Meet Isoré, Giant. He is about 30 feet high, weighs a ton, and just hangs out, literally, on the side of the école maternelle (nursery school) on the rue de la Tombe-Issoire in the 14th arrondissement.
He showed up because he was invited, or perhaps because he was invented.
The legendary story of Isoré, a larger-than-life fellow believed to have been buried near the école maternelle (the street's name, "de la Tombe Issoire" means "the tomb of Isoré") inspired the director of the school to engage her students in a new story. Isoré, depending on who you ask, was a thief who had terrorized pilgrims on the road to Compostela during the middle ages, or a Sarrasin king who was beheaded by William of Orange. Spinning the facts a bit to suit her constituency of three-to-six-year-olds, the director transformed him into a repentant giant.
Isoré sent the children a (fittingly) giant letter, explaining that he was sad and lonely, and wanted to make friends. And so the dialogue began, in the form of an exchange of letters and drawings. Eventually, a neighborhood artist was commissioned to create a sculpture for the side of the school.
(The video of the artist, Corinne Béoust, sculpting him is about two minutes long.)
Isoré arrived at the end of April. And of course, the children love him. He's their giant, after all. They wish him bonjour in the morning, and say au revoir when they leave. They are also concerned that he might be cold up there.
He is more than a giant sculpture on their school: he is a story; one in which they are the heroes. Because they dared to make friends with a giant. A story is an amazing thing to give to anyone, but particularly to a child. A well-told, well-loved story is a place to go back to, over and over again.
My father told great bedtime stories. I remember best the ones about Fireman Bill (conveniently, that's dad's name, too). Fireman Bill always saved the
day -- and the circus, or the orphanage, or the ice cream store -- with
the help of his dog, Rusty. (Rusty? I think that's right. I will hear
from someone soon if it is not.) One night, long ago, as he was putting my sisters to bed, fishing around for a book to read to them, my sister Vanessa -- toddler-sized, at the time -- said to him, "No, Dad. Tell me a story from your mouth." (Evidence of something else: that the best stories are boomerangs. Throw a good one out there, and another will come back to you.)
He does tell good stories from his mouth, and the years between being the father of young children and becoming a grandfather, have served to sharpen his skills. Now, a second generation of children are hearing the adventures of Fireman Bill.
In addition to being a master raconteur, my father also has not one, but two talking cars: Blue Miata and the Red Rocket. You probably didn't know that certain 1992 Honda Civic Station Wagons can talk, nor that their turbo-boosters render them capable of clearing the Summit on Highway 80 north of Santa Cruz at a vertiginous 45 mph. (Forty-five!) But it doesn't matter if you know it: the grand-kids do. One of my nephews even speaks to The Rocket by phone. And of course almost all of them have talked to him in person.
And of course they can see my dad's lips moving. And of course they could care less about that.
The technical term is "willing suspension of disbelief." But more anecdotally, I refer to it as a child letting you inside his or her head. And that, when it happens, is a truly amazing thing. Because you can’t demand entry; they have to invite you in. Like the children of the école maternelle on the rue de la Tombe Issoire did with Isoré.
I think about this often, aunt as I am to half a dozen children under the age of four and half (and to three more older than that). I live thousands of miles away, I see them only periodically. I want to know them, to know who they are, but the usual magic tricks grown-ups perform to compensate for absence -- phone calls, e-mails -- don’t really work on the under-fives. It's easy enough to show up on my sisters' and brother's doorsteps bearing gifts, but to be part of the story, to be invited in to the place that really counts, you have to be there.
One evening in Berkeley, on a recent-enough visit home, I was walking to the corner store to get ice cream with my two of my nieces. “You walk behind,” Catherine said to her older sister. “I want to be that cow.”
I didn’t understand at first. That cow? She said it again to Margaret, adding, “You be the balloon.”
