July 27, 2016

Every Frenchman Has One

      ... The concierge, as you  know from all those French novels you've been reading lately, is the elderly lady in the faded black who lives on the ground floor of every French apartment house, and whose duty it is to dust the stairs, stoke the furnace, keep an eye on anyone who enters the building, and keep a rich odor of cooking circulating through the halls. To you, as the tenant, she has another obligation, the most sacred of all, and that is to deliver to you, every single day as you leave the building, her comment on the weather. The comment is always negative.
     If it should be the first day of spring, a fresh fifty-five degrees in the shade, and a morning so glorious and luminous that you are wearing your new spring costume to celebrate it, the concierge will be waiting for you in the foyer to commiserate on the terrible, unbearable heat.
      If, on the other hand, all of France has been suffering from the fiercest drought in five hundred years, if a disastrous water shortage threatens, and the churches are crowded with petitioners for rain, the moment you step upon the doorsill to unfurl your umbrella in joyful greeting of the first, timorous, long-awaited droplet, the concierge interrupts you to remark, 'What a deluge, Madame, what a deluge.'
      Naturally, this prelude to the day's event colors everything that follows, and no matter what good fortune may befall you, enveloped as you are in the gray garment of the concierge's gloom, you take a dismal view.  You may try to circumvent her by escaping from the building without attracting her attention. Here, alas, word impossible can be used with dreadful, hopeless justification, because even though you may live on the fourth floor, the concierge knows the very second you pass through your private portals, and she is waiting for you, already arranged in an attitude of sad lament, by the time you reach the rez de chaussee.
      I know, because for three years I tried every possible ruse to avoid this grievous trial, and for three years I was defeated daily. Our building being without an elevator, the trick was to get down the staircase unobserved.  I tried tiptoeing. Childishly ineffective. I crept down in my stocking feet. A fruitless effort. ... Finally I hit upon the marvelous idea of tying the sheets together and letting myself down through the window. Pierre pulled me back over the sill, pointing out that the line of my descent would take me, fatefully, right past her window. ...
      Craftily, stealthily, I began house-hunting. Secretly, furtively, I whispered to Pierre one afternoon that I'd found just the dwelling we were looking for. Closeted in the hushed dimness of a notaire's office, I signed the documents which gave us possession of a house all for ourselves and all to ourselves. A house, of course, without a concierge.
      Silently, we went about packing our possessions in the apartment, and finally, on a glowing, golden day in June, we gathered up the children and our belongings and descended the stairs to run the gauntlet for the very last time.
      The concierge, of course, awaited us.  And with an absolutely dazzling smile, she said, 'Isn't it a lovely day, Madame -- a lovely, lovely day!'
Oh, this was fun ... a memoir by Olivia de Havilland, who meets her second husband {the editor of Paris Match} at the Cannes film festival and moves to Paris with her three-year-old son. {What every Frenchman has (ahem) is a liver, which he carefully tends and worries about.} It was originally published in 1961,but has just been reprinted in honor of her 100th birthday this year.

Every Frenchman Has One, by Olivia de Havilland
Random House, 1961
Source:  borrowed, Boston Athenaeum

{Photo found on Pinterest.}

1 comment:

Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock said...

What a timely reissue. I do hope that it is available over here too.