Hotel D’ Anvers is an old building facing an open area called Square d’ Anvers, which I was never able to pronounce right. It was a bit frustrating when I had to try every version of Square D’ Anvers with the Taxi drivers to come back to the place! I could never get it right and finally I had to take out the Hotel’s business card and point it out. I always got a stare back from the driver as if to say – what the hell were you even saying!
Paris is the city of romance and when are staying near the Opera love is pretty much in the air. My hotel itself was quite a masterpiece. It had a wooden staircase that made creaking noises with every step to announce your ascent or descent and a lift which had room for just one person and a suitcase. The rickety channels of the steel mesh grill from a bygone era did little to instil confidence amongst the hotel guests to go for the contraption. Most of them including me, settled for the stairs. The rooms at D’ Anvers were so tiny that they ended as soon as they started and the shower enclosure only allowed you to enter it in the state of ‘attention’, make a swirl below the running water without spreading any body part and then pretend to have come out refreshed. But the central location and the friendly staff made up for all these little inconveniences. A free breakfast of bananas, croissant, cake and coffee added to the lure for those with limited budget.
I had been in the city for a week now and was looking forward to the first weekend to rejuvenate my sleep deprived self. With no stress of work the next morning I did sleep without a care. I woke up feeling like a bird on the wing – raring to soar the clear blue skies. It was a bright Saturday morning and I was lazily lying around in my room. The weather was sunny which meant I could open the classic French windows without getting frozen. I peeped outside and saw that there was a flurry of activity on the pavement across the road. There were a number of vans parked on the road and people were busy setting up temporary stalls on the park’s pavement. It was quite similar to what we have back in India – a sort of flea market that comes up on a set day of the week. The only difference was that it was better organized and looked more professional.
While the stalls were being given the final touch, the vans started unloading their content and setting up merchandise in order so they could occupy the stalls as soon as they were ready. It was interesting to note that while there was so much activity there was no noise or confusion and everyone seemed to be in a cheerful relaxed mood. I guessed that the flea market is a regular feature all of them knew exactly what they were doing or what they had to do.
My inquisitiveness grew as more and more vans downloaded their goods. It was amazing to see the sheer variety of merchandise – bakery, vegetables, meat and poultry, knick-knacks, herbs and spices, dry fruits, accessories, plants, cut flowers, decorative wall art, painting replicas and so on. For the ease of shoppers, the whole pavement was broadly divided into three sections – one for fresh produce, bakery and meat which was perhaps the largest, then another for Herbs, Plants, flowers and lastly a few stalls at the end were being set up for accessories and decor.
By this time I had started to feel a bit hungry and realized that the on the house-in house breakfast served by the hotel would get over in another half an hour or so. I took a quick shower, changed my clothes and feasted myself of freshly baked croissants, fruit bread, Cheesecake and Coffee. It was the same stuff every day but the good thing was that it was fresh and it was French! After the breakfast, I came back to my room and started doing the usual stuff to kill time – checking emails, Facebook updates and so on. By this time, it had become quite sunny and warm so I shifted my chair alongside the large window to enjoy the Sun. I noticed that the stall right in front of my window was getting ready too. There was a van parked next to the stall and they were unloading crates filled with fresh vegetables pumpkins, cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes and lots of leafy greens the names of which I had no clue about. Just then I noticed something unusual, the girl setting up the stall was not somebody you would identify with being a vegetable seller! With her looks, she was more suited to be a model donning haute couture than to be selling veggies on the street side.
I was in this semi-thoughtful mood when someone knocked on the door. I was waiting for Sunil who worked with me. We had planned to complete some pending work then have lunch together at the Indian restaurant. Sunil walked in with his usual cheerful smile – all excited about the day ahead. Soon we opened out our laptops and started discussing what all we had to accomplish. But with all the activity just across the window, it was difficult to concentrate. Getting up slightly to have better view Sunil asked me “What’s going on here? Looks like some kind of flea market.”
To which I replied “That’s precisely what it is my friend. One of those Wednesday bazar’s in India only the crowd is from Paris not from Paharganj”
Sunil grinned and said “I can see that”
He had perhaps seen the vegetable seller who had fired my imagination but given our “professional” relationship, neither of us wanted to give in to the frivolousness.
