Authors: Nicolas Barreau
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Happiness is a red coat
with a torn lining.
Last year in November a book saved my life. I know that sounds very unlikely now. Many of you may feel I'm exaggeratingâor even being melodramaticâwhen I say so. But that's exactly how it was.
It wasn't that someone had aimed at my heart and the bullet had miraculously been stopped by the pages of a thick, leather-bound edition of Baudelaire's poetry, as so often happens in the movies. I don't lead that exciting a life.
No, my foolish heart had already been wounded. On a day that seemed like any other.
I can remember it exactly. The last guests in the restaurantâa group of rather noisy Americans, a discreet Japanese couple, and two argumentative Frenchmenâwere as always sitting around quite late, and the Americans were licking their lips with lots of “Oohs” and “Aahs” over the
gÃ¢teau au chocolat
After serving the dessert, Suzette had, as always, asked if I still needed her and then rushed happily off. And Jacquie was in his usual bad mood. This time he was worked up about the tourists' eating habits and was rolling his eyes as he clattered the empty plates into the dishwasher.
Ah, les AmÃ©ricains!
about French cuisine,
rien du tout
! They always eat the decoration as wellâwhy do I have to cook for barbarians? I have a good mind to give it all up, it really depresses me!”
He'd taken off his apron and growled his
at me before getting on his old bike and vanishing into the night. Jacquie is a great cook, and I like him a lot, even if he carries his cantankerousness around with him like a pot of bouillabaisse. He was already the chef in Le Temps des Cerises when the little restaurant with the red-and-white-checked tablecloths just off the lively Boulevard Saint-Germain in the Rue Princesse still belonged to my father. My father loved the chanson about the “Cherry Season,” so lovely and over so soonâa life-affirming and at the same time somewhat melancholy song about lovers who find and then lose each other. And although the left wing in France had later adopted this old song as their unofficial anthem, I believe that the real reason Papa gave his restaurant that name had less to do with the memory of the Paris Commune than with some completely personal memories.
This is the place where I grew up, and when I sat in the kitchen after school doing my homework surrounded by the clatter of the pots and pans and a thousand tempting smells, I could be sure that Jacquie would always have a little tidbit for me.
Jacquie, whose name is actually Jacques Auguste Berton, comes from Normandy, where you can look out as far as the horizon, where the air tastes of salt and nothing obstructs one's gaze but the endless wind-tossed sea and the clouds. More than once every day he assures me that he loves looking far out into the distanceâfar out! Sometimes Paris gets too confined and too noisy for him, and then he longs to get back to the coast.
“How can anyone who's ever had the smell of the CÃ´te Fleurie in his nostrils ever feel good in the exhaust fumes of Paris, just tell me that!”
He waves his chef's knife and looks reproachfully at me with his big brown eyes before brushing his dark hair from his forehead, hair that is more and moreâI notice with a little sadnessâflecked with threads of silver.
It was only a few years ago that this burly man with his big hands showed a fourteen-year-old girl with long, dark blond plaits how to make a perfect
. It was the first dish I ever impressed my friends with.
Jacquie is of course not just
chef. As a young man he worked in the famous Ferme Saint-SimÃ©on in Honfleur, the little town on the Atlantic coast with the very special lightâa refuge for painters and artists. “It had a lot more style then, my dear AurÃ©lie.”
Yet no matter how much Jacquie grumbles, I smile inwardly, because I know he would never leave me in the lurch. And that's how it was that evening last November, when the sky over Paris was as white as milk and people hurried through the streets wrapped up in thick woolen scarves. A November that was so much colder than all the others I had experienced in Paris. Or did it just seem like that to me?
A few weeks earlier my father had died. Just like that, without any warning, his heart had one day decided to stop beating. Jacquie found him when he opened the restaurant in the afternoon.
Papa was lying peacefully on the floorâsurrounded by fresh vegetables, legs of lamb, scallops, and herbs that he had bought at the market that morning.
He left me his restaurant, the recipe for his famous
with which he claimed to have won the love of my mother many years before (she died when I was still very small and so I'll never know if he was pulling my leg), and a few wise bits of advice about life. He was sixty-eight years old, and I found that far too early. But people you love always die too early, don't they, no matter what age they live to?
“Years don't mean anything. Only what happens in them,” my father once said as he laid roses on my mother's grave.
And whenâa little nervous but still resoluteâI followed in his footsteps as a restaurateur that autumn, the realization that I was now quite alone in the world hit me very hard.
