concerned, the consequence will be fear. If I want to teach what fear is to someone who has never had occasion to feel it, I wouldn’t give them explanations, I would threaten them. Fear can’t be explained, it has to be felt.”
Thursday. Dryad had put on a record that her mother likes. The sound was not very pure.
“You should change the needle.”
“There aren’t many left,” she tells me sadly.
“You should’ve told me, I would’ve brought you some; I’ve still got half a box.”
“I wanted to buy some this morning but the record shop didn’t have any.”
“Mine’s often short too.”
After a moment’s thought I added:
“And in any case he charges too much for them. That’s why I wanted…”
I gave an enigmatic smile:
“I know! Come with me on Saturday, I wasn’t looking forward to going on my own.”
She gave a little giggle:
Like a magician who has no intention of revealing his tricks I say:
“Not at all.”
And I conclude, slightly quizzically:
“You’ll see on Saturday.”
So this Saturday she arrived on the platform at Montparnasse a few minutes after me.
“Keep your secrets, I won’t ask you where we’re going,” she said with dignity.
But that dignity had trouble concealing eyes full of curiosity.
The line was direct – no changes; I hate changes.
“What have they ever done to you?” enquired Dryad, carefully studying a sign that would put her on the right track, so to speak.
“This is where we get off.”
“That’s hardly a surprise, it’s the last stop!”
I tease her:
“That’s very observant of you!”
“Oh, it’s just so as to find the way back if you get lost.”
Not taken in, I said to myself “Yes, that’s just to get me to tell her where we’re going…”, and assumed, of course, my most nonchalant air.
So we walked to the first booths and stalls that start piling up as you go into Saint-Ouen.
“Oh, it’s like the booksellers by the riverside!” exclaimed Dryad.
She added immediately:
“I see that they don’t only sell gramophone needles!”
Then, after having looked all around her, she went on:
“With all your mysteries, I was really hoping to see something interesting. Well, I’m not disappointed!”
After a short pause:
“You always show me unexpected things – at least unexpected as far as I’m concerned, of course. But you show me them… at the right time, not just showing them for their own sake.”
“Like I told you once, at Montmartre: you show me life, not things.”
I squeezed her arm that I had taken in mine:
“Yes, it was at Montmartre; I remember. I also told you that it was the places where I had spent my life that I wanted to show you.”
She gave me a long smile:
Now we were making our way through the narrow alleys lined with booths of all sorts which took the place of shops.
“Yes, I can see that there’s more than just needles,” she said to me, passing through one of the alleys.
She went on with a small sigh:
“I never thought I’d find such a vast amount of stuff here, all so different.”
Seeing the extent to which her curiosity attracted her from one display to another, I got the impression she had almost forgotten about her needles. It is true that the choice on offer far exceeded the capacity to choose; no sooner had some tempting item shown itself than another came along to take its place.
“Have you seen this lacework? I’ve rarely seen anything so beautiful. It looks old.”
“Not 'alf, Miss, that’s Mechlin, that is. You won’t find nuthin’ finer!”
But truth be told, we wouldn’t have had much use for it.
Dryad had her regrets:
“It’s a shame…”
She added in a whisper:
“Do you think he got it wrong?”
“Yes, the price!”
“You must have already noticed that…”
“Yes, of course; but so little?”
A little bit further on, Dryad had stopped in front of a photograph, a yellowed old photograph in a frame which must have been handsome a long time ago. It showed a grandfather with a long moustache, a grandmother who looked like a simple woman who didn’t know where to put herself in front of the photographer, and a couple with their four children.
“It’s yours for twenty.”
Dryad looked at him uncomprehendingly:
“Is it a photo of your family?”
Now it was the seller’s turn to give an uncomprehending look.
I drew Dryad away:
“No, they’re just photos found in furniture sold after someone has died…”
“Yes…” she said slowly, but I couldn’t tell whether or not it was a question.
We strolled around the unpaved lanes, without thinking for the moment about the needles we had come to find, Dryad being too taken up with all the bric-à-brac, so unexpected for her.
“Oh look! Spectacle frames!”
A big basket. A pile of old pairs of spectacles. A man had come up and was steadily trying them on, one after the other. Dryad pulled me aside and asked under her voice:
“Is he trying out the lenses?”
“Yes, opticians are expensive. I hope he’ll find what he’s looking for.”
She stood there for a while, watching, then we left.
“Are we still in Paris here?” she asked me suddenly. “It looks so different.”
“No, this is Saint-Ouen, what Parisians call the suburbs.”
“The suburbs… Yes, I’ve already heard… Your Parisians don’t seem to like them much!”
“That’s how it is. Paname will always be Paname!”
She interrupted, smiling ironically:
“Yes, especially at Vaugirard.”
I was definitely surprised:
“And yet that’s absolutely true. These booths date back to about the same time as when Vaugirard was incorporated into Paris. I’d never thought of that!”
She gave a little grin:
“That’s how it is. Paname will always be Paname!”
“It’s true that Parisians look down on the suburbs. If someone is no good at something, for example, you might say ‘Oh, he’s just a bit-player from the suburbs’.”
“In my distant province, I wouldn’t say that about Old Annecy...”
Then, without transition:
“Have you seen that stovepipe? It looks brand new!”
She added, laughing:
“We should get it for Amethyst, hers are all dented!”
She went on finding other treasures, all as unlike as could be.
“If I start painting, these are the brushes I’ll buy!”
“Do you like them so much?”
With a serious look, she said:
“They might have belonged to a great painter in days gone by; I can just let them get on with it.”
Just as seriously, I responded:
“Look at these ivory keys; if you put them on your piano in place of the ones that are already there, I’ll surely play fewer wrong notes.”
“That’s because you can’t see the music properly when it starts getting dark. Take these candlesticks, I’m sure they’ve enlightened the greatest pianists…”
Suddenly she breaks off:
“A magic lantern!”
Yes, it was indeed a magic lantern. I wasn’t too sure how they worked. She explained:
“I had one when I was little. You put two glass plates with a coloured drawing between them in front of a wick and you can see the drawing on the wall, magnified by a lens.”
“I remember now. It’s like a projector that people used before the cinema.”
Just when it seemed that our stroll would never end, Dryad noticed a booth not far off:
“And records mean needles.”
And needles indeed there were. New ones, old ones, sharpened ones – how many times? – ones that had had their day; it was all written on the baskets that contained them.
“Nobody would buy them!”
The seller did not share Dryad’s opinion, not in the least:
“If the record’s scratched you can’t hear a thing, so who cares anyway?”
Dryad and I exchanged a discreet look.
“Them’s good, them 78s there, Miss!”
We glanced at them. Miss exclaimed:
“Ow, gimme that ‘un, it’s one o’ me Mam’s fivourites!”
Impassive, the seller gave her the disc. I looked on admiringly.
“Hey, gerra load o’ tha’ totter!”
Surprised, she turned to me:
“I thought you’d’ve got the hang of Parisian slang by now! It’s the rag ‘n’ bone man!”
She did not seem any the more enlightened.
“Remember the old lady who sings Le Temps des Cerises in my street?”
“Well, she’s not the only one to pass by. There’s the knifegrinder with his cry: Grind-ing! Knives to grind! or the glazier with his Vi-trier! and so many others… and then this one, the totter, who you can hear from a long way off: Rag ‘n’ bone! Ay-un! Eny ol’ ay-un!”
“Rags, I got that, but Ay-un… what’s that?”
“You’ve got to be used to it. He’s saying Iron! Any old iron!”
She pursed her lips, perhaps in admiration, then, seemingly very interested:
“There are ragpickers who pass by in my street, in Annecy. I wondered, even when I was little, what they did with all the rags they collected.”
“Well, that’s easy enough. The totter sells them to the monkey, who sorts them…”
I said, in my lecturer’s voice:
“Oh, I forgot to tell you… If the prices are so low here, it’s because they use monkeys instead of people for work where you need a shrewd eye, like sorting rags and st…”
She pinched my arm:
“Don’t mock, even if I am a hick from the sticks!”
I started to laugh. She punched my arm and said “You’re horrid!”, then started to laugh too.
“So your monkey, then?” she went on, shaking my arm.
Serious again, I resumed:
“Monkey is a slang word for a master picker, the one who really sorts the rags. They’ve got experience, they weren’t born yesterday, as the saying goes. The totter keeps the best stuff – you can see him there selling something to a customer – and the master sells on the rest to others who can turn it into something else and make a profit.”
“So it’s like in the draper’s in Montmartre, then? But the fabric’s really not very nice, is it?”
“Maybe not, but it’s cheap. The people who come here are poor; or else they’re like us, they’re hoping to find something they can’t get elsewhere. And that one will be going home happy.”
“Happy? He doesn’t look it! He looks to be having an argument!”
“Oh, that’s different. This isn’t Montmartre; here you haggle over prices, sometimes for a long time.”
“And the fabrics aren’t clean, either,” commented Dryad.
“No, they’re not, not at all. And that may be why this place is called the Flea Market…”
She stared, wide-eyed:
“So this is the Flea Market? Silly me, I should have thought of it before. I’ve already heard about it, but without really paying any attention. I knew there were lots and lots of stalls and that you could find lots of different things, but I never imagined… a world like this, so self-contained, undisturbed by everything around it.”
She stood there for a long while as though lost in thought. I said nothing. At last she seemed to emerge from her brown study:
“My grandmother lives in a hamlet with just a few houses. It’s much bigger here, but I don’t think I really realise it. In Savoy, hamlets like the one where my grandmother lives are called after those who used to live there long ago. Hers is called chez Cettaz. Chez comes from the Latin casa, meaning house; so it means ‘where the Cettaz live’”.
She looked around her:
“Here, it’s like being ‘where the Fleas live’.”
I walked on with slow, almost careful steps; hadn’t Dryad’s words made me sense how fragile this world was?
Tuesday. April showers, except that it’s March. A lot of work last week. As a reward, this evening we’re going to the opera, Le Grand Opéra de Paris for foreigners. “And even for provincials,” Dryad has conceded.
The work we are to hear is rarely performed; is it because the music was composed by a child?
We reach the Palais Garnier – that is its name, I have told Dryad – separately. We all had things to do, and I found myself with Odile at the metro exit at Madeleine, where our two lines cross. I offered her my arm and we took the Boulevards, thronged with theatregoers, to go and meet up with the rest of our little group.
“Everyone’s here!” calls Armand brightly.
Turning pompously to Dryad he says:
“Well, how do you like our Opera?”
Then, leaping onto the steps of the Great Staircase, he adds, showing her the lobby with an expansive gesture:
“Isn’t it majestic?”
“Yes, it is,” she answers pensively.
“You seem not to be sure,” frets Hélène.
Dryad gives a little sigh:
“I’m used to all the great buildings in Paris now, and I’ve already passed by the Opera many times; it is indeed big, but when I came in just now it seemed outsized.”
“What do you mean, outsized?” said Quicksilver in surprise.
“Man cannot fill this space.”
“What are you on about,” protests Hubert. “It’s full of people here!”
“Do you mean a single man?” asks Amethyst.
“Yes,” answers Dryad. “It’s too big for him.”
“Your mountains are even bigger,” comments Jeanne.
“In my mountains, man builds only what he needs to live.”
“But your mountain itself…?” starts Odile.
“Is on the scale of the shepherd and the woodcutter.”
From our position up in the gods – it’s cheaper! – the stage seems unreal to me; it’s as though I had been taken back to the time long ago when the action takes place – though I must confess that I, like everyone else in our little group, am not too sure what actually happens. We have all come to hear the music of the fifteen-year-old boy who composed it. Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart – La Betulia liberata – Oratorio – Koechel 118 – in the spring of 1771.
I draw a deep breath. I haven’t thought about breathing during the oratorio; it gripped me and didn’t let me go. I’m still in its grip.
I am not the only one, apparently. We have left in silence. Armand has headed without saying a word towards our usual café; we have followed him.
“Birds too sing in springtime,” murmurs Amethyst.
Despite the hubbub around us, we have all heard Amethyst’s murmur.
“Why do they sing?” asks Odile, without raising her voice.
“They want to be loved,” answers Dryad in the same tone of voice.
Is it the music I can still hear speaking?
“That’s what Mozart wanted too.”
Friday. The postman brings me a letter from Dryad. Dryad is in Annecy, with her mother, for two weeks. Her letter sings: “I can’t wait to get back; I’m like a fish out of water when you’re not there.”
“I haven’t got any coffee left!” exclaims Amethyst apologetically.
“Shall I go down and ask your mother for some?” offers Quicksilver quickly, a tad anxious.
“I’ve just come back up and my mother told me we finished it this morning.”
We all look at each other, downcast. I cast around for a fall-back solution.
“I can pop down to the grocer’s; it’s not late, he’s still open.”
“He’s closed today,” announces Amethyst sadly.
Too bad; no coffee!
“At Convention I saw a magician pull a rabbit out of his hat,” jokes Quicksilver, doubtless trying to cheer us up. “I can still remember the words of his spell.”
Amethyst and I give him a wan smile. Without heeding our obvious pessimism he stands up, stretching out his arms theatrically, takes a few steps, says some incomprehensible words… opens the little cupboard… and triumphantly brandishes a packet of coffee!
“April fool!” he says to Amethyst with a wink.
General laughter. And coffee!
We drink; clearly with considerable lack of enthusiasm for doing anything. Quicksilver eruditely sums up our intellectual situation:
“The weather is milder. It makes you want to think about holidays…”
His argument seems highly convincing:
“And holidays are for restoring strength; so we should go on holiday tomorrow so as to be good and fresh for our exams!”
“Very sound! Holidays until the exams!”
“Sleep also restores,” comments Amethyst calmly. «The condition you’re in, you ought to sleep until the exams instead.”
“Very unsound. When you’re asleep you don’t exist.”
In the same vein, I add:
“During the holidays you can do what you want.”
I conclude my proof:
“Therefore we can do nothing!”
“If we do nothing, do we exist?” asks Amethyst.
“No, no!” bellows Quicksilver. “It’s absolutely forbidden to propose an essay subject during the holidays.”
I return to my argument:
“How does one go about doing nothing?”
“The problem as framed is difficult to solve; an essential piece of information is missing: the definition of the parameter ‘doing nothing’.”
I give Quicksilver all he needs to quiet his mind as to the difficulty he fears:
“As prolegomena to the investigation, we can postulate that doing nothing is an act, and what’s more, a deliberate act that makes use of the cognitive and reflective functions.”
“Is that Dryad’s work?” exclaims Quicksilver, his eyes on stalks.
The sun had taken advantage of early April to flood us with warmth and light. Dryad had returned from Annecy the previous evening, and this afternoon we were walking through the Bois de Boulogne towards the jetty with boats for hire to row on the lake. I had promised Dryad during the winter that I would take her and “explore the furthest parts of a lake full of wonders”, and the time had now come.
“I like your wood, it’s quiet, and it makes you feel you’re expected.”
I was surprised:
“Expected by whom?”
“By those who got it ready.”
“Got it ready?”
“Yes. Here you can stroll, over there I see that everything is set up for ball games – with hands or feet… There are boys running there, and people resting on the benches. And the grass speaks to me of my mountain pastures.”
Wide-eyed, I said:
“I never thought you’d make such a good guide!”
She gave me a bright smile:
“And far off, through the depths of the forest, I can glimpse boats heading off on adventures!”
We arrived at the jetty; we were not alone, it looked as though the sun had brought out the entire city.
“In Annecy I’ve hardly ever gone out on the lake; perhaps because I see it every day.”
We had to wait quite a while. All the boats were off in the distance; from time to time one of them decided to make its way back to the harbour.
“They come back much more often than you made me fear they would,” Dryad teased me.
She added, giving me a little thump on the arm:
“The first of April’s been and gone!”
“The first of April? Talking of April fool, Amethyst’s yesterday was a real dud.”
“What was it?”
“She wanted us to think she didn’t have any more coffee, but Quicksilver smelt a rat – or at least a packet – and played the magician, pulling it from the cupboard like a rabbit from a hat!”
“Necessity is the mother of invention. Can you imagine Quicksilver without his coffee?”
The vessel that had just docked was for us. In fact, the vessel was simply a rowing boat that the man who had hailed us was holding fast with his stick, fitted with a hook at the end to pull it to the side.
After helping Dryad into the boat he gives us a vigorous shove with his stick to push our vessel out into the deeps.
“I know it’s not your lake…”
She interrupted me, smiling:
“It’s your lake; show it me like you do Paris.”
Finding that there was no point raising the mainsail since the wind had dropped, I ordered the crew to pull on the oars. The crew, all one of me, obeyed.
Dryad was looking all around her. Was she trying to find the wonders I had promised her?
“It’s smaller than your lake…”
She didn’t answer straight away but went on looking around for a good while, then said:
“There’s no island on my lake; and the road runs right by the shore.”
I set sail for the island:
“Do you see those little trees on the bank? In summer they’re full of leaves, you can hide in them!”
“Who did you hide from?”
“We used to play hide-and-seek, on days when we didn’t feel like going to school...”
“What with pig-in-the-middle, the garage, the Bois de Boulogne… did you have any time left over for school?”
“And then there was the piano…”
“Hard to fit school in, as you can see. Though I did manage to go a couple of times all the same…”
“Couldn’t you have done otherwise?”
We looked at each other and started to laugh, very softly; for a long time…
Now our monoreme is gliding along the shoreline, attracting the admiration of the natives… and a shriek of protest from a duck, suddenly ripped from his somnolence; we pass under the little bridge which links the two desert islands and come ashore. Through the occasional clearings in the thick forest which covers the island we glimpse savages hunting game. Now, served by black-clad slaves, they are feasting on the trophies of their hunt. “And what would you like for dessert?” the waiter at the Restaurant du Lac asks them.
Dryad gives a merry laugh:
“Such extravagance! What’s up with you today?”
“I don’t know; I’m happy…”
I continue, waving my arms extravagantly:
“I’m happy that you’re back…”
The exams are getting closer.
“We’ll sail through them!” proclaims Quicksilver.
“Without going that far,” comments Amethyst, “we’ve worked hard enough to do well.”
I fully approve:
“We’ve learnt everything that exists in the universe!”
“Without going that far,” comments Amethyst again, “we have learnt many things that exist…”
Quicksilver interrupts her imperiously:
“… and even things that don’t!”
Required to explain or else be denied coffee, he spoke thus:
“Time doesn’t exist!”
I am concerned:
“That’s a bit of problem for the exams then, since there’s no time left!”
Amethyst is even more concerned:
“If you’re right, that would mean that we have to live with knowledge based on the non-existent.”
“And accept it.”
“And obey it,” concludes Quicksilver brusquely.
We say nothing for quite a while.
“All that doesn’t tell us why time doesn’t exist,” goes on Amethyst.
“Show me time,” retorts Quicksilver.
“OK, OK, let’s say you’re right. How do you explain that we talk about it every day without the slightest bother, and that we use it so ordinarily and so… shall I say, efficiently?”
“When we were little, we were given a word to designate a thing – table, chair; we didn’t argue, because we knew nothing. One fine day, table became multiplication table; there wasn’t any cake on that table; but we were at school, not at home; we weren’t mistrustful; and if we had been, the teacher would have laughed at us. No, actually, he wouldn’t, he would have said seriously ‘That’s how it is’”.
Quicksilver has fallen silent. We say nothing. He shakes his head and finishes up:
“And that’s also how we were told ‘It’s time’”.
I return to my question:
“Right, you’ve said why we talk about it…”
He breaks in:
“Why is it so efficient?”
He thinks, looks down:
“I don’t know.”
Silence returns. Amethyst offers coffee. We drink; the coffee mingles with our thoughts. I ask my question again without really realising it:
“Why is it so efficient?”
No-one answers. I insist:
“Come on!... I see a man walking; he goes into a shop; time has elapsed, hasn’t it?”
Quicksilver repeats obstinately:
Amethyst has looked up:
“A man runs after a bus and jumps onto the platform...”
She remains in suspense, as though she were looking for something. Quicksilver says impatiently:
“And then? What are you getting at?”
“That’s easy! He was going faster than the bus.”
I have understood:
“What we see is the speed they’re going at.”
We think some more. Amethyst goes on:
“He caught it further on.”
She falls silent again. Quicksilver shows his impatience again:
“Well, he certainly didn’t catch it at the place he started from!”
I have understood again:
“What we see is how far he has run.”
“And as we all know,” carries on Amethyst, “speed is distance over time.”
She turns to Quicksilver:
“So you were right, time doesn’t exist; it’s only the result of a computation.”
“Yes, a derived unit, or in other words just something abstract, with no reality.”
He gives a short laugh:
“In a nutshell, we’re taught to tell falsehoods.”
“That’s it! Instead of saying that a certain amount of time has elapsed, we should say that between two moments something has covered a certain distance at a certain speed.”
We remain plunged in thought.
“You could say it’s just a linguistic convenience, like asking for a cuppa, when what you want is what’s in it.”
“Hey, that’s a great idea!” cries Quicksilver.
Holding out his cup to Amethyst:
“Pour me a cup of coffee!”
“You want me to pour the cup into your coffee, don’t you?”
He answers with the utmost seriousness:
Amethyst serves everyone. We drink quietly. After… should I say some time? Quicksilver responds to my comment:
“You’re right in the case you gave as an example, but…”
“In your case there is no possibility of error; you can’t drink the cup itself.”
“For time too; after all, it’s only a question of definition. It doesn’t matter whether you talk about the movement of the hands on a watch or say that five minutes have gone by, if you’re late you miss the bus!”
“So all we need to know now is whether there are cases where an error about the word leads to an error of thought.”
“And in those cases is it deliberate? And for what purpose?” frets Quicksilver.
“It may very well be involuntary,” Amethyst replies, “and in that case it’s only an error; if it’s deliberate, that’s deceit.”
“Well then, all you have to do is refuse false words!”
I say sarcastically:
“Try that with the physics teacher!”
“That’s Amethyst’s job. Let her talk to him about time.”
“Physics isn’t till next year; I’ve got time to think about it. But I don’t think he’ll set out to deceive me by using the word.”
I am doubtless of the same opinion; but…
“So you should accept false words when you trust?”
Nobody wants to answer. I continue:
“Do you also have to accept them when you can’t do otherwise?”
“What are you on about?” exclaims Quicksilver. “The way you tell it, you can’t do anything else.”
“Antigone didn’t accept.”
Amethyst breaks in:
“Antigone didn’t know that the words she was being told were false. She didn’t try to find out; she listened to her heart. Should she have listened to someone else? And if so, who?”
“Antigone trusted in what doesn’t exist,” says Quicksilver slowly. “So what are we supposed to do in order not to die as she does?”
Friday evening. The exams are getting closer and closer. We’re starting to feel a bit under the cosh.
“What kind of dumb thing could we do to give our brains a rest?” asks Hubert in a drawn-out voice.
We rack said brains but find nothing.
“Let’s go to the cinema,” suggests Hélène.
We blow neither hot nor cold.
“You already know all the films. We wouldn’t want to make you see them again,” jokes Armand.
We rack again. Still nothing.
“Let’s go to the Bois,” suggests Jeanne.
“It’s tiring, you’ve got to row…” moans Odile.
“Well, well! I didn’t know you’d ever been rowing before. It wasn’t with us, in any case!” joshes Armand.
“And we wouldn’t want to make you go back again,” says Quicksilver slyly, looking at Dryad and me.
But again, we blow neither hot nor cold.
Go and sit in a café, go for stroll on the Boulevards? Play at being tourists on the Champs-Elysées? – “No thank you, not the Champs! There’s nothing to do there!” – The Luxembourg gardens? – “I’ve just got back!”
Still we blow neither hot nor cold.
I make a dumb suggestion, since that’s what we’re looking for:
“It’s the last day of the fair at Pasteur…”
“Oh yes!” cries Jeanne. “That’ll be fun!”
“Great idea,” says Hubert approvingly. “We’ll never find anything dumber!”
The decision is made; we’ll go tomorrow.
I accompany Dryad to Montparnasse.
“What kind of a fair is it?” she asks me.
“It’s a funfair near Buffon, all along the boulevard Pasteur. It happens every year; we used to go when we were at school.”
Crash! Bang! Wallop! Jeanne and Armand are going at it hammer and tongs in the bumper cars. The rest of our group aren’t exactly shy and retiring, but not to that extent!
Who will do best at the shooting gallery? Armand, of course.
“Yes, because you took the best rifle,” says Hubert mockingly.
“Oh yes, and yours dragged to the left, didn’t it?” ripostes Armand.
“That’s true,” giggles Jeanne, “there are rifles that always drag left, heaven knows why!”
We laugh. Hubert scorns us.
The swings next, and a battle between the boys to see who will swing highest. Armand and Quicksilver are neck and neck. As for the girls – well, let’s just say that they are less vigorous… Just a minute! As for the girls, Dryad has surprised everyone; she’s gone almost as high as the boys! I even think that Hubert… yes indeed, I do believe that Hubert has been beaten by her; not by much, but beaten all the same.
The boys… swing… between admiration and jealousy.
“How did you manage that?” asks Jeanne in amazement.
“In the mountains I’m used to coordinating my movements when things get difficult –
climbing, for example; and when you’re skiing you have to be precise. Here, you just have to make sure you give the kick at the right time.”
“Just like that, easy as pie! However did I not think of it?” exclaims Armand mockingly.
Right next to the swings I have spotted a little pig. No, it hasn’t come to the fair to have a good time, like us, because it’s made of gingerbread. “So what?” you may say. “Does that really deserve to go down in history?” Well yes, gentle reader, it does. Why? You’ll see…
Accordingly, I have gone to the stallholder concerned and bought the little pig from him. “Is that all?” you may ask. Not at all!
I’m back. I give the little pig to Dryad “as a reward for your achievement”, I tell her. She looks at it and immediately exclaims “Oh, that’s so nice of you!”
“So what?” you may say again. “She likes gingerbread, that’s all.” Not a bit of it! No, well, actually, yes, it’s true, she does like gingerbread; but… on the little pig, pretty letters of sugared icing traced a name: Dryad!