We somehow worked for an hour or so then I declared that it was time for Lunch. With so much happening around it was becoming difficult to concentrate on work which both of us wanted to avoid anyway. The restaurant Au Palais Du Grand Moghol was conveniently located around the corner and because of the customized service it offered to regulars it had become more of a mess to us than a restaurant. As we entered the restaurant, the owner Mr. Gafur greeted us with full gusto. It’s always good to see a hum watan in a foreign land he used to tell us and on top of that we were his paying customers.
“Khushamdeed! How are my Indian friends doing today?” he said.
“Oh, we are doing wonderfully. If we were any better you would see four of us instead of two” I reciprocated his enthusiasm. Sunil looked puzzled at my ingenious response.
Before our casual banter turned into a Mushaira, Sunil cut short the conversation “Gafur Sahab I am starving. Can you quickly give us some food?
“I knew you will be coming. Have some wine and Papad. It’s on the house. I am making Lauki ka Kofta which is today’s special and then there is also badam ka halwa at the end.”
Sunil came a bit closer to me and whispered “Are you sure he is an Indian? Mujhe to Pakistani lagta hai. I was reading somewhere that they always pose their food as Indian cuisine else no one would walk in”
“I don’t know and frankly I don’t care as long as the food is good. Let’s say he is a Hindustani that will take care of it.”
“That’s another debate but I am too famished to think right now. We can discuss these matters once my stomach is full”
“Yeah right” I smiled as I opened and poured the Bordeaux for both of us.
To avoid sleep after the sumptuous lunch, we decided to take a stroll. We agreed that the best thing was to explore the flea market. We started from the corner which had the clothes and trinket stalls. It was interesting to note that a couple of stalls which were selling Euro 2 clothing had the maximum crowd – all of them women! They were all shapes, sizes, age, economic class and all of them seemed to have a single focus, how to get hold of the best as quickly as possible from the heap which looked no less than a treasure island – at least to them. I pondered that when it comes to women – SALE was the biggest leveler whether you were in the city of joy or the city of fashion.
Moving on there were stalls selling fresh bakery stuff – croissants, baguette loaves of bread, pastries, muffins, tarts, pies and bagels. Let me tell you that there is nothing like freshly baked French goodies especially if one has a sweet tooth! At street smart prices we certainly had more than what we should have all in the garb of just tasting. As we came to the end of the market Sunil said:
“You think we should check out the vegetables also?”
“Vegetables or the seller of vegetables?” Just as girls and women have a sixth sense to know if someone is taking undue interest in them, men too have a common language that allows them to sniff something that is of common interest.
Just as girls and women have a sixth sense to know if someone is taking undue interest in them, men too have a common language that allows them to sniff something that is of common interest.
I was the one to take the lead. Having seen her first it was my moral right to have the first interaction. “Are these fresh?” I said pointing towards the tomatoes which even had the green leaves on top of them still intact.
“What do you expect her to say. No Sir, these are actually from the time of French revolution. Of course, she will say they are fresh”
“Arre Yaar that’s what my wife asks when she buys vegetables. I don’t know anything else to ask”
“Why not? You could have asked if they are red or white or blue.”
“Aha someone is having real fun. Your turn buddy. But I wonder why she didn’t answer me?”
“Quel est le prix des tomates?” Sunil asked the girl with a grin on his face.
“Combien en voulez-vous? She asked pointing at the placard with price.
Holding her cigarette skilfully between her lips she began to measure two Kgs! Now it was my turn to laugh.
“If you tell her we wanted just two tomatoes she would surely know what we are up to. Don’t think too much about the four Euros and just admire her good looks. You will perhaps never buy vegetables from such a lovely lady again in your life?”
Both of us started laughing as I handed over the five Euros. I gave the one Euro coin she returned to Sunil “Here is your memento. When you grow old you can tell your grandchildren that once you bought tomatoes in Paris”
On our way back we decided to dump the tomatoes at Mr. Gafur’s restaurant. He was both surprised and happy to receive the gift. We never told him the story but pretended that it was out of gratitude for all the free wine we have had at his restaurant.
We came back to our room and started discussing how life was so different in Europe vs. back home in India. Sunil started off by saying:
“Do you know they are demanding a 32 hour work week in France?”
“Demanding? I thought they already had it. I have hardly seen anyone working on Friday anyways”
“They want it to be official. And also that bosses cannot write emails to employees on weekends and expect an answer”
“Wow. That’s something. In India, it looks like bosses park all the work for the weekend only.”
