For all its form and structure, its in-your-face attitudes and habits, Paris can also negate all these attributes. In a single day, in an accumulation of minor events, this city can also tell you (no, whisper to you) that roiling underneath all the lines and angles, the studied styles and hyper-expressivity, is something with flow, something that engulfs you in its amniotics.
First, the Paris Mac store: The crash of your hard disk is a sign, no doubt, that you ought to throw control, at least for this day, to the winds and head out to the repair kids at the Genius Desk. Now, I have been to one other Mac store, the one in Boston, which boasts of all sorts of things—size, services, design. When it first opened several years ago, I ventured there out of curiosity. It was not packed as I had expected; it was just your run-of-the-mill but very glassy mega store except for one apparition which caught me off guard–half a dozen Eastern Orthodox priests, fully attired from head to toe in their religious garb, poring over the latest version of something-or-another, their black vestments swaying this way and that, giving the whole place a strangely ghostly atmosphere. The ghost in the machine, as it were.
But this one at the Louvre this morning was packed, and packed to the rim, with tourists and locals, old and young, black and white. It was a hot, humid day, and the AC was not up to par, so we were all squeezed, waiting our turn, but we were full of default smiles.
Despite its two-story structure, the Paris Mac store moves laterally, like water, with the staff mingling with the visitors, and this staff is all very, very young French kids. The illusion here is that there is no hierarchy, that we are all jovial, even friends for half an hour or so.
The young man at the Genius Desk who attended to my request was blonde, stick thin, and soft-spoken. His language of preference was French, which surprised me but it worked, which in itself was a source of comfort. He was helpful and fast, in that very Anglo way: My hard disk was exhausted, I was told, dead, in fact. The expense was not astronomical, the turn around time only half an hour. What else could a visitor to Paris whose hard disk crashed ask for? Forget all the talk about the monopolies and the corporate culture and the ills of globalization. Forget them all. Forget all that you’ve heard about France being inefficient and long-winded. I was in the bosom of comfort, nothing combative, nothing which taxed my limited knowledge of French nor my sense of being a stranger in a city I know partially. I’ll swallow this pill, I thought, not a problem, no obstacles, no demands. The situation was fluid, as the politicians would say.
Second, the honey store: It’s called La Maison du Miel, and it’s on Rue de Vignon. It’s the one mentioned in the Witness Series on Paris. I am no guidebook visitor, but I was persuaded to go along, not to make a fuss. And besides, it’s honey we’re talking about. Honey–the food of gods, the work of bees. The minute we entered the store, the situation thickened, so to speak. It is really a stunning store, simple, well-organized, but most of all, it’s the fragrance of honey which turned me dizzy. That, and the low murmur of the customers and the three women behind the counter. Like the Mac store, that same sensation of being in the lap of something formless took over. What do you do with three hundred different kinds of honey, whose distinctions you really know nothing about? What do you do with the soap, and the chapstick, and the endless array of honey-based products? How do you create a semblance of order, especially when everyone around you is full of smiles and whispers and soft talk? But as strange as this may sound, there was nothing pretentious here, nothing remotely self-conscious or deliberate. No illusion. Rather, a store dedicated to that most gooey of food staples, a staff that’s seasoned (so to speak), and no outrageous prices. You buy as much as your budget can withstand, and leave, hoping that the honey is as good as it smells. And it is, no question about it.
As if all this urban comfort were not enough, on the way home, in the subway another little incident caught me offguard. I mean, we were in the French subway system–seething with sweat, crowded beyond words. But right there, after I situated my load (the laptop, and the honey) on the seat and the train, a group of Spanish women entered the car. They were chatting away in Spanish, at the top of their voices as though they were speaking in tongues. And then suddenly they all broke into a song, together. It was some sort of madrigal, and they performed it with great relish and happiness, completely oblivious to those around them. I could tell they were trained musicians. Their little performance lasted for several minutes, until the next stop, where they got off, still singing. The train moved, and from the corner of my eye, I saw them standing on the platform, continuing with their act.
Later, at home, on the balcony overlooking Boulevard du Montparnasse, it was a cool evening. The two weeks of rain had given way to a sunny afternoon. I had my laptop (which I have re-baptized with the name of Bonheur) all ready to go, the honey jar on the dining table ready for tomorrow morning’s croissants, the song of the Spanish women still resounding in my ears. I placed a chair on the balcony and sat for some well-deserved rest. I looked up at the sky, beyond the rooftops of the building on the other side of the street. The grey, thickness of the past two weeks had given way to distinct clouds, grey and white against the searing blue sky. It was a gorgeous sight, and I was suddenly reminded of a very minor incident many years ago, which also involved clouds. I was in Amman, it was summer. My dear friend T.N. and I had gone for a walk. T.N. is one of the world’s great readers, a woman of immense erudition and sensitivity. She suddenly looked up at the sky, and said, “I love clouds.” For a minute I was taken aback, not sure how to respond. Clouds? I am a city person, I am often looking ahead and around, not up. But I looked up (out of politeness, mainly) and was a bit uncertain how to respond. They were beautiful, the clouds, especially in their passing, in the way the gentle wind of the Mediterranean swayed them back and forth, in the shapes that coalesced and then dissipated, in the way the colors faded into each other, in the way forms dissolved as though the whole firmament was at the mercy of something unseen.
And it was that same sensation, as I looked beyond the concrete and the rooftops, beyond the city as it were–the same sense of being surprised, and comforted. The clouds–a coda to the day’s sweet turns and twists, the music of the spheres and the smile of the French cherubs at the Genius Desk.
I resolved to eat the honey, with some bread. Tomorrow is another day; the world may come back with all its formal vengeance, its grit. And I thought, never take anything for granted, for gospel truth, even about Paris and the French. Never. Take everything lightly, as my dear T. would have said in Armenian, had she been with me at that moment–lightly, like the wings of a bird as it appears and then disaappears.