I had coffee the other day with a friend. It was market day anyway. By long standing habit, usually in the company of Linda, on market day, coffee-making and the matinal visit to the bakery are suspended. On Wednesdays, the boulangerie in Fox is closed in any event, and one must go at least to Tavernes, the nearest town with a bakery, for croissants or whatever else may be in stock. Hence, café is served au café, and this day, as well, I have my first croissant, as a treat, for this entire trip.
My friend, who I shall call Renaud Petit, mainly for reasons of protecting myself, is someone I have known pre-dating the purchase of our house. Suffice it to say, he has a business in Aups and he was instrumental (though not the main instrument) in procuring our little corner of paradise. His office, which opens right off the street, is in one of the squares of Aups, shaded in its entirety by a tree overlooking a fountain. There is a small terrace bounded by a curb surrounding the fountain. Three streets, plus a barely passable alley, join in this square or place, which is named for a general of the first Napoleonic Empire, born in the town.
Opposite Renaud’s office is a small bistro, always open on market days. For the greater part of the year, including a warm fall like this one, tables and chairs spill into the street. They also occupy a portion of the terrace paved in stone across the intersection. These three streets and the place are very busy, especially so on market day. Foot traffic, trucks and cars and mobylettes, that is mopeds, motorcycles, and prams stream by at a steady if studied pace. Trucks park to deliver goods. Drivers park their cars for any number of reasons—to run into the Casino grocery, or the cafe or Maison Presse [newsstand], or sometimes, more exotically, the butcher or even the tiny store which sells digital cameras, flash memory, and mobile phones (and has always seemed incongruous to me, but I’m a romantic). As a result of these ad hoc stops, all traffic above the square frequently, but only intermittently, clogs and halts. If it were a pulse, we would call it a stoned-out pulse, only here no one is under the influence of anything, not at 11 o’clock on a lovely warm late Fall morning on market day.
Renaud has claimed one table in the bistro, that is outside the bistro, just within view and easy conversational distance of the patron within. He calls it his “annex,” and unless business matters of a certain kind, mainly appointments with clients, keep him behind his storefront desk, and weather permitting, and during office hours consisting of a posted five hours a day that he honors scrupulously, he sits there, cell phone on the table in front of him, as well as a dead soldier of an espresso cup.
Having done business in the town for over 20 years he has had an opportunity to make the acquaintance of a great many people. In the course of a market day, any number of them will pass and, like the men and women who invariably bear the honorary title of “mayor” of some equally small locale or neighborhood, he greets them, often with a jest or a bon mot. I have never sounded him out, but once, on his status. He admitted as we discussed the subject of nativeness that he, a Niçois, for all of his years in the town, was still considered an outsider. As for the quotidian bonhomie of the Aupsois passing through this particular place you would never know it.
Renaud is a big man, less stout than sturdy, though he has a pot belly, which seems out of keeping, given his swaggering walk and bulky muscled arms. He has grey hair worn in a small pony tail, and a generous salt-and-pepper beard. He is only five or six years older than I am, but somehow we relate as if I were of a generation to follow his. This is probably the lack of acculturation I suffer, obvious and notable to anyone else in what I nevertheless think of as my terroir. Renaud speaks almost no English, though he pretends to speak even less and to understand almost none at all. This is no ploy. He is on better ground in French, as he has a bluff and congenial nature and he has the Frenchman’s natural expectation that in his country you will speak his language, if for no other reason than his own mastery. He, like most French, adroitly, tactically, and always tactfully, corrects my worst gaffes. I cannot predict when he will offer a succinct correction, brief enough to make the point and keep the flow of conversation going.
We speak in French, and have had several occasions to make one another laugh. There is no greater sense of achievement for one as enthralled with language and its potentialities as I than to make another person laugh intentionally in his own language. Renaud, as you might suspect or intuit from my description so far, has drollness as a major factor in his slightly larger than life persona. I enjoy getting him to enter that realm of expansiveness that borders on the philosophical. He has offered me explanations of many things—simple, direct, common sense explanations of how things are, with the suggestion that they are as they should be.
The other day, we played each other a bit for straight men (though we are often content to sit in silence in each other’s presence; as often as not some copain, some buddy of his, however tenuously I may use this word, has sat down, and they have an animated conversation that sometimes I follow, and sometimes I catch only the gist). He has stopped long since introducing me as “my friend Howard, an American.”