And then I understood: Pascal. She wanted to be Pascal, not "that cow." (I'm with her on that: Pascal is not a name that fits easily into an American two-year-old’s mouth.) I had given them -- all of the kids, actually -- last Christmas the DVD and book of “The Red Balloon.” Catherine wanted to be Pascal, the hero of the story, but in order to be Pascal she needed a balloon to follow her down the street.
Just hearing that made my heart inflate and tug at its string like a balloon. And on that particular night, she was the hero of my story.
And, as I have learned, sometimes you don’t even have to give a story to receive one in return.
My sister Kristen called me the other day to say that James is finally big enough to wear the sneakers. The sneakers? Oh, yes. I had almost forgotten. Years ago I had given him for his birthday a pair of sneakers with thick soles that light up whenever the heel strikes the ground. I knew he’d grow into them someday.
So now, however many years later, James is four, and my sister called to say that the glow-in-the-dark shoes fit. And that they were a hit. “He has shut himself up in my closet.” she said, “There’s a mirror on the inside of the door, so he’s jumping up and down in there, watching his shoes light up.”
I just don't know if there's anything better than being somebody's aunt.
I was surprised, and a little distressed, to learn that someone landed on my blog this morning as a result of Googling the phrase “crippling self consciousness.” French 75 -- alarmingly -- ended up #3 in the search results.
It would give you a moment’s pause, too. Certainly I have never made any SEO (search engine optimization) efforts to boost my rankings in the category. And more to the point, is this really my category? Is that who I am? Is that what the French 75 brand is all about? I did a quick eval. Yup. Three mentions of the affliction in March 2006 alone. And three, evidently, is enough.
And while it is true that I am from time to time hobbled with bouts of self-consciousness, a few minutes of brisk self-flogging and taunting can make them go away. So I don’t know if I would consider myself to be legitimately in the top three. Surely there must be an agoraphobe somewhere out there who really deserves to take home the bronze.
I was troubled, certainly, but far from too crippled by self-consciousness to go to the market in the Place Monge. And a good thing that was, because apart from needing to pick up a few things, that market has proven, over the past year and a half, to be my own personal laboratory for experiments in overcoming what I will for reasons of pride (or is it shame?) emphatically not be referring to as crippling self-consciousness.
Surly Egg Guy had only to launch a raised eyebrow in my direction for me to respond accordingly, and without hesitation. “I am very happy to see you this morning, Monsieur." Beach-head thus established, I maintained the upper hand for the remainder of the transaction.
Seeing it in black and white, pixelated like that, and on the World Wide Web for one and all to see, did make me ask myself what “crippling self-consciousness” means. If it is a fear of standing out, and of being singled out somehow, then my being in Paris is an exercise in irony or futility. Living in a big city in a foreign country, for me, is a push me-pull you without end: the strong, and frequent, desire to vanish into a crowd, and the quantitative impossibility of my ever blending in.
Complicating this (oh, for a machete to hack away at all this underbrush blocking the path), I don’t know just where self-consciousness ends and my intermittent lack of self-confidence begins. I do know that my faith in myself and my belief in my rights to be just as I am and pursue just what I want does indeed exist, fully formed and functional. And yet is often subject to breakdowns, besieged by negative thoughts, or by the conviction that there is no way I will ever, ever get away with this. Whatever "this" is. As I came to appreciate shortly after my arrival here, had I the faith in myself that my closest friends do, I might not be having this conversation with myself at all.
This I know: even if I were to call a moratorium on using myself as my own personal punching-bag, I would never, all on my own, assume that I was inherently a suitable model for a couture jacket and 45,000€ worth of Italian jewelry. And yet, because a friend thought so, I overcame my instincts and did it. Smiling all the way.
David asked me to pose for the client section of the website he is putting together his “sur mésure” -- bespoke -- business. All I needed to do in the way of preparation was to meet him a week in advance to pick out my jewelry.
