By Frank Ephraim
Now you live in Paris. Yes, the city of light and romance. The broad avenues, the gentle river Seine, the bookstalls, the little bistros on the Left Bank, the Louvre, and the hordes of tourists.
You can walk the boulevards and the old narrow streets with their smells—garlic, flowers, and fresh bread. Gone now are the foul odors of the sidewalk urinals. Even the pervasive aroma of Gauloises, the ubiquitous French cigarettes, has subsided since the 1950s.
Your thoughts, however, are far from all these things. You have walked from your two rooms in Clichy, along streets with names not known by tourists. Another two kilometers on these old feet. Down to a shuffle now, and who knows how much longer you will be able to do even that. There is no choice but to walk. You’ve got to eat—and pay the rent.
There it is, finally, the Gare du Nord. The blackened gray stone of the railroad station is somber at this early hour. You mingle with the hurried masses as they enter the bustling station—up from the Metro, from buses and taxis. Each has his or her own thoughts, eyes fixed on a destination.
You carry the small black suitcase, packed as always by Marta. Marta is your wife. A white shirt, cuffs and collar beginning to fray, black socks, a handkerchief, and the toiletries. And in your small satchel, smoked whitefish fillets thinly sliced, and white bread. Enough for the train ride to Antwerp. There will be nothing for the return the next evening, Friday, the Sabbath, until you get home again.
The train. Yes, still on the same track all these years. Such routine, such regularity, as you begin the weekly journey. Well, not to Antwerp each time, of course. You would have long exhausted your chances. No, you have varied your appearances. Once a month to Amsterdam, Brussels, and a visit to other cities from time to time.
Perhaps you will be lucky. Sometimes the French housewives on a trip to visit relatives can be engaged in conversation. They tend to be shy, but an old man speaking French with a heavy Polish accent? Well, he cannot be threatening. You try to fill the time and they giggle merrily as your arm reaches around their shoulders.
You will disengage, swing back to your seat by the window and reach for your satchel from the rack above. The bread and the fish, all wrapped in wax paper, will come out. A necessary repast and then back to the women.
Antwerp. A young man will help with your suitcase. The women will laugh and wave. Careful, the railway coach’s steps will be slippery as you descend onto the platform.
The hat. Black with a raised crown. You will wear it square and slightly tipped back. You will have to fit in. But first a stop at the synagogue—a stranger in town will need a place to sleep. Someone will help and the family home for the night will surely provide a meal. Tomorrow is Friday, and generosity before the Sabbath is a tradition.
By now you know the streets very well in the religious section of Antwerp. Almost as well as you once knew the distant streets of Warsaw. It is no use to think of that anymore. Yet you have never forgotten the horrors, even if the images are blurred now. Oh, but your pride! It suffered almost complete annihilation just like everything else there. But you had determination after you survived it. You thought that there would be a kind of life, when you returned to the old country. You were wrong. The Poles hated you and you were too old, with no useful skill, so you had to eke out an existence somewhere else.
In Paris you became more brazen. You call it enterprising. And tomorrow morning you will approach each bearded man on the street asking for help—to buy a meal, to buy a pair of shoes, and to buy a train ticket home. Because now, you live in Paris.
©2011, Frank Ephraim. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.