October 21, 2016
I never understood school and was surprised when I managed to stumble through it. Take French, for example. Apparently, I learned the language for three years but I came away unable to order a cheese sandwich. The French teacher didn’t like me. I was a talker and a laugher but I was only trying to pep things up in what was otherwise a very dull hour. The man had no sense of humour.
When I moved to Paris in 2000, I spoke and read no French and had to start from scratch. I went to a language school for a while but the person who really got me talking was a 77-year-old neighbour called Madame Colombo. She was a lonely woman who used to visit me almost daily. She would bring me gifts. One time, she brought me the fibrous white stalks from some Swiss chard (silverbeet). She’d eaten the delicious leafy part. ‘These are too tough for my teeth,’ she said. ‘I thought you might like them.’
In return for her kindness, I made her biscuits and crêpes, the French way with lots of butter. She appreciated my baking. She had high cholesterol and never dared buy herself anything dangerous.
Madame Colombo once gave me a German bayonet that her husband had unearthed in the garden of a holiday cottage. I gave it to my brother Bruce who had to declare it at Charles de Gaulle Airport where they taped a large notice to his suitcase that said ‘ARM’ (weapon). The notice fell off en route to New Zealand but it may as well have said ‘LEG’ for all the sense it would have made to NZ Customs.
Madame Colombo’s father had been a soldier in WWI and had been hit by a bomb. She told me he had a metal plate in his head and used to have seizures. She was a little girl during WWII and remembered the hunger and fear of German occupation. Her mother died of cancer when she was twelve and her husband had been conscripted into the French forces during ‘la sale guerre’ (the dirty war) in Algeria. He came back with post-traumatic stress disorder and was never the same again. Her son was a ne’er do well.
Madame Colombo was an unlucky woman but she taught me a lot about the French and gave me invaluable personal information about everyone in the apartment building. One of these neighbours was her nemesis, a big woman called Madame Madot who used to hang her large underwear out of her window. ‘She was never married,’ said Colombo. ‘She called him her husband but they only ever lived together.’
Madot had a cat called Marilyn which she fed on raw beef smothered in melted butter. She wore sparkly paste earrings and drew her eyebrows on thick, dark and flat. They were statement eyebrows. She used to drink wine with crème de cassis out of dainty glasses at the café on the corner. Colombo knew about her drinking habits because she used to spy on her.
She spied on everyone.
She spied on me.