We stroll between the stalls that try to attract customers with brightly-lit decorations or promises of prizes or mysteries.
“Oh, I’m going to catch a duck!” cries Hélène.
We head towards a stall where celluloid ducks swim lazily, pushed by a slight current, in a narrow, circular channel. A slim girl of about twelve with dark hair, wearing a long white woolly from which peep the pleats of a short white dress, is standing there, her dark eyes lost in a reverie.
The girl has come to life as we approach, though her eyes do not quit her dream; she has gently stretched a hand out towards a nearby stick with a ring on the end and has proffered it to Hélène with the smile a mother gives her child that she lets play next to her.
Hélène has made a cast with her stick; she has caught nothing. We have left in silence.
The fun continues! The fun never stops!
“Boarding now! Boarding now!”
A big girl – she must be at least six – is at the controls. Her aeroplane turns unceasingly; to what far-off lands is it taking her? May good fortune go with her, because behind her is a fighter pilot in relentless pursuit…
“Oh, look at that skull!” cries Odile.
“The Ghost Train! Yes, let’s go!” exclaim Quicksilver and Armand in tandem.
“We’ll give the girls a fright!” goes on Armand, pulling a scary face.
The girls are unimpressed.
“We can be scared if it makes you feel better,” says Amethyst condescendingly.
“Yes,” adds Dryad, “and we’re already very afraid – that the boys won’t be able to keep us safe!”
The Ghost Train. Skeletons brush us with clicking bones and screams – inhuman, naturally. The girls shriek and shout for help. The boys sneer: “Stop snivelling, ladies!”
We have escaped; now we are back outside, safe and sound.
I turn round. A sporty boy – I know him, we were at school together – is hitting a kind of large leather button with all his might. If the button goes in far enough a bell rings and the hitter is happy. We go over to him. “What are you up to these days?” – “And you?” He’s studying at… no, my mistake, he’s preparing to… oh yes, that’s it, he’s going to be a teacher. “Are you happy?” “Yes; and you guys?” We are happy; so all’s well with the world. We leave. He starts hitting the button again; the bell rings.
Hélène has shot off; we follow.
Noses in the candy floss, we wander on. The booths all look so alike, though each one offers a different temptation. Tossing a ring over a stick to win a doll – “You should have a go…” Quicksilver says to me out of the side of his mouth, his eyes all innocence; a coconut shy, with little leather balls and figurines, some of them of famous people; shove ha’penny; trinkets that you try and grab with a miniature crane – Yes, I did have a go on that one, and grabbed a bracelet which I gave to Dryad, who put it on her wrist. “How about that, then?” I say to Quicksilver out of the side of my mouth, giving him an ironic glance.
“I’m going to make a pile!”
Armand has spotted the brightly-coloured wheel of fortune; he has bet big – enough for a chocolate bar… and lost!
“You just don’t know how to play,” mocks Hubert.
“Roll up, roll up! Come and see the greatest show of the fair!” cries Jeanne.
“Just you wait and see!” retorts Hubert, who clearly doesn’t care what the others think.
A miracle! He has won!
“Here, I’ll buy you a sweetie!” he says joshingly to Armand, who gives him a solid thump on the arm.
“I can see something better than sweeties,” says Hélène.
She points… to a stall selling waffles and pancakes.
We suddenly notice that we’re all hungry. We flock. The pancakes take to the air, artfully tossed. The buckwheat pancake overflows with juicy ham. Redcurrant jelly drips from the sweet one – “From my own garden” claims the artist; and it smells so good we can almost believe him…
Odile is pancake-less.
“Don’t you want anything?” Amethyst asks her.
“Yes, but I’d rather have a waffle; I’m not very hungry.”
The waffle is ready, piping hot; a shower of sugar and… not very hungry, did she say?
Sunday. I have got up late. I don’t feel like doing anything. No matter, a bit of a rest will do me good. And in any case, I’m up to date with my work schedule. Friends of my parents are due for lunch. They’re nice, their conversation will relax me.
In the meantime I do a bit of practice on the second movement of the Mozart piano and violin sonata I’m working on with Dryad. My parents think I play very well. So do their friends. I will have to play something later on.
“Studies going well?”
The question is expected, of course, but why not? I believe they truly take an interest in me, so what matter one word or another? I talk to them about my studies, giving details. My parents listen attentively; I notice that I don’t often talk to them about my studies. Is it like with the Eiffel Tower, which you don’t look at when you’re used to it?
My father’s friend is an engineer. He builds bridges. I say suddenly, without really realising it:
“Bridges are links between people; without bridges, they would remain separate.”
Why have I said that today, when it’s not the first time I’ve seen him and no thought like it had ever come into my head until now?
He looks at me like a hen that’s found a knife:
“Why do you say that? You know, bridges as a rule are in places where you can get by without them…”
He takes his time:
“I’m building one that crosses a river. It’s handy because it saves time but you don’t need it to get from one side to the other.”
I say nothing. He thinks:
“In a way, you’re right; people would find it more difficult to meet, and in some cases they wouldn’t see each other at all.”
He goes on:
“Is that what you meant?”
I have no idea what I meant. I answer at random:
“Yes, yes, that’s it.”
He seems satisfied. Like my father, who has followed the conversation with some surprise. My mother and her friend are talking to each other; they weren’t listening.
“You want to be an engineer too, don’t you?”
We’re on familiar ground here. I feel as though I’m back on dry land after sailing in waters in which I feared I might drown. I talk about the various options that my course opens up for me – engineering, scientific research, teaching… Strangely, I felt it was then that I was drowning.
The subject of conversation changes.
Bridges come back to me. Why did I say that today? That; that is bridges, links… the separation between people.
My father’s friend is right; the lack of bridges doesn’t separate people, it only makes their relations more difficult.
What if that were enough for them not to see each other?...
Do they really want to see each other?
And yet they try to.
Do they want to see each other, or need to?
Why did I say that today?
False words… is that why?
Is “bridge” a false word?
What do you do when you build a bridge?
Should you refuse to build a bridge for as long as you don’t know… Don’t know what?
Antigone did not accept the bridge that led to life.
Has the Sorbonne already built the bridge that will lead me…
Saturday. May has just begun. I am at Dryad’s. Well now, that’s a thought. I declare solemnly:
“I am where Dryad lives.”
“You have built me a village…”
Build… I look at her… without knowing what to say…
She seems surprised:
I shake my head:
“Nothing. I’ll explain.”
She waits. I go on:
“It’s true, this is your village here.”
I wait a moment:
“If you go, it will be Dryad’s village, it will no longer be where Dryad lives.”
I finish, looking down:
“And I won’t come here any more.”
She hesitates a little:
“If I am no longer there, you will no longer have any reason to come.”
She adds, after a moment:
“Was it something else you meant?”
I look up and, emphasising the word ‘village’:
“Then village is a false word.”
“A false word?”
I tell her about the discussion two weeks ago with Amethyst and Quicksilver. Dryad shrugs:
“Yes, village may be a false word.”
She stops for a moment, then goes on, looking absorbed:
“In that case, how many other words may be false?”
“The shop where everything was good and where everything now is bad…?”
Following her train of thought, I say:
“A concert hall, if it’s converted into a post office; how could I say ‘I’m going to Pleyel to get a stamp’?”
She tries to smile:
“Try Gaveau rather, it’s smaller; otherwise it’d be a pretty big post office!”
Her smile has evaporated:
“A hospital without doctors; if I say ‘I’m going to the hospital’, who could think for a moment that it was… to dance, for example!”
“School without teachers; will it still be called school?”
She gives a sigh:
“Antigone didn’t accept, you said; could we refuse a school like that?”
She stares into the distance for a long moment:
“If there’s no water left in my lake, no-one could say that it’s still a lake…”
The second movement of Mozart’s piano and violin sonata whispers to us: “Mozart will never leave me!”
The Musée de l’Homme – the Museum of Man.
“Is it in museums that men are to be found?” asks Jeanne naively.
“Oh yes,” replies Quicksilver just as naively. “There was no obvious reason to include women.”
They both seem satisfied with their quips and no-one wants to prolong the banter. Hubert utters words of wisdom:
“We have come to see Man with a capital M. Man is all of us, men and women.”
“Thank you, Master,” cries Armand sententiously.
The Master looks around him severely and continues:
“Don’t interrupt! If Man is men and women, why are there men and women and not just Man?”
The stunned silence is broken by Quicksilver:
“Let’s go and get our tickets.”
Hubert abandons his severity and everything falls back into place. The question was clearly of the utmost interest but no-one, not even Hubert, wants to grasp this particular nettle.
Having got our tickets, we go in. A large room. Large, yes; but it is not its dimensions that I see. I say what I’m thinking out loud:
“How far away we are!... Far away, way back in time…”
Dryad says dreamily:
“Would the men of those times recognise us?”
“If they were men,” remarks Amethyst.
She adds with a smile:
“With or without a capital M!”
“Today’s a day for questions without answers,” says Jeanne with irony.
“Is a question worth asking if you can’t know the answer?” asks Hélène.
“You can’t know until it’s been asked,” states Odile.
“What if you know in advance?”
“You’re right, that’s not quite how to put it; I mean the questions you normally ask, and that no-one knows the answer to.”
“What’s the point of asking questions if you know no-one’s going to answer?”
Amethyst answers in my place:
“When you do a maths problem…”
“You know there’s a solution!” breaks in Armand.
“I know that, you know that, but the person who found the solution for the first time didn’t.”
Hélène offers her support:
“And Homo Sapiens found what the others may not even have been looking for…”
“How do you know?” says Jeanne with surprise.
“Go on then, tell us the end of the film,” says Quicksilver sarcastically.
“There’s no mystery to it; Homo Sapiens is here, the others aren’t.”
“If Homo Sapiens recognised us…” starts Dryad.
We wait. She continues:
“… would he want to live with us, or would he go back to his cave?”
“And there goes another question without an answer,” exclaims Armand mockingly.
Odile points to a glass case containing skeletons:
The skeletons in their glass case do not answer.
I point to a flint arrow-head:
“And what if that were their answer?”
May had spread its wings. The days had eaten the nights. Even in the height of summer the sun would not have spent much more time with us. The warmth and the blue of the sky already prompted thoughts of the forthcoming holidays.
“Oh, if only we didn’t have exams,” sighed Dryad.
I had come to pick her up at the end of her lecture, to go with her and take a book to one of her classmates.
“We can have a hard-boiled egg for lunch,” she suggested. “I don’t feel like a full meal, and in any case my mother’s not at home.”
She added, smiling brightly:
“The weather’s lovely and I want to go for a walk.”
She pulled a face:
“The exams can wait.”
I was of the same opinion:
“And I reckon you’re ready for them.”
“Yes, I think I’ve done the work.”
She squeezed the arm I was giving her:
“And so have you, I know.”
From her lecture, we had left directly through the door onto the little square at the Sorbonne. As we were headed for the Luxembourg gardens, going to our usual café wasn’t very practical. I found a better solution:
“What would you say to stuffing yourself with cake?”
The answer was immediate:
“Oh yes! At the pastry shop near the gardens!”
It was a done deal.
The cakes and pastries were displayed in multi-coloured rows, each one more alluring than the next. “Eat me!” they murmured.
“The lemon tart,” answered Dryad after hesitating for a moment.
“Wouldn’t you rather have the coffee cake?”
“No, not here; have you seen how much it costs?”
It was indeed not cheap; but I knew how much she liked coffee cake.
“I’ll get it for you.”
“Are you crazy?”
She went on pertly:
“Well then, I would like it very much if you offered me a chestnut cream cake!”
I turned to the waitress:
“A chestnut cream cake, a lemon tart, a coffee éclair and a mille-feuille, please!”
The waitress asked me if we would like to sit down in the first-floor tea-room. I declined her offer.
The trees in the gardens were already in leaf. Dryad was in a joyful mood.
“In any case, we’re much better off here,” she stated candidly. “It’s such lovely weather, it would have been a pity to stay shut in.”
“That’s true. And it’s a lot cheaper than sitting in the tea-room.”
We looked at each other, laughing silently…
The cakes had soon disappeared. We were walking past the pool where children were launching superb yachts to set sail in the breeze.
“The yachts aren’t doing so well today,” commented Dryad. “The weather’s too fine, the breeze won’t freshen.”
We abandoned the high seas and continued on foot, as we had come...
Leaving the gardens, we passed the Lycée Montaigne. I pointed it out to Dryad.
“You see that school? That’s where Hubert’s brother is, they live at Rue Serpente, down at the bottom of the Boul’ Mich’. We’ve just come the way he takes every day.”
She gave a mocking smile:
“Even during the holidays?”
“The holidays are like a month of Sundays. I’m sure he finds better things to do in the gardens.”
The classmate lived not far away; unhurried, we made our way there, taking side streets. I could hear a piano, playing Schubert. “That’s her,” announced Dryad. I did not dare say that the piece – one of the Impromptus – was very badly played.
As we were climbing the stairs, we were hailed by a surly concierge who called from the floor below: “Where are you going?” Dryad told her, pointing out curtly that as she wasn’t in the lodge we hadn’t been able to make the customary declaration: “I’m going to so and so’s”.
I pulled a face:
“Charming, I don’t think!”
Our way back took us near Vavin. I remembered Louis, a schoolmate from Buffon who went to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière every Thursday.
“La Grande Chaumière...,” said Dryad. “I’ve heard of it. It’s an art school, isn’t it?”
“Yes, the biggest in Paris. Very well-known painters have been to it. It was founded in the early years of the century.”
“Do you think we can go in?”
“Oh yes, I went there once to see Louis.”
The studio. We stayed in the doorway for a moment. The studio was silent; a word or two from time to time. The studio was large; twenty or so painters were painting. The studio was warm; the model holding a pose wasn’t cold, despite the absence of clothes.
Having caught sight of me, Louis came to greet us:
“How nice of you to drop by. Come this way, we can talk without bothering anyone.”
I introduced Dryad.
“Are you bringing a new artist?” he asked me.
Then, without waiting for my answer, he said to Dryad as though he had known her for ever:
“Do you paint or draw?”
Then, still without waiting for an answer:
“It’s great here, there’s a marvellous atmosphere!”
“You can stay and paint all night if you want!”
Skipping from one subject to another:
“We’ve got a marvellous teacher!”
“We all get on really well together!”
And to conclude:
“Bring your stuff next time! See you!”
He gave us a parting wave and went back into the large room. As he was going through the door, he turned and called to Dryad:
“Don’t worry if you’re short of anything; we’re all here!”
A maths lecture. Studying a long-established theorem is tricky.
“And yet the result is obvious!” mutters Quicksilver. “So what’s all this about?”
“It’s how you get there that’s not simple,” puffs Amethyst.
That’s what I think too; I grumble in turn:
“The proof follows on clearly enough, but how did the author of the theorem come up with the links?”
“That’s true, there was no particular reason…”
Quicksilver approves softly:
“There could easily have been a different link; it wouldn’t have made the reasoning wrong.”
“Yes, but it wouldn’t necessarily have led to the result.”
“And no-one would have understood why!”
The lecturer seems entirely comfortable, explaining the proof to us. It plainly irritates Quicksilver, who mutters again:
“It’s easy for him, he’s just reciting what he’s learnt.”
“You exaggerate,” protests Amethyst, still under her breath. “He’s explaining, and he’s doing so very well, I would say!”
Quicksilver doesn’t answer. I comment:
“But he keeps the secrets to himself…”
“If he knows them!” says Quicksilver caustically.
The lecturer has finished. “Any questions?” he asks, as usual. A few students ask short questions. We decide to go down and talk to him. Quicksilver is our spokesman:
“Excuse us, sir, but there’s something that frightens us…”
He looks at us kindly though with a trace of surprise:
“Yes. Maths is an exact science and yet some choices seem to have been made at random…”
I was expecting an energetic denial. But the lecturer smiles calmly:
“You go into the woods to pick mushrooms. You have made an in-depth study which enables you to know that there are mushrooms in a wood. You know exactly the reasons why mushrooms grow. You have drawn up a list of all the mushrooms that exist. You know which mushrooms are edible and which are poisonous. Each trip offers you a delicious meal. Until the day when, by chance, you find an unknown mushroom. What do you do? Try and eat it?”
“You can perform tests,” suggests Amethyst.
“Fine. But what has caused these tests? Chance! Nothing else.”
What can we say? He says nothing for a moment then, nodding several times:
“How can you analyse something that doesn’t exist?”
We are out in the courtyard. We don’t know what to think. An idea strikes me:
“Why don’t we go to the library?”
“What for?” asks Quicksilver.
“To question the author of the theorem.”
The pretty little lamps in the library with their pretty green shades silently illuminate the large book we have finally managed to unearth from the murk of the index; and we have also had to show patience while the large book travelled up from the mysterious depths in which it had been buried.
Had the author been expecting us? Hardly had we opened the book than he was already telling us of the reasons – which had nothing to do with mathematics – why he had begun his study.
Amethyst couldn’t hide her pleasure.
“He wanted to know about life, not solve a maths problem!” she exclaimed animatedly.
“Just because he talks about physics,” Quicksilver teased her.
I add my grain of salt:
“And because maths is of use only to physics!”
Amethyst draws herself up:
“What use is it to you to know that two plus three equals five?”
Quicksilver says mockingly:
“Yes, yes, we’ve got it, there have to be five somethings. But there are always five somethings; you don’t need to say so.”
“Two exams and three fails, for example…”
I protest vigorously, backed up by energetic nodding from Quicksilver:
“You’re just playing it for laughs!”
“Yes, I am; but all the same, you have got it.”
We both pull a face… which she gets just as well…
June was getting closer; the exams too. We were in our books rather than on walks or at shows. So how happy I was when Dryad told me that she had to go to Angèle’s, a classmate, to look up something in a book she had no time to go and find somewhere else.
I immediately offered to go with her.
“Are you sure you have time?” she fretted.
I reassured her:
“An afternoon off will do me a lot of good!”
She pulled a little face:
“Me too, I must say.”
Angèle lived in Belleville, a place I didn’t know at all.
“How can that be?” said Dryad in surprise when I had told her. “Belleville is in Paris…”
She broke off, then added with a bright smile:
“We’re no longer in the middle of the last century!”
I smiled back at her:
“I’m like a lot of Parisians, you know; I don’t know the whole of Paris. After the last theatre, I’m no longer at home.”
She said pensively:
“It’s true; Paris isn’t Annecy…”
A moment later she asked me:
“Which theatre is the last?”
“The Théâtre de la Renaissance.”
“Oh yes, that’s where we saw that funny play a few months ago.”
I corrected myself:
“Actually, I’m wrong. The last theatre is the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, not far from République.”
I added, as though to excuse myself:
“But I’ve never been.”
“Huh! You told me there were at least a dozen theatres just on the Boulevards. It’s hardly surprising you don’t know them all.”
She laughed softly:
“Paris, for you, is your Paris.”
She stayed for a moment as if suspended:
“So going to Belleville is like going to the provinces?”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that.”
“The suburbs, then!”
I didn’t really know what to say. It’s true that Belleville…
“I don’t really know what to say; maybe I don’t really know what to think. I don’t think I’ve ever asked myself the question. Belleville is… over there somewhere, I don’t really know where exactly.”
“Well, of course Belleville is Paris, only it’s… over there somewhere.”
Dryad attempted a comparison:
“Hélène said a while ago that when you go from one neighbourhood to another in Paris, it’s like going from one town to another. Maybe that’s why…”
She added almost immediately :
“Perhaps it’s like going from Annecy to Geneva for me.”
“No, it’s not the same thing…”
“Yes, it wasn’t a very good example; Geneva isn’t even in France.”
She took her time:
“It’s out of habit; for us, Geneva is the nearest city.”
She seemed surprised:
“In terms of distance? Yes… perhaps…”
Distance? I went on:
“It’s not that yours wasn’t a very good example; no. You’ve already been to Geneva. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Belleville; and even if I have, I don’t remember.”
I felt there was something more important. I continued:
“Most of all, there’s no reason for me to go to Belleville. I don’t know the people who live there. I don’t know what they do. For you, Geneva is a city which exists, which has a life, where you have things to do. Belleville is none of those things for me.”
She said nothing for a long while. Then:
“For us, in Annecy, Paris is something vague; it’s the capital; it’s a vast and slightly mysterious place.”
A short break:
“Especially for those, like me, who have never been there. When I got to Paris, I had no idea where I was; I think I still don’t know.”
She smiled at me:
“No, actually, that’s not quite right; I’m where you live.”
We had arrived at République metro station.
“La Répu!” exclaimed Dryad in a loud voice, as if in a station announcement.
She gave me a mocking smile:
“Yer, ya be’ yer life, mate! ‘Sround ‘ere where I got me ticker glass done, innit? Wotcha say, mate? Cat got yer tongue or wha’?”
I knew Dryad was beginning to get to know Parisian slang but that was really something.
She stifled a laugh. Approvingly, I gave her a broad smile.
“The Boulevard du Crime! Murder Avenue!”
I waved at the boulevard which started at the southern end of République.
Dryad looked at me wide-eyed:
“Did a lot of people get killed here?”
I paused to savour my effect:
“But the victims always got up again to take a bow.”
She pinched my arm:
“You’re teasing me! They were plays…”
“No, they were melodramas.”
“If you say so…”
I broke in theatrically:
“That’s where the Théâtre de Paris used to stand!”
She was surprised:
“I thought the last theatre…”
“That was the real one!”
“Where is it then?”
As I didn’t answer, she went on:
“Did you never go there?”
I shook my head:
“No, never. It’s been gone for ages. If it still existed today, the whole boulevard – the Boulevard du Temple – would be full of theatres.”
As always in such cases she said nothing and patiently waited for me to go on.
I told her the little I know. The many theatres, one after the other, the cafés-concerts where you went with friends to hear an orchestra and drink beer, the trestle boards which cluttered the pavements and on which all sorts of performances took place.
Dryad had listened carefully. After I had finished, she said:
“There weren’t only several different villages in Paris in those days, there were even several different periods.”
As I apparently did not give her the impression I had understood her, she went on:
“In Annecy, in days gone by, there used to be a great fair. It had everything: goods, animals…”
“There were singers and dancers and jugglers… acrobats…”
She paused again:
“And then there were actors who would perform little plays on trestle boards, the way they used to on this boulevard.”
She stood for a long moment lost in thought; then, seeming to speak as much to herself as to me:
“Was Paris just a very big provincial town?”
Our way from République was towards Belleville.
“Time for a bit of tourism!”
“Tourism?” she answered. “Are we leaving Paris, then?”
“No… or rather yes, since this is not where I live. Come on!”
On the square I asked a policeman for directions. A few minutes later…
“Oh, a canal!” cried Dryad.
Her eyes followed the canal:
“I think even I, who am not a Parisian, also have a vague feeling of not being in Paris any more…”
“That just goes to show you’re starting to become one!”
“I think it’s a bit harder than that!”
We turned left; I saw the street name: Quai de Valmy.
“It’s the Canal de l’Ourcq. It flows into the Seine after going through a tunnel. Look left: you can’t see it any more.”
“How do you know that, since you aren’t familiar…”
I interrupted her, assuming a clever look:
She did not give me time to finish:
“… knows everything!”
Her teasing smile left me in no illusion.
The Rue du Faubourg du Temple took us up to the heights of Belleville. Angèle lived not far away, in an apartment right at the top of a large building. I had moved over to the window while she was talking to Dryad about the book we had come to get, and from there I looked out over the vast panorama spread out before me: Paris. Angèle noticed.
“It’s a fantastic view,” she said.
Turning to Dryad she went on:
“I should have shown you… We were so busy with… Come and see!”
It was true; the view really was fantastic. I showed it to Dryad with a flourish:
“Look, Paris, down there…”
Their work done, we got ready to leave.
“Are you going straight back?” asked Angèle.
“No,” replied Dryad, “we have to go to the Galeries first.”
“Oh, so you’ll be going back down to the Boulevards…”
It seemed to bother her.
“Do you need something?”
She got ready to go with us to the door.
“You’re limping!” exclaimed Dryad, who was still next to her.
“It’s nothing. I twisted my ankle a bit yesterday. That’s why I didn’t come to the Sorbonne this morning. Another couple of days and I’ll be right as rain!”
“Is there some errand to be run?”
“It doesn’t matter, and in any case you’re not going in the right direction.”
“I didn’t want to say anything so as to give Dryad a surprise, but no matter. I was intending to show her the park at Buttes Chaumont. Is that in the right direction?”
Her look, embarrassed but pleased, gave the game away.
“What do we have to do?” asked Dryad.
Angèle made up her mind:
“I was supposed to take this parcel to my grandmother…”
I took the parcel:
Angèle had told us how to find the place where her grandmother lived. The explanations had seemed complicated and I was worried the house might be hard to find; but to my great surprise Dryad had no hesitation when we found ourselves at the entrance to a kind of garden which looked abandoned to me. “It’s here!” she declared confidently. And after pushing open a large gate and going through a thicket which had seemed to bar the way, I found myself in a real little village street of the kind I had seen on photos.
“I’m used to seeing places like this in Old Annecy.”
She added, shaking her head:
“I never thought I’d find anything like it in Paris.”
The little village surprised me quite as much as it did Dryad:
“I never thought I’d find anything like it in Paris either.”
I gave her a smile:
“That being the case, it’s your turn to show me around.”
Show around wasn’t the right word; there was nothing to show. A stone pathway – when did the pretty rounded stones date back to? – linked on both sides by gardens like none I had seen hitherto, and behind them little single-storey houses covered in creepers – and I’d seen plenty of them before, since my house was full of them.
“There aren’t many flowers. The garden opposite where I live looks nicer.”
“They’re vegetable gardens,” Dryad told me. “You’ll find more tomatoes here than flowers.”
We were approaching Angèle’s grandmother’s house.
“Look! The peas will soon be ready!”
I looked. Yes, the peas were indeed there, curiously attached to a long stick.
“Stake,” Dryad corrected me.