He had engaged a jeweler to supply high-end accessories for the shoot, which is how I found myself in a boutique on the Place Vendôme on a Saturday afternoon. I tried on nearly everything in the store -- diamonds, amethysts, topaz, sapphires, all pretty-pretty-pretty -- deciding finally on a discreet aquamarine the size of a small hen’s egg and some diamond earrings in the shape of tildes to match.
We set aside the jewelry for the shoot (I had also helped him pick out things for one of the other client-models). We asked, mostly out of curiosity, for the prices of the different pieces. When I was told that my little ring was 34,500€ my first instinct was not to balk, but rather, to nod with assent: you bet it is. Motherscratcher. That’s what I’m saying. And I am a bargain at three times that price. Madame a du goût (the lady’s got good taste).
I honestly don't think that is the sort of response one would consider to be anywhere remotely in the ballpark of crippling self-consciousness. And, as time and the ensuing photo shoot proved, I somehow found the inner strength to sit through 45 minutes of make-up, to like the results, and to wear the ring, the jacket, and a smile without collapsing or being smote by lightning.
And that knowledge -- and the photographic evidence of same -- may have been part of the reason why this morning’s discovery of my winner’s circle status bothered me so much. Yes, I am hard on myself; but no, I am not completely stove-in.
I came home from the market, put away the groceries, and sat down again at the computer. Those search results were nagging me. I opened up the Statistics & Referrals for my site and looked again. What I saw made me laugh.
That “someone,” whoever they were, had -- intentionally or not -- Googled “crippling self consciousnessness.” (Emphasis mine.) Is that even a word? A quick cross-reference here on the blog showed that I had made that very same typo in a post: “self-consciousnessness.”
It’s a typo. A typo. A typo, damn it.
Just to be sure, I did Googled “crippling self-consciousness" -- in its traditional and correctly spelled form. And what do you know? I am not even in the Top 200. After that, I stopped looking, or caring.
It’s just a typo.
Photo: Henri Clément
Postscript, June 12, 2007: unintended outcome of this post was my placement, in the Google search results, among the Top 10 purveyors of "crippling self-consciousness." Thud.
Do we have to talk about the weather? Yes. We have to talk about the weather. Because it is challenging the conventional wisdom, messing with my expectations, and more importantly, messing with my head. And probably not only mine.
Judging from the calendar (nigh on the end of June), and the streets of Paris (tourists in shorts, in droves; ice cream stands popping up like mushrooms) one would assume that we were already well into summer -- languid, sticky to the touch, one bra-strap slipping off its shoulder.
But no. Despite occasional afternoons of non-specific, heat-induced listlessness, a balmy evening or two, these are in fact days when it's a good idea to leave the house toting both sunglasses and an umbrella. I said as much to Monsieur at the newsstand on Saturday. He said it's the same with the French; they blow hot and cold. In that case, I told him, what's important is to remain flexible.
A phalanx of storms seems to be crossing France every 18 or 24 hours. Broad-shouldered ones, come to clean up a mess they didn't make. And boy, are they not happy about that. They do a lot of stomping around and grumbling, complaining about the state of the place, before finally turning on the pressure hoses and scrubbing everything down. They are buzzkills -- casting apocalyptic-feeling shadows on otherwise idyllic Parisian tableaux, ending picnics prematurely, and spitting disdainfully on tourists. When they are finished, they just wander off without so much as an "I'll call you," and leave behind big puddles that hiss like steaks on a grill when the busses plow through them.
But they also leave behind a wind. A magnificent kite-flying wind that is clean, sparkling, and well-worth an afternoon's inconvenience. Even worth wet socks. It's a wind that feels like starting over, a wind that turns the clock back, a wind that, like spring, promises a second chance. I didn't know that I was in need of one at all, but walking around and feeling it grab at the hem of my trench coat (it is almost July and I am still wearing it every day), I have a sensation of buoyancy that makes me think perhaps I did.
So it's April again in some corner of my heart. Though without the pheromone jitters, the occasional palpitations and sudden impulses to throw oneself on the ground and weep. Which is actually a relief. Even as the city empties -- as if it had a slow leak -- and even as the workmen set up the bleachers in the Place de la Concorde for the Bastille Day parade. So let the forecast continue to call for scattered ironies. Me and my trench coat are ready.
