Poodleland: Cafe Tourville and the American Church in Paris
The Café Tourville is just across from the Ecole Militaire, the French army academy where Napoleon trained as a young and obscure officer. The café has become my caffeine stop following a meandering stroll with Oscar and Leo that usually ends on the Champ de Mars. The terrace offers a wide vista of several boulevards converging on one place – an animated Impressionist tableau of the morning Parisian bustle going by in a blur of colour and hurried movements. When I look up, I can see the tip of the Eiffel Tower peeking over a row of burnished Second Empire façades.
On our way here I stopped at a kiosk to buy two London papers, outrageously over-priced in France. As a former journalist I am stubbornly loyal to old habits, tearing through the news and gossip from Perfidious Albion while gulping down my coffee. Oscar and Leo usually attract adoring gasps from women tourists passing by in clunky footwear and clutching green Michelin guides. Sometimes they stop and smile – never at me, always at Oscar and Leo. They frequently mistake them for poodles. Understandable, I suppose, bichons are cousins of the caniche. Their more ardent admirers ask their names and want to know how I tell them apart. They do look identical and occasionally I have to do a quick double take, especially when their coats are thick. But I can usually tell them apart. Oscar is sturdier with a rounder face and he ambulates in merry bounces with his head always up and perky. Leo is slightly leaner, has longer legs, and moves with a vaguely feline gait with his head down.
I ordered my coffee and plunged into a Daily Telegraph story about former French president Jacques Chirac. Or rather, about his bichon called Sumo. Stories about bichons always grab my attention. This one was bizarre, almost incredible. Chirac had been having troubles with little Sumo since leaving office in 2007. During the years when Chirac was running the country from the Elysée Palace, Sumo gambolled freely in the vast presidential gardens. But when Chirac left office and moved into a luxurious apartment on the Quai Voltaire, it seems Sumo took the social demotion rather badly. Bouts of canine anxiety followed. Chirac and his wife Bernadette put Sumo on anti-depressants, but the meds proved futile. Sumo’s behaviour grew increasingly unpredictable. One night Sumo viciously attacked the former French head of state, biting him on the stomach. Bleeding profusely, Chirac was rushed to hospital for emergency medical treatment. According to the newspaper, Sumo has since been rusticated to a comfortable exile in the French countryside to spend the remainder of his dog days on a farm owned by Chirac family friends.
I turned to find my waiter, but he was nowhere in sight. Café waiters in Paris are never around when you need them. Mine had brought me a café noir instead of a café crème. In Paris if you order just a “café”, you will be served a dark, syrupy café noir in a small cup. But I hadn’t ordered a “café”. I had explicitly asked for a “crème”. Properly served, a crème consists of good strong black coffee in a large bowl with warm frothy milk served on the side.
To hell with it, I thought, I’ll just drink this black sludge. I put down my copy of the Telegraph to take a tentative gulp. It was the same thin, harsh syrup I used to savour enthusiastically during my student days in Paris. I never questioned the poor quality of Parisian coffee in those days. I was too immersed in the magic of the moment. Any coffee was a sacred elixir that performed a cultural transubstantiation of affirming my intimate connection with Paris. I had learnt, almost by intuition, that French culture loses its attraction when measured by tiresome pragmatic things like customer service. I happily measured out my life with countless coffee spoons rattling inside small, over-priced cups of espresso.
Paris was a fabulous place in the 1980s and I had plenty of free time to enjoy it. Taking a degree in political science and writing the odd newspaper column for foreign papers felt almost like a bonus. In those days the French were still buying things with francs, Parisian cafés still wafted with thick cigarette smoke, and the Champs-Elysées had not yet turned into a vulgar shopping strip cluttered with souvenir shops and fast-food outlets. The Louvre was a vast construction site as a glass pyramid rose up in the baroque courtyard. In certain Parisian arrondissements you could still see the odd pissotières urinals – also called vespasiennes – though those relics would vanish before the decade was out. In cafés and restaurants men and women casually used the same loos – a startling experience for a naive Anglo-Saxon student. In the streets Parisian girls were boldly sexual in lacy tights and high heels, uninhibited about making coquettish eye contact. French men wore smart blazers, pastel sweaters and jaunty neck scarves tossed dashingly over their shoulders. It seemed like every adult male in Paris, with a thick mèche falling jauntily on his forehead, was a character in a French nouvelle vague film.
