This is an essay by Philip Kobylarz.
There is a house, what I consider to be a “house” but what is really a premier étage– a large apartment that is located above shops that line the street. There is nothing above this type of dwelling, no third or further floors. The door is on the street which opens to a hallway with a long winding stairway leading to the loft-like multi-roomed residence.
In one of the rooms (a total of nine) there is a door behind the door. This door has not been opened for thirty years. The room itself is a monumental coffer, a reliquary, what the family refers to as a fouillis (a mess). It exists in a similar form in probably thousands, tens of thousands of incarnations, just outside the realm of history.
In America, one might have an attic, a cubbyhole, but in France an entire, once livable room is preserved for the past’s relics because days gone by deserve their own private enclave. A chest of priest’s vestments in perfect condition from, no one knows for sure, 1920s? Newspapers in yellow bundles that crumble apart rotten communion hosts. They detail events of world wars and the deaths of presidents. Boxes of dolls from many childhoods of at least three generations of women. Life size babies with disconcertingly human eyes and coifs of horsehair. A tin container containing medallions of religious belief: blue jewel Marys, crosses with green serpents entwined, other crosses with ornately tortured Jesuses in tears of blood, and simple Celtic-like crosses aged in bumpy accretions of tarnish and mold obscuring silver plating. A find to excite even the staunchest of atheists. Boxes of postcards from such places as Lourdes, the Pyrénées, Corsica, Paris, Nice, Menton, Tunisia, Algiers– Europa Exotica. The photos they contain are monochromatic, very dark, and their flipside contain cliché-ridden, vicissitudinal details written in a most elegant, feminine script not even then worth reading. Some of the postcards show scenes of the city when it was a rural, uncluttered, undeveloped metropole.
Armoires riddled with insect tunnels and stocked with decades of old clothes that, unfolded and held up to the torso, seem to have regenerated into style. Another spice tin full of old coinage. Coins minted of real silver but owing to governmental changes, they have been devalued into only a fraction of their worth. Mostly five, ten, and fifty franc pieces that look priceless. Drawers replete with skeleton keys that no longer open anything not even the drawer they’re in. They are striking in their burnished gold patinas, length and heft. Having kept one on my key chain, and transporting it to the States, others often ask me if it “real”.
Two very odd photographs of two children hamming it up and dressed as an angel and pitchfork wielding devil. No one recognizes the children.
A series of photographs of a handsome Vietnamese man in military uniform standing next to what looks like his brother or close friend.
Behind a steel trap door that blocks where there once was an opening of a fire pit, yet another rusty cookie tin that when opened is alive with what was once someone’s set of teeth. A ghastly thing to find. They are immaculately fringed in solid gold bridge work. The matron of the household congratulated me on this discovery. When I told her that these disembodied teeth may cause me nightmares she said, “That’s silly, they can’t bite you anymore.”
Buried under bags of wool that was once used to stuff mattresses, a bronze statue of St. Louis sleeps. He is crowned and holds another in his outstretched hand, his other is on the hilt of his sword. He wears a coat of mail, an armor vest emblazoned with a cross, and dons a magnificently large cape. Humidity has colored his eyes green.
Portraits, solemn and leering, of Jesus and Mary, in decorative wooden frames obliterated by hungry insects. The two have big round eyes that calculate my every move.
A wooden bust of an African beauty. On its underneath, she reveals herself to be of Madagascar descent.
Another tin container that contains recent money. With a little prying of the lid and of the matron, the money is revealed to be that of the baker’s wife (the bakery is directly below). It is a mere forty dollars that she will most likely never see again. She was hiding it from her husband.
The last item to be recovered from the past is a fifty pound bag of coffee beans dating from the distant past. The beans are contained in a cloth potato sack and are of an exceptionally light, vanilla color and etched in black capillaries of their former essence. Most of the beans have been dotted by insect tunnels. The matron insists that they are still good. My only reply is that I would like to renege on my request of a traditional afternoon espresso.
The dust in the room is so chokingly thick and putrid that I blow traces of it from my nose for up to a week after the cleaning. At one point during the perusal, the billowing clouds of dust almost made me vomit. The asthmatic cough garnered by the exploration, or rather exorcism, remained for two days. It comes back by feint of memory anytime I enter the room.
By scrubbing the ancient tiled floor and re-stucco-ing its walls and putting up a fake ceiling of thin wood beams and panels, the room is once again made habitable. The refurbishing took nearly a month of hard labor. The matron agrees it is much more useful now and that she’ll use it only to store herbs to be dried as she approaches with a tray of apéritif and, trailing behind, bundles of thyme, rosemary, heath, and dill collected from local hillsides. Out of her house dress pocket spill albino coffee beans.
Ladies that walk knowing that they’re being watched, or wanting to be, not even caring the age or attractiveness of the onlooker. Women who dress not for the world, but themselves, elegantly.
Men who strut in a self-confident, almost pugnacious gait. The phrase for it is rouler les mécaniques. They measure each step knowing they have a point to prove and are completely justified in their convictions. Boisterous, brazen, they hold open doors for the opposite sex and for the elderly. They have irrefutable positions concerning the upcoming trends in weather.
Children who in restaurants behave impeccably well and who never ever bring gigantic plastic toys into the dining establishment. On the street they joke, they play, they sing dumb songs, and at any given moment might break into an impromptu game of soccer, thus claiming the street their playfield.
Tiny dogs that urinate and defecate at will and who have total control of the human at the other ends of their leashes. Old ladies who act as, as it were, bathroom valets for their pets, cleaning up after them, and in some not so rare cases, performing doggie hygiene with kleenex.
