Rue Mouffetard: A Romance

What I Did On My Summer Vacation—In 1973

Urban street markets seem much the same the world over. There’s a festive feeling naturally generated by such familiar activity, which explains why I felt at home the instant I stepped onto the cobbled Rue Mouffetard pavement in Paris. Emotionally, I might just as well have been in Cross Street Market in 1950s Baltimore, a boy of eleven or twelve, enthralled by the block party atmosphere of people going about their daily routine of buying, selling, socializing and just hanging out.

Rue Mouffetard is a remnant of an old Roman road. Some buildings there date from the 12th century, and in a sense the street represents the history of the city. Crowds of shoppers fill its lower half every morning, and its vitality is reminiscent of a scene from the Middle Ages. On my first morning in Paris, in August, 1973, my new girlfriend and I were still getting re-acquainted after my flight from Baltimore the previous afternoon. She had been living for a month with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend in a one room apartment. I had known her only two months when she left to begin her annual summer teaching break tour of Europe, so we were still passionate strangers. She had found a private space for us in a small, inexpensive “mom and pop” hotel near the market. Our shy reunion, at first a bit awkward, had gone pretty well—but now we were both happy to be out and about, beginning our mutual Paris experience.

And the first order of business was lunch. In the early 1970s few Americans knew much about France, and fewer still knew anything about French food. Growing up, my midday meals had been pallid sandwiches of ham and American cheese, slathered with mayo and stuck between slices of soft white bread. Part of my new girlfriend’s plan, she later told me, was to introduce more sophisticated foods into my diet. My first lesson came that morning as we shopped in Rue Mouffetard. My girlfriend, using her ragged high school French, bought bottled water, a round of soft cheese, and a loaf of naked bread (no wrapper, no bag). She selected fruit for dessert from her favorite stand, which was manned by a handsome young Frenchman. We ate while seated on a bench in a nearby park, a spot which became our personal picnic area on most of the twelve days we toured Paris. The following excerpt from a “Hemingway-esque” short story I later wrote sums up the routine during our stay in the city.

“They took a room in a small hotel in Rue Pascal and settled in to stay until fall. Mornings, they strolled the Latin Quarter, bought food at the market in Rue Moufftard, and lunched on a bench or under a tree in the Jardin des Plants. Afternoons were reserved for making love and a nap in their tiny room. Evenings, they dined with friends near the Sorbonne; then, most nights, they would take the Metro to the Champs-Elysées and either walk the boulevard, people-watch from a sidewalk cafe, or attend an American movie. Or perhaps all three. It was wonderfully romantic, they thought, as if they were living in a Hemingway novel.”

The guy in my unpublished short story is a moody character, not unlike me at that stage of my life. But the present day me, older and somewhat wiser, will always remember those Paris experiences—even the negative parts—fondly. After all, that is where I had my first crunchy bite of crusty French bread, fresh from the bakery and topped with delightfully pungent cheese. It was love at first bite—a life changing episode—and in that instant I realized I could never again be satisfied with tasteless yellow cheese on Wonder Bread.

The relationship between me and my new girlfriend did not always go well—either in Paris or later, when we returned home. In fact, the affair was completely over after only a few years. Without going into the sad details, I can say that the problems we had were mostly my fault. In those days I was neurotic, still depressed about the failure of my marriage, feeling great guilt about leaving my young family, personally insecure, and extremely jealous of my beautiful new girlfriend. (The fact that she was twelve years younger and eager—at the prodding of her mother—to start a family, didn’t help.) Two examples of my jealousy will suffice. I was convinced that she was attracted to that handsome and bearded blond produce clerk in Rue Mouffetard, and that she shopped with him each morning not just because his goods were fresher and more reasonably priced. I never saw them exchange a smile or a nod (I watched closely, pretending to be interested only in my photography), but they appeared to ignore each other completely, which somehow make me even more suspicious. (Obsessive jealousy requires no proof.) And there was another young man at a sidewalk café who lit her cigarette. All very innocent in retrospect, I know, but at the time I berated her for allowing him to do so. (Jealousy makes no rational sense.) Meanwhile, I was photographing every beautiful woman I saw, and secretly falling in love with each one. But in my warped view at the time that was perfectly okay. (Jealousy isn’t fair.) For instance, I justified the images of the young woman pictured here sniffing melons in Rue Mouffetard as a “visual narrative;” and that by moving closer with each click of the camera I was only following a “golden rule” of photography which goes: “If your images are not good, you’re not close enough.”

Here’s another excerpt from my short story, which I think captures my own rueful mood soon after we finally broke up. The scene is in a bar where the two fictional characters have met for a drink, the man still harboring a small hope that they might reunite.

“‘I haven’t forgotten,’ the man said. The woman was very tan, she had been beautifully pale in Paris. ‘A dry Rob Roy, correct?’ She nodded and he ordered. ‘It’s funny,’ he went on, ‘I thought now—after all this time—seeing you would be different, but it’s not. When you walked in that door I felt a tingle like the old days. That sort of thing must die hard.’

‘Maybe it never dies,’ she said.

‘Three years ago, in Paris,’ he said. ‘I never want to forget how that felt.’ She smiled, her eyes downcast, saying nothing. She remembered how happy she had been with him in France—despite their troubles—how well-matched they seemed to be, how much in love she thought they were. The man continued. ‘But when I think about those days I get a little sad, a little afraid. The fear comes when I realize that it may never happen again for me.’

Oh, it will,’ the woman said. ‘It just takes time.’ She was looking at him now. ‘Anyway, you’re forgetting the bad stuff—all the arguments we had driving to and from Lyon.’

‘You must mean, Ms. Navigator, the times you got us lost,’ he said, and forced a smile.

‘You blamed me for it, yes.’

‘Well, you do have a lousy sense of direction—right?’

Again the woman did not reply. She had come to realize that the miscues between them in France amounted to an early warning system, one that she had willfully ignored. He had been unfair, blaming her for all that went wrong—on the road, at hotels and restaurants—and at the time she had begun to hate him for it. But even so, she had convinced herself that it was normal for two people in the early stages of a love affair to experience problems that could be worked out over time. For his part, the man remembered the anger he felt then, the frustrations about where to eat, which way to turn at a crossroads, where to stop for the night; how he had to depend on her to read menus and tell him where the bathrooms were. Being in love and in a foreign country was overwhelming. He felt helpless and—fair or not—he had resented her for it.”

Well, that’s the end of this story, or at least all of it I can manage to tell in a short essay. The relationship ended badly, as I said—but I have no regrets. I’ll always have Paris, and Rue Mouffetard, where I fell in love with love over and over again; and—for the first time in my life—I also fell in love with soft cheese and fresh-baked baguettes.

“Rue Mouffetard: A Romance” is the second in a series of travel-photo essays which will post on this blog from time-to-time. (Click images for larger views.) Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.

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One Response to Rue Mouffetard: A Romance

  1. shirley says:

    In the end – what really matters in life is a fine baguette and a dab of creamy brie

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