I played a minor role in this cinematic experience by showing up every morning at the Café de la Mairie in the Place Saint-Sulpice. Seated across the room from chatty Parisian girls, I gulped down my café noir while admiring with stolen glances their coquettish gestures, feeling a twinge of jealously when their smartly dressed Parisian boyfriends came careening into view on buzzing Vespa scooters. I watched with detached awe the ritual of their kiss-on-the-cheek bisous greetings. The Parisian multiple kiss seemed exotic and inaccessible to me. Was it two kisses or three? I was certain I’d even seen four, but I couldn’t be sure. It was a fascinating mystery and I was strangely thrilled to be close to it.
One of my neighbours in rue des Saints-Pères was the legendary French film star Jean-Paul Belmondo, who was fixed in my mind as the charming small-time criminal swaggering up the Champs Elysées with Jean Seberg in the black-and-white classic, Breathless. Now Belmondo, much older, was a regular fixture in my Parisian neighbourhood. I used to see him carrying his little Yorkie in one arm. He got into the habit of greeting me with a quick nod and wink as we passed each other on the pavement. Another French pop culture legend, Serge Gainsbourg, lived just across the road. At the time Gainsbourg was plunged into his final, tragic alcoholic spiral. I knew he was my neighbour, and sometimes wondered if I’d bump into him, but I never did. The night he died alone at home, only a hundred yards from my door, I was in bed reading Guy de Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. I learned about his death on the radio that night. When I got up and went outside, his shocked fans were already gathering at the end of the street. A few days later, Gainsbourg was buried in the Montparnasse cemetery, not far from Baudelaire.
Occasionally I come across old photos from those days – passport pictures and snaps taken at parties circa 1988. I’m always astounded at how boyish, slender and preppy I looked. In middle age most of us retreat into a narcissistic denial about the ravages of time, but photographs never lie. Neither does the mirror. When I look at myself today, compared with the tweedy youth in those photos, the realisation is despairing. When I catch glimpses of myself in Parisian shop windows, I’m alarmed by the stranger glancing back: a stout, pale, fleshy-faced figure, a Max Beerbohm caricature in a large overcoat. Could it really be me? The shattered vanity of self-recognition.
Recently I dropped into the newsagent in the rue des Saints-Pères where I used to buy the papers most mornings. I’d already walked by a few times and was fascinated to see that the same two ladies were still keeping the shop, moving busily behind the counter, serving customers. Everything was exactly the same as it had been twenty-five years earlier – except the headlines on the newspapers. And of course the two ladies. I had once thought they were dowdy spinsters, perhaps a lesbian couple, not realising that they were in fact quite young. Decades later they had aged into pale and white-haired old ladies. For some reason I desperately wanted to see if these two old hens would recognise me after all these years. I wanted to know if some vestige of the young man I once was still perceptibly existed. At one time, these streets had been my home. And these two French ladies had played a small role in my daily routines.
When I nervously stepped into their tiny shop, there were no other customers. For a few seconds I found myself all alone. Then suddenly I heard a muffled stirring – and both ladies came out together, as if to intercept an intruder. They inspected me warily, waiting for me to speak.
“Bonjour Monsieur,” one of them said finally.
I smiled warmly and held their eyes, looking for a flicker of recognition. There was none. I picked up a weekly magazine, paid for it, awkwardly muttered a platitude in French, and lurched outside feeling defeated and depressed.
My waiter finally returned to my table on the Café Tourville terrace, performing a pirouette while balancing his tray on one hand before sliding the addition under my cup saucer. I made no mention of his mistake about the coffee. On our way back to my flat we were going down rue de Cler, the fashionable market street in Poodleland, when a small elderly lady walking a little Cairn approached us. She was obviously well to do, dressed in a beige raincoat with silk scarf around her neck. I noticed immediately that she was gazing at Oscar and Leo, following their movements with wonder as they raced forward to greet her little dog.
