BY KATHY PERUTZ
The summer of 2003 produced a heat wave like none the Parisians had ever known. Though as it happens (as it did every year) few of them were around when the heat rolled in. It was August, the dead month of the year, Fermeture Annuelle posted on the shuttered shops and the only people left in the quartiers were a scruffy sort , tourists mainly, Americans who didn’t give a second thought to the prevalence of English everywhere, on the streets and in the restaurants in this month when they were given reprieve from having to say so much as “Bonjour” or “Merci.” They were handling the heat pretty well, despite the lack of air conditioning, the New Yorkers who, according to one of their mayors were “practical people, they only believe in air they can see,” and those from the hot spots of Florida or Texas, where summer flings her wildflowers across the state in April and doesn’t decamp for the next several months as the earth grows bare, thirsty and piercingly hot.
On the streets a few clochards, perhaps, were bedding down by the Seine in hopes of catching a breeze, a spray or even a shower of mist as the bateaux mouches sailed around the islands in the river, past Notre Dame and the Île St. Louis (“where you can find Bertillon,” the tour guide informs the passengers, ” the famous ice cream”). As night falls, the spotlights of the cruise ships light up the apartments along the banks, but no one rails against this imposition; the drapes are secured, no light enters. No one is home in such a tony part of Paris in the month of August. An impossibility, a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron like a wise old Texas saying or British cuisine. The residents of the city once known as Lutetia take refuge in their summer homes or travel to exotic places in the South Pacific, to trendy “finds” of the tourist industry, previously unknown island paradises or decaying huts pitched along the steeps of the Himalayas, with all necessary luxuries assured and of course, an excellent chef. The French have always been adventurous in their hedonism, though they are not a people who admire excess, as in August heat or winter blizzards, unless it is happening somewhere else and leads to an international emergency.
In the summer of 2003 the heat was on all over Europe, though France had the worst of it. 15,000 dead. The temperature reached the heat of blood and went higher. 100 degrees, 103.5 for the record. On upper floors all over France, in the garrets and attics even up in the north the heat continued to rise and the old people, condemned to stay home because of their fragility or stubbornness or because the young folks wanted time out, found they couldn’t survive this blast from hell. Air conditioning was not a French sort of solution, not traditional – who had even heard of it a few generations past? – and since France rarely became uncomfortably hot (records kept since 1540 showed nothing to compare to the inferno of 2003) the old folks persisted as they always had, the morning’s dunked croissant or petit pain, the lunchtime meal with wine and a nap, and no one told them to drink water (water?!) or to remain still, lie in cool baths, and so this extraordinary death march continued unimpeded, neither the city nor the towns taking action, the middle-agers with their young off to their accustomed pleasures while the old people burned.
That is no country for old men. The young/In one another’s arms, birds in the trees/–Those dying generations! — at their song. . . – “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats
Maman is dead. The wine is good.
In the vineyards, the grapes ripened so quickly that the annual récolte, the harvest, began weeks earlier than usual; so early that most of it was in before the advent of the traditional return to Paris, known as the Rentrée, a word used for theatergoers returning to their seats after intermission.
Paris is living theater, the cafés and boulevards, the young girls and young men wearing the look of those who know they are being looked at; the peanut vendor shouting his wares, the intellectual who happens to look up from his tome at the instant when a babe walks past his table, the book dropping to the ground with just a split second for his hand to reach down and graze her naked legs (pardon, Mademoiselle!) as she passes, giving him a haughty look but not an unfriendly one.
Paris is and was the city of now, the heat of the moment, youth and impetuosity, a meeting of eyes across the sidewalk tables, followed by a stroll, a kiss, the parting of ways, the moment seized and released, life is a river and that river is the Seine, caressing the City of light, love, of bookstores and oculists, perfumers, hairdressers, wines.
The wine was good. Corpses aside, the vintners gathered their grapes, got rid of the raisins (so soon ripe, these grapes, but not with the sweetness of those gathered after first frost, the grapes of ice wine); and by the time we were back in Burgundy two years later, along the route between Macon and Dijon, where we poured new love into an old marriage, the wines of 2003 were ready for drinking. Not one of the great years of course, not one of those vintages that get memorized by generations to come, but in a small restaurant in Savigny-lès-Beaune the wine was delicious, the young pinot noir having no aspirations to royalty, but so pleasing, so happy that we held hands across the table as we had on our honeymoon (in the photograph that remained on my mother’s desk until she died) and looked deeply into each other’s faces we felt the heat.
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When Germans want to describe how happy they are, how sublimely happy, they say they are “Glücklich wie der Herrgott in Frankreich” – happy as the good Lord in France.
I picture this god as a giant walking astride the vineyards, so tall and so wide that he is everywhere you look, but he is translucent, you see the vineyard through him, a kind of Johnny Appleseed, not sowing seeds but blessing the vines by his presence, blessing them because it is here that he feels at home.
And so do I. And so did Michael. (So did my mother for that matter, not among the vines so much as in Paris, where she exhibited her graphics – she was a good artist – and at the age of 42 took a lover of 21.) We traveled through every part of France, Provence to Picardie, Alsace and Lorraine to the breakers of Brittany, and down among the Pyrenees.
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I’ve often said that the first 40 years of marriage are the toughest; after that, it’s all gravy. It’s only a small exaggeration. Once we had Paris together the “managing” part of marriage gave way to a new sensuous way of being. It wasn’t so much that sex had changed (though of course it had, ça va sans dire, that goes without saying), but that our lives expanded to a broader sensuousness, especially of food and wine, in a country seeped in the traditions of what makes life pleasurable – the senses of touch and smell, beauty in moments captured by the click! of instant memory like a photograph taken but not developed, as I would often do, saying to Michael: look, that old man, the window sill, the cat: a picture! and he nodded and there it was between us, our invisible photo; and also with the persisting assurance that something happy awaited us, a freshly baked baguette, still warm; the sun hitting his glass of Kir on the marble table top and casting an orange shadow beyond it; baby clothes in a shop window, foie gras at Monoprix, le menu (the prix fixe) at one of the great old brasseries along the Boulevard Montparnasse.
We had that together, and then we entered the late summer of our lives, the late summer that is worse than winter because it brings awareness within a happy time of death just outside. It’s the summer that Rilke wrote about in one of his sonnets, saying that when summer ends whoever is alone will always remain so, wandering fitfully through the paths as the leaves churn.
We both became very ill. He died. I continue. It is nearing the end of summer, the world is a hotter place now than it was in 2003, than it was at any time in recorded history. I can no longer bear to see or read the news (the Times gets delivered, but if The Blob is on the front page I turn the paper inside out or just throw away the first section), and the murderous lunacy that brought my parents to America in 1938 has returned, and that “rough beast” of Yeats is slouching towards the unthinkable.