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Forty one years ago was the first time I arrived at Rue de la Glacière in Paris 13th district, crossing an old, open metro bridge. Turning right at an old Haussmannian building, a small road called Rue du Champs-de-l’Alouette had a modern building adjacent to it constructed after the Great War. I came here now to focus on apartment number 23.
Nothing had changed. Cafe l’Alouette in front remains more or less the same. My journey in France had started here after I’d arrived at the late scientist Dr Pyne’s laboratory. He didn’t know me, I’d just heard about him. When I landed in Paris mid-November 1973 at the age of 19 with less than the $8 I’d left India with, this most generous man gave me my first shelter and turning point here.
To pay homage to Dr Pyne’s memory, I sat at the cafe to look at the building’s third floor and recall my first three months in Paris when I understood no French, and could never afford to come to this cafe. I ordered my favourite casse-croute (food for breaking hunger), a platter of multi-choice smoked ham and pate with French baguette.
In spite of the overcast 10 degree Celsius weather, people were sitting outdoors as the awning had heaters above to keep the air warm over the tables, a development I’d not seen 41 years ago. While contemplating my third floor mission, some humming voices suddenly reached my ears.
Two women, around 30 and 60 years old respectively, were engaged in an intense conversation. The older woman, recounting her stressful young life, symbolised French social life today. Considering my research habit of eavesdropping on potins (gossip), I could not miss out on this.
A French sociologue had once long ago advised me that to understand French society, I should listen to people talk in coffee shops, hair salons and the park. I’d been lucky earlier that a friend was working at a women’s hair salon near my home, and she’d agreed to cut my hair at a corner of the beauty parlour so I could listen to Parisian potins. Women would openly gossip for hours while getting their hair done.
They unknowingly gave me immense knowledge about French society, which I’d used to induce marketing strategies for different clients.
This kind of gossip makes you aware of economic problems, adultery, social discrepancies, love affairs, new trends, food habits — generally everything about everyday social life and living. Now in Cafe l’Alouette, the elder woman was narrating her personal life kaleidoscope to her young friend: “Electricity bill, water bill, EMI bill, cooking gas bill, house tax, income tax, these are life’s daily burdens. In this country, you just cannot enjoy love and better living without stress. That’s all I’ve seen in my young working years”.
Her husband had left her, so she had to look after their two children. She’d worked as personal secretary to an entrepreneur, maintaining a life and style beyond her means and call of duty. She’d liked her work, but slowly continued…