She continued the guided tour:
“Those, in the ground there, are carrots…”
I interrupted her, to show her I wasn’t as ignorant as all that:
“… and that’s jam!”
“Well, not yet. The strawberries have to ripen first.”
We had entered the vegetable garden, since the gate was open. A soft voice coming from a window made us look up:
“They just need another week or so.”
It was Angèle’s grandmother, who had heard us and was now coming to meet us.
“This young fellow seems to have quite an appetite,” she said with a welcoming smile.
Then she asked us:
“Are you out for a walk? You’ve picked the right day for it, it’s nice and bright today.”
Dryad told her the reason for our call.
“How nice of Angèle to think of me; she’s a good girl. Are you friends?”
“We’re at the Sorbonne together.”
“I’m sure she’s a hard worker; she knows such a lot…”
Dryad confirmed that Angèle was indeed a very good student. Her grandmother seemed delighted.
“Let me give you some asparagus,” she said without transition. “It’s particularly good this year.”
Pointing to a large tree, she went on:
“And the first cherries are ready. Pick as many as you like, there’re always plenty left!”
We left, loaded with asparagus and cherries – cherries most importantly.
“So what’s this surprise of yours, then?” Dryad asked me almost as soon as we had left Angèle’s grandmother’s.
“I’ve already heard about the Buttes Chaumont.”
She gave an amused frown:
“Is it a mountain?”
I answered, assuming a serious air:
“Oh, it’s much bigger than your mountains…”
“… which you’ve never seen!”
“Only because they’re much too small!”
“Well, in that case I shan’t go. I’m afraid of heights!”
For a second I was taken in:
“Oh! Well, in that case…”
Her naively anxious look had pulled me up sharp and I muttered:
“OK, OK, next time I’ll find something better.”
She gave me a sweet smile:
“Come on, let’s go to the Buttes Chaumont, I can’t wait to see them.”
“Me too. I’ve never seen them.”
After wandering around for a bit, asking our way now and then from kindly passers by somewhat surprised by our ignorance of a place that everyone was clearly supposed to know, we finally reached our destination.
Dryad looked around her, wide-eyed:
“You were right; I should never have made fun of you, it is a real mountain!”
Brushing my slightly embarrassed protestations aside, she added:
“I know, it’s not Mont Blanc, but Mont Blanc isn’t at Annecy either. But this, in Paris, is really not quite what you’d expect…”
She went on after a short pause:
“I often go walking around the Montagne de Lachat, about twenty kilometres from Annecy. It’s not really the mountains at all, it can’t be more than a thousand metres high. But there’s a rock I like to climb, a bit off the beaten track, and when I’m at the top and look down at the slope, which falls away quickly there, I get the same impression as I do from here.”
Laumière metro station. I was looking at the map; Dryad had already found the answer:
“We change at Gare de l’Est and get off at Chaussée d’Antin.”
“I can never manage to remember their full name…”
I gave her an approving grin:
“No need to. Just the Galeries on its own is enough.”
I added sarcastically:
“Some’d say the Galeries Lafayette, like they would the Paris Eiffel Tower!”
“What about the other store, the one near Saint-Lazare? What are you supposed to call that?”
“Yer don’t! The one at Saint-La’s fer straphangers, they get into the station and look no further!”
“Ah, Parisians! We’re right to reckon them impossible, where we live.”
“Yer, right, in the middle o’ nowhere…”
She laughed brightly. I felt slightly ashamed:
“That’s not really what I think, you know. It’s just to show you what Parisians think.”
“Yeah, yeah, in any case it’s what you’ve always thought till now.”
That put me on the spot.
“You’re right. But what am I supposed to do? I’ve never known anything else.”
“Yes, and you start by sneering at what you don’t know.”
Crestfallen, I said:
“You’re right there, too…”
She squeezed my arm:
“Don’t fret; I know you’ve never really thought that way.”
I squeezed her arm back.
Our errand run, Dryad suggested:
“Let’s walk to the Madeleine. We can take the North-South there, it’s a direct line.”
Place de l’Opéra. We were leaning against the white marble balustrade of the metro entrance; I pointed out the Café de la Paix:
“At the turn of the century, when you wanted to meet a friend all you had to do was sit on the terrace and wait.”
The surroundings were just as lively as usual.
“It comes as a surprise after the quiet of Belleville,” commented Dryad. “In Annecy, you don’t feel the difference as much when you go from one place to another.”
“Of course, the centre is busier, but when you leave it you don’t get quite the same impression of being a long way away that I felt in Belleville.”
She added wistfully:
“I don’t feel a long way away in your street; I feel as though I’m in a world that has no link…”
She broke off. After quite a long pause which I did not disturb she went on:
“I don’t know…”
She broke off again. A little while later:
“Perhaps it’s because it’s where you’re at home.”
I gently squeezed the arm she was holding under mine:
“I remember the day you came into my street; I got the impression you were at home there.”
The exams are next week. “Shall we go to the flicks tomorrow, before the final stretch?” Armand had suggested. We had all agreed enthusiastically. “Got any good ideas?” Hubert had asked him. Yes, he did. “But it’s only playing on the Champs,” Quicksilver had complained. After long discussion, we had decided to roll with the punch.
So on this first Saturday of June I come to fetch Dryad to go and meet up with the rest of our little group. She tells me in amazement:
“Do you know, I haven’t been to the Champs Elysées yet. Don’t you like to go there? Or perhaps you’ve never been there either, like Belleville?”
I don’t really know what to say:
“No, of course I’ve already been to the Champs… but… but it feels a bit like leaving… like leaving my Paris, as you called it last week.”
“I saw yesterday that you’re not the only one…”
“True enough; we generally prefer the Boulevards.”
“Well, since we’re going, perhaps I’ll find out for myself!”
We get off at Concorde. Hubert is already there, the others trickle along; Hélène and Armand will be at the Rond-Point: both of them are coming on Line 9.
We have taken the right-hand side.
“They’re really nice, your Champs Elysées; why don’t you like them?” asks Dryad.
Everyone looks at each other, bewildered.
“Yes, it’s a beautiful avenue,” stammers Odile, just in order to say something nice.
“The avenue? No, I don’t mean the avenue, I mean the gardens!”
“Oh yes, the gardens,” Odile goes on hesitantly. “But you said the Champs Elysées.”
“Why yes! I looked on the map yesterday evening; that is indeed what these gardens are called!”
We look at each other again. Jeanne finally admits:
“There you go! None of us knew that…”
“I thought as much, ever since I found out that the Champs was Belleville…”
“What do you mean?” exclaims Hubert, taken aback.
I tell them about our trip up to the Buttes, mentioning what I said about Paris.
Amethyst turns to Dryad:
“He’s right, although it might seem a bit excessive. For us, Paris really isn’t the same everywhere.”
“Especially not on the Champs,” mutters Quicksilver.
“At least at Belleville you’re sure to find people who live there; here, all you see is people who come from heaven knows where just to stroll around.”
“Oh, that’s laying it on a bit thick,” says Odile emolliently.
“Well, maybe a bit, but only a little bit.”
Armand is already waiting for us at the Rond-Point des Champs Elysées. Hélène appears with the next metro.
“Where are we going, by the way?” she asks.
“To the cinema, that one there, the first on the left, the Paris,” replies Armand.
“Oh, that one, yes, I quite like it…”
“You what?” exclaims Dryad. “I thought…”
Jeanne picks up:
“The Paris is quite nice; it isn’t flashy like the other cinemas on the Champs.”
“Which doesn’t stop them from always being full. And you can even find loads of people in them who live in Paris…”
“Anyone can live in Paris,” concludes Armand dismissively.
The film is good. Lots of things happen – too quickly for me to know what they are – the pictures unfold before me at a dizzying speed, time passes without my needing to do anything to keep up with it… How restful after all those equations which never unfold so effortlessly.
We come out of the cinema in high spirits. Everyone is talking at the same time about the film we have just seen, which clearly none of us has actually watched, not that that stops us all from contradicting the others without having actually listened to them. We are all cheerful, our studies forgotten – for this evening, at least.
“Let’s go for our Sunday stroll,” suggests Quicksilver brightly.
“But it’s only Saturday,” protests Odile.
“No matter! It’ll be Sunday soon enough!”
“That’s the kind of answer that would cost you dear in an exam,” observes Amethyst.
Armand lets out a shriek:
“Aargh! Don’t mention that word on the Champs, you’ll frighten the passers-by!”
The days are long in June. We take advantage of the sun being still high in the sky to slowly take our “Sunday” stroll.
“We stroll on our Champ too,” comments Dryad.
“Which one?” asks Jeanne in surprise.
Dryad tell us about the Champ de Mars beside the lake where she lives. No-one says anything for quite a while. Hélène is the first to react:
“We’re not familiar with Annecy…”
She has broken off. Hubert seems to continue Hélène’s sentence – or thought, rather:
“… and it’s difficult for us to realise…”
As though in counterpoint, Odile carries on:
“… but how peaceful it is!”
“That’s true,” says Armand. “Here, everyone looks as though they’re doing something, even if it’s only going for a walk.”
We all fall silent. I wonder if I am dreaming of the lake…
The Champs Elysées are heaving. In Annecy, on the Champ de Mars, even if there were a lot of people out walking, would anyone say it was heaving?
Thursday. The exams start on Monday. Last-minute revision. Odile asked us yesterday if she could come and revise with us. “With pleasure! We’ll be at my place,” Amethyst told her.
This morning, Odile announces that her mother is inviting us to lunch. “We can work at mine, if you don’t mind,” she suggests.
On the way to Odile’s, Dryad and I make a detour via the Place Denfert-Rochereau, in the middle of which languishes a lion – a bronze one, fortunately –, to take a book to Gisèle on the Rue Daguerre. We arrive from the Avenue d’Orléans side. As always in the morning, the Rue Daguerre is buzzing. It’s not like the market on the Rue de la Convention but it’s not far off. The shops open onto the street, their displays spilling over onto the pavement, so much so that it disappears. People’s only option is to walk in the street. The vendors cry their wares, a housewife animatedly argues about the price or freshness of some fruit. We make our way through the crowd, now and then having to avoid a gaggle of neighbours who have gathered right in the middle of the road.
Shortly before reaching Gisèle’s, we pass a bakery on the corner of a street.
“This is where I used to come and get my bread.”
Dryad expresses surprise:
“You came all the way here from the Villa Santos Dumont?”
“Look there, on the right, the courtyard.”
She looks. I point out a house on the left, inside the courtyard:
“That’s where I used to come from.”
“Yes; I was six.”
Dryad has stopped to gaze at the courtyard, not that there is much to gaze at. Not even a crane.
“A crane? What do you mean, a crane?”
“Well, of course! Otherwise I could never have had any sweeties.”
“Were there too many for you to take up the stairs?”
The biter was well and truly bit. There was no option for me but to explain:
“I had been given a little crane for Christmas. Of course, it was only a toy.”
“And you used the crane to hoist up your sweeties, I suppose.”
“You don’t miss a trick, do you?”
I give a slight smile and carry on with my story.
“I used to spend all my time letting down a little wicker basket from my window and hoisting it up again.”
“And one day you found your little basket full of sweeties.”
“Well, that wasn’t hard to guess. Why don’t you tell me what kind of sweeties?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the pleasure.”
Yes, indeed. Only…
“Only… I can’t remember.”
“You used to live there?” asks Dryad wistfully.
“Do you see that window on the third floor? That’s where.”
“Were you born here?”
“No, I was born not very far from here, still in the 14th arrondissement, in the Rue Châtelain, right by where Odile lives. At the time we used to live in Rue de la Convention, near the Mirabeau Bridge.”
We continue on our way. Having dropped off the book, we head over to Odile’s.
Now here we are in front of her building. The newsagent has come out of his shop and is putting newspapers into little pigeon-holes, having first carefully folded them into six so that they can easily be slipped into a jacket pocket. Odile arrives at the same time as us.
“I just popped round to see Héloïse, a neighbour, to take her some petrol for her lamp.”
She has noticed our surprise:
“Oh, yes, I must tell you about her. She’s a very old lady who lost her husband a long time ago and has been living on her own ever since. She lives with her memories, and often talks about them. When she was young she didn’t have electricity; nobody did. They used petrol lamps for lighting, or candles; candles were not very effective and petrol lamps were dangerous. In 1882, when Héloïse was fourteen, Charles Pigeon invented a petrol lamp named after him…”
Odile has stopped, seeing our stunned looks, and goes on with a laugh:
“No, I’m not working on a doctorate about lighting, it’s just that Héloïse has often told me the tale. As I was saying…”
She breaks off again:
“Oh, silly me, I must be boring you with my story…”
“No, no, not at all!” we both cry.
“Oh, all right then. As I was saying…”
Another pause :
“But we shouldn’t just stand here on the pavement. Come on up, I’ll tell you the rest later.”
We go on up. Odile’s mother makes us welcome:
“My daughter has often told me she is very happy to work with you; you help her a lot.”
She seems to want to add something. She has started to say “You…”, then breaks off, then says:
“Lunch first! You’ve got work to do!”
We eagerly accept. The Sorbonne may offer spiritual nourishment, but as for the real thing…
A delicious tomato salad with hard-boiled eggs, soon demolished, is followed by tender roast beef, accompanied by a chilled rosé from Provence.
Odile’s mother is looking mysterious.
“Come and give me a hand,” she says in a low voice to her daughter.
They disappear into the kitchen and return carrying a large, lidded dish.
“I don’t know whether you’ll like it,” says Odile’s mother, sounding worried.
Odile whisks off the lid to reveal… chips! A heap of golden chips!
I blush with pleasure. Odile’s mother is delighted.
“I thought I remembered you were quite keen on chips,” she tells me brightly.
The chips were just as crunchy as they needed to be, and I wasn’t the only one to enjoy them. Then came the cheese – Cantal and Camembert – and caramel custard to finish. A real feast!
Now, to work.
“What about Charles Pigeon’s lamp?” asks Quicksilver. “You didn’t finish your story!”
“You’re right. I’ll go on.”
“So the Pigeon lamp was the last word in modernity at the time, guaranteed not to explode. And it was by the light of such a lamp that Héloïse spent her evenings with her husband. When he died, in 1910, electricity had already arrived, though not everybody had it because it was very expensive. But as electricity was gradually installed everywhere, Pigeon lamps became increasingly rare and they disappeared altogether around 1915.”
Odile halted briefly:
“All bar one: Héloïse’s. She’s never wanted to have electricity, and even today her Pigeon lamp lights the evenings she perhaps still spends with the shade of her husband.”
Our revision goes well, very well even.
“I didn’t think I had any real problems,” admits Odile, “but thanks to you I feel more reassured, now that we’ve revised the tricky bits of our dear functions.”
“Dear? And how!” cries Quicksilver. “We’ve hardly had time to draw breath all year!”
“We have been able to enjoy ourselves a bit, though,” says Amethyst emolliently.
“Is that so? Well, roll on the holidays, then!”
“I hope they’ll be good,” sighs Odile.
Amethyst gently pats her shoulder:
“Don’t fret. Didn’t you see just now? Everything went well.”
Odile gives her a smile:
“True. Thank you for cheering me up. I’m always so worried…”
Odile’s mother compliments us:
“You’ve been working really hard. You’ve earned your tea!”
She goes off to the kitchen and returns with a splendid cake. Odile has followed and comes back loaded with biscuits and strawberry jam.
“Would you rather have tea or lemonade?” Odile’s mother asks us.
“There’s mint syrup too,” adds Odile. “It’s jolly good.”
“Oh yes, I’d love a mint soda,” says Amethyst.
Leaving the girls to their fizzy drinks, the boys choose tea.
Odile has cut up the cake.
“A drop of calva in your tea?” she asks Quicksilver and me.
The calvados smells good; we were right to have said yes.
The bell rings. “Good afternoon, Miss!” A little girl has just come in.
“The teacher sent me to ask you for some needles, she hasn’t got any more for sewing class.”
Odile’s mother goes to fetch the needles and gives some to the girl:
“There you are, dear!”
“Thank you, Miss!”
And the little girl runs off.
“There’s a shop on the corner; she could’ve…” mutters Odile’s mother.
Then she goes back into her room to put the needles away.
“The school’s nearby and the teacher lives in our building,” Odile tells us.
She goes on after a moment’s silence:
“We all know each other here, we often pass on the stairs – there is no lift. My grandparents live here too, two floors up.”
“People round here have been living alongside each other for ages, and everyone says hello when they pass each other in the street.”
The list of results is posted up in front of us, though getting to see it is another matter.
Dryad and I had fought to see which results we would find first. She wanted to see mine, and vice versa. In the end, male strength having vanquished female wiles, we found ourselves in front of the literature results.
In front of the list perhaps but, as I have just said, far from the results. It was as though the entire Sorbonne had come to see how Dryad had done… though if that had been the case, we would probably have been told the outcome.
“You’re on it!” yells a girl who has suddenly emerged from the mass of students to Dryad; she has given her a good thump on the arm and runs away shouting “Me too!” over her shoulder.
“Let’s go and see yours,” Dryad says to me.
She drags me away, pulling me by the hand. I mumble “Are you sure?” but she has already brought me to a halt in front of the maths board.
“Where on earth were you?”
Quicksilver has grabbed me by the lapels.
“We’re all on it!” he cries joyfully.
What do they say in books? We fall into each other’s arms. Odile has stayed standing a little to one side; her eyes are damp. “You see?” whispers Amethyst.
“Long live the class of 48!” yells Armand.
Dryad has grasped my hand.
“Rue de la Pompe; metro Pompe. You have to change at Trocadéro.”
“Change at Troc? You know I hate changes!”
We were at Montparnasse, Dryad and I, in front of the illuminated metro map she loved to play with. “It’s so pretty! All the stations along our way light up in the colour of their lines,” she would say while I grumbled “You’re wasting your time, Parisians know all the stations off by heart.” One day she had asked me “Where’s Michel Bizot?”. Thinking it was some fellow-student, I answered “Michel Bizot? I don’t remember him.” She had ribbed me then, of course, because it was the name of a metro station. Telling her it was somewhere in the back of beyond was to no avail.
“Why don’t we get off at Passy,” I had suggested. “We can take the Rue de la Tour and be there in five minutes.”
“Sure, if you like. And I wouldn’t mind a chance to stretch my legs…”
She finished with a sly smile:
“… rather than sitting in a lecture theatre!”
Here we are now at Hélène’s, who has invited us all to come and celebrate the Great Day.
The mood is, unsurprisingly, euphoric. Her parents have offered us some champagne for our festivities, sweet for the girls, dry for the boys. “That’ll get us off to a good start,” jokes Quicksilver.
There are lots of good things to eat on the table, so our business starts there. And afterwards? What do you expect when Jeanne is there? All we have to do is wind up the gramophone and off we go. And we won’t run short of needles, the box is full. Hélène has thought of everything.
The living-room windows are wide open; it’s warm this evening. Did you know that summer had come yesterday to hail our victories? You didn’t? Well, you do now!
The evening advances; it will soon be midnight. Odile has come up to Hélène and is asking her, slightly worried:
“Won’t the music bother your neighbours?”
“No, don’t worry, they’ve been told. Some have even sent their congratulations.”
She breaks off and stands for a moment without moving, as though straining to listen. Then, taking Odile by the arm, she says:
She takes her out onto the balcony:
The sound of a waltz can be heard faintly from a couple of buildings further over.
“Can you hear that?”
Odile has stood there for a moment, listening, then turns to Hélène with a smile:
“Yes! So we’re not the only ones…”
The day was already well advanced when I got up. My mother told me that she hadn’t wanted to wake me and asked me if I was hungry. No, I wasn’t hungry.
I spent the afternoon sorting out my lecture notes.
During the evening meal we talked about my passing my exams; my parents were happy and so was I. The conversation did not last very long; there’s not much to say when you’ve done well, it’s the criticism that takes time.
To be honest, I don’t really remember all that very clearly; I was half-asleep.
This morning I was already up before the sun had even made it into my room. What had my parents said yesterday as I was going off to bed? Oh yes! “Ask Dryad to come for lunch tomorrow, we’d like that very much,” my mother had said. “We’ll be able to congratulate her,” my father had added.
Since I was up and my parents were still asleep, I decided to go out and get a coffee at the bar on the place d’Alleray, on the way to Buffon.
“Nice and strong, please. And a croissant.”
Since I was on the way to Buffon I decided to kick on to Dryad’s and see whether she was up. It was only when I emerged onto the place de Rennes that I realised just how early it was. What should I do? I was seeking a solution – oh, maths were invading my vocabulary – when I saw her coming out of her building.
“Already up,” I said.
“Already up,” she said.
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve got some errands to run.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“That would be nice. Please do.”
“Let’s get a move on, otherwise we’ll be late.”
“Oh, hadn’t you heard? Class is postponed.”
“Until after what?”
“Until after class has finished.”
“The one that’s been postponed.”
We look at each other for a good while, trying not to laugh. I know, her lips were trembling, as doubtless mine were too. I couldn’t hold it in any more; she didn’t manage much longer. There we were, in the middle of the pavement, laughing fit to bust.
She took my hand:
“Are you coming, then?”
“I’m entitled to be silly today.”
“Me too. So let’s be silly.”
“How shall we do that?”
“I’ll talk to you about philosophy, you talk to me about maths.”
“Yes, right until classes start again.”
“I’ve no idea what you mean.”
“What do you mean, what I mean?”
She shook my hand so hard it almost came off:
“We don’t have to worry about lectures any more, we can…”
“… we can be together!”
“Would you like that?”
“Wouldn’t I just!”
I took her in my arms.
I hugged her tight...
But all the same there were errands to run; Dryad’s mother was waiting. So all the same we ran errands.
The bakery couldn’t have been far because a young lad walking down the narrow Rue Littré was chomping on a lovely golden baguette.
“Keep some for when you get home!” said Dryad in an aside as we passed him.
He gave a broad smile in return; the baguette continued to shrink.
“Caroli-ine, mets tes p’tits souliers verni-is...”
“Well, well! You get Caroline, we get Le Temps des Cerises.”
“Yes, she often comes this way. Everyone calls her Caroline, of course.”
“They should call her Cherry too; have you seen her hat?”
“They could call her Parsley too. The greengrocers round here sometimes give her a bunch to decorate her hat; or flowers, or radishes…”
Having bought the bread, we went to the dairy.
A bright clatter of hooves heralded the arrival of the milkman’s float, two large horses drawing a large cart, silent on its rubber tyres. The milkman had already got down and, having noisily rolled his great churn of milk as far as the counter, was emptying it into the tank.
“Two eggs and a pint of milk, please,” asked Dryad.
She turned to me:
“Are you having breakfast with us?”
Without waiting for an answer she added:
“Three eggs and two pints of milk!”
The dairymaid gave a discreet smile:
“They’re fresh from this morning, just been delivered…”
Then she took the handle of the aluminium milk pail Dryad had brought with her and, after deftly removing the lid, used her measuring jug to pour in the desired quantity.
“Oh, I nearly forgot,” added Dryad again, “I’ll need half a pound of butter too.”
“The Charentes as usual, Miss?”
Taking a thin piece of wire, she dutifully cut into the side of a large lump in a lovely shade of golden yellow.
Last stop, the pork butcher.
“Jacqueline’s a good girl, she doesn’t ask for ham!”
A little girl had just said this loudly in the shop, earnestly addressing the woman serving behind the counter.
I explained to Dryad in a whisper:
“It’s the custom in Paris that when children run errands with their mother the shopkeeper gives them a little bit of ham or sausage… Jacqueline must have had a real telling-off – her mother must think it’s very rude.”
“Well, I got the message anyway,” replied the shopkeeper, giving Jacqueline the expected morsel.
After a good breakfast – the egg really was excellent! – we spent the morning playing music; what a pleasure not to have anything else to think about…
Shortly after ten o’clock I reminded Dryad that we were due to have lunch at my house and that I too had a couple of errands to run.
“And we can pick up your record from the shop on Rue Desnouettes on the way.”
“Let’s walk,” she suggested. “It’d be a shame to take the metro when it’s fine like this.”
She had second thoughts:
“It’s ten past ten; mightn’t we be late?”
“No, with your hill-walker’s pace we’ll be back home in half an hour.”
“What about your shopping?”
“It won’t take long; all the shops are near home.”
“What do you need?”
“My mother has asked me to get some wax polish, some split peas and the pan.”
Dryad burst out laughing:
“You mean your mother has to buy a pan when she’s going to cook split peas? Whatever are you on about?”
“No, no; the pan’s at the tinker’s…”
“Oh, I see now…”
“Oh, yes, and some wine.”
We started with the record shop, which meant going down almost the whole of the Rue de Vaugirard.
“Oh, a Wallace fountain!” cried Dryad when we got there. “I’m thirsty, come on!”
The walk had made me thirsty too. We went.
Four gracious young girls held up the dome of the cast-iron fountain. The thread of water that trickled from the top of the dome gave us what we needed to slake our thirst. We drank from a little galvanized iron mug that jingled as it swung from the end of a small chain.
“What a lovely little square; it’s like being in your own garden.”
“Yes, I like it too, with all these trees…”
“Lime trees,” specified Dryad.
“Lime trees? How do you know?”
She gave a peal of laughter:
“Are you really like that, you Parisians?”
We were about to cross the Rue Desnouettes to go into the shop but had to bide our time. A coalman was dragging his handcart with the help of a strap around his forehead, over an empty coal sack. Accompanied by the racket of his iron-hooped wheels, he was delivering his coal nuts. Nuts are cheap, but they smoke and don’t heat.
We left the shop with the record under her arm.
“Do you see that window up there?”
Dryad was pointing to Armand’s cousin’s window, in the Rue Saint-Lambert. It’s true that it is rather odd, projecting out over the street, with glass sides.
“That’s where Armand’s cousin lives,” I told her.
“Oh, it’s funny; from the inside you can see both up and down the street.”
She stood there for a moment, staring at the window:
“All those panes of stained glass are really lovely, though I don’t know if you can see much through them.”
“Yes, indeed you can; I’ve already been there.”
