Family Travel–Gold Winner: Every Day Parisian Theatrics

By Anna Brones

Theater and film are almost as essential to the romantic Parisian image as Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. Acting has always played a revered role in French culture, and from grandiose theater productions to cinema classics, the rest of the world has had the chance to taste the artistic delicacies that the country is known for. We have all been seduced by French film. Some of us are drawn to the amorous sounds of the French language spoken between young idealists, dressed in black, their souls engaged in debates on existentialism. Others glue themselves to the screen to consume the simple oddities that paint the picture of Paris street life, infused with the character that the city is so well known for. And some are merely enticed by imagining that such a world actually exists beyond the screen. We fall in love with French cinema, because the screenwriters that the country is known for magically bring together everyday simplicity with cosmopolitan complexity.

I was introduced to dynamics of French cinema at an early age. My father would often come home from the library on Friday night with a stack of movies in hand, a stack that was always filled with more movies than the weekend could handle. As a younger child I had a harder time appreciating the intricacies of French comedy, but my father loved them. With no knowledge of the French language, he was dependent on subtitles, but they made me drowsy and I tended to fall asleep, lulled instead by the rhythmic sounds of the language.

At the age of fifteen I made my first trip to Paris, my father with me to lead us way off the tourist path and onto the smaller streets and corners that are the idyllic definition of the city. I fell in love instantly, and upon return home could not watch enough French movies, this time staying wide awake to take in the unique sounds and sights. Yet cinema was not enough. I wanted the real-life French ironic comedy and happenstance romance. So I did what any teenager would do, I took a French class and began my journey on the road towards immersing myself in everything French.

Fast forward to college and my junior semester abroad where I found myself studying in Strasbourg, only four hours by train from Paris. It was during this time that I discovered why French cinema always had such an allure. In real life, away from the scrutiny of a camera and the editing skills of its operator, I learned that Paris continues to be a hub of theatrics. Sitting down at an outdoor terrace to consume the afternoon’s obligatory café au lait goes beyond the simple caffeine consumption; in Paris taking a seat at the café is a free ticket to everyday Parisian theater or the real-life inspiration that French films are created from. Streets become the stage and the Parisians the actors, letting the traveler step into the idealized scenes that we are attracted to in French cinema. Comedy or tragedy, Parisian streets are filled with everyday sketches, so colorful they hover on the verge of unreal and yet so involved that no screenwriter could have mastered the script. At its best, the streets of Paris provide spontaneous reality theater.

Many Paris visitors have their preferred stages on which the theatrics of Parisian behavior are voraciously consumed. For some it is the outdoor markets where farmers shout out vegetable prices, for others it is mazes of clothing at Galleries Lafayettes, attracting some of Paris’ classiest and finest of actors. For my father and me it is Rue Mouffetard.

An old cobblestone road, Rue Mouffetard is a symbol of Parisian market life; it embodies every romantic symbol of small Parisian shopkeepers and shop goers that French cinema diffuses. Stores spill onto the streets and old ladies slowly make their way up and down the narrow road, waiting to fill their tattered wicker baskets, equally as gracefully aged as their owners. Old dogs trail alongside, like props used to highlight the elderly character of the market ladies. Rue Mouffetard is a mélange of stereotypical French charm and real life Paris, making the stage ideal for brilliant theatrics.

My parents had come to visit me in France, and the trip was to begin in Paris. They flew in from Seattle and I trekked across the French rails from Strasbourg. My father and I had not been in Paris together since my pre-French speaking days. I had reached the level of feeling comfortable at asking about the quality of cheeses at the market while my father struggled to correctly pronounce bonjour and merci. He had watched many more French films than I, but I felt I was one up on him with my language skills. I felt I was better prepared for the magic of real-life Parisian theatrics. I had no need for subtitles; this time I could translate.

Our second day in Paris we made our way to Rue Mouffetard to peruse and enjoy. We found ourselves on a superb people watching corner on Rue Mouffetard and ordered the necessary café au lait while soaking up as much of the street’s character as possible. In the midst of our admiration for the organized chaos that defines the charismatic street, my father pointed up the street to an old Frenchman arriving on his bicycle.

“I wonder where he’s going?”

It was the perfect question to ask, as on the back of his bicycle, the man had awkwardly balanced several large pieces of wood and was intensely tottering as he tried to weave back and forth between the crowds without falling. Behind him, as if making sure that his master would not crash, came a skinny, long-haired dog.

I assumed the man would continue wobbling down the street and the dog would keep following him, but the two of them surprisingly stopped on the other side of the street corner that we were sitting on.

