You have to be a little bit Buddhist to live in Paris

a la recherche du temps perdu
“Remembrance of things past,” by Marcel Proust. Picture source:

I think it was Adam Gopnik who said that in order to be able to live in Paris, you need to be able to simultaneously have a deep appreciation for that which is ancient and familiar, and accept that nothing is forever–sometimes, the things that we love change out from under us.

Doing my first-day-back-in-Paris grocery shopping when I arrived this week, I noticed that the fruit and vegetable stand down the street was closed.  Today, doing my weekly shopping, I saw that it was still closed.  I stopped into the florist’s shop next to the fruit and vegetable stand for my Saturday morning bouquet.  Tell me please, what to itself happened the fruit merchants to the side?  He took my 3 euros.  They closed.  A restaurant is going to open there.  It’s a shame–they were nice. 

Them being French and all, I never knew their names, despite having shopped there whenever I was in Paris for the past year and a half.  When I went there for the first time, I made the classic American rookie mistake at a French fruit and vegetable stand: I picked up a piece of fruit to smell it.  (In America, that’s how we tell whether or not it’s ripe.  I learnt this as a young man, by flirting with little old ladies in the produce section.)  Don’t smell the fruit!, the lady scolded me.  I’ll get it for you.  I asked for some figs.  Do you want wall figs?  I gave her the puzzled look that I give people in France so often.  When are you going to eat them–today?  Tomorrow?  Eventually, I realized that she had not asked me if I wanted figues murs–“wall figs”–but figues mûrs–“ripe figs,”   which is pronounced the same, but which wasn’t a word that I’d heard in a while.  (Zipf’s Law: most words are rare, but they do occur.)  After that, we got along fine.  Once you go back to a French business a few times, they recognize you as a regular, and they are far less formal.  She, or her husband, or her father-in-law, depending on who was working, would often throw some dates or an apple in my bag along with whatever I had purchased.

I guess the whole appreciate-what’s-old, accept-that-things-change thing is a good idea for life in general, just as much as it is for living in Paris.  Wives move on, or you move on, start-ups fail, people die.  I guess that if you can be aware of that impermanent nature of things, you either have to be chronically depressed, or–and this is very fortunate, if you can manage it–resolve to live them fully while they’re around.  The fruit merchants that were such a familiar part of my daily life here are gone.  I’ll miss hearing their kids chattering in Arabic in the stairwell, and seeing their youngest daughter giggle and hide her face when I call her ma belle–“my beauty.”  But, for a while there, they were part of what made this place home, and I am grateful for that.

One thought on “You have to be a little bit Buddhist to live in Paris”

  1. Lovely post! I was wondering where you were going with the title, and can only agree wholeheartedly – you pause to remember the people who were somehow part of your life for a while, and move on with a tinge of regret but with appreciation for the very flow of life. Aren’t wall figs delicious? 🙂 On the downside, I think it’s a fact of life in large cities that familiar and friendly Mom and Pop stores are a dying breed.

    Liked by 2 people

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