“Her telephone is rather unusual.”
“It doesn’t work?”
“On the contrary, it works very well. The telephone is downstairs, in a corridor.”
“So how can she hear it?”
“The concierge answers, then presses a button and it rings in the cousin’s flat.”
“Unusual, as you say, but practical.”
Now there was only my shopping left to do. First, the tinker’s in the Rue de Vouillé. Going into the tinker’s shop is easy enough; turning round much less so.
“I’ve never seen such a mess!” exclaimed Dryad when we had got out. “How on earth does he ever find anything?”
I showed her the pan with its brand new bottom:
“As you can see…”
Our last call was on Rue Brancion. In passing, I pointed out the post office on the corner of the Rue de Vouillé and the Rue Brancion:
“Guess what I used to do there.”
Dryad carried on trying other options. At last I told her the secret:
“I used to stand at one of the desks and write my essays.”
She stopped short:
“Your essays? What do you mean, your essays?”
It was my turn to laugh:
“When I had an essay to do, I used to leave home quarter of an hour early and stop here to do it.”
She stood there, gaping. I carried on:
“I like writing standing up; and as I hadn’t the least inclination to do my essays, that way I had to do them quickly.”
“And you managed to get good marks?”
I added wryly:
“Like in my leaving exam.”
“Though I guess you must have stayed the regulation three hours.”
I gave another laugh:
“But it only took me quarter of an hour.”
“And you got twelve?”
“Ah, I get it now. You had a subscription!”
This time we both laughed.
The wax polish was to be found at the paint shop on the Rue Brancion, where you were caught as soon as you went in by a fragrant scent in which solvents mingled with methylated spirits, wax and Venice turpentine, rich with the odour of larch. Here too, there were numerous items – pots of paint, brushes, plates, sponges, string, screwdrivers and heaven knows what else.
“Well, at least it’s tidy,” said Dryad approvingly.
A little further down the street, we called in at the wine shop.
“I didn’t bring the bottles, I’ll pay the deposit.”
The wine merchant filled two bottles from my usual barrel.
Back out in the street I explained to Dryad:
“It’s only plonk, but it’s good plonk; it comes straight from a grower who the wine merchant knows well. We drink it at table, cut with water; it’s refreshing in summer, when it’s hot like today.”
Only the split peas left now. I bought a pound of them in the Rue des Morillons.
“Hey, look at that street, there!”
She gave it a quick glance:
“It’s where you’re from! It’s the Rue de Chambéry!”
She was immediately up in arms:
“Chambéry isn’t Annecy!”
I was taken aback:
“It’s in Savoy…”
“Yes, it’s in Savoy, but I’ve already told you I’m from the Genevois, in the north.”
She broke off for a second:
“I’m not familiar with Chambéry at all, you know; for me, it’s like Belleville for you…”
She added quickly, in a calmer voice:
“But it really doesn’t matter…”
All we had left to do now was go home.
“Oh! I nearly forgot: lights for the neighbour’s cat.”
If I did remember, it was only because the tripe shop was near the corner of the Rue de Chambéry.
The lights had been hung on an iron hook and were swinging in front of the shop, huge, pink, shiny, all blown up and a magnet for flies. We went in.
“Lights for the cat, please!”
Having gone out to unhook the lights, the tripe butcher took up a large knife which squeaked as he made his cut. I had my lights. Leaving, I whispered to Dryad:
“I’m glad it’s for cat food.”
She seemed to agree:
She added with curiosity:
“How does he manage to blow them up like that?”
“With a bicycle pump! Honest!”
She laughs, imitating Molière’s Toinette:
“The lungs, the lungs, I tell you. What does your doctor order you for food?”
“Calves’ lights, of course!”
We turned into my little unpaved cul-de-sac, the villa Santos Dumont. Children were playing marbles…
“See! We’re not late!”
“We almost could’ve been, though,” she answered, smiling brightly. “It’s five to!”
Saturday. Quicksilver and I are having lunch with Amethyst’s parents. The meal is pleasant; Amethyst’s parents say nice things to us. They congratulate us again; they are happy with their daughter, who has worked hard. We too have worked hard. It’s good. We’ll be able to relax during the holidays. We mustn’t forget next year… no, that’s not quite it… well, yes it is, sort of... We must never forget the years to come… Actually, that’s what I am thinking, more or less confusedly. Yes, yes, quite as confusedly as I am writing it. In any case, you don’t write things on the same day that they happen. And in any case, you only write what’s left.
The lunch was very pleasant. Yes, yes, it’s true, it really is. We were all very merry. We drank champagne.
No, I don’t feel like weeping. Not at all. No, that’s not it. No, no. I don’t know… I don’t really know what’s going on. It must be the champagne. I’m not used to it; it’s definitely the champagne.
We have coffee upstairs, in Amethyst’s room.
“You did pass your exam, you know.”
Amethyst is giving me a smile. Quicksilver exclaims:
“He’s had too much to drink!”
Amethyst looks at me...
“What are we doing?”
It came out just like that, I don’t know why.
Actually, I do… Dryad has to leave for Annecy. There is no connection.
“Well, we were going to talk about the year gone by, about next year…” starts Quicksilver.
Amethyst breaks in:
“We can perfectly well talk about it another day.”
Have I opened my eyes? I exclaim, as though I had just found out it was important:
“No, no, let’s talk about it now.”
We talked about it...
I was dreaming of the lake...
We talked about it for a long time. Animatedly. About our plans for next year.
Late in the afternoon…
“Are you going with her?” Amethyst asks me.
“Yes, her mother has invited me.”
Quicksilver pretends to be horror-struck:
“You’ll be away all summer? Whatever shall we do without you?”
“No, not all summer. They’re only leaving in about a fortnight.”
Amethyst hesitates a little before addressing me:
“Are you scared of Annecy?”
“Why should he be scared of Annecy? On the contrary, he’s lucky to have such a great holiday. From what Dryad has told us, it’s a wonderful place… and he’ll be with her every day!”
I haven’t said anything. Amethyst has looked at me…
Why am I scared of Annecy?
It’s July tomorrow. It has been very hot today. We have decided to go for a long walk tonight, hoping it will be a bit cooler. We are meeting up at La Motte-Picquet, which is more or less equidistant for all of us. Where shall we go?
“Let’s go where we please,” says Armand sardonically.
“Where do we please?” adds Hubert immediately.
“Don’t be silly!” interjects Hélène. “I’m not moving until I know where I’m going.”
“What? You mean you don’t already?”
“Let’s sit on the bench,” suggests Odile.
There is a rush for the bench; there is room on both sides, to be sure, but there are nine of us.
“Watch it everyone, I’m going to fall off!”
“Great! All the more room for the others!”
We boys are responsible for the hubbub, of course; if the girls are silent, it’s only because they are patiently waiting for Jeanne’s admonition to take effect:
“When the infants’ class has quite finished!...”
The infants’ class is on its best behaviour. Armand has jumped up and extends his arms in a broad gesture of invitation:
“If the ladies would like to take a seat…”
The ladies do so in majesty.
“Right!” exclaims Jeanne impetuously. “But all that doesn’t tell us where we’re going!”
“Why don’t we go down to the riverside?” suggests Amethyst.
“The riverside? In the Latin Quarter?” asks Dryad.
“Yes and no… In summer, we sometimes walk along the Seine from the Mirabeau Bridge to the Ile de la Cité; and by then we’re in the Latin Quarter.”
Quicksilver has already got to his feet:
“Come on then, ladies. Off we go! Or do we have to carry you?”
“No, no,” replies Hélène, “we’ll go under our own steam… we pity you too much.”
The boys might have been deaf.
It’s not far from La Motte Piquet to the Mirabeau Bridge via the Avenue Emile Zola; we set off, shunning the metro. The sun is only a memory – it must be about ten o’clock – but it’s still not cool yet…
The last passers-by are going home; the noise of a distant engine heralds a car that crosses our path. A few windows are keeping watch from behind net curtains, illuminated by the intimate light of lamps that are not yet ready to be extinguished; Paris is not yet asleep.
The Mirabeau Bridge; a breath of air has stirred…
We head down onto the bank. The walls of the embankment protect the buildings along the river from its whims and caprices. It has not rained all June; the Seine is low and long reflections run untroubled along its black waters. If there are any pedestrians still about they are up there, where we can’t see them; if there are still any cars, we can’t hear them.
The silence around me, far from being hostile, lets my thoughts wonder without fear; and this carefree place encourages my mind to roam.
Near the water… Water doesn’t live anywhere. Is it the same in her lake?
We have walked without talking as far as the Grenelle Bridge; no-one seems to have wanted to break the silence.
We have stopped near the bridge; Dryad points to the Eiffel Tower.
“Do aeroplanes fly over Paris?” she asks.
Hubert, like the rest of us, is surprised:
“Why do you ask?”
“You see those red lights up there, on the tower?...”
Jeanne breaks in:
“Yes, she’s right, they’re signals to warn aircraft!”
“How do you know that? Do you have an Eiffel Tower in Annecy?” says Armand sardonically.
“Oh no, we don’t need one. If we want to look into the distance we have our mountains…”
He casts around for an answer but she gets in first:
“And Savoy goes as far as the Mont Blanc!”
“A hit!” says Hélène teasingly to Armand. “Mont Blanc: 4,807 metres!”
“What a lot girls know nowadays,” says Quicksilver, emphasising his point with a heavy frown.
Dryad has more surprises up her sleeve:
“One day when I was on the aerial metro that goes to Passy, I saw that there was a stairway that went down to the Ile aux Cygnes.”
“It’s true, she really does know everything,” says Odile admiringly.
“Well, let’s go!”
There are no objections to my proposal.
From the Grenelle Bridge, we take the walkway down onto the island.
Armand seems very surprised:
“You know, I’ve seen this island all my life but I’d never noticed there were so many trees on it.”
“And they’re nearly all different,” says Dryad knowledgeably.
“Follow the guide!” cries Hubert, touristically.
The fact is, we are quite surprised by our own ignorance.
“You’ll soon know Paris better than us,” remarks Hélène.
“I’ve never been here before,” admits Amethyst.
I don’t think I have either; and I can’t be the only Parisian never to have set foot on this island.
“Oh, look! A flying metro!” exclaims Dryad suddenly.
We look up in surprise. Through the tops of the tall trees, we can see the metro running over the viaduct that goes to Passy; illuminating the night, it seems to melt into the sky. We have stopped and are looking, as though for the first time, at the metro that we have known all our lives...
We leave the island.
“Shall we go back onto the same side?” asks Dryad.
“Oh no, there’s no point going back the way we came; let’s take the stairs that go up to the Passy Bridge,” answers Armand quickly.
“Yes, it’s not much fun here,” says Jeanne firmly.
We all nod, even Dryad.
The night has become thicker; we resume our walk along the river. It is still hot, though the heat isn’t as stifling as during the daytime.
Sitting on the ground with their backs against the embankment wall, two men of uncertain though relatively advanced age, wearing old clothes that no doubt came from the flea market, are chatting peaceably despite the late hour; they may just have finished their evening meal, for a bottle of wine is still beside them.
We move away.
“Whoa! Stuff goes down wi’out touchin’ the sides wi’ them two!” notes Quicksilver objectively.
“So wha’? When it’s this 'ot, I’d do the same an’ all!” remarks Armand placidly.
He turns to Hubert:
“Worra abaht you, mate?”
Hubert nods eagerly:
“Yer know wha’? I wouldn’ say no! I can feel a thirst comin’ on an’ all!”
I explain to Dryad:
“They feel at home here; everyone leaves them be. It’s the life they’ve chosen; they wouldn’t want to live any other way, even if it were offered them. People call them tramps, because they tramp the streets, having nowhere to live.”
“They must 'ave mousetraps in their wallets, drinkin’ plonk like tha’!” says Quicksilver critically.
“Why don’t you offer them something better?” responds Jeanne sarcastically.
“Our fingers can get caught too, when we dip them into our purses… Good wine is expensive,” sighs Odile.
Quicksilver bends in the breeze:
“All right, all right…”
He adds brightly:
“If you can’t 'ave a laff now 'n agen…”
We laugh, to reassure him.
“The Museum of Mankind!” cries Dryad, pointing to the great landmark.
“The Eiffel Tower!” cries Armand, pointing to the great landmark.
“Prehistoric man!” cries Jeanne, pointing to Armand.
Who has spluttered something incomprehensible which may have ended with “woman”.
Dryad is on form:
“Have you already been up the Eiffel Tower?”
“No, never,” answers Armand proudly.
“So how do you know it’s the Eiffel Tower then? Did you see it in a guide book?”
She goes on in a sing-song voice:
“I’ve been to the Museum of Mankind…”
Armand tries to protest but can’t help laughing. Hubert says admiringly:
“A Parisian, I tell you!”
We pass under the Iéna Bridge. Four tramps are sleeping soundly, paying us no attention. A little further on, barges on the river bank are tied up to the big iron rings driven into the embankment wall at shoulder height; in order not to inconvenience passers-by, each bargeman has used a heavy stone to keep the thick rope with which he has tied up the barge on the ground.
“Oh, so you say bargeman in Paris?” remarks Dryad. “We say lighterman.”
“People here are heavier,” quips Quicksilver.
“Very funny,” says Dryad, smiling nevertheless.
We continue to walk slowly over the large concave cobbles, shiny with the slight heat-haze that has unfurled over the riverside. The quiet around us remains unbroken. In places the barges, more numerous as we approach the Ile de la Cité, press up against each other in long lines. The captain of one of them is taking his ease on a chair, a pipe in his mouth, taking advantage of the river’s coolness. On another barge, laundry is drying. On yet another, children are playing with their dog. A succession of bridges: we will soon have reached the Latin Quarter.
“Anyone fancy a quick coffee?” exclaims Armand suddenly as we pass near the Carrousel Bridge.
“That’s a good idea,” says Amethyst approvingly.
Having taken the bridge and crossed the Louvre gardens, we arrive at the
Place du Théâtre-Français. It’s bustling; it’s not far off midnight and the show has recently ended at two theatres, the Français and the Palais-Royal. We find theatre-goers who have come out of them on the terrace of the café where we have just sat down. They are exchanging lively commentaries on the play whose first night they have just attended, backed up by the usual review in the Figaro, the first edition of which has just come out and which the newsboys are already offering to the patrons of the nearby cafés.
Having finished our drinks, we move on to the Pont-Neuf.
“Why don’t we pay a visit to the Old Spark?” suggests Odile.
“Who?” asks Dryad.
“It’s a little park with a statue of Henry IV – that was his nickname,” explains Hubert.
“Ha, ha! Would you like that?” asks Hélène slyly.
“Ho, ho, what a bawd you are!” ripostes Hubert.
“Hey, hey, watch out!” Quicksilver whispers to me.
“It was Odile’s idea…” says Dryad naively.
Our spirits raised, we noisily accept Odile’s proposal. And a bit of a rest will do us no harm.
So we settle ourselves down in the little Square du Vert-Galant, at the point of the Ile de la Cité. Showing Dryad the river, I say:
“The Seine holds us…”
“… in its embrace,” cuts in Quicksilver, as natural as may be, in his tourist guide’s voice.
“And on your right, you may admire the Old Spark himself,” adds Dryad, as innocent as may be, in the same voice, pointing to the statue of Henry IV on his horse.
“Nice one!” says Jeanne with a laugh.
We sit there in silence, tasting the night…
Wednesday 21 July 1948. My train times from Paris to Annecy.
I have copied them out carefully; I like to know.
PARIS Gare de Lyon|
AIX-LES-BAINS L-R Arr.
AIX-LES-BAINS L-R Dep.
Dryad has been in Annecy with her mother for a week.
She will pick me up at the station in Annecy.
I got to the Gare de Lyon (in Paris) a good hour early; you never know…
I went to get a coffee at one of the cafés in the station; the one from which you can see my train. I know which one it is, I went to check.
It’s pointless, being able to see it; if it leaves, I won’t be able to catch it.
Ah! I have
wroten (please excuse the crossing-out; it should be “written”, not “wroten”, of course): She will pick me up at the station in Annecy. How stupid is that? Where else would she pick me up from? The station in Bordeaux? Oh well, never mind, that’s how it will stay.
The train has left. There are rails everywhere. We must no longer be in Paris, the houses are small, gardens… Yes, “we” is the train and me – that is what it means, no doubt. People always say “we” in such cases… Oh! No more houses, but fields; yes, I know what it is... There’s always something going on – a wood, animals… Of course! I’m in the country. I’ve never left Paris, but nothing seems unfamiliar. Films, I suppose. It’s nice to look at. And yet – I’m on the train… If I were outside, where would I be? Oh, you can always ask your way. If there were no-one about, or if I didn’t speak the language… You’d have to go as far as a town… a village… I’ve seen villages in the cinema, there are signs to tell you which way to go. I’m in France… What if I were elsewhere? I dreamt one day – yes, I know, you dream at night! – that the train gradually disappeared and I ended up walking on the tracks; everything was a long way away, I was worried, I woke up. It was in the country, like now. A big river. It goes by less quickly than the woods or the houses, I have time to look at it, it’s long; it’s as though it were accompanying me. I want to talk to it… But you can’t… Yes, yes, it wants to tell me something… Pay no attention, it’s for the pleasure of writing, writing anything; trains are long. I mean the journey, not the train. Ha, ha! Gotcha!
Houses, a lot of houses, it’s a town; the train slows, it’s Dijon. Three thirty-five in the afternoon, the train has arrived on time; it’s like at school…
People get off, get on, find seats; yet it isn’t like in the metro. In the metro you can get off at the next station; here too, but in an hour and thirty-five minutes. It’s not the same thing.
Dijon is gone. No, it isn’t gone, it’s still there, the houses follow one another, in number. Dijon is a town, I know that; why can’t I see it, then, the town? There’s something missing. Yes, it’s the rows of enormous great houses that line the broad avenues of Paris.
The corridor of the coach is good. It’s like on the aerial metro, where I always look out; and here I can look for longer…
The Saône will now take us to Lyon. Lyon is, I believe, the largest city in France after Paris. I looked up the plan of the city before leaving. Between the Saône and the Rhône, it’s small; elsewhere, the plan doesn’t give the impression of a city. We shall see…
The Saône is beautiful. The Seine too… But no-one’s asking me to talk about the Seine. Well, nor about the Saône either; I’m writing for myself. What purpose does it serve to write for myself? I know everything I’m writing. To remember? What purpose can memories serve? To refuse the present moment? Are the lessons we learnt at school memories?
It’s four o’ clock; the Saône will stay with me until ten past five. There’s a cow, drinking in the Saône; it doesn’t go to the restaurant car, where just now I asked the helpful waiter for two fried eggs and bacon: “I should like two fresh eggs, fried, with the white well cooked and slightly brown round the edges and the yolk – whole, of course – very runny; on two slices of bacon, please!” I was in for a treat; I wasn’t really hungry but I love fried eggs and bacon. The helpful waiter went into the neighbouring little kitchen, where I heard him telling the cook firmly: “One ham and eggs!”
The same trees, the same grass, the same little tracks; but life here seems different from the life I saw before Dijon. Is it like the different neighbourhoods in Paris?
You can see a long way; on all sides. I only noticed after a while. It’s surprising. And yet it all seems so natural…
You can see the sky; the whole sky.
I suddenly have the feeling of being… of being nowhere. Lost.
Lyon. Fifty-eight minutes to wait. I leave my suitcase at the left-luggage office and slip quickly out of the station. Three-quarters of an hour to visit the city, certainly not enough. Let’s make for the Place Bellecour. A few streets, not very wide, all straight, without imagination. The square is large, the largest square without trees or grass in Europe, it is said. With Louis XIV on horseback. Do the people of Lyon walk there? I have never walked on the Place de la Concorde. In Paris I prefer the Bois de Boulogne, parks like the Buttes Chaumont, or gardens like the Square Saint-Lambert. Here, Place Bellecour is empty.
Mountains: I studied them in school, I’ve seen photos of them, walked in them in the cinema; I am very familiar with them. What I can see… with my own eyes, I would add, to lend such emphasis as I may to what I am about to say, is certainly not a mountain. What is it then? I don’t know. The earth has risen up and is coming towards me; it is coming powerfully, with authority. I wasn’t frightened, seeing it appear. It was extending an invitation: “Come on! Come on up! I know you’re strong enough to confront the dangers that dwell here. Life up here is not the same as life down there; with me it is free.”
Yes, those high lands are not the mountains you find in books.
Quarter to seven. The train has slowed; we are arriving at Ambérieu-en-Bugey. Bugey is the name of the region. I looked at the map before leaving – I looked at quite a lot of things before leaving; do you suppose I would let myself be taken unawares? Never mind, let’s get back to Bugey. Eight hundred metres to the top of Mount Luisandre (“Viewpoint!”), behind Ambérieu; eight hundred and twenty near Cleyzieu, on the other side of the narrow gap (the Albarine gap) that we will go through – still the train and me, of course. Eight hundred metres… nearly three times the Eiffel Tower… Yes, the view from the Tower must have seemed dull to Dryad…
It can be hot in Paris. Likewise, I knew that it was very hot in the south of France. But not in the gap, no, I wasn’t expecting that. It’s seven o’clock in the evening; the July sun has had all day to burn the (Albarine) gap. The train meanders, the gap too. The mountains hem us in on both sides. I have all the time in the world to stifle in this kind of oven.
Half past seven. Culoz. An eleven-minute stop. It is certainly no metro station. Trains, busy men who tap the wheels – Inspections? – of the carriages which suddenly move for no apparent reason, whistle blasts with no apparent effect…
A few more minutes under way and then… a lake, a great big lake. But it’s not hers – as I’ve already told you, I looked at the map. It’s the other one, the Lac du Bourget, near Aix-les-Bains; it looks like a great basin full of water. I prefer the lake in the Bois de Boulogne; it’s liveable, with its two little islets where you can stroll at your ease and its trees whose leaves brush over you when you pass peacefully by in your boat.
Half past eight. Deep gorges through which plunges the Fier, the river in which Dryad often swims, a tunnel, Annecy; Dryad is waiting for me on the platform!
Had Dryad asked the mountain to watch over me as I slept? Was the mountain patiently waiting for me to wake?
I open my eyes; before me I see, not my garden in which my finches frolic noisily, but Semnoz. Yesterday I asked Dryad how high it was; she smiled: “I knew you’d want to know; seventeen hundred metres.” I had seen it when I arrived; the sun had already gone down but you could see its dark mass outlined against the clear sky. “The sun hasn’t set, it’s behind Semnoz; it gets dark earlier in the mountains than in the lowlands,” Dryad had explained. She had added, nodding: “Though it’s true that in Paris, with all the buildings that hide the sky…”
I have got up. The lake, her lake, has filled my eyes. The sun, behind the house, gently illuminates it. The water is smooth.
Everyone else is already up.
“Did you sleep well?” Dryad’s mother asks me with a warm smile.
“Very well indeed, thank you, Ma’am.”
I feel slightly embarrassed. Dryad has noticed:
“Don’t worry about the time. We always sleep very well at Veyrier. The mountain air is pure and fresh, even when it’s very hot; and look how clear the lake is! The water comes from the streams which flow down from the mountains, and above all from the depths of the earth.”
“How do you mean, the depths of the earth?”
“There’s a spring at the bottom of the lake.”
After some thought I go on:
“According to the laws of physics…”
Dryad gives me a begging look:
“Oh no, please!...”
I smile back:
“Sorry! You’re right, no lectures today.”
“A bit of science wouldn’t do you any harm, though,” says her mother with a hint of irony.
She turns to me:
“You ought to insist. Literature doesn’t teach anything practical very much, and I’m even more ignorant than my daughter in these things.”
“You should be careful, Mum,” says Dryad, feigning concern. “He’s quite capable of talking about physics all day!”
I defend myself:
“Physics is more Amethyst’s line.”
“Come and have your coffee,” says Dryad firmly.
Sometimes, at home, I look out of the window; I like to see the garden that lies in front of me, try and guess where my finches are. My little unpaved cul-de-sac seems like a refuge that protects me from the bustle of the city. In it there are none of those hurrying passers-by to trouble children’s games, the boys’ animated arguments, the girls’ mysterious chatter. But I don’t stay looking very long; is it because the place is familiar to me? No doubt; and yet I must also admit that my neighbourhood doesn’t take very long to survey. It’s not a criticism, it’s just the way it is; you soon have your fill of looking.
I remember that one day Dryad told me she was used to her lake and didn’t pay much attention to it; but she had also immediately added that she missed her lake since she had been in Paris. What did she have to look at from her window in Montparnasse? The railway station. I love the station, to be sure, and I’ve already said that I sometimes go there to look at the bustling Place de Rennes or the departing trains. A railway station is a promise; it is the gateway to the unknown. But on the other side of the window by which I have lingered before sitting down to breakfast the promise has been fulfilled and the unknown has become a thing of wonder.
It is sometimes said that you can sense a presence without having seen it. Why would it not be true? I have just said “Coming!” to Dryad without having sought to make sure she was near me. Yes, she was there, looking at what I was looking at. Was there a glimpse of concern in her look? I took her hand and gave her a long smile. If there really had been concern, no trace of it remained. She returned my smile and led me to the table.
The coffee was milky and smelt of milk. How could I know, since the only coffee I was familiar with was the coffee I drank in Paris, which had nothing in common with the coffee I was relishing here?
After the milky coffee – made with milk! – we went out to run some errands. There are three houses and two shops in Veyrier; nevertheless, we found what we were looking for.
Dryad’s house is at the top of the village, the shops at the bottom. An unfamiliar smell told me that I was near the lake. How could I know? The lake in the Bois de Boulogne has no smell; Parisians don’t like smells, or at least only in scent bottles. I have always sought out smells; could I be less Parisian than I think I am? The lake smells good…
Dryad is near me again, looking at what I am looking at; what I am looking at is the mountains. Yes, I know, there is one called Semnoz, but that’s not what I’m looking at, I’m looking at the mountains; they are everywhere. Semnoz isn’t the only one; if it were the only one, it would just be a heap of soil or stones.