“Bonjour Madame,” I said.
“Bonjour Monsieur,” she said in a barely audible voice. “Such beautiful little dogs.”
“Yes, they’re a full-time job,” I said. I asked her dog’s name. She replied, “Annie”.
“I once had a little bichon,” she added with faint sadness. “She was just like your little toutous. Oh how I adored that dog. After she was gone I was so terribly sad. You can’t imagine.”
I didn’t quite know what to say. It’s always awkward when someone recalls the recent loss of a beloved pet.
“What was your little dog’s name?” I said.
“Mimi,” she replied. “She was run over by a car on avenue Bosquet, just round the corner there.”
She pointed with a frail hand just across the way.
My God, I thought, poor little Mimi. Parisian drivers, so bloody reckless. I never trust drivers in Paris when walking Oscar and Leo. I always keep them on a tight leash when we’re on the pavement – and well clear of the kerb when we’re crossing the road. Sometimes I pick them up, one in each arm. Never expect Parisian drivers to slow down or stop for you. They won’t.
“How long have you been without Mimi?” I enquired, careful to avoid the words “die” or “death”.
“Oh let me see now,” she replied. And then after a pause, she said: “It was in 1937.”
Her answer stunned me.
“Goodness, that was an awfully long time ago, you must have loved that little dog,” I said.
“I was a little girl,” she said. “I grew up on avenue Bosquet, just round the corner. I’m eighty-six now, still living in the same apartment. It was my family home. All alone now. Just me and Annie here.”
My God, I thought, this little old lady was recalling the memory of a pet that had been dead for more than seventy years – before the Second World War!
Living next to the neo-gothic American Church of Paris was a reassuring aspect of my new life in Poodleland. That’s how I’d once read the 7th arrondissement described: Poodleland. An uncharitable reference to these upper-crust Parisian precincts where rich ladies can be seen primly walking their well-coiffured little dogs down the wide and prosperous boulevards.
What could be less stressful, I thought, than living across the road from a church?
True enough, but there were a few surprises. My estate agent Michel had conveniently neglected to mention that, every morning, the street corner directly under my window is transformed into a cacophony of loud chatter, frantic movement, screaming children and car horn blasts. On weekdays just before nine o’clock, a stream of expat yummy mummies arrive in their gleaming BMWs and Mercedes. They pull up at the corner, park illegally with the motor running, jump out and quickly fetch their offspring strapped to the back seat, then hurriedly march the toddler down the pavement. The American Church, I quickly discovered, rents itself out to a number of organisations including the Montessori School. During the day it’s more a primary school than a church. I stand at my window gulping a coffee while watching the daily ritual of attractive, pony-tailed mothers in tight-fitting leggings rushing their pampered tots into the church. And every morning, inevitably, a large truck rumbles down the narrow road to find itself blocked by a bouchon of illegally parked yummy-mummy vehicles. That’s when the impatient horn blasts begin. A few minutes later, a young mother rushes out on her tiptoes waving her car keys apologetically, then jumps back into her SUV and roars off to keep an appointment with her tennis coach. I am witness to a variation of this little drama almost every morning.
The American Church has another, non-spiritual, revenue stream renting itself out as a Parisian backdrop for Japanese weddings. Rarely an afternoon goes by when I don’t look out my window and witness a porcelain-skinned Japanese bride descending delicately from an immense limousine. A clutch of hired photographers and videographers hover around the elaborately staged scene, crouching, coming in close to get the perfect wedding snap as the bride takes the hand of her groom fitted awkwardly into a grey swallow-tailed tuxedo. An American Church minister is usually on the pavement in full ecclesiastic regalia, clasping his hands in a prayer-like gesture as the happy couple step forward. A Japanese interpreter provides instantaneous translation for the bizarre spectacle of bowing motions.
