Night is slowly permeating the evening sky in Place André Malraux. The rain has eased into a steady drizzle and the yellow street lamps have come on. The air is imbued with car exhaust fumes and roast chestnuts. A smell of autumn in Paris. The sound of traffic plays against the background of a gurgling fountain in the middle of the square and the wind rustling the brown leaves on the trees.
The queue under the colonnade of the Comédie Française is stretching all to the theatre shop. We are all waiting for the box office on the side of the building to open and release the €5 tickets for the restricted view seats an hour before the show. Molière's Les Fourberies de Scapin. €5 for a performance by one of the top theatre companies in the country. Like hell would you get this in London, no matter what the view or the altitude.
In front of us, stand two children. The boy must be about ten, his sister a couple of years younger. Their mother is standing a few feet away, leaning against a pillar, smoking a cigarette. She expels the smoke into the square, and darts regular, vigilant glances at her offspring. The boy is reading aloud from a dog-eared, folded back copy of Les Fourberies de Scapin while his little sister listens intently. He tells her the names of the characters before reading their lines, and occasionally pushes his blue-frames glasses back on his nose. Occasionally, he trips over a word and goes back to it, re-reading it until he gets it right. Every so often, his sister asks for an explanation. Why does he say that? What does it mean? Her blue eyes are filled with admiration but her tone is that of a challenge. Her brother explains. A mixture of patience and irritation.
He comes across a series of difficult words. Too many in a row. He tries to tackle them but it's hard work. He knows he's done very well up to now and there's no shame to walk to the pillar and ask his mother. She throws down her cigarette butt, blows out the last of the smoke and takes the book from his hand. She reads the sentence and explains it. She comes back to stand in the queue and takes over the reading shift. All three sit on the pavement by the wall and she slowly reads aloud. Her son listens but his attention occasionally wanders as his eyes follow cars and passers-by. His sister has huddled against their mother, head on her shoulder, staring at the printed page. Every so often she smooths her pony tail. Three ash-blonde heads close together, reading and listening to Molière.
When restlessness disrupts the reading, and the siblings clearly need some physical exercise after the mental culture, horseplay starts. There is some kicking and shouting. Stop that now. You're disturbing everybody. The mother hands them paper and pen and sends them on a mission: to write down the names of all the playwrights whose profiles are displayed in medallions on the walls of the Comédie Française building. They are excited by this new venture and set off immediately, arguing about who is going to write the names down.
A few minutes later, they're back with a list. Their mother asks them to read it out. Jean Racine. Pierre Corneille. JBP – Molière.
So what does JBP stand for?
Yes. Jean and what else?
And the P?
No, no, it's Patrick!
Poquelin. Molière's real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin.
There is not much appetite for running around anymore, and the box office is about to open. The mother opens the dog-eared book again.
The crescent of a new moon is slowly emerging through the darkening sky. A pale silver at first, now with a bright, almost golden glow. A waxing new moon. A middle-aged lady in the flat down the corridor, when I was growing up in France, taught me how to distinguish the moon quarters. "Just hold up an imaginary stick against the moon," she said. "If it forms a P, then it's premier – first, so a waxing moon. If it forms a D, then it's dernier – last, a waning moon."
Tonight, my imaginary P has a very straight, perfectly vertical stem.
My grandmother would have smiled and said, "It's going to be a sunny month." She always checked the new moon and, depending on the inclination of the crescent, would predict the weather, or at least the chances of rain. The more vertical, the least chance of rain, the more inclined, the more likelihood of a wet four weeks. If it lay practically flat, with its tips sticking up, then don't even think of leaving the house without an umbrella.
The funny thing is, her predictions always came true. In the thirty-five years since I left my family home, it has never occurred to me to check for myself. I wonder if the English moon follows the same pattern as its French and Italian counterparts.
I have always found the moon inspiring and soothing. I love the delicate, golden sliver of a curve promising new beginnings, and I love moonbathing in its bright, silver fullness. I once had a bedroom where once I month I went to sleep with the curtains open and the full moon shining brightly in my face, making me feel safe and deeply at peace.
The moon for me is indisputably female. I don't know what Eric Maschwitz was thinking when he wrote the line "Poor puzzled moon, he wore a frown" in A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. I can't see any Man in the Moon. Only a kind, understanding, maternal smile that says Sleep peacefully, I'll watch over you.