Dryad had told me that in Paris she looked for the mountains when she looked out. Now I understood. The mountains hold back the sky; they don’t let it flee into the distance, leaving mankind to loneliness.
Do the rows of enormous great houses that line the broad avenues of Paris take the place of mountains?
Two classmates from the school Dryad went to – the Lycée Raoul Blanchard – arrived at about three o’clock. “Oh, we’re disturbing you, you’ve got company.” Ha, ha, as if they didn’t know…
They came straight in all the same. As if…
“La Glaudia, La Génie,” said Dryad by way of introduction.
She was wasting her time, the two girls were already all over me.
“You’re from Paris…” La Génie tells me, or asks me, I don’t know which.
“I’ve never been to Paris,” La Glaudia informs me with the inflection of someone who has been ordered to answer a question of the highest importance.
As the two young ladies have spoken both at the same time I don’t know which one to address. It doesn’t matter in any case, since both set off again, both at the same time.
“You’re here for the holidays…”
The same Génie, and I still don’t know whether it’s a question or not.
“Do you climb?” asks La Glaudia.
Well, at least that’s a question; so I answer, trying all the same to share myself out between each of them:
“I’ve never been climbing before, but I’d love to try during the holidays.”
The two young ladies haven’t responded and are studying me. I go on, just to say something:
“I often climb the Eiffel Tower.”
Seeing the two young ladies’ bewildered stare, I realise that I need to make myself clearer:
“At school, we race up the stairs.”
Clear as mud, it seems; I continue:
“It’s not really climbing…”
La Génie turns to Dryad:
“Did you go up the Eiffel Tower? Is it very high?”
“It’s not as high as Mount Veyrier,” states La Glaudia firmly.
La Génie presses me:
“You’ll come with us to Le Parmelan…”
Always the same thing: question or not? I’ll stop commenting, since La Génie doesn’t seem able to talk to me any other way. Now she adds:
“It’s much higher than Mount Veyrier…”
“Eighteen hundred and thirty-two metres,” states La Glaudia firmly.
“It’s bigger than Geneva, Paris…”
“It’s bigger than Lyon,” states La Glaudia firmly.
Bigger… That’s not the question… It’s Paris! Lyon is… is what, exactly? I freely admit I was only in Lyon for fifty-eight minutes, and I freely admit that I didn’t see anything; but spend just eight minutes on the Boulevards…
Evening, long-expected, is approaching.
“Come onto the balcony, you’ll see it better.”
I smile at Dryad:
“The sunset I told you about…”
“Yes. It set yesterday evening without waiting for me; I’ve been watching out for it since this morning.”
You can’t describe a sunset. Oh yes you can: “The sun, blazing like a fireball, set the lake aflame.” It’s laughable, or touching. But in order to describe you have to think. Feelings can’t be described. Or, to put it more simply, I don’t know how to describe them. Something attracts me in this hope-filled farewell. I will sleep, abandon it. It departs so as not to shame my sleep. It will return when I am here again.
“A drop of milk in your coffee?” Dryad’s mother asks me this morning.
The milky coffee still smells of milk. The croissants are crisp.
“Lachat Mountain,” starts Dryad, “is about fifteen kilometres away. The road gets quite steep towards the end. For today, I suggest going for a ride by the lakeside, around Talloires. It’s about seven kilometres…”
“… and it’s flat! And that way I can get used to riding a bicycle again, which I haven’t done for years.”
My interruption makes her laugh:
She adds, with a touch of anxiety:
“I hope my father’s bicycle…”
“… will suit me to a T.”
This time, even Dryad’s mother laughs.
“You’ll end up in the lake,” she exclaims brightly.
The bikes are ready; mine is perfect. I hear Dryad call “Arvi!” to her mother and we set off.
It’s a good start: downhill. I pick up speed.
“Brake!” yells Dryad, who has stayed slightly behind me.
“You have to turn right, otherwise you’re on the road to Thônes; it’s in the mountains…”
“… and it gets quite steep towards the end.”
“Not this time,” she answers with a laugh. “It’s at the start that it’s quite steep, and even then not too much; and it’s all right after that.”
After going through Veyrier we pedal along the lakeside. The sailing boats moored to the bank remind me of the Luxembourg Gardens. How often had I dreamed of sailing on one of those little boats that children would play with at the boating pool there!
“The brother of one of my schoolfriends has a boat; if you like, we can go…”
She doesn’t finish her sentence. I look at her, somewhat surprised:
“If you like, but you don’t seem terribly enthusiastic.”
“I’ve already been. They go fishing for trout in the small lake…”
“The small lake?”
“Yes, it’s the southern part. A long time ago the lake was in two parts. You can still make it out from Talloires; you’ll see when we get there.”
She goes on after a pause:
“You have to stay there without moving or talking for… oh, I don’t know how long… so as not to scare away the fish.”
“I’m very fond of trout.”
She presses her lips together:
“Well, if you like…”
I break in, still laughing:
“No, no, I was joking, it wouldn’t be any fun at all. On the other hand…”
She starts laughing too:
“OK, OK, I’ll make sure you get some!”
She adds, taking one hand off the handlebars.
“Mum’s making matafans for tonight.”
“Yes, they’re potato pancakes made with egg and flour.”
“Mmm, sounds delicious with trout!”
Looking serious, she says:
“The boat’s not far from here; let’s go!”
We laugh and carry on pedalling. After a moment I say:
“What does matafan mean?”
“Mate-faim – hunger tamers.”
Seeing my eyebrow lift, she continued:
“Farm workers used to eat them in the morning to keep them going until lunchtime. Come on, let’s go and sit down by the lake, it’ll be easier to talk there.”
The lakeside is not the side of the boating pool in the Luxembourg Gardens. Not because the lake is large, but…
“… that’s the Semne you’re looking at.”
I correct her automatically:
She shakes her head:
“In our language, Savoyard, we don’t pronounce the ‘z’ at the end of words.”
“Yes. And in French, too, you don’t pronounce it in ‘chez’, for example.”
“Hey, that’s true…”
“And there’s something else. We stress certain syllables, like in Latin. With us, the ‘z’ indicates that the stress should come on the penultimate syllable.”
“Oh, I get it now! I had heard ‘Semne’ but it was actually ‘Semno’, with the emphasis on the ‘Sem’; and when that happens, you hardly hear the ‘o’ at all.”
“Yes; but it’s the same thing in French, you know…”
I am surprised:
“There isn’t that kind of stress in French.”
“Oh yes there is. When you say ‘cheval’, for example, you hardly hear the ‘e’.”
“Hey, that’s true too! But how come I’ve always been told…”
“The French say lots of things…”
She looks at me with a smile:
“¨Parisians above all…”
“A hit, a palpable hit.”
She does not react, remains lost in thought. At last she says in a low, sad voice:
“They don’t even want us to speak our own language…”
The tender third movement of our Mozart sonata lulls our morning; I watch the shiver of Dryad’s bow, she listens to my hands before they have even touched the keys.
The noontime sun finds us exhausted. We stopped playing a few minutes ago and have stayed there without moving.
“A nice lunch will do you good,” Dryad’s mother tells us.
“Oh, good idea! We’re hungry!” says her daughter approvingly.
“It’s very warm today; I thought I’d give you djos with tartifles.”
“Donkey sausages, an old Savoy speciality. My mother serves them cold with potato salad.”
“How extraordinary! I’ll be intrigued to try donkey, though.”
“What a good idea to have a cold lunch in this weather,” I say enthusiastically.
Dryad’s mother nods:
“Well, it’s not what we would have been having last winter, I can tell you; la froid a été grande.”
Surprised by the last words, I was going to say… But I held my tongue.
Lunch is over. Dryad has told some former schoolfriends that she would come and spend the afternoon in Annecy with them.
“My turn, this time. I’ll show you round the town.”
Looking a bit sheepish, she adds:
“There’s not much to see; it’s not very big…”
We set off. I go to get the bikes.
“No, no, having bikes would be an inconvenience; we’d be better off on foot.”
“Is it very far to Annecy?” I fret.
“About five hours’ walk,” she answers distractedly.
I have a moment’s hesitation: when we arrived, last Wednesday, it seemed…
“You’re teasing me!”
“How so? You walked right into it, didn’t you?”
Game, set and match.
“We could walk, it’s only about five kilometres, but it’s easier by bus.”
“Yes, especially after our bike ride yesterday.”
“Are you tired?”
“No, but as you say, it’s easier by bus...”
“If we’d walked we would’ve been there by now; we’ve been waiting at least ten minutes!”
“It’s often late,” remarks Dryad.
The bus rumbles on. I look out of the window. It’s less pleasant on the Annecy side. I know what towns are; and from what I saw when I first got here, Annecy… Oh well, I’ll probably be seeing La Génie and La Glaudia again; they’re amusing, with their local way of speaking, especially La Génie… La Génie… it must be a nickname, though I hadn’t especially noticed any incipient genius… And Glaudia is pronounced in the Latin manner, if you please!... Why ‘G’? Its Claude, Claudie, la Claudia in Italian... In a Feydeau play, Le Bourgeon, there’s even la Claudie. But the ‘G’? Oh yes… that reminds me…
“Come on, dreamboat! We’re here!”
I look at her…
“Come on! We have to get off!”
I give her a smile:
“You’re right, I was dreaming… No, actually, I was wondering…”
“What about getting off?”
We are now… in town. I am careful not to say anything offensive.
“It’s small, isn’t it?”
I answer her as best I can. Where are the rows of enormous great houses that line the broad avenues of Paris?...
“Is it like Belleville for you?”
“No, Dryad, it’s not like Belleville. As I already told you, I’ve never lived in Belleville, I don’t know anyone there, there is no reason for me to go there. Here, this is where you live…”
I break off, then say again, stressing the ‘you’:
“Where you live.”
She squeezes my arm:
“Thank you,” she says softly.
We have been walking for a while in little, dead straight streets; suddenly I catch sight of a large garden lapped by the lake. Quickly I declaim:
“The Champ de Mars!”
“There speaks someone who knows Anissy like the palm of his hand!”
The she adds:
“Let’s go and sit down. We’re early; this is where we’re due to meet up.”
“I suppose Anissy is like Paname?”
She smiles again:
“Nearly, but not quite. Paname is just a nickname from the turn of the century given to Parisians who used to wear Panama hats; it was workers on the Panama canal who brought them into fashion.”
I am amazed:
“How do you know that?”
She gives me a gently mocking frown:
“You don’t learn everything in maths.”
“OK, OK; and what about Anissy?”
She assumes a lecturer’s attitude:
“It is attested by a 16th-century engraving by Claude Chastillon.”
I gape in admiration:
“You don’t say!”
Anissy... Other things come back to me...:
“Why ‘G’ what?”
She waits. I go on:
“La Glaudia. Why not Claudia, with a ‘C’?
I don’t give her time to answer:
“And why do you say la froid instead of le froid? And when you said ‘Arvi’ to your mother as we were leaving yesterday? And… Yes, I know, it’s Savoyard, but it’s not going to be easy…”
She laughs out loud:
“No need to get all steamed up abaht it! I’ve learnt Parisian slang; you can do the same!”
I am flabbergasted:
“Who taught you that?”
She gives a giggle.
“It was Hélène,” she says.
“You don’t say! You’ll soon be better than me!”
She seems delighted. I think it gives me pleasure too…
“Just now, you were asking me about the ‘G’. It’s probably because in Latin the ‘C’ was pronounced ‘G’; they wrote ‘C’ but said ‘G’, like Caius, which was pronounced Gaius.”
I was thinking:
“It’s true that Savoy is closer to Latin than Paris. That’s interesting. It’s a shame nobody bothers about that sort of question in maths; knowing only one thing kind of cuts you off from the world.”
I go on more brightly:
“‘Arvi’: now that’s easy. It’s just a contraction of ‘Au revoir’.”
Dryad claps her hands:
“When do you get your degree in philology?”
“Right now! La froid because it was a feminine noun in Latin!”
“Fail. You’ll have to come back next year.”
I take her hand:
“Really? And will you invite me?”
She squeezes my hand:
“Yes, if you want to come.”
The wavelets on the lake silently lap the bank by the Champ de Mars…
A group of young people has just come into the garden. Seeing how they wave in our direction, they can only be Dryad’s friends. That is indeed the case:
“Adieu!” cries one of the girls.
It can’t be a farewell – that word’s already taken – so it must be a hello. Logical.
General hugs; me too. I’m a friend of theirs, since I’m a friend of Dryad’s. La Génie lets everyone know, loudly, that she’s known me for ages. “We already saw him the day before yesterday,” states La Glaudia firmly. A robust boy claps me energetically on the shoulder – I almost fall over – and says “Coming to climb Le Parmelan?” in a voice as energetic as his shoulder clap.
“Watch out, Nannot, he climbs better than you!”
Who…? Ah, it’s a girl, standing near La Génie, hand on her shoulder. A friend, certainly; that must be how she knows me so well.
La Génie agrees in definite terms:
“You’re right, La Guiguite, your brother doesn’t know what’s in wait for him!”
“What’s the main street in Paris called?” asks La Glaudia calmly. “Here, it’s the Rue du Pasquier.”
The main street in Paris? What does she mean, the main street in Paris?
The hubbub takes shape:
“Is there a lake in Paris?”
“Were you a boarder at school?”
“Is the Opera bigger than our theatre?”
“Is there a beach in Paris?”
“Is Mont Martre high?”
“It’s higher than Mont Parnasse!” someone has said in a voice that brooks no contradiction.
I find it impossible to answer; there are just too many questions. Suddenly, one catches my attention:
“Is there a lot of snow in Paris?”
I answer, cool as a cucumber:
“No, not much, la froid n’est pas assez grande – it’s not cold enough.”
Everything stops for a moment. Dryad gives me a wink.
The conversations – not easy to follow – gradually resume.
“How many cinemas are there in Paris?” asks a girl, eagerly curious.
If only Hélène had been there! Yes, but she isn’t, so I have to answer. I start, hesitantly:
“There are a lot...”
“Don’t insist, La Suzon,” breaks in a boy with barely concealed mockery. “There are so many in Paris you can’t even count them.
“Not a problem you’d have in Veyrier, eh, Noddy?” says La Génie sarcastically.
She turns to me:
“My brother reckons there aren’t enough cinemas in Anissy already; I’m sure he’s just jealous of you living in Paris.”
Hardly has she finished speaking than Noddy, pretending not to have heard, jumps to his feet and exclaims:
“I’m thirsty! Who’s for the Tavern?”
I could see the Tavern from the Champ de Mars, a big pub standing at the edge. It has an upstairs. We go up. Behind big windows, the lake. The lake is obsessive; you can’t get away from it. Or isn’t it rather that it takes you over? Students. Is it like in our big café near the Sorbonne? No: there isn’t the noise, the noise of voices talking loudly. Here, nothing is overstated. Conversations are calm, attentive. No excess.
A bike ride today. We cycle through old-fashioned streets. Anissy-le-Vieux.
“It was here long before Anissy; it was called Boutae vicus, city of oxen in Latin, and contained a large Gallo-Roman villa, Anniciaca, in what is now Anissy-le-Vieux; the Roman road from Rome to Geneva passed through Boutae vicus,” Dryad tells me.
I slow down without realising, to look around me more attentively:
“Yes, you don’t breathe in the same way here.”
“In the… what do you mean?”
“I don’t know; I don’t know why I said that…”
I go on after a pause:
“I don’t feel as though I’m in the provinces.”
She stares at me in surprise:
“Surely you don’t feel as though you’re in Paris, though?”
“No, of course not!”
I hesitate for a moment:
“You know, I said the provinces, but I’ve never known what that really means. To find out, you have to know them – the provinces, I mean. I’ve never been. But in Lyon or…”
I hesitate again:
“… or in Annecy, I wasn’t anywhere. Here, in Anissy-le-Vieux, I can sense life... even if I can’t see it.”
Dryad remains lost in thought, saying nothing.
I press on quickly:
“I told you I was where you live; it was true, but…”
I stumble over my words:
“But it didn’t depend on the town, on the place; it was where you were…”
I add slowly:
“Not being anywhere, maybe that’s what the provinces mean, for a Parisian.”
Dryad remains lost in thought, saying nothing. Actually, that’s not quite right; she says:
“I don’t often go to Anissy-le-Vieux.”
“Anissy-le-Neuf is where you live; school, the Tavern...”
“In the evening I dream, standing at my window, in Veyrier…”
We cycle on in silence; the houses thin out. A sign says Onnex. Dryad points to it:
“Oné, that’s where we’re going, the Fier is only three kilometres further.”
“And it’s downhill!”
“I’m saving my strength for your Parmelan. It’s even further on, isn’t it?”
“We’ll go to Montagne de Lachat first, it’s five kilometres from Oné.”
“I suppose Oné is Onnex, and you don’t pronounce the ‘x’ either, like the ‘z’. But why is the emphasis on the ‘é’and not the ‘O’?”
“It’s not the same with ‘x’, you always emphasise the last vowel.”
I sigh heavily:
“How very confusing. It’s a real lesson in linguistics…”
“And not even maths…”
Coming out of a bend, I catch sight of the glint of a river.
“It’s a bit bisule, your river; it’s not more than a nant!” exclaims Dryad.
I make a great effort:
“If it’s too small for a river, a nant must be a stream!”
“That’s the Fier,” she tells me.
She pauses for a moment, then smiles wistfully:
“I said bisule, but it’s not a local word.”
“Is that so?”
She says nothing for a while, then:
“In Paris, we said we were both foreigners; perhaps we’re foreigners here too.”
I look at her uncomprehendingly.
“I told you about my grandmother who lives in a hamlet in Savoy, chez Cetta,” she says, emphasising the ‘e’.
“With a ‘z’.”
“Yes. It’s about ten kilometres from Geneva, in the Genevois, where our family comes from. I’ve only been in Veyrier since I started high school in Anissy; and I haven’t forgotten the place where I grew up.”
She breaks off:
“Bisule is an old Genevois word. My grandmother speaks Savoyard, but often uses Genevois words.”
The Fier. A little pebble beach about twenty paces long and less than a dozen wide. Three or four families. Children in the beck with water up to their waists.
“This is where we used to come when we were at school. There’s never anyone here, except on Sundays.”
“You can’t swim…”
“That doesn’t matter; you can always splash around!”
She laughs gaily...
I look at her laughing... How can you see the past?...
“Do you like blackberries?”
I leave the past:
“Yes, I love them!”
“There are loads, near Oné; the early ones must be ripe by now.”
“Did you use to go there too?”
“I lived in Anissy.”
I don’t know... But she has already brightened up again:
“See that little wood over there? Go for it!”
We feast. I stuff myself.
“If La Génie à la Fine could see you now, she’d say you were a real brammlerugger.”
A real what?... I don’t think it’s even worth… Hang on a minute; oh, of course!
I say nonchalantly:
“Brammle must be a local word for blackberries, and I guess rugging is like picking.”
“What a linguist! I guess you must have got your degree a while back!”
I am gratified… though not for long. She has gone on:
“You didn’t tell me you were a Genevois…”
Seeing my mystification, she explains:
“The Genevois often come in numbers to pick mushrooms, flowers and fruit; and they call blackberries brammles.”
She gives a mocking smile:
“No, silly, that’s Genevois. In Savoyard, we say brambles.”
I look downcast:
“Farewell, academic honours…”
We laugh merrily.
On the subject…:
“Is she really such a genius, your Génie à la Fine?”
“My Génie?... Oh, of course, you don’t know… Génie, that’s Eugénie, and La Fine, that’s Josephine.”
She pauses for a moment.
“La Fine was her grandmother, a very wise woman. Here, when we talk about someone who had an important ancestor, we always add the ancestor’s name. La Génie is a descendant of La Fine, so that’s why I said La Génie à La Fine.”
Yes, of course, I didn’t know...
“I’m starting to realise there’s a lot I don’t know…”
She takes my hand:
“You taught me all about Paris.”
I look at her, for a long time...
“I’d like… to tell you…”
She squeezes my hand:
“Le guegni vâ le dire. The look says it all.”
Monday. Swimming. Dryad’s friends have insisted:
“You’ll have time to see him, that Parisian of yours!”
I like swimming, so off to the beach it is.
“No, no, not the beach!” cries Nannot, clapping me on the shoulder with an energy undiminished since the day before yesterday.
“There’re too many people at the beach, we hardly ever go there,” states La Glaudia firmly.
La Glaudia is a serious young woman; she is always stating things firmly. So I will stop saying so; and if ever she gets fired up one day, I reckon you’ll find out soon enough.
“My brother takes us in his boat to the Jet de la Rose,” La Génie is quick to tell me.
“My boat’s not very big, it’ll be a bit of a squash,” Noddy warns me.
“Squash up, then!” says La Guiguite innocently, with a sidelong glance at Dryad and me.
“Jealous already?” retorts Dryad, an ironic smile playing on her lips.
Everyone laughs… except for La Guiguite, of course.
“Are you a good swimmer?” La Suzon asks me amid the laughter.
“There you go, she wants me in a race already!” exclaims Nannot, lifting his arms heavenward.
“Ha, ha! You’re afraid of being beaten!” mocks La Génie.
“From the Jet de la Rose, the crossing’s about three kilometres,” La Glaudia explains to me. “Le Nannot à Joson can do it in under an hour.”
“I train a lot,” says Nannot modestly.
I raise my eyebrows admiringly:
“I’ve never swum that far, but it’d be fun to try.”
I add prudently:
“I suppose the boat follows alongside…”
“Of course!” cries Noddy. “We’re not crazy!”
“Are you so sure?” says La Guiguite. “Don’t you remember the day we came by the Roc de Chère?”
She turns to me:
“My brother wanted to do the crossing on his own, but when he got into the water La Suzon à La Milia got onto his back to stop him from swimming.”
“Yes, that’s right!” exclaims La Génie. “They had a fight, right there in the water, it was such a laugh; and Nannot had to give up!”
“These girls, they never let you do anything!”
“I just don’t want anything to happen to you!” La Suzon erupts.
“Go on, grumble away!” says Dryad, laying it on thick. “We look out for you and you can’t even say thank you!”
Nannot puts his arm round La Suzon’s shoulder:
“No, no, of course I can. To tell you the truth, I knew she’d try and stop me, so I was only playing to the gallery…”
La Suzon throws herself at him:
She gives him a flurry of blows… and we all laugh, mézigue itou!
The little sailing boat has moved away from the shore; I can hardly see the road we cycled along on Friday.
“It’s big… it’s not like in the Bois…”
Inquisitive eyes are turned on me.
“What do you mean, in the Bois?” asks La Génie.
Dryad tells her:
“The Bois de Boulogne. It’s in Paris…”
I am rowing... Dryad and Hélène are with me; Quicksilver yells: “You’re slacking!” Amethyst and Odile, near him, wave excitedly; Jeanne, Armand and Hubert bring up the rear, unhurried.
We’re all on the Boulevards. The noise, the cars; the pavements that have disappeared under the thousands of pedestrians, all in a hurry to get to… here… or there… or somewhere else… The gaslights shine, the theatres fill. We’ll go to the café near the Opera. Armand has said… – about what? – has said “I’ve already been to the provinces, to see my aunt… It’s very quiet… I missed the buzz of the streets.”
What are they doing, the ones who stayed in Paris?... It was night-time; we were walking side by side on the riverbank…
“You can’t go very far,” states La Glaudia.
Dryad has squeezed my hand.
The little sailing boat has drawn near to the shore; a steep hill. Noddy points out the rocks:
“That’s where we came down, that day we were talking about.”
I measure the height:
“It’s very high; you’re very brave!”
I add without thinking:
“It’s as high as the first level of the Eiffel Tower.”
Silence falls. I only realise that it’s a slightly embarrassed silence when Dryad starts to talk hurriedly about running up the stairs. I try and figure out how…
Noddy breaks in, cutting short Dryad’s tale:
“Don’t fret, we all think you’re really nice, but we’re so used to Parisians who…”
He hesitates; I say:
“Don’t fret, I know that Parisians can be…”
He’s so surprised he lets go of the tiller:
“And he speaks our language!”
Turning to Dryad, he adds:
“At least something’s come of your having gone up to the Smoke!”
People congratulate me. Their voices are clear, their movements more relaxed.
“Get your tiller in hand again,” mutters Nannot. “Otherwise it’ll all go awry; the rock’s not so far off!”
Noddy has taken the tiller again. We land near a little cave.
“This is our swimming place,” La Génie tells me. “Hardly anyone ever comes here.”
Well, we’re not in the middle of the ocean, but it’s not exactly the Bois either. The lake draws the eye off into the distance; the Semno towers even higher in response.
La Suzon points out the summit to me:
“The Châtillon crest!”
“The Semno’s highest point.”
I have paid attention to the pronunciation of Semno; little nods among the band of friends show me that they have appreciated this token of consideration.
“Dryad has picked up Parisian slang, so I would like to get to know your language too – after all, it’s hers.”
“Upon my word!” exclaims Nannot. “He can’t really be from Paris, this chap. Parisians look down on Savoyard as being a despicable patois.”
And he gives me the usual vigorous clap on the shoulder.
“Now isn’t the right time to cross.”
Why has La Suzon mentioned cro…
“Le France,” she adds.
And she points to an enormous steamboat.
“Well, it’s hardly enormous,” says La Guiguite, tempering my enthusiasm.
“It might be a bit big for his pond in the Bois de Boulogne,” mocks Noddy.
But a friendly smile gives the lie to his words. Well, if I’m going to say anything I’d better keep it simple:
“That’s true enough. I’ve only ever seen boats like that at the cinema. Three decks! And a paddle-steamer, to boot! How many passengers can it take?”
La Glaudia is ready with the answer:
“Seven hundred. It’s fifty metres long, the biggest boat on our lake.”
“Three hundred and fifty horse power!”
Nannot has spoken the words slowly, dreamily.
“Maybe, but forty tons to shift too,” says Noddy.
“Boys and their machines…,” sighs La Génie.
