Blandine

by Richard Goodman

In the summer of 1972, my traveling partner, Alex Jones, and I were in the midst of a backpacking trip through Europe. We were both in our mid-twenties and had quit our jobs; we would travel as long as the money lasted. We were wandering through Eastern Europe when Alex announced, “We should live in Paris.” I thought, Paris, why not? I’d never been to Paris.

We didn’t know a soul in Paris and were armed only with a single name that someone had given us. Blandine Malé, a teacher, that’s all we knew. And so, arriving in Paris by train, the first thing we did was to call Blandine. Luckily, she spoke some English. We explained that somewhere in—where was it?—we’d met someone who’d met her at a conference and, well …. She told us to come to her apartment at 9, rue de Civry. It was, she said, in the 16th arrondissement.

The woman who met us at the door looked to be about thirty-five. She had dark hair tied back in a precise bun. Everything about her was reserved, from her dress to the soft way she spoke. She held her hands together, I remember, in greeting.

“Come in,” she said, stepping back. Her apartment was small but lovely, decorated with souvenirs from her travels to Cambodia, Morocco, Russia, India. She asked us to sit and served tea, listening as we told her about our travels and our plans to live in Paris. She spoke softly and asked questions about the places we’d visited. After an hour or so of tea and talk, we got ready to leave. Then, after a slight pause, Blandine said, “You may stay here if you wish.”

Why she, a single woman living alone, would allow two scruffy American males to stay in her home after just an hour of idle talk, I do not know. Maybe she saw us as curiosities. Maybe she liked Americans. Maybe, as a traveler herself, she knew how a gesture like that could change the course of a journey. Naturally, we took her up on it.

Blandine’s small one-bedroom apartment, on the second floor of a pretty little building with a courtyard in front, was our introduction to the city of Paris. We stayed about ten days until we found our own place on the Left Bank, where we would live for the next six months.

How to describe our elegant benefactor? She was all very correct. Her dresses, in dark muted colors, might be accented by a scarf or a cardigan, never buttoned, and low heels. I never saw her in anything but a dress, even on weekends; I doubt she owned a pair of jeans. Everything was always in place. No free-flowing wisps of hair, no errant threads. Her posture was straight; she moved easily, unhurriedly. Her demeanor never changed. She was one of those Parisian women I would come to know whose elegance depends not on wealth but on bearing.

Blandine was very Catholic, or très croyante. She went to mass every morning on her way to work as a teacher in a lycée, a private school for girls. She never married and, as far as I know, never had a boyfriend. She made no flamboyant gestures. She never raised her voice, never got angry, never even laughed heartily. She seemed about ten years older than we were, but because of her self-possession it was difficult to say. She was warm and kind to us and never anything but hospitable.

To understand the extent of Blandine’s generosity, you need to envision the characters she had allowed into her home. Alex and I had a complete lack of understanding of Parisian social conventions. It was as if two street dogs, of indeterminate breed, had wandered into the Westminster Dog Show. We had been brought up in America in the 1950s and assumed that there was only one way to do anything: the American way. Looking back, fifty years later, I’m amazed by our ignorance. I’m sure Blandine had encountered Americans before, but I doubt she’d had them sleeping on her floor for days at a time. I suspect she had a small bit of pity for us. We were definitely out of place in the 16th arrondissement.

It was only later, when we had become acquainted with the city, that we understood what “the 16th arrondissement” evoked. In Paris, the 16th summons the same visions of exclusivity as Park Avenue in New York. Reserved and self-absorbed, it lacks the vitality of the Left Bank, which is why its inhabitants live there. They want away from all that Latin Quarter confusion and brio. This makes the place bland and dull, as so many wealthy neighborhoods are. We did not know that then, or care, but it did matter to Blandine.

Those first mornings, we would leave Blandine’s apartment to explore. When we left the 16th arrondissement and crossed the Seine, we burst into the Paris the world knows and adores. To walk those streets as a young man was wondrous; I was in a constant state of astonishment. At the end of a day, tipsy with this newfound glory, Alex and I would return to rue de Civry. Blandine was always curious about our discoveries.

“What did you do today?”

“We went to the Louvre.”

