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Cross Country / A Memoir of France
12: Return to the Square Albin Cachot

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

Mon menage a moi

In November 2001 I returned to the Square Albin Cachot and the art deco apartment complex -- perfectly situated in the 13eme arrondissement on the verge of the 5th arrondissement and the Latin Quarter without being in it -- where I had first fallen in love with Paris, this time accompanied by my three cats, Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey, who were finally starting to get a bit stressed out by all the moving, this being our third Parisian *demeure* in four months. Sonia, my Siamese and the oldest, panted her tongue like a dog in the cab on the way over down the Boulevard Saint-Jacques - August Blanqui, past the Metro Denfert-Rochereau and over the catacombs which lay below it with their centuries-old skeletons and the not-so-old ghosts of the Resistance whose fighters clandestinely convened there during the Occupation, to the rue Glaciere, then the narrow rue Nordmann across from an elementary school and playground. This time we had a first floor flat, so no spying on the neighbors. During my first sejour on the square I'd observed, besides Kolya's navy blue and terracotta mosaic fountain in the center of the courtyard -- where the Polish immigrant teenager deported by the French under the Occupation used to play with his colleagues -- a playful menage a trois in a lower window across the square of one dark beauty and two skinny guys, a mysterious woman who used to emerge on a distant facing balcony in a blue halter-top and short hip-hugging black skirt to drape her laundry over the stone balcony and gaze up dreamily into the Parisian *crepuscule* (twilight), and, directly facing my 7th-floor flat (from which you could see the tip of the Eiffel Tower if you stood on your tip-toes on the threshold of the balcony), a proper pony-tailed young woman in a white blouse and her husband, who, returning from work, would slip his arms around her waist, provoking a soft smile of surprise on her thin lips.

That was all during my fall 2000 stay on the seventh floor of building six in the square Albin Cachot. Lured by the hope that one of these women with their promise of a Parisian *domicile conjugale* was just waiting to be swept away by me, I was now back in Paris and the square in November 2001. So far my encounters with French women had been mixed. Benedicte, the banker from Vincennes who'd taken me to see "The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain" on our first date, seemed fascinated with me, but I wasn't sure I was attracted to her, nor that we had much in common besides her ribbing my atrocious French in her impeccable English. Sylvie, the Montmartre dancer and usher at the Theatre de la Bastille on whom I'd bestowed one of my sunflowers -- and who actually seemed to be Amelie Poulain -- was my dream girl, at least in appearance, the ideal, in the classic tawny Latin beauty of her face, of the French girl I wanted to fall in love with -- and hoped would fall in love with me. After I'd given her the flower, I left a message with my e-mail address for her at the theater. She responded, in a mail subject-lined "Histoire des tournesols (sunflowers)," with a long letter telling me how strange I was and suggesting we could meet for a drink if I liked at the Cafe de l'Industrie on the rue Sedaine, also near the Bastille. I liked the place -- a cavernous corner cafe with a set of short stairs leading to a second level, a refuge filled with vintage pastis signs that made you feel you were in a roomy ship's hold -- but couldn't tell so far if Sylvie liked me, or was just amused....

On the negative side, the sublet off the Boulevard Pasteur next to the AIDS-discovering Institute Pasteur had not ended well. The proprietor claimed that I had not told her about my three cats; that an uncle who was supposed to stay there after me had arrived and refused to cross the threshold because of the smell from the litter; that I had tried to conceal the scratches Mesha had made on the hideous burlap-like wallpaper in the bedroom by... papering it over with burlap-like wallpaper; and had exploited Sonia's loosening a few threads on the faded sofa with her claws as an opportunity to sink her claws into me and intimidate me into giving her 700 Euros to buy a new couch. "If you don't pay, I have friends in Paris who can make trouble for you," threatened the woman, a school-teacher from Montpellier. It was not the last time I would be bullied by a Frenchman or woman, almost always acquiescing in the end. It would continue right up to my abrupt and ambivalent departure from France in July 2010, an exit greased by the bullying of one of my closest French friends.

Looking back, sometimes I feel like I arrived in Paris with my heart in my hands only to have it devoured like any other choice morsel of a wild beast, an exotic untamed curio rejected and ejected, spit out at the first sign of bitterness or *amertune* -- or, worse, carelessly discarded in the gutter like a played-out cigarette butt that had outlived its utility.

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