I’m told these elaborate ceremonies are not actually weddings properly speaking. The reason is a French bureaucratic snag. In France foreigners must meet a 40-day residency requirement to be legally married in this country. That presents a logistical problem for the Japanese couples who come to Paris to get “married”. They’re on a whirlwind romantic weekend following their traditional wedding in Japan. They can’t camp out at the George V Hotel for forty days. To get around these legal obstacles, the American Church weddings are designated as “blessing” ceremonies. The church minister in clerical robes is really just a ceremonial prop. But it’s big business. These romantically choreographed nuptials in Paris are part of a booming industry in Japan known as “wedding tourism”. The product is the fantasy of an exotic marriage ceremony in the world’s most romantic city. The cost can be more than €4,000.
The American Church performs more than 200 of these “blessings” every year. And it seems I’m around for just about every one of them, blessed with a front-row seat in my sitting room. Sometimes I walk straight into these well-orchestrated rituals when leaving my building with Oscar and Leo. A brief instant of awkwardness ensues as Japanese faces turn toward two fluffy white bichons. For an instant Oscar and Leo are the star attraction, not the bride and groom. Frozen smiles are exchanged. The porcelain-doll Japanese bride bows graciously toward Oscar and Leo. Occasionally the photographer moves closer and takes a picture of the dogs. I give a little wave, absurdly, and we continue moving up the road. I have sometimes wondered how many Japanese wedding albums feature photos of Oscar and Leo.
Walking two small white dogs in Poodleland has other minor inconveniences. One of them is that tourists, often wrestling with unwieldy maps, identify you as a reliable source of practical information. I am constantly approached by lost tourists looking like bewildered pilgrims. I am now so accustomed to their queries that I usually can anticipate their questions.
The most frequently asked is: “Where is the Eiffel Tower?” Sometimes I have only to look up, point, and say: “There it is.” They look at me, embarrassed but grateful, thank me in broken English and then smile at Oscar and Leo.
The second most frequently asked question is where they can find the Alma Bridge. In most instances, as with the Eiffel Tower, I have only to point and say, “It’s right there.” The Pont de l’Alma is famous for two reasons. First, the 19th century statue of the French infantry “Zouave” soldier under the bridge has become an unofficial measure of the Seine’s water levels. Paris weather forecasters on television often mention the Zouave when the water level is high. When the water touches the Zouave’s feet, the Seine’s banks risk overflowing. During the catastrophic Paris floods of 1910 the water reached the statue’s shoulders. The second reason for the bridge’s notoriety is Princess Diana. She was killed in the Alma underpass tunnel in 1997. The tourists who ask me where they can find the Alma Bridge are usually looking for the spot where Diana was killed.
Magic City was an American-style amusement park built in 1900 as part of the Exposition Universelle that attracted millions of visitors that year to its magnificent pavilions decorating a vast section of Paris running from the Eiffel Tower to the Invalides. Magic City was a “parc d’attraction” enclave, a world within a world, constructed at the base of the Alma Bridge. Local historians tell us that Magic City stretched from 67 to 91 Quai d’Orsay along the Seine. I live on Quai d’Orsay and my building is within that range of addresses. Magic City was just outside my front door. Why they chose the English name “Magic City” I don’t know, perhaps because it was inspired by American-style amusement parks on Coney Island, New York. But it was called Magic City, in English. I’ve seen an old photograph of the arched entrance at the foot of avenue Bosquet, just down the road from my building, and the words “Magic City” are clearly visible.
Built by Ernest Cognacq, the rich owner of the Samaritaine department store, Magic City featured all the usual theme park attractions – everything from roller coasters and water slides to more novel fin de siècle curiosities such as moving sidewalks and a mini railway. The theme park was eventually torn down and nothing remains today, but we have photos of most of its attractions thanks to Belle Époque postcards showing middle-class Parisians enjoying the distractions of modern technology. The moving sidewalk was evidently fascinating. I’ve even seen a short piece of film footage from 1900 showing Parisians taking tremendous delight in the banal gesture of hopping on and off, sometimes losing their balance.
The most popular Magic City attraction was a large ballroom where Parisians came to dance to orchestra music. By the “Années Folles” in the 1920s it had become popular with the Parisian gay scene. Particularly notorious were the Magic City “drag balls” held on Mardi Gras. The photographer Brassai took many pictures of these transvestite soirées showing a dance floor crowded with drag queens clutching their muscular male partners. The ballroom was shut down by French authorities in 1934.