Inspired by my study of maps of the area, I start to ask:
“On the lake at Chambéry…”
Nannot doesn’t let me finish:
“Chambéry? Where’s that?”
Barely a ripple.
“Come on then, last one in’s a sissy!” cries La Guiguite, getting the jump on everyone else.
The road over the Fier is familiar to me now; after all, I’ve already done it once. Having crossed the river, I show off my knowledge:
“At the top of the hill, that’s Oné; from there we go on to Villa.”
“Not bad for a planan, knowing the roads into the mountains like that,” says Dryad approvingly.
“Well, if I’m not a hillsman I must be a plainsman, no?”
“Well, since you’ve told me the way, all we have to do is go up the hill to Oné.”
“It’ll be downhill on the way back!”
We climb; the river gradually disappears behind the rocks.
“You used to go paddling in the Fier… Don’t people fish in it?”
“Yes, they do, for trout. There are lots…”
I break in, showing off my knowledge again:
“That’s why there’s a trout on Annecy’s coat-of arms!”
She lets go of her handlebars and squeezes my arm:
“It’s sweet of you to make such an effort!”
The answer is on my lips before I’ve had time to realise:
“I’m not making an effort.”
We carried on cycling for a good while without saying anything… perhaps because the road was getting steeper…
On the way out of Villaz, the top of Le Parmelan rises imperiously ahead of us. After a long and even steeper climb, I see a series of loops where the road turns back on itself.
“It starts to get a bit steep once we’re in the hairpins,” says Dryad serenely.
A bit steep?...
“Oh really? Because it’s downhill here?”
Very comfortable on her bike, she calls back to me:
“It’s easier than running up your tower thingy in Paris, isn’t it?”
“Seven hundred and twenty-nine steps. One hundred and fifty metres in length. Sixty metres vertical elevation.”
She gives a peal of laughter:
“You been taking lessons from La Glaudia, or what?”
“I’ve also been taking lessons from Nannot and Noddy.”
Without giving her time to answer I continue:
“Three hundred and sixty-three turns of the pedals. Two thousand metres in length. Two hundred and fifty metres vertical elevation.”
I end triumphantly:
She has certainly made the comparison, because she states with the utmost seriousness:
“They don’t teach us anything in literature.”
I’m sure I’ve already heard something like that in Feydeau… A glint of irony in Dryad’s look has given me confirmation.
A crossroads. A cross. A man is coming. He is walking with a heavy tread; his head and back have disappeared beneath a huge jute sack full of grass.
“Bonjou!” says the man.
His voice is strong and even.
“Bonjou!” Dryad answers firmly.
She gets off her bicycle and goes towards the man:
“On ami; a vint de Paris.”
“Bonjou!” the man says to me.
I answer him firmly:
He looks at me:
“Prègi vo patouè?”
Dryad has taken my hand and gets in first before I can open my mouth:
It’s true, she had already taught me a few words. I take advantage of the fact:
“Tèque vos i’gnon?”
He looks at me:
Gosh, it’s steep. We’re in the first hairpins. Dryad has a pretty good pair of legs on her. Still, I’m not so far behind. Though we save our breath…
We’ve just entered the thick forest I could see from Villaz. We stop. “It’s here,” Dryad tells me.
A path leads off to the right. We leave our bikes in a thicket. It’s steep, though not at all in the same way as on the road. This is more like rock-climbing. It’s certainly not something we could have done on our bikes.
It’s levelled off. Have we reached the top, then? Dryad smiles:
It’s true, I had my eyes down most of the time we were climbing. Difficult to do otherwise when it’s that steep. I look up. The forest has invaded the sky. I sigh:
“Oh, the top of Le Parmelan is only seven hundred metres higher up – that’s only a bit more than two Eiffel Towers,” she comments placidly.
If you say so...
“Well then, let’s go.”
Is it my tone of voice, not completely convinced perhaps, that concerned her?
“Don’t worry, we’re not going any further.”
I wave a hand in protest:
“I’m not tired.”
She doesn’t say anything. Slightly awkwardly, I go on:
“I’m not that used to…”
She frowns slightly:
“It’s my fault, I shouldn’t have…”
I interrupt her urgently:
“No, no, don’t worry. I’m really not tired.”
Doubt lingers behind her smile. I go on:
“Yes, well, of course it wasn’t easy; but it’s just being tired in the normal way, nothing unusual about that. You’re a bit tired too, aren’t you?”
She answers me with a calm smile:
“Yes, yes, of course; don’t worry.”
I pull her by the hand:
“Let’s go, then!”
She holds me back:
“Let’s have a drink first.”
A drink… I look around me:
“Where on earth…”
She points to a little rock in a hollow, a few paces away. I can see water coming out of the ground:
“A spring! It’s like at the Parc Montsouris!”
“Montsouris? Do you mean the park at Buttes Chaumont?”
“No, Montsouris. It’s in the south of Paris. I often went there with my mother when I was little. The water which came from a big spring was carried off into the distance through a load of canals and I would try to guess which of the canals the little boat I had made out of paper would take.”
“So you were a shipowner! But your spring must have been huge, then?”
I assume the absorbed look of a scientist making a calculation:
“Oh yes, indeed! It must have been half a dozen paces at least.”
“What a vast estate!”
Then, after a moment spent deep in thought:
“Will you accept the water from my spring?”
Weighing my words, I answer:
“I will, because it’s yours.”
I add immediately, in a lighter tone of voice and with a teasing smile:
“And because I’m thirsty!”
We laugh merrily. She points out the stream which rushes down the steep slope and off into the depths of the forest:
“The Buttes Chaumont!”
A memory comes back to me:
“Is this the slope which falls away quickly?”
She nods. I stand watching for a long time:
“Everything’s so alive here…”
The spring felt cool. The water spoke softly and at length, in a voice that shifted from mysterious to confidential.
“Here’s our fountain,” Dryad whispers.
We drink. The water fills my mouth with an unfamiliar taste, bright, strong, clean.
Another little climb and we reach a large glade, long – and steep!
“Don’t the cows come into this meadow?”
“No, not here. And if they did, the spring water wouldn’t be good.”
“Let’s go into the middle, we can see the mountains over the treetops.”
“You going to show the Parisian the sights?”
She hesitates for a moment then smiles back:
“No, no, I like to see the mountains too – as I often told you in Paris.”
I look around me. The mountains on the horizon conjure up dreams of the far distance that the Parisian I am has never seen. I murmur:
“They’re beautiful, your mountains…”
A moment of silence. Dryad takes my arm:
“Come on! A bit lower down, on the left, the glade makes a hollow between the trees; it’ll be a good place for us there, we can sit on the big stones.”
Here we are at the big stones. I say stones, because we’re actually sitting on grass; the stones on which we have rested our feet stop us from slipping. Clever, wouldn’t you say?
“I must say I’m ready for a bit of a rest.”
“Me too. Don’t go thinking I’m not tired too.”
“As you said on the way here, it’s just as well it’s downhill on the way back!”
We laugh… calmly… The glade dozes, sheltered by the great trees.
“I was lost… it was at Villa… or not… round there…”
My voice wanders. She waits. I go on:
“I didn’t know where I was really… No, actually, I did, I was at Villa, or by the Fier, or…”
I shake my head slowly, several times:
“But in which street?...”
I have fallen silent. Dryad squeezes my hand:
“You’re a long way from home…”
I don’t let her continue:
“Here, in this glade, with you, I no longer need to know which street I’m in.”
We have lain down in the grass, I have taken her in my arms.
Mozart’s dreamlike song rocks us, Dryad and me. Are we still in yesterday’s glade?
We’ve been playing this sonata for nearly a year now. We’ve been playing it together for nearly a year now.
It’s coming up to lunchtime. Dryad’s bow has left her violin. Plates are clattering in the dining room into which the sun is beginning to invite himself. Dryad’s mother compliments us:
“You’ve never played it better than today.”
Dryad gives her a smile.
Lunch. Dryad’s mother has made us a Savoy-style omelette. I’ve been here for a week now and eaten nothing but regional fare. I had lunch at Dryad’s in Paris from time to time but we never had Savoy food. “My mother thinks Parisians don’t like our cooking. Or rather, that they only like what’s from Paris,” Dryad will tell me a little later.
The soft, moist omelette has slid delicately onto my plate. The bacon bits, having resisted just the right amount to be really appreciated, melt in my mouth. Tiny cubes of fried potato mingle harmoniously with the tender white of young leeks. To say nothing of the Beaufort cheese…
And to think they say that only Parisians really care about food!
At around four o’clock, while we’re hard at work practising some tricky bits in our sonata, La Génie comes to upbraid us:
“Surely you’re not going to spend all day making music indoors in this fine weather!”
She goes on absently:
“I was passing by and heard you practising…”
She lives right at the bottom of Veyrier, Dryad right at the top; she’s studying psychology at Lyon, she’s not without resources…
Thursday. We’re cycling this morning along a steepish, tree-lined road for a picnic at the Semnoz. La Génie’s impromptu visit had been carefully prepared by Dryad’s friends.
Noddy is being my guide:
“We’re going to the Crêt du Maure...”
He continues his sentence gazing up at the sky:
“… you can see Mount Lachat…”
Dryad interrupts him calmly, turning to me:
“… below Le Parmelan; you’ll recognise it easily.”
Well now! Noddy has taken the lead…
“No need to hurry, it’s not a race!” La Guiguite shouts after him.
“We all know you’re the strongest,” adds La Suzon, laying it on thick.
Nannot protests energetically:
“I beat him last time!”
“First to the top of the hairpins, at the Grande Jeanne!” cries Noddy over his shoulder.
We have soon lost them from sight. We find them again, out of breath, at the foresters’ house, as La Glaudia was quick to tell me.
“So who won this time?” asks La Suzon.
“I did, of course!” boasts Noddy.
Nannot puts a brave face on it. But La Génie wasn’t born yesterday:
“And of course no-one noticed that my brother had quite a head start!”
Everybody laughs merrily, including the heroes of the adventure.
The road has become less steep; apparently it doesn’t deserve any particular effort, since no-one talks about racing any more. We bear off to the left, onto a dirt track. It reminds me of my little unpaved cul-de-sac. I turn to Dryad: “It’s like at home, there’s an unpaved road!” She smiles: “Your unpaved road is the old road from Anissy to the Crêt du Châtillon.” We don’t remain on the track very long; a few turns of the wheels and everyone dismounts. Having left the bikes in the underbrush, we climb a short hill. I get a surprise at the top. It’s a round, almost flat place covered in big trees, about fifty paces across. The summits I’ve seen at the cinema were never like this.
“The Crêt du Maure!” announces Noddy.
“It’s quiet up here,” adds La Guiguite.
The picnic gets organised. La Génie points to a gap in the trees:
“Look! It’s Le Parmelan.”
I look. As Dryad had said, I can easily recognise Mount Lachat. Lachat… The glade… I know, you can’t see it from here, but I can.
I look. Lower. Dryad’s house, on the other side of the lake. Her bedroom window wide open.
I feel Dryad’s hand, come to squeeze mine.
The picnic is ready.
“Djos?” La Glaudia asks Dryad.
“Well, well! Back from Lachat?” enquires Noddy curiously.
But the djos attract our little group’s attention much more than his quip.
“Beaufort from the Grand Bornand!” announces La Guiguite ceremoniously.
“Reblochon from the Aravis!” announces La Suzon ceremoniously.
All of a sudden, Nannot starts feverishly rummaging around.
“What are you looking for?” his sister asks him.
“We’ve only got cheese from Savoy! Where did you put the cheese from Paris?”
No-one is quite sure how to react. I speak up:
“You’re right; Paris doesn’t produce anything itself. There’s no soil in Paris. I had never realised that before. When I was little, I thought soil was brought in from elsewhere for the trees in the street to grow in.”
My little speech has cut off the flow of conversation. No-one moves. I carry on, give Nannot a broad smile:
“I’m glad you brought it up…”
He starts to give a sign of apology. I hold up my hand:
“No, no, you were right. I know it was only a joke…”
He looks relieved. It’s my turn to give him a hearty clap on the shoulder:
“And in Paris too, you know, we spend our time pulling each other’s leg!”
I wait for a moment:
“It’s the first time I’ve been out of Paris; I had no idea that people could live elsewhere, the way I’ve learnt here, thanks to you.”
I break off for a moment:
“Sorry, I don’t mean to bore you…”
“On the contrary,” cries Nannot. “We’ve only ever heard about Parisians; I must confess that we don’t tend to find them very pleasant…”
“My father went to Paris once,” says La Glaudia, “but he didn’t seem to enjoy if very much.”
“With you,” Nannot goes on, “it’s not the same; we were a bit worried about your coming. Dryad had told us about you; if we hadn’t been on the same wavelength…”
“We too,” adds La Suzon, “we’re like you, perhaps we’re finding out what real Parisians are like with you.”
An unexpected thought strikes me:
“Perhaps because I’m not from France…”
“Yes, Dryad told us,” says La Guiguite. “But then, nor are we. We’re from Savoy!”
“So between foreigners…” concludes Noddy.
“I hereby declare you a citizen of Anissy!” proclaims La Génie in a loud voice.
Everyone claps. Dryad smiles a long smile.
The raspberries from La Glaudia’s little plot are delicious. I think of my garden:
“There’s a garden opposite my house in Paris; there are trees in it which I like a lot, but it would never have crossed my mind to see raspberries. We don’t often see raspberries at the market…”
I must have said something extraordinary because I have been given looks of utter bafflement.
“You… you mean you… you don’t have raspberries in Paris?” La Suzon finally stutters.
“But you do have other types of fruit?” enquires La Guiguite anxiously.
I reassure her:
“Oh, yes, we do, we do… but not as many as I can get here.”
It was true, I hadn’t realised how much fruit I had been eating, at Dryad’s. No one knows quite what to say. La Glaudia changes the subject:
“What kind of trees have you got in your garden?”
What kind of trees?... I gape… and answer hesitantly:
“I… I… I don’t really know…”
Now it’s their turn to gape.
“You don’t know?...”
I don’t even know who said it, I have heard at least three different voices at the same time…
La Génie rescues me:
“It doesn’t matter. There’s loads of things we don’t know either.”
“But that Parisians do!” exclaims Nannot with a laugh.
And he returns the clap on the shoulder I gave him earlier:
“Now that we’re allowed to have a joke!”
Turning serious again, he says:
“It’s true that we’ve never found Parisians particularly pleasant…”
Noddy takes advantage of the silence which follows:
“What bothers us, it’s not that they know stuff, or think, even wrongly, that they know stuff, but that they want to do others down. You only have to listen to the radio – from Paris, of course – to figure that out.”
“I know. We’ve talked about it, Dryad and I.”
Nobody says anything. I go on, after thinking for a moment:
“Perhaps Paris has been too long the only storehouse in which France keeps its harvests…”
I’m not the only one to have been thinking. La Glaudia declares... firmly:
“What matters is not whether you’re from Paris or from Anissy, it’s who you are.”
“And we all think you’re great!” La Génie tells me.
Everyone shows their agreement. But why did Nannot have to show his by… well, you can imagine how!
The conversation picks up again merrily. The raspberries hog the limelight again.
“It’s wonderful here; it’s like being in a castle that’s been hidden for centuries, with no road that can lead to the top of the mountain on which it stands.”
I must have spoken lyrically despite myself because Noddy says in similar vein:
“And it’s an old road from centuries gone by that leads to the foot of the mountain.”
“Oh,” remarks La Guiguite, “the old road isn’t very long.”
“Does that matter?” Noddy protests.
He adds, in a more natural voice:
“In any case, it must be at least two hundred and fifty metres!”
The wheels of the calculator whirr in my brain. And now that we’re allowed to joke:
“Eh, can’t they count then, out 'ere in the back o’ beyond? Yer reckon they 'ad metres back in them days, then? Seven 'undred ‘n’ seventy royal feet that mecks and not a foot less, I’se a-tellin’ yer!”
My little sally elicits a burst of laughter fit to start an avalanche in July. After a time long enough to melt the glaciers on Mont Blanc, Nannot answers in a voice still suffering from the aftershocks:
“Eh, can’t they count then, up there in t’ Smoke? Seven 'undred ‘n’ seventy feet? Where d’yer get that from, sonny Jim? Five 'undred ‘n’ ten that mecks and not a foot less, I’se a-tellin’ yer!”
I say mockingly:
“Upon my word, it’s a strange sort of mathematics they teach you in the sticks. A royal foot is…”
He interrupts me in similar vein:
“A Geneva foot is…”
“Geneva! What a strange idea; it’s not even in Savoy!”
“Upon my word, it’s a strange sort of history they teach you in Paris. Geneva used to belong to Anissy; they kept our foot, that’s all.”
Applause. I acknowledge defeat:
“Yes, I know about Geneva, Dryad told me.”
I return to our measurements:
“And yet the royal foot is the only that everyone accepts. In Paris…”
La Guiguite has already halted my flow:
“And everyone means Paris, of course!”
“There’s no good girl’s lip out of Paris!” states La Glaudia.
“True,” La Suzon confirms, “as Villon so rightly said a long time ago, I don’t remember exactly where…”
“François de Montcorbier, called Villon; born in 1431, disappeared no-one knows where in 1463. The Ballad of the Women of Paris. I studied it this year. I even learnt the first verse off by heart.”
“Oh, do recite it for us, won’t you?” exclaims La Glaudia.
Dryad has hesitated for a moment, then:
“Albeit the Venice girls get praise
For their sweet speech and tender air,
And though the old women have wise ways,
Of chaffering for amorous ware;
Yet at my peril dare I swear,
Search Rome, where God’s grace mainly tarries,
Florence and Savoy, everywhere,
There’s no good girl’s lip out of Paris.”
“There you go!” comments La Génie.
She turns to me:
“And you, you’re a citizen of Anissy!”
Applause. Nannot too has shared his enthusiasm in the usual way.
This afternoon Dryad and I have come to Anissy to do some shopping.
The streets are quiet. No-one seems to be in a hurry caused by some external pressure. We cycle along without having to worry about the speeding cars you sometimes get in Paris. The streets and houses match each other, so that you feel as if you’re going from one town to another like in Paris. I understood now why her father felt lost in Geneva, and doubtless even more so in Paris.
Rivers flow into the sea, it is said; the Veyrier road which we come in on flows into the Tavern. The Tavern’s advantage over the sea is that it serves lovely, creamy Italian ices, as I am quick to tell Dryad.
“You’re quick to learn the key notions of geography,” she says admiringly.
Sitting on the Tavern terrace, we let time go by. Far off, in the middle of the lake, two small boats are rowing lazily side-by-side. Dryad points to them:
“All those girls are at my school, only they’re boarders.”
“Boarders? Do they live a long way from Anissy?”
“Not necessarily. One of them comes from Rumilly, which is only thirty kilometres away.”
“Perhaps its more convenient than having to make the trip every day?”
“Perhaps… But in the bus at least you’re free.”
I am surprised:
She smiles, a bitter smile:
I don’t know what to say. She goes on with a sigh:
“At night, when they go to bed in the big dormitory where about a hundred of them sleep, they’re locked in. And the shutters are nailed shut so that they can’t see out.”
I am stunned:
“And their parents know that?”
“Of course… since they’re allowed back home once a fortnight.”
Silence. I go on:
“And in the meantime they never see life outside?”
“Yes; on Thursday afternoons they go out for a walk, in a group.”
Silence again. She goes on:
“One day one of the girls told me she was scared, at night, that there might be a fire. ‘Will they have time to let us out?’ she said. What could I say?”
I say nothing. She points to the two small boats again:
“They’re free today, at peace, in the middle of our big lake, between the mountains.”
We say nothing. I notice that our ice-creams have melted.
A broad avenue takes us to a large building. Dryad has slowed down:
I have stopped in front of the dark, severe frontage.
“Looking for the shutters?”
I nod slowly:
“I’ve never closed my canaries’ cage. It’s their life, after all. People have often told me they may not come back. But why stop someone who wants to go? They’re not there in any case. And if someone lives in a way they don’t want to, what do they become? Can they be given back what has been taken away from them?”
She has given me a long, long smile. We have stayed there for a long while.
“As you can see,” she goes on, climbing back onto her bicycle, “it’s smaller than Buffon; and it doesn’t look like a palace.”
She hasn’t set off and seems to be thinking:
“I told you in Paris that I liked my school. It’s not that simple. I was a day-girl. What I liked was my friends, my teachers, what I learnt there.”
She breaks off:
“But there were the shutters, and those who were behind them.”
She starts pedalling:
“Come on! Let’s go to the haberdasher’s!”
On the other side of the square which faces the school gates, a long street lined with increasingly widely-spaced houses seems to take us far out of the town.
“No, not yet,” smiles Dryad, “though you’re not really wrong. You see that crossroads? It’s only three hundred metres away; that’s where the Rue de Genève starts. After that, it’s all fields.”
“Are we leaving Anissy?”
“No, we’re turning left into the Rue Carnot.”
I am surprised. The street is not as empty as those I have seen so far. The houses are austere, or perhaps serious would be a better word. No fun and games here: it’s not the capital! I am surprised, too, because these houses remind me perhaps of certain parts of Paris which I don’t know very well. Am I tempted to say that I find myself in a part of Paris? Well, yes and no. Yes, because these houses talk to each other; no, because they…
Dryad continues my thought:
“They don’t depend on… other towns, as you said in Paris. Here, there is only one town, Anissy, there aren’t disparate neighbourhoods around the Boulevards.”
We go into the haberdasher’s. Dryad is looking for buttons the same colour as the fabric she has brought with her. The haberdasher busies herself… No. It reminds me of the shop where we found watch-glasses or the paint shop on the Rue Brancion. The glass-seller ruled over his store and offered his realm to Dryad; the paint-seller offered the best he had. The haberdasher?... the haberdasher was serving a familiar neighbour; not a customer she was trying to satisfy, but someone with whom she shared a desire to find the right thing. In Paris, you went away with what fitted the bill; here, with what was pleasing.
Rue du Pasquier. Five massive arcades support a house that flaunts its sobriety. Under the arcades, a large bookshop which also sells stationery and records.
We don’t really have our Mozart sonata off pat, but can it ever be otherwise for amateurs? So we have decided to work on another sonata this winter, the one for piano and violin opus 105 by Schumann. “Let’s get the record,” I have suggested. Dryad has pointed out that we haven’t listened much to the one with our last sonata on it. “It doesn’t matter, I’ll get it for you,” I have insisted.
The bookseller brings the record – or rather, the records, because they hold barely four minutes a side and the piece lasts about twenty.
“Could we listen to it, please?”
“Of course, come with me,” answers the bookseller.
A small sitting room. We make ourselves comfortable. The bookseller offers us a different version. Unhurriedly, we listen to both.
“It’s like being in Paris!”
“When we were at the music shop on the embankment, I thought it was like being in Annissy,” says Dryad with a smile.
And the music?
“We can get it from the instrument-maker’s,” she tells me.
We have to go there to get a D-string for her violin.
“Do you like roseaux du lac?”
Reeds from the lake? Bullrushes?
“Well, they’re quite pretty…”
“No, no!” she exclaims with a laugh. “These ones you eat!”
It’s my turn to laugh:
“Is this another local speciality?”
“Absolutely,” she replies with an air of mystery.
It must be some kind of joke; let’s wait and see…
At the end of the Rue du Pasquier, the Rue Royale. The name may have changed but it’s still the same street. No, it’s not the same street, it’s Paris. No, it’s not Paris, it’s not domineering enough.
CHOCOLATES – CONFECTIONERY
We go in. So that was the joke, then?
“Perhaps you don’t want any?” Dryad teases me – she knows how much I like chocolate –, pointing out some delicious-looking long, thin cylinders… made of chocolate!
I turn to the assistant and say, as though I were a regular:
“I’d like some roseaux du lac, please!”
Dryad stifles a giggle.
Hardly have we left the shop than the “reeds” – filled with cherry brandy to boot – are swiftly dealt with. I have also got some for Dryad’s mother, who apparently is quite partial to them.
A little river runs between the houses.
“The Thiou,” Dryad tells me. “I don’t know why, but because of the river some people call Anissy the Venice of Savoy. I’ve seen photographs of Venice and I can’t see what that has to do with it.”
“How very odd. I’ve seen photos, too… It must be a joke, in the worst possible taste.”
A large and long room with high, round bays; the room is made of stone, the bays are wide open. The arcades of the Rue Sainte-Claire. We haven’t changed towns, like in Paris, but centuries. We are in the Middle Ages.
“The castle is at the top of the Côte Saint-Maurice, where the instrument-maker’s is,” Dryad tells me.
“I saw it a moment ago; it looked formidable.”
“You see the big tower? That’s the Queen’s Tower, its walls are more than four metres thick.”
“Is the castle very old?”
“Yes. Especially the Tower, which is from the twelfth century. In fact, everything between the Rue Sainte-Claire and the castle is old.”
Something is bothering me. Oh, yes.
“You are telling me lots of things, giving me details… I notice that I never talked to you as much about Paris.”
“Because you’re a Parisian…”
I am surprised:
“I don’t understand.”
“For a Parisian, the whole world must know everything about Paris because it’s the only city in the world that deserves to be known. It’s true for some things. Everyone knows the Eiffel Tower. But if I talk about the Hôtel de Sens, even to a Parisian, how many of them would ask me if the hotel had a restaurant as well?”
I ponder this. Am I sure that I know the Hôtel de Sens?
Dryad gives me a smile:
“Come on, let’s go and get my D-string. You can’t know everything.”
At the instrument maker’s. It’s true, it is like being in a house, one made of viols, violins and cellos, with music for wallpaper.
“Hello, hello! You haven’t broken the E-string today then?” jokes the instrument maker when Dryad asks him for her D-string.
He chooses the string with care, as though he were going to play on it himself.
“I’ve been coming to him ever since I was six, when I started playing on my eighth-size,” Dryad tells me after we have left.
“Eighth-size, eh? I didn’t know… I thought there was nothing smaller than a quarter-size.”
I add innocently:
“You can’t know everything!”
