Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Foreign Affairs

Alumbic, 2006

By the time my wife and I were planning a 30th wedding anniversary trip to Paris, I had been going to the same barber shop for almost a decade and having my hair cut by the same woman. She’s a small Asian woman with a wonderful sense of humor and hands that wield scissors like nobody’s business.

When Ritanna learned I was going to Paris, she urged me to go visit her old employer/landlady at her boutique on the Rue du Four in the Saint Germain. This lady had taken Ritanna and her sister in when they could no longer endure the violence and abuse of the Parisian slum where their mother had settled them after arriving from war torn Cambodia. She’d given them jobs in the shop and a room upstairs in which to sleep.

This wasn’t the first time someone had urged us to look up someone we didn’t know while traveling abroad. In 1989, my wife’s uncle encouraged us to call one of his ham radio buddies while we were traveling in England. We called several days before arriving in their part of the country. They invited us to stop by, but we got the distinct impression they had no idea who we were and were just being polite. (We’d been hoping they might extend the courtesy of allowing us to do a load of wash.)

By the time we approached in Taunton, Somerset, Stan must have spoken again on the radio with my wife’s uncle. When we called for final directions, you’d have thought we were their long lost children. Stan and his wife Jackie insisted that we stay the night (and do laundry). They invited their neighbors and their son and his children over to meet us. They took us for a drive in the country to see some of the local stately homes and gardens. That evening they treated us to dinner at their favorite pub. We became fast friends and have stayed in touch ever since.

I didn’t know, on the other hand, what kind of reception I could expect at the Alumbic boutique in Paris. My barber, Ritanna, isn’t the world’s most dependable person. You spend much time with her and you get the impression that she’s not above doing things other people aren’t comfortable doing if that’s what it takes to survive. She told me how her sister used to “borrow” from the store’s cash register and how she herself used to sneak away from the job and smoke pot in the basement with the owner’s son.

To be honest, I hadn’t intended to spend much time retracing Ritanna’s Parisian stomping grounds. But one day my wife and I discovered while walking in the Saint Germain that the name of the street we were walking on had changed to Rue de Four. I looked around and there, right across the street, was the Alumbic boutique. (I have no idea what the name means.) We stepped into the shop and I asked to see the owner. When she appeared, I asked in my best tourist French:

“Connaissez-vous la femme appelée Ritanna?”

The owner looked at me suspiciously for a moment. Then a big smile formed on her face and she came around the counter to hug me, all the while talking so quickly in a mashup of French and English that I couldn’t begin to understand what she was saying.

The store owner insisted that we wait while she called her son (he of the pot smoking). When he showed up, he pulled out his Daytimer book and showed me, pasted inside the front cover, Ritanna’s business card from the Holly Famous Barber Shop in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

I really didn’t have much else to say other than that Ritanna sent her regards. But the store owner insisted on sending us back out onto the street with armloads of mini-cigarette lighters with the store name on them that even if we had been smokers would have probably landed us in Gitmo if we’d tried to take them on the plane.

I wish we had such contacts in Venice. I wouldn’t mind a cheap place to freeload there from time to time.

1 comment:

  1. That's a good story! I had an experience in France once--my sister and I were told to look up a man who did business with my dad, and we wound up at an elaborte petite dejeuner with his family on the outskirts of Versailles. Lovely meal, and they kept asking us to eat more. Using my limited French, to the best of my ability, I thought I told them I was full. They all started "oohing" and "aahing," so I knew I'd said something wrong. Instead of "Je n'en peux plus" (I've had enough) I said "Je suis plein," which essentially means "I'm pregnant." Mind you, I was about 16 at the time, but they were all quite happy for me! ;)) I still have fond memories of that visit and that meal, though...