Magic City had a curious epilogue. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, Hitler came through Poodleland on his way to pay homage to Napoleon’s remains at the Invalides. The German army meanwhile requisitioned the old Magic City ballroom, which had been shut down years before and was lying in cobwebbed abandon. After the war France’s state-owned television network moved into the same building and used the old ballroom stage as a TV studio. For decades, the French public television network was operating out of the old Magic City dance hall that had been a gay nightclub during the Roaring Twenties. Today France’s public TV networks have moved elsewhere, but the old building is still there. Fittingly, the address is rue Cognacq-Jay, named after the same rich Parisian who built Magic City in 1900.
Today the legacy of Magic City has passed into oblivion. My bourgeois neighbours have never heard of it. Nothing remains of Magic City to remind them. Virtually everything was razed to make way for the Art Deco-style residential buildings whose bourgeois residents today would be mildly shocked to discover that they are living on the ruins of a place once infamous for nocturnal Parisian vice. I walk Oscar and Leo up and down rue Cognacq-Jay every day. It’s just around the corner – the last vestige of the extravagant amusement park that, a hidden secret, is confined to Poodleland’s long-forgotten archives.
On sunny days I take Oscar and Leo across Alma Bridge to the other side of the Seine – the side famous for Princess Diana’s tragedy. We often lie on the patch of grass directly over the Alma tunnel where Diana was killed. Young women who work in the nearby offices go there at lunch hour to stretch out in the sun amongst the flowers surrounding a small statue of a reclining nude inscribed “La Seine”. Across the intersection a clutch of tourists can always be seen gathered around the gold Flame of Liberty, which many believe is a memorial to Diana. In truth, the gold flame statue – a replica of the torch carried aloft by the Statue of Liberty – was a gift to the City of Paris made in 1989 by the International Herald Tribune newspaper. It was there eight years before Diana’s death.
As we continue on our walk to the Champs de Mars, Oscar and Leo know exactly where they’re going. They have an instinctive Poodleland guiding system that directs me down precisely the same configuration of streets each time. First they drag me up avenue Bosquet, then they turn down a small street called rue Edmond-Valentin which offers a breath-taking vista of the Eiffel Tower. The novelist James Joyce lived on this tiny street – at 7 rue Edmond-Valentin – in the 1930s toward the end of his life. Joyce had a taste for the quiet bourgeois precincts of the Poodleland. A decade earlier, circa 1925 when Magic City was in full swing, Joyce occupied another comfortably bourgeois apartment just up the road at 2 Square de Robiac. There is no plaque on either building commemorating the presence of their illustrious tenant. I’ve seen plaques on Poodleland façades for obscure Polish poets and forgotten Bolivian revolutionaries. But James Joyce doesn’t merit one.
Our walks toward the Invalides offer a Belle Époque promenade through the architectural remains of the Exposition Universelle. The 1900 world fair in Paris was the first international showcase of the Art Nouveau style. It was at that event that marvels such as the escalator and talking films were unveiled, and where Oscar Wilde evidently recited a verse from his poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” on a sound recording machine. Campbell’s Soup also made its debut at the event. Most of the edifices constructed for the Exposition Universelle were torn down almost immediately after the event, including the row of national pavilions running along the banks of the Seine. Photographs of those edifices, most made of lightweight jute fibre and cement, show a magnificent burst of ornate wedding-cake buildings, almost Disneyland-like in their extravagance. Some of the Exposition Universelle structures still stand, such as the Grand Palais on the Right Bank and the Musée d’Orsay (then a rail station) farther down on the Left Bank. The Alexandre III bridge, lined with Art Nouveau lamps and statues of nymphs and cherubs along the rails, is another spectacular vestige of the 1900 world fair.
