There’s an Edith Piaf song that goes, “Moi, j’essuie les verres au fond du café, j’ai bien trop à faire, pour pouvoir rêver”, which roughly translates as, “I’m drying glasses at the back of the café, I’ve got so much to do there’s no time to dream…” When I sing these lines, drying glasses behind the bar at 7 Villermont, it’s guaranteed to make Joel smirk. When he met me in London, I was an exotic young American with an expense account and a company American Express card. Now, I spend a lot of time drying glasses behind a bar in the South of France, but at least I can ironically reference French cultural giants for his amusement while I’m doing it.
Behind the bar is a good place to be. The view is unfettered, except by the odd bunch of ranunculus or anemones. A whole world happens out there on Avenue Villermont. Let me just say before I begin that Joel and I go out of our way every single day to be kind to most people in our quartier, and that compassion for others has always been (to use a cold but apt term) one of our “shared values”. But sometimes we can be a bit … well… snide.
Our actual customers – the people who come to eat – represent a small percentage of the interactions we have every day. We are beginning to know the names of people who pass on the street now, but we still, between ourselves, call them by the names we started with, before we really knew them. There’s the Massacreur, a Romanian bus driver who lives two doors down. We call him that because one of the first things he told me, as I was tending the flowerboxes that edge our terrace, was that he was going to massacre the group of kids who had stolen the chairs from his little yard. He adores his wife and six-year-old princess, so much so that he asked Joel to come and admire his tiny apartment after he’d repainted it while Wife and Princess were in Romania on holiday. It was so small and simple, and the Massacreur was so proud, that Joel cried (to me, not the Massacreur), and vowed ever after to appreciate all he has. We leave our empty wine bottles in the Massacreur’s yard, as he shares two rows of grape vines in Ramatuelle with a friend and is aging his own wine in the bus garage.
Then there’s Madame Chapeau (“Mrs Hat”), a woman from Luxembourg who changes her clothes and hats at least twice a day. People need to pass the restaurant to get to the fruit and veg market at Liberation, as well as to the tram stop. Madame Chapeau seems to wear one hat to go to the boulangerie, another to go to the bank, and a third to go to the traiteur. She stops at us once in a while for a “colonel”, which is a lemon sorbet with a double shot of vodka. She needs it: her husband has a form of dementia that means he refuses to be seen with her, wanders off and gets lost. He now wears a GPS bracelet, so that if he wanders out of his zone, alarm bells ring at the right places, and he’s netted. When we see him pass, several times a day, one of us always says, “Where’s he gone?” There but for the grace of …
Then there’s The Lion King, a tiny, wiry dancer who had a spell as a choreographer in London working on… yes, The Lion King. He’s opened a bizarre “ghost” jazz bar in the street next door, where every day he puts out in the street, as his terrace, an array of completely different furniture; deco chairs, old café tables, 1920s upholstered bar stools, potted palms… Every morning it’s as if he’s reached into his Mary Poppins carpet bag and pulled out a whole new decorating theme. We’ve never actually seen this bar with any customers, but the Lion King and his team are always there. And every day one or the other of them walks past several times with a handful of little fluffy dogs. We kiss, coo at the dogs, discuss how good business is, and say au revoir. And then we scuttle back into the restaurant and behind the bar to say, “What the f….?”
There are many more: the Wierdos, two middle-aged women who used to come to the restaurant every day, and then… stopped. We wondered what on earth we’d done until we heard from here and there that that’s what they’d done to every restaurant in the quartier. Every day they totter past and back again at least three times in high heels, both perfectly done up, according to the season in white linen, suede or fur. The fat blonde is always a few steps in front, the skinny blonde trailing behind. We see the first one pass, and we both say, “Here she comes!”, and she always does, the second one hoves into view.
There are plenty more. In the big apartment building across the street there are Big Bear and Little Bear, the art restorers (we want to hug them: when they come to eat with us on Friday nights, Little Bear belts out Hungarian love songs); Genius Child and his hairy parents, The Happy Family…
Avenue Villermont is mostly residential, but there are several businesses hidden in the courtyards. In our very own building there’s a sort of stable for cycle rikshaws, which advertise businesses as well as act as three-wheeled taxis for tourists in the centre of town. The other day six or eight of them trundled out decorated like swans. Then there’s the French Sign Language School, which teaches signing for the deaf. The other day a deaf woman from Sweden came for lunch with a deaf French woman, both of them at the school learning sign language. I could see that the French woman was mistakenly trying to explain to the Swedish woman that our tourte aux poireaux (leek tart) was beef, because the sign for beef is also, I believe, the international sign for bullshit (the only sign I know – a favourite of Joel’s).
Other businesses nearby include the Medical Hypnotists school (where people learn how to hypnotise to reduce pain, and who sometimes come to the restaurant in groups of eight and, we observe, are partial to our “Full 7” burger and mousse au chocolat), and the monthly Sunday chanting group. Some of the chanters come for brunch after three hours of chanting “Ommmmmm” next door, which apparently creates a happy local vortex of some kind in which the restaurant in included.
I wish I could provide photographs of all these characters, but it wouldn’t be very ethical, would it? Or kind. They are in fact just ordinary people going about their harmless business. Their only mistake is to be visible to Joel and to me.