“This will be something to see,” my father noted as the old man disembarked from his bicycle and the dog tiredly lay down. The man moved slowly and precisely embodying his stereotypical image found in many French movies; a worn man wearing dark shabby pants and equally shabby shoes, but with a glint of life still left in his eyes. Lying on the street corner, the tired dog looked at his master, seeming to wait for something spectacular and miraculous to happen. Under the dog’s gaze the man began to set up what slightly resembled a table, and I knew that the first act of that day’s comedic spectacle had begun.

The table’s appearance was as tired and old as the man’s; a rickety heap of two flimsy legs with little or no support and a long, slightly cracked, wooden board. The old man struggled, setting up one side and returning to the other which would subsequently fall over every time he returned to adjust the opposite side. He continued this seemingly strenuous back and forth act for over ten minutes, and by his movements it was clear that he would persist in this manner for the rest of the day if necessary; the man was as committed to his table as he was old. My father, his eyes wide with awe by this time excitedly whispered, “This is like a Jacques Tati movie in real life.”

People continued to walk by; Parisians not taking note of his behavior, but we the tourists enjoying this viewing of real-life drama. The dog laid his head on his feet, his body language saying that this was not his first time sprawled next to the strangely constructed table.

I continued to consume my café au lait, intrigued by the man and his dog; it was like watching a silent movie where the personality of the characters shines across the screen despite the lack of words. The sounds of Rue Mouffetard dampened as I concentrated on the man’s every movement. I am unsure whether my own, or my father’s, intense attention somehow helped him, but our beloved character finally succeeded in getting the table to stand by itself. I was so engrossed in what I was watching, I nearly clapped. Real-life had turned into a theatric spectacle and the first act was over leaving us all on the edge of our café chairs waiting for the next.

With the table now relatively stable, the man slowly reached down into a lumpy black bag. From its dark depths, he began to methodically take out boxes and place them on his infamous table, which insisted on looking like it was on the brink of falling to the ground. Even from our café view on the other side of the street we could see that the colors on the cardboard boxes that he removed from the bag were faded, speaking to an age close to that of their owner.

“Do you think he does this every weekend?” my mother asked. Maybe he had been performing this act, always using the same props, for years. It seemed possible, and as we dreamed up stories about the man’s past we were enchanted by our Saturday morning real-life Rue Mouffetard comedy. The dog however continued to be unimpressed, even as the man unloaded his mysterious boxes. What was in them? We strained our eyes in order to make out the strangely shaped objects. “Are they bird cages?” I asked with a mélange of surprise and confusion in my voice.

We put down several euros on the table to pay for the bill so that we could move closer to the man and his odd cages. This is the advantage of real-life comedy: you do not have to remain a spectator. While jumping onto the stage at La Comédie Francaise would be considered rude, highly inconsiderate and would probably get you thrown out of Paris’ most famous theater, jumping into the scene of real-life comedy and interacting with the actor is a part of experiencing the culture. Instead of sitting on the couch and merely watching the French film, dreaming about being in the background, you can step in and consume the spectacle with all senses. So we made our way from our audience location to the stage to investigate the odd bird cages.

As I neared, I realized that several Parisian market ladies, complete with dogs and hair wrapped in tight buns, were gathering; even locals out for their morning shopping were in need of some comedic levity. They stared intently with focused eyes at the cages, their faces showing a mix of wonder and amusement. I managed to wedge my way between two wicker basket toting women and finally saw the reason for the general amusement. I motioned to my father and pointed to the table; these were not ordinary bird cages, they held singing birds. Plastic singing birds.

The market ladies continued on their way; more important things were still waiting on the to-do list. With no Saturday dinner to shop for however, my father and I stayed. With less people surrounding his small table – surprisingly still standing – the old Frenchman began to charm my father by explaining the wonders of a plastic singing bird.

“Avec cet oiseau, vous aurez toujours de la compagnie… mais sans avoir besoin de le donner à manger,” the old man proudly stated, using his strongest salesman voice. My father, not a francophone, was lost at the sentence, but I understood. With this bird you will always have company, but you wouldn’t ever need to feed it. I went to translate for my father, but as I opened my mouth I realized that no translation was necessary. Gauging by the look of amusement in my father’s eyes, he probably wouldn’t even have heard me; he was enthralled by the comedic act before him. This was theater; to be interpreted as my father, the spectator, wanted. An old Frenchman’s Saturday morning ritual was a standard of everyday life, but for my father it was a work of French comedy, taking place right before his eyes. Better than any scripted French film, and no translation or subtitles needed.

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