We laugh brightly.
Tomorrow, Sunday, Dryad and I are going off to spend a few days in the Genevois near Boëge, chez Cettaz, at her grandmother, La Mélie’s, house.
This morning we are reading through the sonata we bought at the instrument maker’s yesterday. Lots of difficult bits; we’ll have to work hard this winter. We haven’t listened to the record.
After lunch – a delicious trout from the Fier, caught by a neighbour – we go to the station in Anissy to get our tickets to Annemasse. From there a bus will take us to Boëge, then we’ll walk to chez Cettaz, about five kilometres further on. Once we get there we’ll have bikes, which the grandmother keeps for family visits. We’ll leave Anissy shortly before seven in the morning and get to Boëge a couple of hours later.
The train chugs between the mountains. They loom as large as the houses in Paris, when I’m walking in the street or taking the aerial metro. Are the mountains a city? Dryad said that she missed the mountains. Do I miss the streets? While I was on the way to Lyon I could see a long way and I could see the sky, which I see so little in Paris. Here, like in Paris, does the horizon still exist?
How do people live, without mountains or houses? People who live in a place like that may well never have thought about mountains or houses. Is it we who create our thoughts or do our thoughts come from somewhere other than ourselves?
The Parmelan... I follow Dryad’s pointing finger. Yes, I recognise it.
“It’s not far.”
“About ten kilometres,” she answers.
The Parmelan... Lachat... Dryad’s grandmother lives in the mountains. Far from the plain where you can see a long way; far from the city. How do people live in the mountains?
“Over there, that’s the Fier,” Dryad tells me.
And other rivers, and other mountains, and still other mountains…
In Paris, I’m always somewhere; in the mountains, I’m always somewhere. What about in the plain? Do people who live there miss it just as much, when they aren’t there? Would I be the same if I had lived somewhere else?
A long tunnel. A few moments later...
“Les Voirons!” Dryad announces.
She goes on:
“You see the tops…”
The tops?... That’s all there are around here.
“… the rounded ones,” she says.
“Is that where your grandmother lives?”
“No, it’s on the other side of Les Voirons, about five kilometres further on.”
“On another top?”
“No, there aren’t any villages on the tops; Les Voirons are about fifteen hundred metres, chez Cetta about a thousand.”
The track starts to descend; down at the bottom, a village. I joke:
“It’s like being up the Eiffel Tower. Have you seen the village down there?”
“Yes, and we’ll take the lift down to it.”
I don’t get it right away and ask stupidly:
“Doesn’t the train go that far?”
A sideways glance is her only answer.
I have understood:
“Oh, you don’t expect to find a station in a backwater out in the sticks…”
“Ha! Just as well there is one, though, because that’s where we change.”
“What did I tell you? The trains aren’t even capable of running more than a few leagues.”
I add perfidiously:
“You do still count in leagues, I assume?”
She answers calmly:
“The train comes from Paris and goes to Saint-Gervais; so that’s only a hundred and seventy-five posting-leagues.”
I am open-mouthed:
“Are you switching to maths next year?”
“Oh no, literary types can divide by four without needing to learn exotic formulas.”
“All right, all right! I’ll carry your rucksack during the change as penance.”
“You can see the station from here. You won’t have very far to walk…”
Laughing with her is my only option.
La Roche-sur-Foron is indeed a backwater. The change is very quick – I don’t even have time to carry Dryad’s rucksack – and we’re off again, heading for Annemasse. Just as well, too, because the landscape is boring – there aren’t even any mountains.
Annemasse? The change was too quick, but I didn’t see anything worth lingering for.
The bus to Boëge. The road climbs, the mountains are back. Dryad’s mountains.
Boëge. The bus has stopped on a large square near a church. A tall, slim girl of about fourteen dressed all in blue, long chestnut hair bobbing on her shoulders, skips from one window of the bus to the next. Who is it? You don’t know? Well, I do. It must be la Mimie. How do I know? Ha, ha! Dryad told me shortly before we set off for Boëge: “My grandmother won’t want us to be walking on our own in the mountains; she’s bound to send La Mimie to keep an eye on us!” Though she did add: “She’s my cousin. But you’ll see, she’s really nice.” Well, that does seem to be the case. I can see it from her green eyes, so similar to Dryad’s, sparkling with flecks of gold. She indeed it is who has come to fetch us.
The two cousins exchange hugs. La Mimie has turned to me and said hello, smiling pleasantly. I hesitate a little as I answer because I can’t quite manage… how can I put it?... to get her to see that I’m talking to her. She can hear me, yes, she can hear me; she looks at me, yes, she looks at me. But her eyes are never still. I know, I know why; Dryad has told me. She can’t see very well, never has.
This Sunday the first of August is no ordinary day – it’s the day of the parish fete. On the large square where the bus has stopped, little wooden booths are ready and waiting to welcome people not only from the village but from the whole surrounding area.
It is a little after nine o’clock. La Mimie asks with concern:
“Vous avez eu déjeuné?”
“Yes,” answers Dryad, “but travelling is hungry work!”
Isn’t it just?...
La Mimie takes us to a schoolfriend’s house not far away.
“C’est la mâchon derrière l’églésé,” she tells us.
Milk or coffee? Both, hot, for La Mimie, in a large bowl in which she dunks her bread. Dryad, after a moment’s hesitation, asks for coffee, for her and for me.
The coffee tastes a little odd. I have said nothing but La Mimie has noticed my surprise:
“It’s ouerdzo,” she tells me.
“Barley,” Dryad translates for me.
Although she didn’t say it very loudly, La Mimie has heard.
“I dinna always speak so right,” she apologises, blushing.
I pretend not to have noticed anything:
“I’ve never had it before; it’s really very good.”
La Mimie has given me a grateful little smile. She wasn’t taken in at all.
“Don’t you have it in Paris?”
La Mimie’s friend has surprised me with the question, and the sympathetic tone of voice in which it has been asked. I answer with an embarrassed “No”. She nods her head without saying anything. I find myself thinking with irritation of what I had told Dryad: “You can find everything in Paris!” I give her a stealthy glance. Was she thinking the same thing? Maybe…
“Have ye got yer school certificate?”
My… I daren’t answer. I can’t see myself talking about the Sorbonne…
La Mimie’s friend has already gone on in a calm voice:
“I’ve ter sit it again next year.”
She suddenly perks up and says with obvious admiration:
“La Mimie, she cam second in the whole district!”
I congratulate the recipient of the accolade effusively; she tries to look modest.
Eleven o’clock. St Maurice’s church is full for high mass on this festival day. Noon. Lunch awaits us.
The whole village is out in the square – and not just the village but all the surroundings too, judging by the conversations about… words I couldn’t quite understand. “Vatses are cows and prâz pastures,” Dryad has whispered in my ear.
It’s a long way indeed from the fair at Pasteur. The little wooden booths of the fete offer little variety. People throw rolled-up balls of rags at tin cans or bottles, to break them. Yes, we break things at Pasteur too, but with an air-rifle all the same. Duck fishing. Yes, I know that one: catch a duck and win a prize. It’s for the tinies… so why are the grown-ups playing just like the kids? La Mimie’s friend has won a plate in the tombola; she clutches it tight… Some nuns are running a lucky dip. I haven’t seen what La Mimie got, but she was smiling broadly. Perhaps that’s her prize – a smile…?
The sun has gone. Little lights have come on all over the big square. The Boëge band is tuning up. There will be dancing!
The dances are not the same as those in Paris. And yet one of them… The gentleman turns his lady several times and finishes by helping her to leap into the air. You will all have recognised one of the latest dance crazes to take Paris by storm, the boogie-woogie. There, I can hear you say, that’s how the provinces copy Paris. But when I said as much to Dryad she laughed in my face! “It’s the volta, an old Italian dance!” she tells me with a chuckle. That’s history for you… As for the accompaniment, it’s the kind of folk music you hear on the wireless sometimes when you’re trying to tune to another station.
Dryad drags me into the dance, with steps I have never seen before but which everyone here knows. Do they know ours? No, of course not. A slightly awkward lad has just asked her for a dance; he’s from a farm near chez Cettaz. He looks very nice, gives me a shy smile, as though asking permission. I give him a big grin back and withdraw with a friendly wave of the hand. I look around. The dancers are full of energy; they all seem to know one another. It makes me think of the neighbourhood where Odile lives. Let’s see now; here’s what she said: ‘People round here have been living alongside each other for ages, and everyone says hello when they pass each other in the street’. Are the surrounding mountains the ‘round here’ of Boëge?
Dryad is dancing with another lad who has taken swift advantage of a short break to invite her. All around, people are dancing, chatting in small groups. I catch sight of La Mimie, standing to one side. She seems abstracted; head slightly to one side, her eyes track the dancers. I ask her to dance. She jumps as though I’d broken her dream, gives me a radiant smile then looks down, blushing, and says hesitantly: “I don’t know how they dance in Paris…” I say confidentially: “Teach me how they dance here, I’d really like that.” Her radiant smile returns and here I am, fluffing my way through unfamiliar steps.
La Mimie has suddenly stiffened; my dancing is probably terrible. A few moments later, for no reason, she gives me a smile which seems to say thank you; but why on earth would she be saying thank you to me? She picks up the dance again, but no longer moves in quite the same way. Could it be the music? Yet there’s nothing special about it. A bit slower, that’s all. Oh, yes! That self-indulgent swooning on leading notes – it’s supposed to give you a pang in the heart, isn’t it?
The night advances. I remember the evening at Jeanne’s. We danced, we talked. Here, people dance and talk; but it’s as though they were singing as they spoke – the language here sings, but it doesn’t in Paris… There isn’t much I can say to them, there isn’t much they can say to me; two lives on parallel tracks. Dryad talks with the farmers; they seem very happy and very sad to see her… as though she had come back from some distant land, and as though they were going to lose her for ever. This is where she used to live when she was a child…
La Mimie sticks to my side. From time to time a lad calls her; she goes over, listens to him, doesn’t answer straight away, says a few words… and flees. I exaggerate, she doesn’t flee, but it’s as if. I ask her if she’s angry with him. “No,” she replies, “but I never know what to say.”
La Mimie is with her mother. I tell Dryad of my surprise.
“It’s not that she doesn’t know what to say, but you can’t imagine how shy she is.”
I express surprise:
“But with me she’s never stopped talking!”
“Talking to you is like talking to me, and she likes me very much.”
She goes on after a moment:
“The song that bothered La Mimie is called Êtoile des Neiges. I’ve already heard it in Anissy. It’s about two young people from Savoy who are in love. But they’re poor. He goes off to the city; she waits behind.”
“And does he come back?”
“Yes, in the summer.”
I feel moved. It must be the night, the dancing, the music…
“Do you think La Mimie...?”
“I’m afraid so…”
“He has to come back…”
We stay there in silence. La Mimie is talking with her mother. Dryad says reflectively:
“She’s poor… and her eyesight isn’t good…”
It’s four in the morning. The mountains are beginning to define the sky. The large square slowly empties. All we have to do now is walk up to chez Cettaz. La Mimie is coming with us; she’ll go back down to fetch the grass mown by her father, which she will bring in with her mother. Off we go!
We take a short cut through a wood; the path climbs. It’s quite a slope – like at Lachat. Now the path runs round the mountain. A small road that climbs. We arrive at chez Cettaz.
It’s not a village, just a few hefty houses standing tight against each other. Perhaps it was more reassuring like that in the olden days.
My deep thoughts are interrupted by the appearance of Dryad’s grandmother.
“Bonjou!” she shouts to us from afar.
Dryad gives her a hug then introduces me. The grandmother – oh, what the hell, I’ll call her La Mélie, since that’s her name, and it’s easier to write to boot – says something to me in her tongue, probably pleasant given the smile that comes with it. Why probably? Because I haven’t understood a word of what she has said. However, she adds for my benefit, in slightly hesitant French mingled with patois and with a strong accent:
“Etes-vo pas trop fatigué? I faut poyér en montant to dré su le cré!”
She looks at the boots I wear for when I’m out walking here:
“Sont des bons solârs. Sont lou solârs lou pe fins ké font lou pè grou-z-agassins.”
She studies me carefully:
“Quand lou solârs sont pas fôrts, i font mâ les artieus!”
The smile returns:
“Je sè bounésa de vo vi.”
I’m glad she’s so pleased to see me – can I be really sure, though? – though she reminds me, without my really realising it, of La Génie. Remember? “Question or not?” “La Génie tells me, or asks me, I don’t know which”… But I don’t have time to go into the matter any further because La Mélie has just asked Dryad:
“Quint heura yè?”
We’re inside the house and Dryad, after quickly glancing at the grandfather clock, has answered:
“Yè siz heura!”
I automatically look at the clock: it’s ten to six.
“Lo rèlojo retardè de dié menutè,” says La Mélie, who has turned to me and is looking at me.
I give a quick smile, not knowing what to say, but she’s already gone back to her stove.
“My grandmother never looks at the time,” Dryad explains. “She knows it; everyone here tells the time from the sun.”
Apparently La Mélie doesn’t tell only the time from the sun…
“Yè miz heura!” announces La Mélie.
Ten to twelve! Dinâ.
Dryad has laid the plates out on the table. Sitting on our sâlè, we tuck into tartifles au barbot, with pass’nailles from the vegetable garden, washed down with édjeu de la sourtsa – spring water – poured from a toupin. And to end the meal, a tart – sorry, I mean épougne – with an ampyé jelly, of course, because this is raspberry country.
As you can see, my knowledge of patois is coming on in leaps and bounds! To tell the truth, though, some of the words needed explaining: pass’nailles for carrots, and au barbot, which just means boiled. I had already come across tartifles because we had had them at Veyrier, with the donkey djos, remember?
There’s another dining-room in grandma’s house; Dryad has just taken me to it. “Moo!” go the three cows who are at table there. No, actually, it’s only in Parisians’ books that cows go “Moo!”. Here, they have said nothing, just slowly turned their big heads towards us and carried on slowly chewing their cud.
“That’s odd, I’d read that mountain cows wore bells.”
“There’s no need to go and fetch them here,” Dryad explains. “We put sonailles on them when they go wandering off, so that we can hear where they are.”
“Sonailles, eh? It could almost be Parisian slang!”
We laugh. I go on:
“Why aren’t they outdoors? The weather’s lovely!”
“There’s not enough grass in summer; we give them hay which we gather from the pasture.”
I’m completely lost. Dryad enlightens me:
“When the cows are in the prâ, they choose the grass they like and refuse the rest; it’s not very profitable. Here, they have no choice but to eat what they’re given!”
“Don’t they ever go out?”
“Yes, for a couple of months in the autumn; when it rains, the grass gets high.”
She seems taken aback:
“Why? They’re well fed.”
“I was thinking of my finches.”
“Your finches always have something to eat. Beyond the prâ, there’s only forest.”
I look at the cows:
“I’ve never seen cows like these before.”
“They’re Abondance,” she tells me.
“Abundance? You mean there’s a lot of them?”
“No, Abondance; it’s the name of a town, about thirty kilometres from Boëge.”
“It comes from a very old word that means water. There’s a lot of water around here, it’s good for the grass…”
“… and for the cows too!”
She smiles at my little joke. I go on:
“I really like their glowing colour and the tawny patches around their eyes.”
“People who aren’t from round here call them spectacles.”
“People always have to bring everything down to their own level!”
Dryad seems slightly surprised by my outburst:
“That’s a bit harsh.”
I am slightly surprised myself:
“I don’t know why that should have got under my skin…”
No, actually, I do know why:
“Since I’ve been here I’ve discovered that life exists outside Paris. Life, not just pictures. The regions aren’t just dormitories that you leave to do things decided in Paris.”
The ensuing silence is broken by Dryad:
“You’re remembering what Nannot said…”
“Yes, he said you didn’t tend to find Parisians very pleasant.”
“When someone denies you your life you can’t pretend it doesn’t matter.”
Your life; her life… Parisian slang, the metro… Here, Savoyard, the path. Paris is the only place people speak Parisian slang, no-one can do it anywhere else. Savoyards don’t need Parisian slang to understand each other; but that’s only Savoyard, isn’t it? In Paris I got used to you, without really thinking that you were from Savoy. A Parisian can only imagine the regions as pictures, as I was saying a moment ago.
My thoughts have turned into words, though I couldn’t say exactly when.
“For us too, Paris is just a picture,” says Dryad softly.
After a silence she goes on:
“You brought that picture to life for me. When I came to Paris for the first time, I saw a big city – bigger than Geneva,” she adds with a smile, “a big city in which I couldn’t find a place for myself…”
Slightly surprised, I interrupt her:
“And yet in every neighbourhood…”
I think for a moment:
“Montparnasse, where you are, has its own life, and a very intense one at that!”
“That’s just the snag; neighbourhood life isn’t a full life, it needs…”
She casts around for words:
“Perhaps what you call the Boulevards, which I now see as being a place which the neighbourhoods depend on, or just need – like the regions depend on or need Paris.”
She pauses for a moment:
“Just think how many times you said ‘Let’s go to Paris’ when you really meant ‘Let’s go to the Boulevards’. But you were at Montparnasse, or Santos Dumont – in a neighbourhood.”
I had never thought about Paris life like that; and yet it was I who had shown that life to Dryad. I remain lost in my thoughts, without knowing how to pick up the conversation again; nor does Dryad seem inclined to pursue the analysis.
We are walking slowly in the meadow, across the slope. Dryad points out a big rock near a spring:
“That’s where I often used to come and read; it’s cool there.”
“The slope is pretty steep.”
“Come and sit down; there’s no risk of slipping on this rock.”
We sit in silence. After a moment she goes on:
“In Anissy I’m always in Anissy.”
“All three streets of it.”
“They enable me to live.”
“Veyrier’s a neighbourhood; from Veyrier you go to Anissy, don’t you?”
“Veyrier isn’t Anissy.”
“It’s a suburb…”
I don’t give in:
“There’s so much more in Paris…”
“What about the lake? And the stream? And the mountains?”
Lowering her voice slightly she adds:
I look at the mountains in the distance.
What can you see from the Eiffel Tower? The hills of Saint-Cloud, and other hills; the suburbs, and doubtless beyond. Paris too, of course. I don’t know what there is on the hills; I can only see houses, without being able to tell them apart. I don’t know what there is in Paris; I can only see houses, without being able to tell them apart. I don’t know the hills, I’ve never been there; actually that’s not quite true, sometimes, with my parents, I have been to the park at Saint-Cloud or the palace at Versailles. I know Paris, I’ve already been there, often, every day; why can’t I manage to see it, apart from Montmartre and the Bois? Where are Montparnasse, the Boulevards, Santos Dumont, Buffon, the garage where I play table tennis? I can sense them but I can’t see them, I don’t see them live.
I look at the mountains in the distance.
Dryad’s voice brings me back to the meadow:
“What are you looking at?”
My answer has not surprised her. She has pondered for a moment, then:
“One day, in the Latin Quarter, I told you that I always looked for the mountains when I looked out…”
“I remember; you said they were never there.”
“Paris isn’t there either…”
I answer, hesitating a little:
“I was thinking about what I could see from the top of the Eiffel Tower.”
I talk about what I could see… and what I couldn’t:
“And here, when I look at the mountains in the distance, all I can see is life.”
We sit for a long time in silence. Dryad points to the blue sky:
“It’s been a long while since we had such fine weather; I think we’ll be getting a storm soon, it’s quite common here in early August.”
“The sky, the mountains, the meadows, not even Anissy, which I called a hole and which, seen from here, looks like a great city, with its three streets – at least there are three streets!”
I add, pulling a face:
“Sorry, there is a path. Perhaps it’s an old one…”
She gives a sad little smile:
“You’re bored here…”
I shake my head:
“I thought I was bored too. But no: everything around me seems whole.”
I was going to add an explanation of a word I hardly understood myself but Dryad has taken my arm:
“I understand; you mean you could live here.”
“Not in the same way as in Paris.”
I remain lost in thought:
“I’m never alone in Paris. Everything surrounds me…”
I break off. She comments:
“Here too everything surrounds me; but there’s nothing to stop me being alone.”
“It’s sad, being alone.”
“It’s only sad if you’ve been abandoned. Here, around me, I’ve got nature.”
“In Paris I’ve got so much more…”
“Yes, I know, the Boulevards, the theatre you go to, your department store, the metro, the unsilent streets, the endless buildings.”
“There are other theatres too, and other department stores… Here, nature is all you’ve got.”
“It’s nature that keeps me alive. In Paris, the fruits of that nature are all you’ve got; and if you’re alone, who will keep you alive?”
The sun must have woken me up; or else the kitchen noises. Yè siz heura!
The coolness that reigns in the bedroom surprises me. Yet there is not a trace of the storm Dryad was talking about yesterday. I go to the window; the sunlight bathes me, the sky is blue. I open it; the chill is frankly bracing. I have understood, it’s the altitude – we’re a thousand metres up.
Mont Blanc, on the other hand, is not a thousand metres. I don’t really remember… not far off five thousand… Why Mont Blanc? Because that must be what I can make out behind the neighbouring peaks. Not much white there though…
The lafé is eaten, not drunk. Yesterday morning, after the fete, I hadn’t really realised; it was just milk. How full it tastes! Of course, it’s milk from La Mélie’s cow…
La Mimie has just arrived. Dryad was right; La Mimie is indeed sticking to us. But Dryad was also right to say that La Mimie is very, very nice. So I give La Mimie a big bonjou.
“Bonjou!” answers La Mimie, smiling fit to burst.
I mention Mont Blanc which isn’t white at all.
“It’s in shadow,” La Mimie explains rather shyly.
“With the sun behind it, how would you expect to see it except in shadow?” comments Dryad.
She adds with a laugh:
“What’s the point of being good at maths?”
“At school, I’m top in arithmetic!” cries La Mimie happily.
Hardly has she finished speaking than she blushes scarlet. I pretend not to have seen and congratulate her warmly. She gets her smile back and tells me seriously:
“You’ll see it white enough when you’re at my house for your dinner this noon; the sun’ll be that high!”
We set off. La Mélie has watched us go...
The slope is steep on either side of the path we take on the hillside that plunges down into the valley where Boëge lies. Fortunately we don’t have to go either down or up. That’s the way I like my mountains.
The wood we have been walking through since leaving chez Cettaz gives way to meadows from which I can clearly see Boëge.
“Look there!” cries La Mimie suddenly, pointing to the other side.
Having made sure I’m looking in the right direction, she goes on:
“That’s my house!”
Has she seen my hint of surprise? She adds with a smile:
“Yes, my cousin told you that I’ve got bad eyesight, but I know where my house is, all the same!”
After a moment she goes on:
“The wood, there, behind, in the Great Commons, it’s my cousin’s.”
“It’s my grandmother’s,” Dryad corrects her.
“It’s really nice, walking in the woods…”
La Mimie has glanced at me quizzically. Dryad says:
“In the city, where he lives, there aren’t many places for walking.”
I think stupidly of the Pré Catelan, the Bois…
“There’s the Bois de Boulogne…”
“Is it yours?”
Bother!... I start to answer but she’s already interrupted me:
“Does it bring in much?”
“What do you mean, bring in much?”
“You know, when you sell the trees. How often do you cut them down?”
I’m lost. Dryad comes to the rescue:
“The Bois de Boulogne is a place where Parisians go to walk.”
La Mimie is speechless. She has given me a look of blank incomprehension. I cast around for something to say. I think Dryad is doing the same. Suddenly, La Mimie says:
“When you need wood, do you get it from us?”
I hesitate… She goes on:
“My cousin told me you live in a village. Do you have vatses?”
Cows? I try and explain:
“Paris is a great big city. You can’t keep cows there, there isn’t any grass…”
She cuts in:
“What’s the point of a city if you can’t find anything in it?”
I am bewildered. Dryad wants to say something but La Mimie leaves her no time:
“Come and live here, when you’re married to my cousin.”
She adds after a short pause:
“Her wood brings in a tidy sum!”
I have taken Dryad’s hand. La Mimie has smiled. You can have bad eyesight yet see clearly.
The vatses may not be in the prâ but the men are. The scythes cut the hay – it feels really funny to see a picture from a geography textbook come to life… And how good it smells; good enough to eat – which is certainly what the cows think.
The men aren’t the only ones working. Once the hay has been cut it has to be brought in; the women rake it up and carry it away in bales on their head. I ask La Mimie:
“Is that what you were doing yesterday with your mother?”
She answers with a head movement that clearly means “Of course!”
“And aren’t you ever afraid that such a huge bale of grass will fall?”
“Oh, no! I don’t want to have to pick up my sack if it falls, so I tell it to stay on my head!”
“And does it do what you tell it?”
She laughs again:
“It’s used to it.”
She shows me the sack that contains the grass:
“We rake up the hay into a sack which we close with a knot; they use a piece of hessian.”
“It’s more dangerous.”
As a good Parisian, I make a joke:
“That’s true, grass can bite you.”
She answers with the serious look of someone who feels understood:
“You’re right, you have to make a noise when you cram the grass, it scares the snakes.”
Dryad has seen my jaw drop. She picks up the thread:
“You don’t get many, but as they’re small, they hide in the hay.”
Got it. Thank you Dryad. I say smoothly:
“Yes, it is indeed better not to let them get into the sack.”
The walk continues. Dryad and her cousin talk to me about the people we can see in the pastures, people they know; sometimes they’re cousins. People in the villages often have the same surname because there’s a lot of marrying between cousins. Those who come from another families are furriners.
I can see a little village.
“Saxel!” La Mimie tells me.
“I’ve got cousins there.”
I ask her:
“Do you often go to see them?”
She hesitates a little:
I remember La Mimie all alone at the fair…
We don’t go through Saxel but to the other side of the valley, the side of Les Voirons, where La Mimie lives.
“My cousin told me she wanted to show you the valley.”
La Mimie breaks off for a moment, then goes on decidedly:
“Do you like it here?”
I have answered just as decidedly. She gives me a smile, as though reassured:
“My cousin will be happy.”