The occasion for remarks may be unpredictable. This market day, as I entered the place, he caught my eye and rose to greet me, an open hand raised almost to his chin. “Un moment… j’arrive, j’arrive,” I said as I continued into the newsstand to get my daily “Var-Matin” (the largest daily in Provence, which I like to quote to American friends—like the “New York Times,” it is printed in regional editions, cut about as fine as the “Times” would if it had a Staten Island edition, as opposed, say, to a Yonkers edition) and the “International Herald-Tribune” if they weren’t sold out of the three copies they stock each day. I also entered the boulangerie just down the street for a banette (the size of a baguette, but with characteristic ends, drawn out to a point; they are indistinguishable for taste; though the ends of a banette get, predictably, very crunchy) and the aforementioned prize of a croissant. It was sufficiently late that they had already sold out of croissants au beurre. The latter are especially sinful, as the raised pâte feuilleté has an additional enrichment of butter, or so it seems. It is also possible that the croissant nature, for which I had to settle, has no butter at all, but some other semi-solid fat. I don’t really know. Nature, of course, means “plain” in this context. And it’s a perfectly good croissant. The au beurre variety is unmistakable. No matter.
I joined Renaud, and we bussed one another on each cheek. We exchanged pleasantries. I drank my coffee, ate my croissant. I will now embark on the substance of our conversation. I will not make things difficult for you, or flatter myself by attempting to recreate the conversation in French—even if I presumed to remember it. His comments for me are always a triumph of substance, if not expressiveness, much more than elegance of language. He is a thinker, but not an intellectual.
He read from a booklet of classified advertising, distributed free and freely from flimsy metal stands around the town. He read from the real estate ads, and observed there were many properties for sale. I could tell he was warming up. He turned to the automobile section and eyed the pages randomly. He observed there were many cars for sale. I had an observation of my own and made it, hoping it would elicit a reaction.
I said I noticed that many of the ads were in fact placed by dealers. Bulls-eye! He commented that if one took any notice of car prices in France versus those of any other European country, there was a disparity. Take a car that sells for a hundred euros, in another country, any other country, it will be selling for 75. This proves, he said, that the French are thieves. Or, I said, it means that the consumer is ignorant. He conceded the point.
At this moment, having reached a quick impasse, Renaud focused his attention on the passing parade. Among those with whom he exchanges pleasantries or a bon mot, at least half of those he greets are women, and several walked by in each direction. He practically ignites in the presence of comely women, though he treats them all as if they were comely. One woman was cause enough for him to rise, greet her warmly, give air kisses, and have a brief conversation of no particular consequence. She was, to me, like so many women in this town of semi-retirement: attractive, beautifully made-up, casually well-dressed, and well-coiffed, in this case in a silvery hue.
I remarked to Renaud, once he seated himself, that he seemed to know every good-looking woman in Aups, the older ones, the young ones, and those in between. “Too thin,” he said, in response. She’s too thin, and he made a face. I immediately pictured a Renoir portrait in my mind. “Thin women live longer,” I said to him. “Thin women live longer, yes, but the nasty ones (femmes méchantes) live even longer. You know why?” I looked at him questioningly—as if I would presume to know—inquiringly.
Here, for the first time he became slightly tongue-tied. He explained it was because they reacted to all things in the same way and they got caught up, and this substance…, he simply could not come up with the word, filled them, energizing them, driving them on, and it was this substance, this… this extract… “Testosterone?” I suggested, “l’essence masculin.” “Yes! and there’s more. It gets in their cells…” “Adrénaline perhaps?” “That’s it. It pumps them up, it fills their cells with energy, the essence of life. It keeps them alive. Their meanness keeps them going.” I laughed enough to keep him going. But I had to leave. He had clearly shot his wad, as I saw he had settled back to look indolently at the classified ads. Then he arose, as I arose, and said something about going to work.
I had to leave because I was expecting a delivery of a new dishwasher that afternoon. He said, well, I’ll see you tomorrow, and I said, “Only perhaps. I leave in two days for the United States.” And he said, “Soon enough then. Tomorrow…”
Tomorrow is not soon enough.