The Back Door and the Front Door

I remember my granddad saying he could never live in a place with only one door to go out—he meant an apartment. I used to quote that a lot, and then one day we moved from a house in the suburbs of Paris to an apartment in the city. I was thinking about this last night.

We have a front door and a back door, and at one time, before we lived here, there was also a side door on the wall to the right of the front door, for the maid, I suppose. It’s a little strange, because the back door, which gives on a ‘porch’ outside the kitchen, has yet another door into a service stairwell that no one uses any more. The porch, I guess, was where you left your mops and brooms and wet rags and bucket, but now it is half filled with plants and half of the other half has a chair from Ikea to sit on, while you wait for something to boil, if the weather is warm, and spy on the people down in the street.

The side door was eliminated—when?—there’s no trace it ever existed at our level, though one of the other apartments still has it. The front door is routinely locked, but the back door is often open and the last thing I do before bed is peek out—someone with a wheely bag on their way to the Metro or the hotel, there’s a guy sleeping in the door to a shop—traffic noise one block over—then I close and lock my back door and go to bed. My neighbours must be out of town this week—school holidays—all their lights are already off.

Same thing on the other side—no one home this weekend, though the parents were there during the week—were the children in the country with their grandparents? This is what upper middle class parents who both work tend to do over school holidays. But the young family on the back have all apparently left town.

Friday evening

A nice day. Worked in the morning, met a friend for lunch, talked for a couple of hours about houses, books, translation, planned to meeting again for lunch soon. Ran a couple of errands (baby clothes, a bottle of vinegar…) came home, went to the storage room in the cellar to rummage through a trunk that said ‘baby clothes’ on the top, which meant moving a bunch of boxes around (children’s books, pottery), found what I was looking for and a couple of things I wasn’t, came back upstairs. There’s a tunnel from our cellar under the street to the church (6:30 pm, right now all the church bells are ringing), but apparently it stops. At one time apparently many of the cellars in the neighbourhood buildings were linked by such tunnels, all the way to the Seine. A bit creepy, a bit fascinating. I’m always afraid of getting locked down there with the rats and the cockroaches.

Ironed a sheet and a pillowcase, made some applesauce for supper. Going to warm up the broccoli soup I made last night. A head of broccoli goes a long way, especially if one feasts on chocolate in the afternoon.

I’ve been reading Knausgaard’s (sp?) latest. Find it fascinating. So far, don’t agree at all with the critics.

London, Monday morning

I’m sitting in the pocket garden of a maisonette in Hackney. It feels like a Mediterranean village. Laundry is strung across balconies; the sun is out and so are the children, who are on holiday this week. They are playing outside, boys and girls of primary school age, I would guess, different colours and languages, which stands out when their parents or older brothers and sisters call down from balconies or across to friends on other balconies. The soundscape remind me of a village we stayed in in Crete some years ago, up in the hills above Knossos. The house, in the middle of the village, check by jowl with other houses and walled courtyard belonged to the family of friends of friends—but they had built themselves a new house outside the town, where they grew olive trees. In the streets children played, we heard their voices, but couldn’t see them and at night older folks argued in their courtyards until late.

Here the weather is different, but right now, with the kids out of school and the sun shining, and the apartments pressed together, windows and doors open, it feels like that.

Monday noon

Another beautiful, probably very unseasonably warm day. Normally the heat comes on in Paris apartment buildings on October 1—and ours did, because it was cold for a couple of days. But then it warmed up again, so the radiators are turned off, the windows are wide open, and at night people are out late in the streets as if it were summer.

