Baguette Story

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Paris, where millions of men come home every day grasping a wand of bread.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

THE BEACON, THE FREE BADGER, THE DAILY DAY — we were trying to think up names for a mock newspaper — THE MORNING BEAM. Ultimately we rounded upon LA BAGUETTE LIBRE, which I am fond of, though have come to believe is genuinely untranslatable. THE DAILY BREAD, let alone THE FREE DAILY BREAD, is too metaphorical in tone; THE FRENCH STICK dangerously seditious for a newspaper, THE FREEDOM STICK absurd to the point of probably existing. The problem, I realised, is that in Anglophone culture there is nothing daily about bread buying, and the association between loaves and mornings is largely anachronic-Biblical. But in Paris, I do come home every day grasping a fresh quotidian wand. In fact enjoying good bread had been for me a point of continental pride until I discovered 80% of baguettes bought in Paris are baked in huge suburban factories, frozen, stored for months, and lorried in. The chances of an independent baguette are it turns out as weak as for a free news source ….

I must have visited my local boulangerie some 500 times over the last two years, bought and consumed a quarter tonne of their bread, and excreted probably two-thirds that mass (this last I concede is a guesstimate). It is run by two women — one round and smiley and covered in flour, the other tall, and beautiful as the wands she sells. She is in fact really beautiful, with long fingers and dark eyes and pale lucent skin, and I can honestly say that not a day passes in which she does not cross my mind. One time as I came home as I watched her wind the shutters down on the tail of a dying day, and saw, perhaps for the only time, something of her private world; rich in wheats and nitrogen. Our exchanges, each and every afternoon, have been identical to the point of the immaculate:
—Bonjour, ca va?
—Oui ca va, et vous?
—Ca va. Une baguette?
—Une baguette.
—75 centimes.
From this we never deviate by more than a choice in punctuation. It took me a year to reach this level of intimacy with her. Formerly it had always ran:
—Oui Monsieur?
—Une baguette.
—70 centimes.
Throughout this period the —Oui Monsieur? as I came in was pronounced with the same polite, unacknowledging, amnesiac smile, such that I almost dared her to admit she had seen me yesterday and yesterday and a hundred marching yesterdays beyond. Whether it took that long to break into the vaults of her recognition, or if it was rather the subtly creeping price she sought to cover with a rhapsody of words, I have not decided; enough that after a year we settled on the five-line version and remained faithful to it, through both brighter and more dismal afternoons. She would ask how I was — ca va? —, and I in turn ask after her, and somehow it fell out so that we would tell each other, every day and in complete honesty, how we were, using only and always the same sixteen words, and a look. It is all you need, I found, to tell somebody how you are feeling. And it needs somebody you both know well and have no contact with to be able to answer truthfully everytime. Bonjour ca va oui et vous une baguette 75 centimes. I believe this woman, whose name I have never heard but with whom I have this daily truth, has a better sense of my emotional states over the past two years in Paris than anyone else I know. I wonder if this is true for the whole street. Of her, I can say that I know she was depressed in October, and that things did not suddenly change for the better. I can say that February is always a heavy month. I can tell you the kind of weather she likes best, her favourite colour, how her eyes look when she is tired. Bonjour ca va oui et vous une baguette 75 centimes. Only these words, and a look. Without asking each other to understand — only to accept — we most likely would have gone on telling each other everything and never straying from our common script, for as long as I lived in Paris, had I not changed everything last Monday by smashing a car windscreen with my face.

I live on a little narrow street which is fed by an almost always empty dogleg off the main boulevard. My bicycle — a one-speed-no-lights-virtually-brakeless blueladies number — has been my Rosinante ever since a good friend couldn’t be fucked with its rattling ways any longer. On the bicycle I shoot out of the narrow street onto the dogleg without looking eight days a week. My boulangerie is just on the corner there.

And so it came to pass that I was bowling on round the old bend and pedaldown cracked right into the local hip-hop kids, who were bowling at a fair whack themselves in a sportsy green hatchback. Bicyclante crumpled on impact, as did the bonnet of the car, and I personally made sure of the glass. There was a precollision instant in which I could see and understand from the factors and relative speeds involved, that I was about to go into the hit. Which was balanced by a postcollision incomprehension of this hit, as I tried not only to pick up my mangled knot of bike but even to ride off on it, with a little nod sorry to the hip-hop kids, still sitting in their sorried car. Then there was blood running onto the street and a crowd of people all gathered and aghast and I felt somebody trying to take me over to the corner to sit down, and so I let them take me, and sat down there, right beside the boulangerie. At which point the woman for whom I have no name only infinite affection came out, and brought me a chair, and tissues, and staunched the blood and called the ambulance and asked me —Ca va? (no mention of the baguette) and was lovely and lucent and calm. She watched the van they put me in disappear all the way down the boulevard.

This was Monday.

Tuesdays and Wednesdays the boulangerie is closed, on which days I buy my baguette from a different place over by Chateau d’Eau. I wait for Thursday when I will give her a bouquet of flowers from the florist next door to say thank you for helping me when my head was all open.

Thursdays the florist is closed, which I had never focused on before, but now it is enough to force me over to Chateau d’Eau again rather than appear empty-handed.

Friday the florist is still closed and I look more closely. Well fuck I think, they must be doing renovations. I can’t be doing with this walk over to Chateau d’Eau everyday to buy a baguette, nor with trogging all over looking for another florist. There is a very nice organic greengrocers just opposite where I buy apples and oranges and bananas. I do not know what fruit she likes. They sell a modest pineapple for 7€58 (well fuck I think), or a fair mango for 3€92. I buy the mango and head over to the boulangerie.

When I went in she was serving a customer and didn’t look up until he had left, when she looked up and asked everything about how I was and what they did and could she see and was there anything else and what had they done and did it hurt and had it hurt and was it hurting and she had been so worried as I hadn’t been in yesterday, and because I was here in France by myself living just round the corner and had been for two years and I had no family here and my favourite colour was blue and when I’m tired my eyes —. So I told her I was fine, which I was. And I thanked her for being so nice to me when my head was all open just outside her boulangerie, and she said it was just what anyone would do and I explained how I had wanted to give her flowers from the florist next door but instead had bought a mango, which I then produced. And she smiled, and declared she would come round the counter to faire la bise, which is a little French kiss to either cheek, which she did. And it was almost a fête in which we celebrated how we had known each other all this time, and cared about each other’s existence, and we were glad to be both alive and okay and to have someone to know so as these were things that mattered, and it was all very human.

Tonight US forces secure oil fields around Kirkik in northern Iraq. France, Germany and Russia meet to renew calls for UN-led reconstruction. There are anarchic lootings and torchings of buildings in Mosul while the Dow Jones index falls by 10.92 points. The IMF pulls back its growth forecasts. A man infected with SARS returns home after 7 international flights and scientists in Philadelphia achieve thermonuclear fusion. Tiger Woods struggles as the Masters gets underway. And I go to bed with four stitches over my left eye and a heart full of human warmth and half a wand of bread uneaten on the kitchen table.