Our tiny apartment here in Paris sits midway down the one-block street called rue Maître Albert [named after Albertus Magnus, the teacher of Thomas Aquinas], between Place Maubert and Quai de la Tournelle in the 5th arrondissement. Place Maubert is a lovely space bisected east to west by Boulevard St. Germain and crisscrossed by no fewer than seven other streets. In the middle of the Place is a very small triangular park, with a little patch of grass and a fountain. On the east side of the park sits our café, Le Metro [so named because next to it is the Maubert-Mutualité Metro station on the Number 10 line.] Whenever we are here, Susie and I spend a good deal of time sitting in Le Metro, drinking a kir or a café noisette and a déca allongé, and watching the world go by.
On one of the other sides of the little park are several benches, and for years now, we have watched a little old oriental lady sitting on one of the benches, hands crossed primly in her lap, sensible hat atop her head. She has been as much a fixture as the fountain. On rare occasions, she tosses some crusts of bread onto the grass for the pigeons, but for the most part she just sits. She is the first person we look for when we return to
At the end of rue Maître Albert, just where it empties into the Place, is an oriental grocery shop offering an exotic assortment of fresh and dried or packaged foods, one of which – cinq épices -- is an essential ingredient in my hazelnut encrusted rabbit loins dish. It is, or has been, called Thanh Binh, and since this is actually the heart of the Vietnamese district in
, it is one of a great many Vietnamese shops and restaurants in a five block radius of our apartment. Fifty yards away, facing Thanh Binh on rue Lagrange, is another Vietnamese grocery store, Thanh Binh Jeune [i.e., Thanh Binh Junior]. Pretty clearly, when Thanh Binh’s son grew up, the old man set him up in his own shop. Susie and I conceived the fantasy that the little old lady on the bench is Thanh Binh’s mother [and Thanh Binh Jeune’s grandmother], and was just keeping an eye on things. Paris
The last time we were here, Thanh Binh was closed for major renovations. Peering inside, we could see that all the shelves and display racks had been removed, new flooring was being put in, and a staircase was being constructed from the interior of the shop to the floor above. Now, six months later, we have returned, and Thanh Binh is no more. A new shop has opened, announcing itself as carrying Japanese and Oriental delicacies.
Now comes the urban mystery. The little old oriental lady is gone. No longer does she sit on her park bench, watching Thanh Binh’s shop. Her place has been taken by a different little old oriental lady, somewhat fuller of figure and rounder of face, but wearing very much the same sensible hat.
Can it be that the property that changed hands included sitting rights on that park bench, so that Thanh Binh’s mother was forced to vacate, making place for the mother of the new shopkeeper? Alas, the rules of urban politesse, combined with complex language barriers, keep us from finding out.