Ah, c’est magnifique. Did you like?”

“It’s pretty amazing. Some of those paintings are huge!”

You can see what she was dealing with here.

If Blandine ever felt annoyed by us, she didn’t show it. We were often just rousing from our sleeping bags when she left for morning mass; sometimes we woke to find her already gone. What must it have been like for her to see two unkempt guys sprawled on her living room floor every morning? She never objected. She gave us a set of keys and let us come and go as we wished. When we weren’t out eating at a cheap Paris bistro, she would cook a meal for us. I remember her standing in her small kitchen, wearing an apron that seemed more of a fashion accessory than something practical, making us an omelet. I would stand there and watch her as she cooked with the barest, most efficient gestures.

We would sit at the little table at one end of her living room. Blandine would drink a single glass of wine while she ate. She was like a dark-haired Catherine Deneuve, inscrutable, elegant, refined. This aura was so fixed and intimidating that even we, who had no boundaries and no sense of decorum, never once asked her about her personal life.

I don’t remember Blandine speaking about friends or family. I don’t recall if her parents were still alive or if she had siblings. If she did, she didn’t say much about them. I’m not even sure where in France she grew up. But she was curious about us and asked us about where we’d grown up. Alex told her about his family and about small-town life in eastern Tennessee at the foot of the Smoky Mountains. She was amused but slightly baffled by the characters he described.

Months later, when I had learned some French, Alex and I came back to 9, rue de Civry to visit Blandine. I had learned by then that French had a formal and informal form of address: vous and tu. In the textbooks, they tell you to use the more intimate tu with your family, close friends, children, and pets. You employ vous when speaking to everyone else. A Parisian shopkeeper would never dream of addressing a customer with the informal tu. If he or she did, it would leave everyone in the store aghast. After having spent so many nights sleeping on Blandine’s floor and eating so many meals with her, I thought this surely meant I could use the tu form with her. When I asked her if I could, she said, “Non.” I was taken aback. “I use tu with only two or three people, Richard,” she said.

With Blandine, it would be now and forever vous. This may seem like a minor distinction, but—at least back then—it wasn’t. Using tu was a linguistic intimacy that could only be granted by the speaker, never by the addressee. Blandine always kept a small, inviolate space between us.

At a certain point, we insisted on giving her some money. At first, Blandine declined, but we were adamant, and she accepted at last. I can remember her holding the French currency in her hand. I can still see the florid bills, illustrated with portraits of French painters, writers, thinkers.

“This is too much,” Blandine said.

“No, Blandine. Take it. We insist.”

She tried to give us back some of the money. We simply folded our arms.

“Merci,” she said, in resignation. After that, she didn’t protest when we gave her money. She simply took it and placed it on a table or in her purse.

On the weekends, we saw more of Blandine. Once or twice Alex and I went along with her when she went shopping, faire les courses. She had a tall basket that she took with her. She was dressed, as always, in a dark blue or black dress. She would go to the outdoor market and shop for fresh vegetables, olives, and spices. She shopped for bread, cheese, and meat at her preferred  stores in the 16th arrondissement. She walked deliberately, and the exchanges between her and the sellers were models of formality.

I had never seen a Parisian open-air market. Alex and I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, and Americans bought their food in grocery stores. You seldom dealt with the person who raised the tomatoes or the greens you bought. You never thought of the work and love the farmers put into growing them. But in Paris, there they stood, the man or the woman, ruddy-cheeked, big-handed, smiling, accommodating, behind the display of produce they’d raised on their land. It was gorgeous—perfect, really—whatever it was: asparagus, radishes, lettuce, leeks, potatoes, carrots. New, slick, vibrant, just pulled from the earth. The hues were fierce. It was exciting to me, seeing how truly themselves the vegetables looked.

Bonjour, madame,” the farmer and his wife would say.

Bonjour, madame,” Blandine would reply. “Bonjour, monsieur. Il fait beau, n’est-ce pas?”

Oui, madame. Les légumes sont contents.”