She adds immediately:
“I like to go for walks… it’s sad, on your own.”
A short pause:
“I’ve enjoyed walking with you two.”
The walk continues. We’re not on the Boulevards… it’s so quiet… I ought to be bored… look around for a café… I have no wish to do anything other than stroll along… like along the riverside, perhaps… Why did we go down to the riverside? Was it, unknowingly, to find nature… this “hole”, as I once called it, and as I no longer feel like calling it. There are no shops around me, but I no longer feel the need to buy anything…
No, actually, there is a shop; a very large one, in fact. A florist’s! And I have never seen such a choice. As for reciting the names of the flowers… All I can say is that you can’t find anything like it in Paris. I’ve never liked those stiff blooms that are assembled into a bouquet and yet don’t seem to know each other. Here, when a light breeze has roused them, they talk to each other, go on walks together, in the pasture they chose one day and will quit only after they have left their children there.
Now we are walking beside a wood towards La Mimie’s house. Dryad points out La Mélie’s house on the other side of the valley we have just crossed. Here, neighbours see each other from afar.
The pastures, below us, incite contemplation, as a poet might say. Horses have come to help the people. Birds tell of their happiness. I think of my finches; what a place for them to be!
“My finches would be so happy…”
“Your finches would be in terrible trouble,” Dryad interrupts me.
“What are finches?” asks La Mimie shyly.
“Little yellow birds,” explains Dryad, spelling the word out for her.
“Did you tame them?”
I answer carelessly:
“No, I bought them.”
“What do you do with them?”
“Nothing. I like birds; it’s to have them with me.”
She hesitates a little:
“What do they do?”
“The fly around the trees in the garden, next to my house.”
“Is it big, your garden?”
“It’s not mine…”
“You haven’t got a garden?”
“Where do you grow your guelyons?”
She sees me looking vacant and immediately blushes:
She adds quickly:
“I have learnt French at school; I’ve always had good marks.”
I reassure her:
“You speak very good French; otherwise you wouldn’t have come second in the whole district for your school certificate.”
She blushes again, but this time with pleasure, I believe.
Nevertheless she goes on:
“At home I’m always on my own, with my parents; we speak patois…”
I interrupt her, weighing my words:
“Your language is very beautiful, it’s Savoyard, not patois.”
Her broad smile has thanked me beyond all measure. Must one be grateful, then, to someone who doesn’t mind that you speak your own tongue?
Although La Mimie has fallen silent, I can feel that she’s still expecting something. Oh, yes: the vegetables.
“There aren’t any vegetables in my garden.”
She thinks for a while, pressing her lips together. Then, sounding worried, she says:
“So do you have to buy them, then, even in summer?”
She has broken off. She has even stopped walking. She carries on thinking, for a long while. At last she looks up at me with eyes that are never at rest and says, as though with dawning hope:
“So are you rich then?”
Dryad has given a little start. I cast around for an answer… A look of innocent relief appears on La Mimie’s face:
“Her grandmother will be pleased; she’s afraid you’re poor…”
And she sets off again with a lively step. Stops again suddenly. She looks up at the sky and turns quickly towards me:
“Are they very small, your yellow birds?”
I was about to conscientiously describe the shape and size of my finches when, as is often the case, she breaks in:
“My cousin’s right; they would be in trouble!”
She points out a dark-coloured bird with big wings, the size of a large pigeon.
“It’s a bouza,” she tells me. “It eats sparrows and tits… it’s a fearsome bird.”
She cringes slightly:
“Horrible thing! It eats three or four hens every year; especially in autumn, when the trees have lost their leaves.”
“Have you got many hens?”
“A dozen or so. When the eggler comes to buy our eggs, if we’re a few hens short there’s less eggs to sell…
“That bouza would gobble up your little yellow birdies just like it eats our chicks.”
After a while:
“It’s called a hawk in French. Don’t you have any where you come from?”
“I don’t know; I don’t think so. I’ve never thought about it.”
She glances at me quickly:
“You have to be careful…”
“They’d be too scared, in Paris.”
“They’re not scared of anything.”
I am troubled. The pigeons I see every day… how can I tell whether they are hawks? I’m vaguely aware of the name, I think I know they are fearsome… I must have learnt it sometime… Yet nothing bad has ever happened to my finches… Let’s see; if there were hawks in Paris I would know. Ah, but how would I know? I’ve never heard anything about hawks. Why not tigers too? Hmph, in Paris!...
So what’s life like round here, then? It’s true, perhaps there are wolves too?
“Are there wolves?”
La Mimie starts. She turns to her cousin and says in a faltering voice:
“There aren’t any wolves, are there?”
Dryad puts an affectionate hand on her shoulder:
“No, no; there haven’t been any for ages.”
Is that so? I insist:
“So there used to be, then?”
La Mimie answers in a slightly husky voice:
“Yes; once they even eat a grandma!”
I am amazed. What’s life like round here?...
It’s coming up to noon. We’re not very from La Mimie’s house now, where dinner is waiting for us. Near Manant, a cross stands by the roadside; La Mimie has crossed herself. Does it protect her from wolves?...
A last steep pull through some woods. La Mimie, who has been silent for a while, asks me hesitantly:
“Doesn’t it bother you, being in the mountains?”
I am surprised by her question. She goes on without waiting:
“You have always been able to see a long way, where you’re from. Here, you can’t.”
She leaves a silence. I tell her that I like being in the mountains very much. She goes on, as if I had not spoken:
“Do you know what’s on the other side of the ridge?”
She falls silent. I don’t really understand… Dryad says:
“It’s not that long ago that she left the valley for the first time.”
“Three weeks ago I went to Annemasse.”
She adds, sounding like an explorer just back from amazing travels:
“There was something on the other side of the ridge.”
She has looked at me with her eyes that are never at rest:
“I thought there must be. My cousin didn’t live here. I learnt at school that there were places elsewhere, with people. I can tell you the names of the French trading posts in India: Pondicherry, Chandernagor, Yanaon, Karikal and Mahé. I know that India isn’t here. And then at school they told me about Paris, China, Africa, the Vaucluse department. I don’t know where it is. You know where Paris is, you live there. And yet you’re someone like us.”
She has broken off, then asked me in a voice overflowing with curiosity:
“Do you know where it is, China?”
I’ve hardly had time to open my mouth. She’s already started again:
“I know that from my house you can see five steeples: Boëge, Saxel, Burdignin, Villard, Saint-André. I know where they are.”
She heaves a great sigh:
“The world is big, isn’t it?”
I nod. She shakes her head:
“When I was little, I didn’t know that the world was so big. All I knew was my valley. The mountains all around, I could see them, even if I couldn’t see them very clearly. I could see as far as the ridge.”
She has broken off, raised her eyes to the ridge in front of us:
“The ridge is where the sky stops.”
She finishes up slowly:
“Nobody had ever told me. I thought there was nothing on the other side; I thought the ridge was it.”
I… I cast around for words… What words can I put in my notebook?
The twentieth century. Yes, the twentieth; not the thirteenth or the sixteenth. Cars, aeroplanes… Cinema, the telescope… Civilisation, war. Everything people need. How do people live round here?
Bonjou! Bonjou! La Mimie’s parents greet us cordially… and circumspectly. They are waiting. I have understood that I am part of the family. We hadn’t had to make any great declarations for La Mimie to marry us. In any case, we – Dryad and I – have never made any great declarations either; but it has always been as obvious for us as it is now for La Mimie.
Dinner awaits us. Salted and peppered curd cheese; La Mimie made the cheese with her own hands first thing this morning, before coming to find us at La Mélie’s. It’s a taste I don’t know. It’s quite simply curds in cheese drainers. Surprising; not really bad. As La Mimie is keeping an eye on me without seeming to, I ask for seconds. She is delighted. Dryad, who knows what I like, has given me a worried look. Boiled potatoes – again… Sausages.
I look around me. A wood-fired stove for cooking. The table, a bench, three chairs. No cupboard. No curtains on the windows. A lightbulb on a socket hanging by a wire from the ceiling.
I say “This is really good!” and ask for some more cheese.
The afternoon moves on. We are heading back to La Mélie’s, walking over the fields. La Mimie has told me it was the way she used to go to school.
“Why don’t you take the road?”
“There isn’t any road, as you can see.”
“Yes, but there must be one somewhere, no?”
She ponders for a moment, then adds:
“Are there roads everywhere, where you live?”
“Oh, yes! Like at Annemasse.”
She goes on:
“In winter, with the snow and all, it’s difficult.”
She glances at my boots:
“Them’s good boots; you don’t need clogs.”
“Summer shoes are no good in the snow; you need wooden clogs.”
“Oh, yes! I could never go to school with the plimsolls I’ve got on now; it’s chilly in the snow!”
I’ve already heard about clogs, of course; but I didn’t know they still existed.
“Is it easy to walk in clogs?”
“La Mélie’s got some, you can try them,” answers La Mimie.
“He’s never had any, he won’t be able to tell,” says Dryad.
“In all events, I don’t suppose you can go very fast.”
“It takes me an hour to get there; half an hour in summer.”
“I saw it was three kilometres; that’s quick!”
“Oh, yes! I’m always running…”
“Even on the snow?”
“Not quite as much. But I still go very quickly!”
“Are you afraid of being late to school?”
“No, but I don’t like walking slowly. And as I can’t see very well I’m always tripping. I turn my ankles but it doesn’t matter. Except for the soup I take for dinner at school. Sometimes the canteen opens and the soup spills out!”
“But you get some more at…”
“I go without.”
Hadn’t she told me this morning about how the people round here were always helping each other out, making hay or milking cows for a sick neighbour, even if they weren’t on terms?
“Was it cold at school?”
Where did the idea of asking that question come from? We were never cold at Buffon… except in 1943, a harsh winter.
“Oh, yes, it was cold indeed!” she answers, pulling her head down into her shoulders.
Bad memories linger long.
“Fortunately the boys brought logs to put in the stove.”
I have remembered what Odile had said about the coal they used to put in the stove in her classroom: “There’s a coal stove at the back of the room, with a coal bucket beside it; it’s an honour for a pupil to be called by the teacher to fill the stove!”
She has gone on, in the middle of my thoughts:
“They were strong… And with the wooden case on their shoulders…”
“The wooden case?”
“Yes, for their books.”
She turns to Dryad:
“Did you have a satchel?”
“Yes, it was my father’s and still in very good condition.”
“My mother made me one from cardboard stuck with flour, lined like with oilcloth. I used it for my textbooks – arithmetic, reading, science and geography.”
Geography… She doesn’t even know where Geneva is. I mean, she doesn’t even know that Geneva exists…
“Don’t you learn foreign languages?”
She looks at me with slight surprise:
“Oh, yes, I’m learning French.”
After a moment’s silence she goes on brightly:
“I really like arithmetic, I’m top of the class!”
“Oh, that’s wonderful! I do arithmetic too, you know; I find it hard.”
“Ask me to do a sum in my head.”
A sum? All right then, let’s see…:
“How much is twenty-four times three?”
She gives the answer immediately. I say, genuinely admiring:
“You do sums as fast as you run!”
I add cleverly:
“And without tripping up!”
My cleverness has troubled her:
“Did I get it wrong?”
Slightly disconcerted, I scramble as best as I can:
“No, no, you got it exactly right! But I was just wondering how you got the answer so quickly…”
She interrupts me heatedly:
“I didn’t know the answer beforehand…”
Then goes on calmly:
“It’s easy. Twenty times three is three score and four times three is twelve. That makes three score and twelve.”
I forget about trying to be clever and congratulate her sincerely.
“I like learning things at school. Science is interesting.”
“What else do you learn?”
“French history, French geography, French colonies.”
Except that she doesn’t know where France is.
“You must have had a lot to do when you got home after school.”
“Oh, yes! Homework, lessons to learn…”
“When I didn’t understand a word in French I found it hard.”
“Did you look it up in your dictionary?”
“The teacher had one at school…”
She gives a little sigh:
“It would have been wonderful if I had had one.”
She gives a resigned little smile:
“The teacher wouldn’t have made fun of me.”
I am surprised:
“She made fun of you? Why?”
La Mimie looks down:
“Because what I said wasn’t said proper.”
“You didn’t know how to say it properly?”
“I didn’t know how to speak proper French.”
I don’t really know what to say. She goes on:
“She made fun of everyone who couldn’t speak proper. And then there were words we weren’t allowed to say.”
“Three score and twelve, for example, like I said just now, instead of seventy-two, the way they say it in French.”
“Yet three score is…”
She breaks in roughly:
“Yes, but not in France, our teacher said!”
It’s true that La Mimie’s French is not always proper. You can tell she doesn’t always know the right word. When I write down what she says in my notebook, I make corrections. Actually, I think I’m wrong to make corrections, because I understand everything she says, very well.
But La Mimie has gone on brightly:
“In arithmetic, I had four five sums every evening; I did them on a slate with my deadstone.”
“I find them in the banks along the paths and my father sharpens them; they’re good for writing with!”
Probably some sort of chalk, then. She can’t know, since she hasn’t said anything.
In any case, she hasn’t waited for my next question:
“And catechism… You have to learn your catechism. When someone hasn’t learnt their lesson properly, they get ticked off by the priest.”
My mind’s eye conjures up a vision of a priest with a clip board and I have to suppress a giggle. But I say nothing, since La Mimie seems impervious to this kind of humour…
“Is it far from your house, your school?”
La Mimie brings me back to earth. La Mimie does not waste her time on futilities.
It is silly of me to continue mock her, even privately; from what I have seen, La Mimie does not have enough fun in her life to enjoy that kind of thing.
My school? La Mimie has already gone on:
“You go to the same school as my cousin. She goes there by bus; do you, too?”
I give her some details. She goes on:
“You’re never alone in your big city. Sometimes, coming back from the cheesemaker’s at night, after taking my milk, I get the impression I’m the only person in the world. It doesn’t frighten me, I’m used to being on my own…”
She breaks off for a moment:
“But sometimes, too, when there’s a lot of snow…”
She hasn’t finished her sentence. She has stopped and is pointing to the pastures, all green and so lovely to see this fine summer:
“This is the way I come…”
La Mimie has fallen silent. I ask, with slight surprise:
“You have to take your bottle of milk to the cheesemaker’s at night?”
She looks at me uncomprehendingly, then says with an amused laugh:
“It’s not a bottle, it’s the milk from the evening’s milking.”
“Is there a lot of it?”
“We’ve got three cows; that makes about ten litres… it depends on the day.”
“Ten litres! That’s very heavy…”
“I carry them on my back.”
I can’t help giving her a quick look. It’s true, she’s no weakling, that’s for sure.
She’s off again. Now she’s pointing out Les Voirons.
“There’s a boy at my school who lives higher up than me. It takes him three hours to get to school. He leaves earlier than the others so that he doesn’t get back home too late at night. When the weather’s really bad, he sleeps in the church steeple…”
“Is he a friend?”
She leaves a silence:
“I haven’t got any friends.”
She goes on without waiting:
“After school, I go straight home.”
“What do you do at home? Do you play with…”
“I’ve never had any toys. I play with sardine tins, cardboard boxes…”
“Do you go walking?”
“I often climb trees, on my own, deep in the woods…”
This morning, the sun has invited itself into my room again. And yet way up there, far behind Les Voirons, which I can see from the window of the kitchen where I am drinking my lafé, wisps of pale white that merge into the blue of the sky herald the storm Dryad had spoken of. Cirrus, as I have learnt at school; the rain should be here in two or three days. La Mimie is with her parents; she’s bringing in the hay before it rains. Dryad and La Mélie are in the cowshed; one of the cows is sick. Yesterday evening, after we had got back from our walk, we had to go and see the patient, with an oil lamp to give a bit of light. Nothing serious. As there is nothing I can do to help, I go and sit outside, on the lawn – though I don’t think that’s what they call it here… – and start work on something I had set my heart on doing since I first saw the item in question in the window of an umbrella shop in Annissy. I hadn’t breathed a word about it to anyone. You’d like to know, wouldn’t you?... Well, I can tell you, I suppose, but hush! Don’t tell Dryad! Promise? Right, then. The item was a walking-stick; but not just any walking-stick. It was carved with pretty designs made by a skilful knife. Have you guessed now the task I have set myself? Yes, that’s right. To carve a walking-stick for Dryad myself. A kitchen knife, a little tree that had caught my eye, on the edge of the wood that runs alongside the house, and here I am at work! As for the carving, what better than a dryad? Oh, yes, and the little forest flower that has given its name to the one who will be part of my life.
Carving is not as easy as I had thought. Of course, because carving is sculpture; and perhaps you remember the opinion that the sculptor in my little, unpaved cul-de-sac had of my talents. But I will succeed, I will!
I look up from time to time. In front of me, the ridge. I know what there is on the other side. There are places I have already been to, there are the maps I can look up when I don’t know, there is the cinema that carries me away to the other side of the world…
I know because I have been told; nobody has told La Mimie anything. She doesn’t know anything, I know everything. I even know what there is on the other side of the Earth, and beyond: the planets, the stars… the universe.
Who has just whispered to me: “The last star is where the universe stops”? Alas, no-one has whispered to me… I finish up slowly: “No-one has ever told me anything. I think there is nothing on the other side; I believe that the universe is the end.”
No, no, no! I get a grip on myself. La Mimie has never left her hole, she has said that she had never known anything other than her valley; as for me… What was it I had said to Dryad one day? Oh, yes, that’s it, now I remember: “… what am I supposed to do? I’ve never known anything other than Paris.”
Can you want things you don’t know about?
The little flower takes shape on my walking-stick. It’s far from perfect but I’m pleased with it. Of course, you will say: you’re the one who made it.
In all events, I know someone who would put me right: Albert. He doesn’t like the countryside: “Where on earth were yer? Didjer get to the flicks at least?” Then, after having pondered while shaking his head disgustedly: “’S true that in that hole o’ yours…” As for the walking-stick: “Wha’s the poin’ o’ puttin’ yerself ter so much trouble? There’s loads at the Gal’ries!” It’s true, he’s right, phonographs, there’s loads of ‘em at the Gal’ries; wha’s the poin’ o’ goin’ to all the bother o’ learnin’ an instrument?
A gust of Paris has blown over me. Where would I be if I were there, instead of in this meadow where there is nothing? An image of the big café near the Sorbonne, full of student chatter, forms in my mind’s eye and calls out to me: “Leave your blades of grass and your dusty paths, come to the party in Paris; there’s a coffee waiting for you, the cinemas are open, the metro will take you wherever you want to go!” I try to answer, but here comes Albert again: “You’ll get bitten by insects, you’ll sit – on the ground – on an ant’s nest, you’ll step in cowpats, you’ll see nothing but fields and trees! And cows, you know, they smell bad… I know, I went there once!”
Is it really Albert talking? I’ve already heard people talk about the countryside, that’s more or less how it went. Is the countryside for him anything other than an object of scorn? And only for him? Among the most trivial insults, don’t you hear a person someone scorns being called a peasant, or a clod? What about dirty cow?... Yes, cows smell. Their milk smells too. Some people don’t like milk. And if blades of grass disgust him, why does he like flowers – especially, I think, when they’re in his living room… “No, but really, you’re joking, flowers are beautiful! As for your blades of grass…” he replies indignantly.
What is beauty?
“Watch out, it’ll fall on the ground!” How many times have I heard the warning? Who, in Paris, would eat bread that’s fallen on the ground? It’s dirty, and if it pisses down the dirt turns to mud, as Albert said disgustedly once when a shower of rain surprised us as we were coming back from a walk in the Bois. It wouldn’t matter so much if it just stayed outside. But no, not a bit of it. It has the temerity to come indoors! So the hunt begins. The great dirt hunt! And yet it’s become so small, tiny, no more than dust… No quarter! Away with it!
I have remembered Anissy. We were at the Crêt du Maure, with our dinâ, as they say at Boëge. Everyone, at some time or other, had put their bread down on the ground. Me too.
We don’t know what the ground is, in Paris; and the unknown can be an enemy.
“Oh! Have you cut yourself a stick?”
We are sitting in the meadow in front of La Mélie’s house. I am negligently holding the walking-stick, being careful to hide the flower I had carved in it before dinner.
“Do you like it?”
“Yes, very much. You’ve found yourself a nice piece of hazel.”
“Oh, it’s hazel is it? It’s that what hazelnuts grow on?”
“Why? Do you think they only grow at the greengrocer’s?”
“At least at the greengrocer’s you can see them. Here…”
“It’s too soon. You have to wait until September.”
“You don’t have to wait at the greengrocer’s, he’s always got some.”
“Squirrels too have always got some.”
“Squi…? Oh, yes, that’s right, squirrels eat them.”
“And keep them to last the year.”
We sit in silence for a moment, pondering these matters. I remark:
“You know everything about the countryside…”
She answers calmly:
“You know everything about Paris.”
I nod thoughtfully:
“The countryside is your place…”
She answers calmly:
“Paris is your place.”
We sit in silence for a moment, pondering these matters. I ask:
“Do you think we can live…”
I don’t know how to go on. She takes my hand:
“I’ll live at yours.”
I nod thoughtfully:
“Why wouldn’t I live at yours?”
“Why did I come to Paris?”
That’s a question I hadn’t asked myself.
“I don’t know… To study…”
“I could have gone to Lyon, like my friends from Anissy.”
I must have looked very surprised. She has started to laugh:
“Why? Is Lyon a hole too?”
I feel slightly embarrassed:
I go on, after a moment:
“I suppose that in Paris…”
“Yes, you suppose right.”
She adds immediately:
“The uni at Lyon is very good. Paris isn’t the only one… And then there’s Geneva, and Lausanne too. They’re excellent.”
“You told me one day that you can find everything in Paris. It’s true.”
“Since I had to go away… it might as well be to Paris.”
“Perhaps that’s why little countries…”
She finishes with a touch of irony:
“… never become big.”
She becomes serious again:
“Do you remember the provinces that needed Paris?”
“Yes, very well; you even said that the neighbourhoods in Paris needed the Boulevards just as much.”
“That’s right. I had understood that what you called the Boulevards was alive, it was Paris. The Sorbonne is part of it, and rather well-placed to boot. And not everyone is lucky enough to live at Rue Serpente, so that their neighbourhood is also the Latin Quarter. People can live in other neighbourhoods, of course, at Montparnasse or Santos Dumont, but in the same way that La Mimie lives at Boëge, with a ridge where the sky stops, on the other side of which is the end.”
She catches her breath:
“People can live in the provinces too. Very well, even. And as long as La Mimie knew nothing more than her valley, how could she think of somewhere like the Sorbonne?”
I repeat the phrase that had come into my mind earlier:
“I was thinking to myself this morning: Can you want things you don’t know about?”
“You want them,” she replies, “but you don’t know. When I was sad, before I knew you, I didn’t know it was you that I wanted. The water I was swimming in had no taste. Back then, I could have got out of the water and never even noticed. Now, I need your water.”
She has fallen silent. I have taken her hand:
“I remember your letter.”
How long did we stay there, not talking?...
“The Sorbonne…” she goes on again slowly.
She leaves the sentence suspended. I presume:
“Doubtless the oldest?”
She shakes her head:
“No, Bologna is the oldest. Universitas Bononiensis, founded in 1088; it’s the oldest in Europe.”
“And the Sorbonne?”
“Founded by Robert de Sorbon in 1257.”
“Hats off! I suppose the other universities you mentioned…”
“You mean the other holes?”
I have a counterplay for that, as they say in chess:
“Forsooth. The holes you can’t wait to leave…”
She surrenders with a laugh:
“You’ve got me there!”
“That is the question. My heart is in Boëge, in Anissy, but my head pushes me towards Paris. Perhaps because you introduced me to it. I don’t know if I would have stayed otherwise. It’s too big when you’re on your own.”
She breaks off for a moment:
“And in any case, why leave Savoy just to go to Chambéry?”
She pulls herself together:
“How silly I am. I always forget that it’s…”
“… the Capital!”
“Chambéry, 1681, but even in the glory days students finished their studies in Torino. Alma Universitas Taurinensis, 1404.”
“It’s like listening to a book!”
“I take no credit; it’s all stuff I read while I was looking into where to go. And you’re just the same in maths.”
“Yes, but I take no credit either for going to the Sorbonne; it didn’t cross my mind for a moment that there was anywhere else.”
She smiles brightly:
“Spoken like a true Parisian.”
I change the subject:
“What about other unis? You must have looked them all up.”
“Around Anissy, you mean? Grenoble is the oldest, 1339. Lausanne, 1537. Geneva, founded by John Calvin, 1559. Lyon, 1835.”
“Well, then, being from the Genevois…”
“Calvin frightens me…”
I hardly know who Calvin is. Actually, that’s not quite true; I do. But for me he’s not a neighbour, so…
“And what about the other unis?”
“I chose adventure… But when I left for Paris, I had no idea at all whether I would stay.”
I am pensive. I had never thought… I tell Dryad what I had never thought:
“I had never thought there were so many separate lives.”
She waits. I go on:
“In Paris, you only see one life; Parisian life. Here there are a thousand. I feel as though I’ve crossed the ridge. I introduced you to Paris, you said; you have shown me that there is a world. A world full of… full of different worlds. The universities you mentioned, there are a thousand of them, each with its own life. I mean, it’s not the Sorbonne…”
I see La Mimie in my mind’s eye:
“La Mimie has a life too and I think she loves it, despite everything that is so hard for her, so very sad even sometimes.”
I am still holding the walking-stick. I hold it out to Dryad:
“I made it for you.”
She has looked long at the flower. She has taken my hand…
T H E E N D
 My friend; he comes from Paris.
 You speak patois?
 I’m teaching him.
 What’s your name?
 Le père Auguste.
 Have you had breakfast?
 It’s the house behind the church.
 Aren’t you too tired? You have to push when you climb straight up to the ridge.
 They’re good shoes. It’s the lightest shoes that give the biggest corns.
 When your shoes aren’t stout, they hurt your feet.
 I’m very happy to see you.
 What time is it?
 It’s six o’clock.
 The clock’s ten minutes slow.
 It’s noon!