On Saturday I was wandering around the ninth arrondissement, up to my usual nothing. I do a great deal of that -- wandering around, with no particular goal in mind, tracing my concentric circles and figure-eights all over the city. Moving meditation, evasive tactic, whatever it is, it is often the best part of my day. It is a luxury with which no set of 300 thread-count sheets, no bauble, no thing could ever compete.
In my travels, I have come across the rue Monsieur, rue Madame, rue Mademoiselle, rue des Dames, and rue des Mauvais Garçons (Bad Boys). The rue de Chine and the rue de Laos are at opposite ends of town. Go figure.
A group of three young men stopped me on the rue Saint-Lazare to ask for directions to Notre Dame. They were, I thought, so far off the mark that it was almost funny. But I said nothing about that, touched as I was by the fact that each of them carried a collapsible umbrella. Wherever they were from -- somewhere east of here, and east of Germany -- they spoke English quite well. And as one of them had a small subway map, pointing them towards the #7 train was no work at all.
My first impulse, walking away from them, was to check to see that one of them hadn't pickpocketed me. Because I always imagine that someday, someone is going to stop me for directions, and, while I am simultaneously miming the route and butchering the language ("to the left go, straight-ahead, two streets, of the right, then to go"), take the opportunity to lift my wallet.
But no, it was still there. As were my sunglasses, and my umbrella. About an hours worth of strolling later, scanning the map of the #12 train, and appreciating the music of the station names -- Madeleine, Haussman-Saint-Lazare, Trinité d'Éstienne d'Orves, Notre-Dame-de-Lorette -- I came to understand how they had found themselves so wide of the mark.
They were looking for Notre-Dame, the cathedral known more formally Notre-Dame-de-Paris, which is on a small island in the middle of the Seine. Notre-Dame-de-Lorette is a small church that faces onto the rue de Chateaudun, which runs parallel to the rue Saint-Lazare. It even has its own metro stop. An absolutely honest mistake.
I felt bad for having checked to make sure they hadn't lifted my wallet.
I stood drinking my coffee at the counter of the café, there on the rue de l’Abbé de l’Épée, grateful not to have been caught in the sudden downpour that had hit Paris. (The sky has had this habit lately of just opening up. Just like that. It's a strange year for that kind of thing.)
At 11:45am, I was the sole customer in the place. The cook and the waitress sat at the far end of the counter, finishing their own meals before the lunch crowd arrived. It was a moment of collective quiet, and I was enjoying the feeling of being backstage just as the curtain is about to go up.
Suddenly, a group of three damp American students came in, dripping, but not too much. Monsieur called “Bonjour” to them. Not one among them replied. They approached the table nearest the door, already set for lunch, and pulled out chairs.
“Pour déjeuner?” Monsieur asked. The students looked at each other as if forgetting who among them had brought along the correct response, clearly not understanding that they were being asked if they were there to eat lunch. Which they were not, of course. They were getting out of the rain. But generally speaking, sitting down at about noon, at a table already set with napkins, cutlery, and glasses, means that you are interested in eating a meal.
"Pour boire?” he then asked, miming a coffee cup in his hand and raising it to his lips. They nodded. “S’il vous plaît, au comptoir,” he said, indicating the counter.
There was confusion in the huddle, as they tried to agree on the next play. What are you drinking? I don’t know, what are you drinking? I don’t know. What do you feel like drinking?
“Alors, qu’est-ce qu’on vous sert?” Monsieur addressed the group.
“Coffee?” One asked, as if guessing an answer on a quiz show.
“Café,” Monsieur confirmed. “Large?” he asked, still in French, holding his index fingers apart from each other vertically to indicate size.
“Trois?” he asked, holding up three fingers. They nodded yes, and then one of them suddenly blurted out, “No . Four.”
