Neighborhoods, Baked Goods
by Jacqueline Feldman
Since June, I live behind a bakery. I kept my window open summer nights and woke at dawn to a heavy smell, bread finishing. I attributed the insomnia to shallow sleep, and resolved to drink less wine. Then I asked a friend. “Of course a smell can wake you up,” he said. “You can be woken up by n’importe quel sens. A bright light. A loud sound. Someone shaking you.”
I like the baker, who has braces and a foul mouth. She carries trays across our small, shared courtyard, cursing. My roommates and I threw a party, and the bakery supplied two huge, coffee-frosted éclairs. We sliced them, scattering crumbs.
I used to live in a fashionable neighborhood, the haut Marais, which I routinely sullied with the sort of outfits worn only on one’s block. I’d put on neon sneakers and patterned leggings from a Left-Bank store that sells used clothing by the kilo, for I had spin class, top them with a military-looking jacket, and dodge stares at Franprix.
There’s a relevant passage from Baldwin’s “Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down”:
One Sunday, for variety, we went running in the Luxembourg Gardens. The whole city was out, including dozens of people running in fancy workout gear. But how they’d gotten to the park was a mystery. No one outside the gates wore exercise clothes, not a single person. Did the runners change into their Lycra in a phone booth? Did they arrive by pneumatic tube?
I have also asked myself this question.
I enjoy the Third Arrondissement even more now that I return properly dressed. I like the gluten-free madeleines at Café Pinson. I suspect my Proustian madeleines for Paris will be Pinson’s mint-chocolate-chip ones. Taste, like smell, is a memory sense.
Now I live in the Nineteenth Arrondissement. I throw on a sweatshirt of my roommate’s to read in Buttes-Chaumont Park, across the street from our house. I admire its enfant-terrible infrastructure, anatomic metal swings and marionette theaters. Orthodox teenagers flirt in the grass. Girls flip well-brushed hair and boys trail white fringe below their leather jackets. After a jog, I pause on the suspension footbridge, watching geese and ducks and long-necked swans cross the lake, and the wooden planks tremble. Swans move their feet as cyclists do, and their necks subtend an incredible angle to sip.
The historically working-class neighborhood is gentrifying. I stopped the other night at a shabby-chic bar near Jaurès. I love this area, the Bassin de la Villette. Two cinemas, halves of an MK2, rise sheerly from both banks of the canal, which reflects their neon lights. At night, I think I see how Paris inspired “Starry Night.” A white boat shuttles between the theaters. During Paris Plages, the bassin was outfitted with umbrellas, sand, and a fleet of paddleboats. All summer, bobos lined it, sipping beers.
I ordered red wine to the terrace, and the server heard me speaking English into my phone. Later he cheerfully tallied my bill: “Five bucks,” he said in English, holding his hand as if to stop me, five fingers. I narrowed my eyes and threaded together my syllables as a local would, “Mercibonnefindesoirée.” Then I walked uphill toward home, where the bakery was calm and dark, bread rising deep within the building.