After some customary words about the weather, Blandine would inquire about the freshness of the lettuce, asparagus, or onions, that is, when, exactly, had they been picked. If the farmer answered, au lever du soleil, at sunrise, it had the ring of truth. I loved being in Blandine’s train as she made her way from stand to stand. The sellers knew her and welcomed her; she was brisk as she made her rounds and her basket filled. The pride of this exchange between seller and buyer permeated the air; solicitude, reassurance, and custom were everywhere. Here was something else I never knew I longed for.

One of the great lessons we absorb from travel is a release from a kind of societal prison. Part of you has been waiting to be freed, even if you didn’t know it. A sense of cultural superiority is a burden. You constantly spend energy defending what you needn’t defend. To be released from that burden makes you feel buoyant, allows you room to be yourself. We learned that Americans were not the best in so many ways, and we were relieved to learn that.

One night, after dinner, we were sitting in Blandine’s small living room talking. Both Alex and I were inveterate clowns. I loved to do bits, to take off on some comedic road that led who knows where. I would do most anything for a laugh. I did characters I made up. I used props, and when I say props, I mean whatever was within sight. Even the ultimate cliché, a lampshade, was not out of the question. Nothing, really, was out of the question.

I don’t recall what we were talking about, but I do know that at one point I spied Blandine’s purse and simply picked it up, put it on my arm, and began pretending I was a Parisian woman shopping at an open-air market. I had been schooled by watching Blandine. My rendition was about as un-Blandine as you could get. I used a high-pitched voice and pretend-French while I pointed at invisible produce. Blandine didn’t laugh but her eyes grew wide as she saw me put her purse on my arm. She came alive in a way I’d never seen before. It was if her delight had emerged from deep hibernation.

Suddenly, she jumped up and ran out of the room. She returned with two or three scarves. She put one around my neck, adjusting it carefully.

Il faut,” she said. You must.

She stepped back and looked at me.

Attendez,” she said. Wait.

She dashed out of the room and came back with a pearl necklace. She placed it over my head and adjusted how it fell on my neck.

Voilà,” she said. She looked at me carefully, as if she were a designer readying a model for the runway. I felt conflicted. On the one hand, wearing pearls made me anxious. On the other hand, did I look good? Blandine stood back, then she turned and once more ran out of the room. This time she came back with two or three uncharacteristically colorful dresses. We had never seen her wear anything like this.

“Which one do you like?” she asked me.

“Which dress?”

Oui. Which one?”

I picked one.

“Put it on,” she said.

“Your dress? Really?” I pondered this. “But I’m bigger than you. What if I tear it?”

“Do not worry. Put it on.” She had a wild look in her eyes.

“I … ”

“Go ahead,” Alex said.

“Ok. Why not?”

I went to the bathroom with the dress, which was patterned with flowers. I held it in my hands, felt the dark, shiny fabric. I felt the Blandineness of it. I took off my shirt and jeans, and pulled the dress over my head. Once I did that, I was committed. There was no turning back. There’s a world of difference between holding a dress and putting it on. I left the zipper open—it would have been impossible to close.

I emerged. There wasn’t any doubt about it. I was in her dress.

Blandine clapped her hands when she saw me.

I walked about. I turned around and back, like a model. Then, true to my character, I used my outfit to take my newly-created Parisian woman to the most absurd level. I tried to seduce Alex by pulling his head into my hairy front. I hailed a taxi by lifting one part of my skirt up my thigh. God knows what else I did.

“Richard, you cannot do this!” Blandine said. “We are in the 16th arrondissement! The 16th arrondissement of Paris!”

Blandine turned to Alex. She selected a dress and gave it to him.

“Now, you!” she said, almost maniacally.

Alex took it and went dutifully to the bathroom. Just as I did, he put the dress on. He returned, changed. Blandine clapped her hands again.

She scrutinized us. Her creations. Then she got up, ran out of the room again. This time, she returned with a small makeup bag. She sat us down on the couch and began to apply makeup to our faces with determined care. We both had long hair, so that added an accent to our newly-created selves. As she worked away, Blandine would mutter from time to time, “This is the 16th arrondissement of Paris!” She continued applying lipstick and rouge and eyeliner, first to me and then to Alex. From time to time, she would lean back and, like a painter, assess her progress with a squinted eye, to see what needed touching up. I remember her moving the length of lipstick across my lips and the small strokes she applied. I remember the deftness of her fingers and the touch-up dab here and there. Then she took the eyeliner pencil and drew a line under each of my eyes cautiously, steadily. She was just as careful applying the mascara.