Thank God I had Claude. He worked in the theater as a set designer, and the massive desk that stood under the window in his little attic apartment in the Bastille quarter was always overflowing with drawings and little cardboard models. When he was working on a major job, he would sometimes go to ground for a few days. “I'm not available next week,” he would say, and I had to get used to the fact that he actually refused to answer the phone or open the door even when I was ringing his bell like mad. A short time later he was back as if nothing had happened. He appeared in the sky like a rainbowâbeautiful and unattainableâkissed me boldly on the lips, and called me
while the sun played hide-and-seek in his golden blond curls.
Then he took me by the hand and led me off to present his designs to me with gleaming eyes.
I wasn't allowed to say anything.
When I'd only known Claude for a few months I'd once made the mistake of expressing my opinion openly and, my head to one side, thinking aloud about what might be improved. Claude had stared at me, aghast. His watery blue eyes seemed almost to overflow, and with a single violent movement of his hand he swept his desk clean. Paints, pencils, sheets of paper, glasses, brushes, and little pieces of cardboard flew through the air like confetti and the delicate model of his set for Shakespeare's
Midsummer Night's Dream,
which he'd spent so much effort producing, was broken into a thousand pieces.
After that I kept my critical remarks to myself.
Claude was very impulsive, very changeable in his moods, very tender, and very special. Everything about him was “very,” there seemed to be no well-balanced middle ground.
We'd been together about two years by then, and it would never have entered my mind to question my relationship with this complicated and very idiosyncratic man. If you consider it closely, we all have our complications, sensitive spots, and quirks. There are things we do or things we would never doâor only in very special circumstances. Things that make other people laugh and shake their heads and wonder.
Peculiar things that are ours and ours alone.
For example, I collect thoughts. In my bedroom there's a wall covered with brightly colored notes full of thoughts that I've preserved so that, fleeting as they are, they won't be lost to me. Thoughts about conversations overheard in cafÃ©s, about rituals and why they are so important, thoughts about kisses in the park at night, about the heart and hotel rooms, about hands, garden benches, photos, secretsâand when to reveal themâabout the light in the trees and about time when it stands still.
My little notes stick to the bright wallpaper like tropical butterflies, captured moments that serve no purpose but to be near me, and when I open the balcony door and a light draft blows through the room they flutter a little, as if they want to fly away.
“What on earth is
?” Claude had raised his eyebrows in disbelief when he first saw my butterfly collection. He came to a halt by the wall and read some of the notes with interest. “Are you going to write a book?”
I blushed and shook my head.
“Good gracious, no! I do itâ¦” I had to think for a moment myself, but couldn't find a really convincing explanation. “â¦ you know, I just do it. No reason. Like other people take photos.”
“Could it be that you are a little weird,
?” Claude had asked, and then he had thrust his hand up my skirt. “But that doesn't matter, not in the slightest, because I'm a little bit crazy tooâ¦” He brushed his lips over my neck and I suddenly felt quite hot. “â¦ crazy for you.”
A few minutes later we were lying on the bed, my hair wonderfully disheveled, the sun shining through the curtains and painting little quivering circles on the wooden floor, and I could subsequently have stuck another note on the wall about
love in the afternoon
. But I didn't.
Claude was hungry, and I made us omelettes, and he said that a girl who made omelettes like that could be allowed any quirks she liked. So here's something else:
Whenever I'm unhappy or uneasy, I go out and buy some flowers. Of course, I also like flowers when I'm happy, but on days when everything goes wrong flowers are for me like the start of a new regime, something that is always perfect no matter what happens.
I put a couple of campanulas in a vase, and I feel better. I plant flowers on my old stone balcony that looks out over the courtyard and immediately have the satisfying feeling of doing something quite meaningful. I lose myself in unwrapping the plants from the old newspaper, carefully taking them out of their plastic containers and putting them in the pots. When I stick my fingers into the damp earth and root around in it, everything becomes absolutely simple and I lose all my cares in cascades of roses, hydrangeas, and wisteria.
I don't like change in my life. I always take the same route when I walk to work; I have a very particular bench in the Tuileries, which I secretly think of as my bench.
And I would never turn around on a staircase in the dark because of the creepy feeling that there might be something lurking behind me that would attack me if I turned round.
By the way, I've never told anyone the bit about the stairsânot even Claude. I don't think he was telling me everything at that time either.
During the day we both went our own ways. I was never quite sure what Claude did in the evenings when I was working in the restaurant. Perhaps I just didn't want to know. But at night, when loneliness descended over Paris, when the last bars had closed and only a few night owls walked shivering on the streets, I lay in his arms and felt safe.