“But honestly I feel work can be done and still you can have a lot of time for yourself. It’s not that they are starving or their economy is in pits”
“Public my dear public! How many people do they have in comparison to India? When the resources are scarce there is bound to be a fight for survival. From the time that we are born, we are accustomed to standing in ques.”
“Haha, I think it’s in our DNA now. But we will never stand one behind the other. There will always be multiple lines and a fight that who should be the first”
“Survival Instinct. You are afraid that by the time my turn will come it will be lunch time and the window will close”
“Hmm. I get it. That’s how I have always felt myself but that doesn’t mean that one should break the line”
“The desperation is more when it’s about survival and its display crude if one is uneducated. You would have noticed that people are more disciplined on airports”
“Not really. But ya, they can hide their eagerness better. I think even after being educated or getting a good job our insecurity never leaves us. It’s deeply embedded in our mind.”
To put things into perspective Sunil pointed out to the vegetable seller we had just encountered.
He said “Just look at the girl we just met. She probably grew the vegetables on a farm outside Paris or bought them at a Farmers Market, drove her own little truck, set up her the stall, decided the prices of the produce, transacted business at her time and pace and would finally go home satisfied after a day’s work. Her business could be small but at the end of the day, she is her own boss…and she was doing what she loves to do.”
Mocking him I put forth my argument “Let’s get the record straight – we didn’t meet her, we were checking her out. And I am sorry but there is a lot of romance in your story. You can’t just generalize and say that in France or in developed countries everyone is so enterprising and just loves what they do. They have a certain freedom and quality of life that comes with more money but I don’t think the strife goes completely away for them.”
To accentuate my point I added “Let’s take your model turned veggie seller for example. It must be a lot of hard work sowing, growing and harvesting or even buying out wholesale at different markets and consolidating the assortment to make up the wide variety of product she was offering.”
Sunil became pensive at this point. “I agree. She would have to wake up quite early and by the time she is back home it would be late in the evening. But the idyllic country life would be any day more rewarding and healthy than this ruckus of the city.”
“You should write poetry my friend. Are you sure you have not fallen in love or something? Idyllic country life!! And dear this is Paris we are talking about. I am happy losing my mind here than slogging out in some desolate farm in the countryside.”
Sunil had by now reached out for the bottle of Merlot sitting on the nightstand. I had picked it up yesterday at the neighborhood Carrefour store after ogling at their wine collection for some 20-25 minutes. We could never have such excellent and inexpensive wine collection in India that too at a supermarket. Pouring the wine he continued:
“But you would agree with me on one thing. There is nothing like being your own boss. It doesn’t matter if its big or small but you should own your business. Only then can you work with real passion. That’s the bottom line.”
“Totally agree. To the spirit of enterprise!” I said raising a toast.
We gulped the wine as if it was a shot of Vodka. Instead of romance, I could feel frustration in the air.
As evening approached, the buildings around us transformed into something magical in the soft and warm light of the setting sun. The carvings on pillars and the cherub statuettes adorning the edifices seemed to have come alive in their full glory. To relish the view we moved up to the balcony stretching out of the French window – it was no doubt one of the beautiful Paris evenings we had heard about. Meanwhile, the flea market had started to wrap up as it was going to be 5 o clock soon. France has socialist leanings and it is quite evident in the way they work.
We were admiring how well organized were the stall owners, everything seemed to have a place and fit into each other perfectly to go back into the small trucks. Our lovely lady had also finished packing and lit up a cigarette as she leaned against the back of her truck. At that moment she was a picture of confidence, of someone who controlled her destiny – however trivial it may look to the outsider.
Sunil was totally enamored “Boss can you see the glow of contentment and satisfaction on her face. That’s the real thing”
“You can cut the philosophical crap. It’s OK if you just want to look at her.” I laughed harder than I should have. The wine had perhaps done its job.
I went inside the room to keep the wine glasses and was arranging the workspace to finish off the job at hand when Sunil called me out to the window “ Looks like our friend has a visitor” He said when I joined him at the balcony. A black Renault Fluence Concept had pulled up below our window and the enterprising veggie seller was talking to the fat middle-aged woman occupant of the car. It looked like she was explaining something to her. Once the brief conversation was over she took out a bundle of currency notes and handed it over to the woman.
The women counted the money and gave a 100 Euros back to her.
Me and Sunil looked at each other in amusement. What best explained our smiles is a German term called Schadenfreude – the pleasure one feels upon seeing others failure or misfortune.
It possibly meant we were not the only ones living insipid uninspired lives!