Finally, she was finished.

Blandine led us to a mirror. “Regardez!” she said. We did.

You might be wondering if this happened exactly this way. I assure you it did. A Blandine we never knew came out in full flower that evening. There is a photograph of the two of us in her dresses to prove it. I can still hear her cry, “You cannot do this! This is the 16th arrondissement!”

There came a day when the apartment listings from the American Center led us to our own place. It was in the 14th arrondissement, on the villa d’Alésia, a pretty little cobblestoned street off the rue des Plantes, quite far from Blandine’s apartment. We packed up all our gear and said our goodbyes to the wonderful Blandine and to 9, rue de Civry. Reluctantly, because we had felt so welcomed and at home there.

And so we began our new life in Paris on our own. We saw Blandine from time to time. We invited her to our new place on the villa d’Alésia for dinner several times. She came just once. It was lovely to see her and to return, in some small measure, her hospitality. But our paths were very different after that, and so as these things go, we gradually saw less and less of her. Eventually, we left Paris. That was a bittersweet day, but it was impossible to complain after the times we’d had there. Alex and I continued our traveling, and finally returned to the US with a lifetime’s worth of memories. Then we resumed—or began, really—our adult lives.

I saw Blandine just one more time after that. It was some twenty years later, and I was visiting Paris alone. We met in a café. She had acquired a few handsome gray streaks in her dark hair, but other than that she was the same. By then, I spoke decent French, having spent a year living in a small village in the south of France. She was surprised and delighted by this. “Vous parlez français, Richard!” It gave me great pleasure not to require her to speak English. That I could understand her words in her own language made me feel I understood her Parisianness more. She told me about the trips she had taken in the years after our stay. She liked talking about these adventures. She was still teaching at the lycée, still living at 9, rue de Civry. She was like Notre Dame: always there, reliable in her classic formality. In the ensuing years, we exchanged letters now and then until, at some point, these exchanges stopped, as they do.

In late spring of 2017, Alex and I, still close friends, decided to return to Paris forty-five years on. We wanted to celebrate those marvel-filled times of our youth. We decided to go in June. In March, I sent Blandine a letter telling her that we were coming and that we would love to see her. I kept waiting and hoping for a reply, but as June approached there was no letter. This didn’t seem like her, and I reluctantly went online and searched the Paris obituaries but found nothing for “Blandine Malé.” Maybe, I thought, she had moved, or, perhaps, gone to live in an assisted living home or with a relative we never knew about.

In June, Alex and I arrived in Paris. We visited our old haunts, walked the streets, and were relieved at how much Paris remained the same. Perhaps Parisians wouldn’t agree with that, but that’s what we experienced. We both fell in love with the city again. We returned to villa d’Alésia, still one of the prettiest little streets in Paris. We stood before our building, looking up at the old apartment windows, thinking of those two roustabouts who once had the good fortune to live there.

Even though I hadn’t heard back from Blandine, Alex and I wanted to visit 9, rue de Civry in case she was still there. So, on the last day of our visit, we went to the 16th arrondissement and made our way to her street. At first, it was unfamiliar. I looked down the street, searching for number 9, and suddenly it all came back to me. Sure enough, there was the courtyard and set at the back Blandine’s building.

The building had a locked gate you couldn’t enter without a code. There were no names listed anywhere, no mailboxes. We stood there, frustrated, having come so near and yet not knowing how to find out if Blandine was still living there. There was no one around. I said to Alex that we should wait a bit in case someone showed up. Then someone did—the concierge, as it turned out. He punched in the code and was about to enter when I asked him, in French, if he could help us.

“A long time ago we knew someone who lived here. A woman. Her name was Blandine Malé.” And in that Proustian instant, an imagined scenario unfolded itself in my mind.

The concierge smiled. “Oui, elle habite au deuxième étage.” Yes, she lives on the second floor.

“She’s still here! Can we come in?”

“Attendez,” The concierge went to a small station near the entrance, picked up a phone and pressed two buttons.

A thin voice on the other end responded.