At the corner of Quai d’Orsay and Boulevard de La Tour-Maubourg, only a hundred yards from my door, stands one of my favourite buildings in Poodleland. It’s the hotel particular owned by the famous dandy, count Robert de Montesquiou-Fézensac. Perhaps the most celebrated aesthete of his epoch, Montesquiou was the eccentric and homosexual aristocratic on whom Marcel Proust modelled the Baron de Charlus character in his literary masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu. I often walk by Montesquiou’s residence with Oscar and Leo: it’s a splendid tribute to the Belle Époque following the modern monstrosities built along the boulevard more recently – notably the grotesquely ugly South African embassy, still a bomb-proof bunker decades after the end of the apartheid regime. Sadly, a similar fate has befallen a portion of Montesquiou’s residence, which was built in 1858 during the Second Empire. One wing was knocked down and modernised. Today it’s occupied by a Chinese Cultural Centre. If you look closely, however, you can see a laureled “M” engraved in the stone above the ornate windows.
More than a century later, Poodleland is the victim of its privileged location and outward prosperity. The neighbourhood is cluttered with mendicants, homeless people, gypsies, petty thieves and organised bandits seeking to profit – some through pity, others through ploys – from the wealth of the local residents. It’s impossible to walk down the rue Saint-Dominique without passing gypsy beggars on the pavement, usually positioned next to cash machines or outside the Saint-Pierre-du-Gros-Caillou church. In the evening when grocery store bins are put out, homeless scavengers can be seen rummaging like bone-grubbers through garbage bags to find packages of expired food. I watch my bourgeois neighbours pass stiffly by these scenes of human desperation. Occasionally I see a bourgeois Parisian lady leaning down to speak to a ragged old woman huddled on the pavement, and then reaching into her bag to pull out a few coins.
I have my own quirky method of showing compassion toward the needy. When I go to my gym in Montparnasse I come across the same pale old woman crouched in a doorway holding a small cup. Despite her obvious poverty, she looks like an ordinary French woman who perhaps once was a wife and mother. One can’t help wondering what terrible event pushed her into such desperation. I have never had the courage to ask her for her life story, but I sometimes stop to give her a few euros.
Closer to home I’ve taken a personal interest in a French hobo and his aged black poodle. Like the women in the Montparnasse doorway, this poor chap looks like an ordinary Frenchman, perhaps forty years old, fallen on hard times and given to drink, but clearly devoted to his beloved dog. One day I stopped to ask the poor man his dog’s name.
“Boulie,” he said. “He’s fifteen years old. Almost blind, but still healthy.”
His elocution in French was perfectly acceptable and I could see in his eyes that he’d once known a normal, decent existence. He and Boulie became regular fixtures in Poodleland as I took Oscar and Leo out for walks. I began handing him coins, always stopping to chat and caress Boulie. One day I asked him how long he’d been living in the street.
“Eight years,” he said. “Divorce. I lost everything. Except Boulie.”
Boulie desperately needed a grooming, the poor dog hadn’t had his hair cut for months, perhaps longer. He was the shaggiest poodle in Poodleland. Boulie also needed to see a vet. So I proposed a deal: I gave him forty euros on the condition that the money was used to pay for Boulie’s grooming. And I told him to take Boulie to my vet in rue Saint-Dominique and give my name. I would tell the vet he was coming and I would cover the bills.
The poor man looked at me in disbelief.
“Remember,” I said, handing him the money, “this is for Boulie, get him groomed. I want to see him with a haircut the next time I see you.”
“No worries,” he replied, taking the bills from my hand.
He was good to his word: the next time I saw them, Boulie had a haircut. And he’d been to see the vet. Still blind, but healthier and happier. Thus I became the unofficial godfather of Boulie the near-blind fifteen-year-old black poodle.
The homeless people and beggars in Poodleland are generally harmless. The same cannot be said of the Romanian gypsies – or “Roms” as they are called. There is no gentle way to put it, the Roms are despised in France as a foreign, nomadic sub-class whose main employ is begging and thievery. The presence of Roms in France, as in many other European countries, is the subject of heated political debate. Hard-line conservatives want them deported, while left-leaning liberals argue that they should be integrated into French society. But integration isn’t easy. Roms live in shantytown encampments on the outskirts of French towns and most do not send their children to schools. In Paris, Rom women panhandle in the streets, while teenage gypsy girls move in packs on the Champs de Mars and other popular spots to pester tourists for money on the pretext of signing a “petition” for non-existent causes. Rom boys work as pickpockets in the Métro and furtively snatch smartphones lying on tables in Starbucks and McDonald’s. Rom men, meanwhile, are engaged in more serious forms of swindle and larceny. They sometimes pass themselves off as workmen from the French electricity utility to enter the apartments of rich ladies, and once inside pilfer their expensive jewellery.