At school, during maths classes, I would sometimes write sonnets or free verse in honour of the moon. I spent summer nights in Rome lying on a sun lounger, staring up at the moon. If I'd had to choose between the sun and the moon, I would have sworn allegiance to the moon without the slightest hesitation.
When I was much younger and brazen, I would sometimes tell people who insisted on my defining my accent that I originally came from the moon. Didn't they know there was life there that couldn't be detected by machines? Of course there was. Everybody lived in houses made of crystal, with roses and honeysuckle climbing up the walls, and musicians playing the lute to lull you to sleep every night.
In recent years, I have steadily been moving towards the sun camp. Hardly surprising after over thirty years in a country where the sun, far from being a rude imposition, is rather an overly tactful visitor constantly anxious about outstaying its welcome. Now, I rush out to catch ever sunbeam I can.
And yet the moon is splendid tonight. So slender, so straight. I remember my grandmother's words. I must pay attention to the weather this month.
We were in Paris this time last year. I was enjoying the buzz and feeling shortchanged: we don’t have national holidays in England, at least none that carry any kind of historical significance. No religious holidays except Christmas and Easter, and even the country’s patron Saint, George, doesn’t warrant a day off. That’s Protestant work ethic for you. If our May and August bank holidays do have roots somewhere in history, then they have been forgotten by the common man (and woman) and appear to have been randomly tacked on at the end of three weekends, almost like a grudging concession by an employer related to Ebenezer Scrooge. We have no dates when we celebrate freedom from oppression, change of regime, the end of a conflict or independence. No day that unites the entire country in a civic celebration.
Almost all the shops were closed and there was a mildly festive ripple in the summer air. Notre Dame was crammed with tourists. Noisy invaders with little respect or awe for this ancient church or its prayer-soaked walls. Calling out to one another in loud voices, stomping around in large groups. Too loud to be able to hear her voice or her heartbeat.
Once again, I longingly tried to imagine what it would be like to stand in an almost deserted Notre Dame, listening to Mediaeval voices rising to the Rose Window, singing Léonin or Pérotin, music composed for a perfect marriage with Gothic architecture. I went to smile at the stone Virgin and Child, one of my favourite Madonnas. I like her delicate features, her gentle, youthful smile. A few years ago, I translated a crime novel by French novelist Alexis Ragougneau, The Madonna of Notre Dame, and it brought this beautiful statue to my attention.
When we approached the cathedral exit, the noise of the crowd was suddenly drowned out by a loud roar. A row of fighter planes tore across the sky, a trail of blue, white and red in their wake. I find the sound of fighter planes eerie and something in my chest always seizes up when I hear them slicing through the air above Norwich, where I live, but there, in Paris, as part of the Quatorze Juilletparade, I stared and marvelled with the other tourists. I felt strange, standing inside a church, a building symbolising peace and compassion, while above me, there were these war machines, designed for war.
We strolled to Île Saint-Louis and stopped in a café for a late breakfast of crêpes and coffee. There was a television broadcasting the parade on the Champs Elysées (Elysian Fields - nowhere would be called this in England). We were the only customers and the manageress started chatting to us. “Macron’s been lucky with the weather both years since he’s been elected,” she said. “It’s been lovely and sunny on 14th July.”
“Oh, is that unusual for this time of year?” I asked, surprised.
“Under François Hollande it always seemed to rain or something would go wrong whenever there was some kind of event. That’s why he was nicknamed le chat noir.”
The black cat. How funny.
We ended up staying in the café, following the live coverage of the parade, President Macron and guests watching as what looked like the country’s entire human fighting force and arsenal processed before him. Tanks, military vehicles, men and women in uniform, weapons of every kind, the Garde républicaineon horseback, helmets and swords gleaming in the sunlight.
As always when watching a national parade – in any country – I felt a sense of wrongness, or at least of incompletion. I always look at all that military personnel, at all those tanks, fighter jets, weapons, and all those politicians, and I want to ask out loud, Where are the country's writers? Where are the scientists and the scholars? Where are the all the medics? Where are the actors? Where are the farmers? Where are all the other people who contribute to the country? Have they not also played their part in forging history?
Is the nation not proud of them, too?
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