“Quatre?” He held up four fingers.
While he was preparing their coffees, the fourth member of their party arrived, slightly wetter than the others. “Apparently, we have to stand,” one of them said to him. As if to explain the idiosyncratic behavior of the proprietor who wouldn’t let them sit down.
Monsieur placed four large cafés crèmes on the counter, all in a row. Each cup sat on a saucer, that in turn had a small spoon balanced across it. (An aside: hereabouts, café au lait is the word used to describe something you drink at home for breakfast. Out in the world, when ordering a coffee with steamed milk in it, you ask for café crème, or un crème, for short. A coffee with just a little bit of milk -- which may or may not be steamed, depending on the joint -- is une noisette.)
“Large?” One of the girls said to the other under her breath.
“Well, it’s no Venti,” the other replied, almost snorting.
There was some negotiation involved as the girls examined the sugar packets. Is this sugar? What’s this one? Taking very little pleasure in their befuddlement, I finally said, “That one is Nutrasweet.” (There is only one kind of fake sugar here. It’s aspartame sold under the brand name Canderel.) I went back to my paper.
I know that that had been my cue, as a compatriot, to ask them where they were from and if they were having a good time in Paris. But I honestly didn’t care. Soggy groups of college kids in hooded sweatshirts are ten centimes a dozen here.
They may have been new in town, disoriented by the rain, terribly hungover, or
in the middle of some four-way existential crisis. I don't know. I am sure they weren't bad people. They may read to the blind every afternoon, or are in fact crime-fighting supeheroes. I don't care. They succeeded in provoking neither my sympathy nor my interest. Mostly because they didn’t say “Bonjour.” They were greeted warmly upon entering the near-empty café, but they didn’t reply. They ignored it completely.
And that’s just not done.
There are many things that you don’t have to say. “Have a nice day,” is optional. “How are you?” is reserved for people you know already. But when someone says “Bonjour” to you, there is only one correct -- only one polite -- response: say “Bonjour.” As in,"Bonjour, Madame," or "Bonjour, Monsieur."
I have been greeted with a “Bonjour” by children who have crossed my path, by people getting onto an elevator, and by people entering a store after me.
“Bonjour” is everywhere, and tends to be two steps ahead of you. Often it will see you first, right at the door of any establishment. That may or may not be followed by more "Bonjours" from other corners. The only place “Bonjour” slacks off is at the threshold of a department store. (It may be too busy trying on shoes, or getting a makeover at the Clarins counter.) However as you walk through the store, individual clerks may say it. Will say it. They don't say it because they want to pressure you into buying something. You are not obligated to buy something; you are only obligated to say “Bonjour” back to them.
You say “Bonjour” upon entering any place, pretty much, that isn’t your house. “Bonjour” finds you. Like the sun on an overcast day. It's just there. To be polite is to recognize the sovereignty of people -- and places -- that are not you. Or of you. And in turn, you have your sovereignty recognized by people who are not you.
Not too long ago, I was waiting in the crowded waiting room of a radiology lab. At any given moment, there were about 10 women waiting. Almost every time a new arrival entered the room, she would address the room with a “Bonjour” and the entire room chorus back: “Bonjour.” Even those who didn’t look up from their magazines still responded. And because this was a particularly busy radiology lab, with a high and rapid turnover, it got to be comical after a while.
And in a way it is comic. But mostly it is just a part of French life.
And, to me, it is a part of French life in which it is stupidly simple to participate. How could one not? If it’s a common courtesy that children can extend -- are expected absolutely to extend -- to adults, then certainly it’s something that adults, even non-French-speaking adults, can certainly do.
But what of "au revoir?" You ask. Indeed. “Au revoir” is also a huge part of life. Saying goodbye as you leave a place, walk away from a transaction, part ways with anyone, is customary.
Although now that I think about it, back in the waiting room at the radiology lab, none of the women said “au revoir” as they got up to leave.
So yes. If you can only say one thing, just say “Bonjour.”