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Friday, April 17, 2009

To Russia, With Love

The other night I had a great dinner with friends. There was good wine, stinky cheese (my favorite kind), a lovely meal, a lot of animated conversation and ribald laughter. OK, I admit, I was the one laughing ribaldily, with ribaldity, I was ribaldous. In French, I was a paillard. And the lightning made fireworks in the sky outside, without even a murmur of thunder. It could have been the mean old God of Sarah Palin, threatening us all with the licking flames of hell fire because of our depravity. Or, it could have just been a spring night in Paris. It all depends on your frame of mind, or perhaps your level of spiritual cluelessness.

By the time the laughter died down, we realized we had to make a run for the Metro, lest we miss the last train. It was raining, and I shared my umbrella with my lovely tall friend. I looked up at her, way up at her, and said, "Wow. You're tall, aren't you?" I'm a master of the art of observation. "Gimmie that," she said. And so I gave her the umbrella, in order to stop stabbing her in the chest with its pointy spokes.

We all made the first train, but I didn't make my connecting train. So there I was in the wee hours of the morning, walking down Montparnasse, alone with my umbrella, hoping for a cab with his taxi sign glowing white and available. It was only a few blocks, and I stood in front of an open cafe, at the intersection of four streets. I saw the welcome glow of the taxi light, and waved my hand. He pulled over. I opened the back door, collapsed my umbrella and shook it violently, then slid into the seat with a hearty, "Bonjour Monsieur!" It was nice to hear a hearty and friendly reply, "Bonjour Madame!" He had a head full of gray curls, and very dark eyebrows. I saw those brows as our eyes met in the rearview mirror.

The cab was a cozy Mercedes, as are most cabs in Europe. This fact amazed my little niece when she visited me recently. It's one of those details I forget because I've been here a while. The car splashed through the empty, early-morning streets, and on the radio, Obama started to speak. I strained to hear what he was saying, just below the French interpreter's voice. The taxi driver said, "Il est une optimiste." Well... that's an understatement. I said, "Il est mon président." That also may have been an understatement.

"Nous avons besoin d'une optimiste maintenant," I said. His dark eyebrows nodded in assent. His eyes were gray.

We chatted back and forth for a little while in French, until he was kind enough to switch to English... with a Russian accent. Here are a few things he said:

  • The American people are suffering, but instead of being helped, it's the American banks who are being rewarded for their greed and avarice with billions in taxpayer's money.
  • Bernie Madoff will avoid jail, or if he must go to jail, it will be a comfortable one.
  • The taxi business is down in Paris. The Americans who are visiting during the Easter holiday are taking the Metro to save money.

We talked for the entire trip. He said so much. It wasn't just the regurgitation of headlines he'd read. He had digested reems of information and integrated it into a deep philosophical reality. I was sorely dissappointed when he pulled up in front of my apartment. I dug through my purse for the 12.50 Euros in cab fare, and apologized for all the small change I had to give him. He said, "Don't worry. I can always use the change."

It costs a minimum of $350,000 to buy a taxi license in Paris. That doesn't include the price of the new Mercedes. It's a wealthy man's job. And I'm glad it's a job preferred by at least one Russian intellectual.

I just hope he's wrong about Madoff.

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