“Deux américains sont là pour vous voir, madame,” the concierge said into the phone.

The thin voice replied.

The concierge looked up and said, “Entrez.” He buzzed the gate open.

Alex and I walked across the courtyard, and suddenly it was all so familiar. Years vanished. The walk across the little courtyard to the building door on the left and then up to the second floor to Blandine’s door. She opened the door and there she was, standing before us. Blandine! She had more gray hairs now, but she was still the same self-possessed, iconic woman whom we had known so many years ago. God knows what we looked like—hair thinner, waists thicker—but she didn’t acknowledge that.

“Richard! Alex!” she said happily and clapped her hands. “Ça fait tellement d’années! Entrez!”

And we did. It took a few moments of adjustment. I looked around. I thought the entrance to the kitchen was over there, but soon enough it all flooded back. Blandine told us to sit and took a chair opposite us. She seemed genuinely pleased to see us.

“Blandine, you haven’t changed a bit,” I said.

“Richard, vous devez dire la verité,” she said. “Richard you must speak the truth.”

And, in truth, she had of course aged, as we all had, but her aging had only made her more elegant.

“Are you married?” she asked. “Do you have children? What have you been doing as work?”

Oh, we had things to tell her. Alex had had a great career in journalism. He’d worked for years at the New York Times and won a Pulitzer Prize. Blandine didn’t know what that was, so we did our best to explain its significance. I had written a book about living in a small village in the South of France that some people admired. I was a professor now.

“In New Orleans,” I said. “You know, Blandine, La Nouvelle Orléans. It was named after Joan of Arc’s city.” I thought the religious reference would please her.

She smiled. “J’aimerais y visiter un jour.” 

We’d both been married. Alex’s wife had died. “Désolée,” Blandine said softly. I was divorced. I had a daughter. She was in her mid-twenties. We went through the years, filling her in. We told her we had visited our old apartment, that we were overjoyed to be back in Paris.

All of this Blandine loved to hear. Did she think those two rascals would ever amount to anything years ago? Why would she have?

We asked her what she had been doing, what her life had been like.

“Comme d’habitude,” she said. “J’ai beaucoup voyagé.” She told us the places she had visited: Australia! Bolivia! Finland! Kenya!

Slowly the connection we had made with her in those early days in Paris, and that experience of being in her apartment, emerged and took hold. It was as potent and summoning a French fragrance. It was a privilege to have stayed there, we realized again. We looked on Blandine with great affection and began to relive the past.

“You took a big risk letting us stay with you, Blandine,” I said. “Two strange guys like us.”

“Vous étiez tous les deux des garçons.” You were just boys.

We laughed. She was so right. We were harmless.

I looked at her floor and thought of the nights we slept there in our sleeping bags and how she must have had to step over us in the mornings to get to her door. “You were so kind to us,” I said.

“C’est normal.” 

“Do you remember that crazy night? When we put on your dresses?”

“Mon Dieu!” she said. “Nous étions tous complètement fous!” We were all mad! She placed her hands on her knees in emphasis.

“Blandine,” Alex said, “we want to take you to dinner. To any place in Paris you want to go. Any place at all.”

“That’s not nec—”

The concierge’s voice brought me back from my reverie. Blandine and her apartment vanished. He looked at me, expressionless. “Elle est décédée,” he said.

No, I thought, that’s not possible. “How long ago?” I asked.

Il y a peut-être cinq ou six ans,” he said.

Five or six years! That was why I never received a reply. I nodded and thanked him. He could see I was stricken. Then he went into the courtyard and shut the gate behind him.

“Well, at least now we know,” Alex said.

“Yes,” I said. “Now we know.” I hoped her passing had been easy. I hoped she was not alone when she died. Even though I had suspected it, the news hit me hard. Alex and I turned and left.

9, rue de Civry will have a place in my heart always, marked, metaphorically at least, like one of those plaques on buildings in Paris that announce the former residence of this or that famous writer or painter or composer:

Ici vécut Blandine Malé, qui était autrefois gentille avec deux jeunes américains.

Here lived Blandine Malé, who was once kind to two young Americans.

Published on March 1, 2022

2022-03-11T17:05:05-04:00