I have been cautioned by neighbours never to provoke the Roms with rebuke, for they can sometimes be aggressive. According to a Poodleland neighbour, a lady was recently walking her dog along the Seine when accosted by a Rom. When she upbraided the gypsy beggar, he grabbed her puppy and tossed it into the river. What happened to the little dog, I do not know.
Some time ago a group of Rom women started trafficking Yorkie puppies right on the esplanade along the Seine in front of my place. The first reaction amongst my bourgeois neighbours was disbelief that turned to indignation and anger. The police were eventually called. I happened to be walking Oscar and Leo down the Quai d’Orsay when two police vans pulled up and several policemen swooped down to arrest two gypsy women caught with more than a dozen puppies stuffed into suffocating sacks and bags. They were flogging these little dogs in the park like trinkets. I looked on, astonished, as two female policemen loaded their van with several bags filled with of yapping puppies. Their male colleagues were putting handcuffs on the two gypsy women.
Not long ago I bumped into a pleasant American lady walking her little white dog in front of the Invalides. There is tacit “Small White Dog” rule in Poodleland according to which you are allowed to approach and converse with anyone who is also walking a small white dog. In this case, I had two small white dogs and she had one, a Coton de Tuléar. The Small White Dog rule definitely applied.
Her name was Margaret, a tiny sparrow-like American lady of perhaps fifty-five or sixty. Her little dog was called Suzie. Married to a French businessman, Margaret had been living in Paris for more than thirty years and had raised her children here. She lived just across the road from the Invalides near rue de Grenelle, not far from novelist Edith Wharton’s address in Paris a century ago.
We walked together in front of the dry moat in the sights of the old Prussian canons while Oscar and Leo played with Suzie. The promenade in front of the Invalides is majestic. Even from a distance you can see an equestrian statue of Louis XIV above the Invalides’ enormous portico. The inscription refers explicitly to the Sun King: “Ludovicus magnus militibus regali munificentia in perpetuum providens has aedes posuit. An MDCLXXV”. The canons thrusting out, some oxidised green with the passage of centuries, were seized from Austrian and Turkish armies. They bear the inscription ultima ratio regum: “the final argument of kings”.
As we strolled past these relics of distant wars, Margaret mentioned that she’d recently been mugged by a Rom who snatched her smartphone.
“No!” I protested.
“Yes, it was in broad daylight,” she said. “I was sitting on a park bench checking my emails. I put the phone down on the bench to pick up Suzie – and suddenly he just grabbed it. I took hold of him and fought back, but he threw me to the ground and ran away. I was screaming and shouting and crying. It was a horrifying experience. I couldn’t believe it. I was traumatised for weeks.”
I told her the story about the gypsy puppy-trafficking ring on the esplanade. She shared with me another story, this one about a group of Roms who had broken into her building and penetrated the basement caves where the residents stored valuable possessions.
“They smashed every padlock on every cave and took everything of value,” she said. “Some of our neighbours lost expensive paintings and Louis XV chairs. Fortunately they only got our wine collection. All of it.”
After that shock, Margaret decided to take pro-active measures to protect herself – literally. She enrolled in “Krav Maga” self-defence classes to learn counter-attack street-fighting skills. I’d never heard of Krav Magna. At first I thought Margaret couldn’t possibly be serious. But she was deadly serious.
“I’m never going to let myself be attacked like that again,” she said. “Krav Maga techniques are used by the Israeli army. They give you the skills to fight off attackers and inflict serious injury on them.”
Given Margaret’s tiny size, I wondered if Krav Maga techniques, even if mastered, could help her fight off a much larger attacker. She was a believer, however, and encouraged me to sign up for the same Krav Maga course. I was intrigued, but non-committal.
“Where do they take place?” I asked
“At the American Church,” she said.
For some reason, I wasn’t surprised.
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