People who fill street corners, especially those with bakeries, on Sunday mornings with the cheery din of gossip, neighborhood happenings and rumor, while they use baguettes as informal conversational aides emphasizing their brilliant points of observation with symphonic flourish.
Market owners, fish vendors, bar patrons, opening their businesses while whistling or singing who by sheer force of personality and belief in the relevance of their chosen professions encourage a devoted following.
Cicadas and frogs congregating in forgotten remnants of farmhouses that these outskirts once contained, now residences, murmuring a jeremiad of the days of old.
City workers who discuss intimate details of their wives’ families histories so that passersby might substantiate their vocal positions on the matter at hand and offer a nod of empathy.
Shopping carts stolen for the treasures of ten franc pieces they once held in confidence. Parked in abandonment.
Billboards, ever hanging, always featuring a beautiful man and woman engaged in anything other than hawking the product suggested for sale.
Young men and women hauling boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables sometimes offering a taste of one to be eaten whole on the spot as an enticement to the delicacies within their bamboo-lined stores.
Standing placard advertisements for a delectable array of ice cream and frozen treats that lie buried in tabletop freezers in Lotto stores or even Tabacs.
Sandwicheries that display real life plates of food that will be freshly made not instantly, but within lengthy hunger-filled minutes, promising meat and lamb expertly grilled.
A clean trickle of water washing the history of the day into a wave of ripening sea.
It exists everyday, which is only logical, for it is what all life is based on. In some small establishments, plates of spaghetti are still served, or any sandwich dreamt of will be prepared if your face is agreeable enough to accompany such a request. Often what will be served are leftovers the owners didn’t finish the night before, tasting just as good to the newcomer to the table.
There are large multi-level cafés that serve just about anything desired, including outrageous ice cream desserts or rich pies, tartes, cakes. These, though, are often very pricey and visited by professional shoppers and other snootier members of society.
Small cafés, what an American might call holes-in-the-wall, are the best. Their decor is dated, sometimes to the fourth republic. They always have white tile floors that haven’t been washed since the last storm. Ricard or Cinzano sponsored advertisements, which make stealing an ashtray a necessity, cover the walls, outdoor umbrellas, and adorn shot glasses or glasses of pression.
Some of these café/bars have wooden wet bars. All are lined with interior mirrors and large windows that peer onto the street and racing world that whisks by, disinterested and hurried. Most of these places feature a battered cassette player or radio playing the radio. If not then the music of traffic, of the city being a city, permeates the walls. Plus intermittent whooshes of toilets being flushed.
Often the bartendress is the owner’s wife or daughter and no matter her age, she is singularly beautiful. Classical in that she’ll listen to any story you might have the burning desire to tell. For every story you have to communicate, she’ll counter with two of her own. They will be even more lovelorn than yours and a tad sadder but free of remorse. She’ll tell them and shake off the memories they engender with a wave of her hand in the air like a butterfly taking its initial flight and a gorgeous smile. Maybe even a wink.
The stories told in these places are always the same: love gone bad, unrequited love, how life seemed to be much better, simpler, ideal. When she speaks to you she’ll grab and hold your arm. She’ll whisper things you don’t understand in your ear. She’ll make you feel like everything you have to tell each other really matters only to people like you two. In cafés like this one, life and living it are the only things that matter.
The espresso is incredibly strong and sobering, served with three cubes of sugar that will be administered incrementally, stirred into the mix with a tiny spoon that beckons your tongue to play with its silver cupped hand. The small espresso cup, one forth the size of the American version, will have originated elsewhere and will be marked so. Ones from Les Trois Mages turn up everywhere. They add an extra-legal charm and remind us that by naming something, it does not automatically mean ownership. In naming, metamorphosis and travel are more likely.
Even though most cafés serve alcohol, they really aren’t places to get drunk. There is no social scene expected to occur, no happy hour, other than the natural occurrence of small, private, local gatherings of souls that mostly accrue from visiting regulars.
If you’re a regular at a café, you are one of its family members. You have the opportunity to learn more about the owners and their lives than you might have ever bargained for. They will accept you without discrimination, unless you can’t pay your tab. The owners aren’t really interested in making a buck. They’re more involved in spending their business hours, a vital chunk of their lives, with those they consider familiars. They like to familiarize.
The café itself is a desperately lonely place. There are so many of them on any given street, street corners, back alleys, that they promise anonymity for the cost of a drink. There is always room, even when it’s lunch time and it is packed. There will be one table in the far back corner, near the kitchen or bathroom. During the non-lunch-rush hours of the day, the café is mostly empty. It is home away from home.
What the café functions as is a place for the individual to go to not be him or herself. Or to be him or herself intimately with others or better, alone. Needless to say, they are great places to write. They are great people watching venues. No one will bother you. The parade of interesting/beautiful people who pass by their windows rarely even musters a glimpse inside– more often they do their hair or fix their make-up in the window’s reflection. They are lonely souls who accompany your lonely soul with a catwalk of fascination.
Cafés in France, with their cheap offering of the speed of espresso or the controlled buzz of a few pressions, their temptation of a peeled hard boiled egg, are addictive little spots where one can relax with one’s own id and ego. The super ego can be left at the door.
They are places deep within the bustling internal organs of the city where one can subtract oneself from it all while being in the heart of the beast. Where one can kick back and relax and take in the passing scenery and meaningless complexity of life. They are places where books can be read in a glance. They are where waiters will give you matches for free if you tell them how good looking they are. They are sacred pagan chapels where one may meditate on what it means to be an individual in history’s unending stream of uniqueness mutated.
Philip Kobylarz‘s works has appeared in Paris Review, Epoch, Poetry, and Best American Poetry. He’s published two books Rues and Now Leaving Nowheresville with two more forthcoming.