Yesterday—Sunday—afternoon after a bit of translating, I took a book to the Luxembourg Garden and looked for one of the lounge chairs. There are three types of chairs in the Garden (and in the old days, whenever that was, you had to pay to sit in one; someone would come by to collect your money, like the ladies at the entry to the public toilets, les ‘Dames pipi’): straight chairs and armchairs, one like a dining chair and one low slung like a transat. The low-slung lounge chairs fill up pretty quickly on a sunny day, so as I meandered up the west side of the garden, through the different lawn areas I kept my eyes peeled, and as soon as I spotted one I grabbed it, along with a straight chair for my feet (there are always lots of extra straight chairs). A troop of girl scouts were playing on the lawn—which is forbidden—until two guardians came around and shooed them off. After there were some teenagers with teenage music and I decided to try my luck higher up towards the orchard. By then it was late and somewhat overcast, and I had a choice of lounge chairs overlooking the lawn with Baudelaire on it.

The kids’ playground is being done over, so it’s closed, which means that on these beautiful weekends, pre-schoolers are on the loose, instead of being corralled. The guardians were kept busy telling them and their parents where there were some lawns they could play on.

Today they’ll be in nursery school, free from age two in France, nice for working mothers.

I’m reading Knaussgard’s new and final installment to My Struggle. It’s had several so-so reviews, but so far I really like it. I’m 100+ pages into the 1000-word total.

Just back

from a bus ride to the Marais, errands there and a walk back across to my side of the river. The main errand was to the Italian book shop, the Tour de Babel, where the owner speaks to me in Italian and speak back in French with the odd Italian word thrown in, proud that I can understand, if not chatter fluently. I told him what I’d been reading, in Italian, and he allowed as how I must be a halfway decent reader, and pressed a pile of new books on me, recommending one particularly, which I took. Did I like “La Ferrante’ he asked, and I said yes, but I’d read everything. Nevertheless he thought not have read her earlier books, but I assured him I’d one of them three times, and the others once. Oh, he said, I was really hooked.


Went to the hidden garden on the Rue des Rosiers and read All Quiet on the Western Front for a couple of hours (Helene Cixous talks a lot about it in the book I’m translating right now), then home via the bakery and the cheese store. Lovely afternoon.

The (New) Red Wheelbarrow Bookshop, Paris

11 rue Medicis, opposite the Luxembourg Garden, east (Pantheon) side, going up from the Odeon towards the Bd St Michel.


I learned from a writer friend just last week that The Red Wheelbarrow Bookshop had re-opened, now in the 6th arrondissement (rather than the Marais), still in the competent and enthusiastic and welcoming hands of Penelope Fletcher, a fellow Canadian. I popped in yesterday afternoon and met Penelope’s two assistants, Rafael and Renate, busy unpacking books for the poetry shelf, but Penelope herself was off with her books and information about Paris at the American Church’s afternoon for new arrivals in the city.

‘Come back, tomorrow,’ they said, and I will, even if it is raining, unlike yesterday, which was sunny.

So the 6th has a new English Bookshop—welcome, Penelope!


Honestly, the French will never be good capitalists. For one thing, the customer is always wrong.

I was happy to notice yesterday that the shopkeeper on a nearby side street who utterly failed to be impressed by my potentiality as a customer, ushering me out the door when I asked the same question about having some cushions made of the lovely fabrics she was selling, has gone out of business. I knew she wouldn’t last. France is not a nation of shop-keepers, as they like to sneer at the English, but never mind…they may be the most inefficient people in the western world, but they know what is important: esthetics, esthetics, esthetics!

The Noise

A noise, not a sound. A large egg-yolk-yellow bus almost without windows parked under my window. Last night when I went to bed, the parking spaces on the street had been roped off. Some kind of event in the church? A concert? Tonight? The bus’s motor is on and has been on for a couple of hours. There are people grouped around the door of the bus. Is the star inside? I don’t care. I don’t like the noise. I don’t think a bus should be able to idle its bus motor for hours under peoples’ windows.

There is a building in California on the Stanford campus which, at the level of the street-level, ground-floor office windows has a big sign: Drivers! Please turn off your motors! People are trying to work in here!

The thing about noise is that it only bothers me when I feel persecuted by it. If it is unavoidable city noise, I can enjoy it. I do have sound-proof windows, but the rooms behind them feel tight, claustrophobic, airless. I like the breeze on my skin, even the polluted city breeze with its many stinks.