By Francesco Bianchini
I sold my house in Umbria and had more money in my pocket than I had ever seen. On top of that, I recently had surgery for a detached retina, so I decided to take a sabbatical and left for Paris for a year. Dan, our cat Arcadio, and I arrived by train on a beautiful morning in early October. We settled in an apartment on the north bank of the Ile Saint Louis among buildings of severe seventeenth-century geometry. The apartment that, reasonably speaking, I could never afford, had been a law firm at one time, and the walls of every room and corridor were lined with elegant yet empty shelving. A pity to live like this for months knowing that our books languished in boxes stacked in a damp cellar. We organized removal and had books, paintings, silverware, and even some furniture brought in from Italy. Periodically in my life, I have done crazy things that even with hindsight I have not been able to reckon with.
Our building, 11 Quai d’Anjou, is first on the left with the Pont Sainte Marie in the distance
It was a comfort for us and for Arcadio to climb the worn stone and wrought-iron grand staircase, and live again amongst our belongings, but it was above all the view of the river as soon as we crossed the threshold that inspired us with an unparalleled sense of well-being. From our large un-curtained windows it rained an even, steady light; the rare cars advanced at a walking pace along the narrow quay, and sometimes you could hear the noise of horse hooves of the mounted police who had their barracks on the other side of the river. We had, perhaps without knowing it, laid the bed out in full compliance with the rules of Feng Shui because I slept beautifully in that Middle Earth surrounded by water, my feet turned towards the Right Bank, the Channel, and the Arctic tundra, and my head towards the Left Bank, the Mediterranean, and the dunes of the Sahara.
The view: the Seine and the Eglise de Saint Paul in the Marais
In Paris that year, an Indian summer lasted until the first rains of November, and spring arrived early. I dragged the book I was not reading from park to park, from the Tuileries to Luxembourg, from the Buttes-Chaumont to Vincennes; everywhere green and gold texture, everywhere the blissful murmur of water and voices, crunching on gravel paths. Because impurities still floated in the vitreous of my eyes, I saw Paris as Pissarro or Caillebotte had painted it. The city gave me a voracious appetite, not just for delicacies, bistros, brasseries, local markets, and cafe terraces. But also for theatres, exhibitions, concerts, endless walks that the locals call flâneries, and visits to the intimate world of lesser museums. Because of my teaching profession, the Louvre granted an annual card which gave me unlimited and preferential access to the museum, as well as the privilege of inviting a guest one evening per week. Dan and I spent nights in remote galleries where we could have enjoyed undisturbed picnics below Claude Lorrain’s greenery and golden twilights.
Having an address for mail and being listed in the phone book – prerequisites for a license – I thought it was time I got married. I walked with Dan to the town hall across the bridge. We gathered the documents we were asked for, and one January morning was summoned to the registry office. There were no witnesses, no rings exchanged, no kisses, no ceremony, even though the registrar believed she had set the tone for the event by informing us that it was also her birthday. In reality, it had not been much different than when we bought or sold a house in a notary’s office. But Dan had planned a celebration of sorts, making a surprise lunch reservation for two at the Grand Véfour, under the arches of the Palais Royal. Having related all of this, I can only confess with regret and justified embarrassment that I remember almost nothing about the lunch. Even Dan when asked cannot add more details other than that we curtailed the ridiculous sequence of the dessert – which consisted of no less than seven courses, all evoking Kandinsky’s compositions with their daring architecture – and that the brass plates fastened to each chair informed us that our table was the one always reserved in the past by Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis.
In a celebratory mood, January 2011
In May I reciprocated the surprise with a dinner on a bateau-mouche, also undistinguished except that when we passed under the dimly lit windows of our own apartment it was possible that Arcadio watched the boat float by – something he did for whole days. But beyond these mind-numbing moments, Paris remains the ‘movable feast’ that everyone knows. How can we forget the brasseries of the Latin Quarter, prodigiously decorated with shiny mirrors and plum-colored velvet seats, served by waiters whose long aprons swept the floor; bistros with tables so tightly rowed, authentic-time bubbles where you wouldn’t be surprised to see Simone de Beauvoir enter at the jingle of the door; the abstruse flavors of the ice-cream maker Berthillon on February afternoons, when the queue did not extend beyond the corner of the block; the mezes of our favorite Lebanese restaurant; the lapin en cocotte we ate in Saint Ouen to warm ourselves after a whole morning of rummaging the flea market, or the extravagant trays of oysters in the Bastille restaurants, those still open until the wee hours for Opera goers?
The salon, after we added our touches, and the window where Arcadio watched the boats pass by
The night of the ‘marriage’, after lunch at the Grand Véfour, in the magnificent bed where I slept the best nights of my life, I dreamt of Maria Callas who, with her easy tears and the petulant voice of Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, simpered ‘oh Ari, you know very well she won’t even be able to cook you a decent moussaka!’
The Grand Véfour, Jardin du Palais Royal