Down at the Arcades: Redux

— for l.m.b. who said, “it just needs to be truthful” —

 …for the sun has at last arrived, creeping her way across the roof of the Auberge, brushing shuttered windows, the dirty-winter-white of a pigeon’s wing, finally curling down to touch the branches of the miniature orange trees in their pots on the corner of the square. She teased us last week, with her one sudden flash of brilliance in a chill afternoon sky. We dashed onto balcony or front step, turning our grateful faces upwards over mugs of steaming tea that seemed happily irrelevant. But then followed a week of fitful snow, punctuated by bursts of hail, and we sighed as we disinterred our Wellington boots from the back of the closet, having only yesterday cast them there in happy abandon.

…all forgotten, perhaps even forgiven. We are phototropic beings, we denizens of la Place des Arcades, and we swivel in our chairs in the hopes of the faintest caress. We are all here today, the various blessed souls of the Valbonnaise version of Dante’s Celestial Rose. Below, the first wave of Anglo tourists, all golf shorts and bare shoulders, jockeying for the sunniest tables near the centre of the café. Next, scattered ranks of locals, alighting just for lunch and a half decent glass of wine before heading back to work. And finally, high up in the Empyrean, under the covered terrace closest to the bar, the long-time residents, huddled in their fur-lined parkas and in full rouspétant about everyone sitting on the two tiers below.

…and if I was some other kind of writer, I’d build it all up from there. I’d allow myself to be distracted by the strange German-inflected French coming from the table on my right. Alsatian, I’d think. But then I would detect the irritating sing-song of Dutch winding within it, and I’d turn to see two gentlemen, in tweed jackets and pressed jeans, each with lean, sunburnt faces. There is some essential strangeness in their relationship which, foreigner and female that I am, I cannot run to earth. Sexual, paternal, some interaction of the two. The younger one gestures with his right hand; under the table, out of sight of his companion, he cups his crotch unaffectedly with his left. I see a hardbound project notebook on the table between them, and realize that it’s at least in part a business meeting: an old school one, with neither tablet or smartphone in sight, and that what I’m hearing is French and German and Dutch swirling together, an attempt to find a common language. At the table on my left are a husband, wife, and two sons: the quintessential bourgeois family, out for lunch á la fin des vacances d’hiver. There is not a single part of Maman left unprocessed (hair, breasts, fingernails), and she is smoking so enthusiastically that all I can see of her face is the glint of her large and very expensive gold hoop earrings. She is ignoring Papa, who (it goes without saying, really) is all up in the waiter’s face about the cooking of his magret du canard. The older boy alternates between staring at me and poking the tip of his steak knife between the joints of his fingers, one after the other. Only the youngest member of the party is in any way enjoying his afternoon, dashing in ever decreasing circles around the Place, with the occasional pause to grab a bite of his pizza fromage blanc.

…on and on I could go, spinning it out into an infinite number of pages. The elderly couple with matching bandages on their faces, his near his right eye, hers under the right ear and forward on her cheek, our century’s version of the eighteenth’s black patches. The two young women signing papers in a binder filled with sample packets of tea. The percussive backdrop provided by the toddler behind me, banging his toy off the table despite the pleas of his hassled father. And the phrases would of course come in groups of three, rhetorically perfect and beautifully crafted, each choice harking back to the weather and to the early spring suspended all about me. A little jewel. A real picture.

But fortunately salvation has arrived, in the form of roasted salmon, and so I am saved from either having to write that piece, or tease out why whatever is writerly in me resists doing so.

View from the steps of the Café Latin, Valbonne, early March 2013

View from the steps of the Café Latin, Valbonne, early March 2013

— amrh / March 2013, Valbonne 

** For more of Doré’s engravings for the Divine Comedy, see

2 thoughts on “Down at the Arcades: Redux

  1. Beth Harder says:

    I love this, Ri. You’ve written such detailed yet succinct descriptions of the different people in the cafe that I can really picture it. Can’t wait to see it for myself!!

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