On the Terrace at La Samaritaine, and Elsewhere


Ever since he’d discovered this place, almost by chance, Alfred Eisenblic had promised himself never to spend summer vacation anywhere else but here, on the rooftop terrace café of La Samaritaine, very close to home.

Atop the department store roof, he found sunlight and air without even having to buy a coffee. He could have coffee if he wished. But if he wasn’t hungry or thirsty, he could just sit there for the simple pleasure of it.

With that kind of set-up, why go to Trouville or Berck Beach? At the beach in Normandy, could you look out over the rooftops of Paris, like a backdrop from the Théâtre du Châtelet? Of course not.

Every afternoon in July, Eisenblic took the elevator to the top floor of La Samaritaine, climbed the last flight of stairs, and settled at his table on the rooftop to read the newspaper.

Of course, the one person who did not appreciate this routine was his wife. Each year, Ida wore him down with her ideas for vacations in Royat, or Vichy, or Néris-les-Bains in the mountains in the center of France, where miserable people wasted their time strolling around or taking thermal cures that wouldn’t add one second to their life. If you’re healthy, act like you’re healthy! If you’re sick, just be sick! Just go see a doctor and get a prescription, instead of taking walks in some park where you have to talk to people you’d never even say hello to in Paris! That was Alfred Eisenblic’s philosophy.

And yet, Ida’s obsession had been, and still was, to convince him to make a reservation at some hotel for a summer vacation.

This year, she was fixated on Néris-les-Bains. But why go there? There was absolutely no reason. So he resisted.

Luckily, Ida pushed the issue less, now that her friends had decided to stay in Paris for July and August, and not leave until September. Her regular card parties would continue. For July, at least, she would leave him more or less alone. After that, well, he’d see. After that, he could always come up with ways to avoid leaving Paris. Anyway, who could tell what the future would bring? It was all up to destiny.

These days, Ida stayed home, not annoying him. She listened to Radio Luxembourg until one or two o’clock every afternoon. Then she walked over to meet her friends at Place de la République, making detours, under the pretense of taking little strolls, past shops on Boulevard Sébastopol. May it do her good!

Eisenblic was not interested in card games or strolls. Especially not in summer when he could be sitting on the rooftop of La Samaritaine in the sun, where life was a blessing.

This particular day, arriving at the terrace, he would have appreciated the joys of the moment completely if he had not seen what he saw: his usual table was occupied. And by whom? By one of his wife’s friends, whom he vaguely recognized, and who was reading Unzer Wort, a Yiddish newspaper.

Just yesterday, he had sat in that same exact place. It was his corner. What could that woman be doing there? She was one of the card players from Place de la République. Her presence seemed odd. He approached and poked his head over her newspaper. As soon as she saw him, she lowered the Unzer Wort to the table.

“Well, what luck, I was hoping to talk to you,” she said without even a hello.

Her first words had already ruined Alfred Eisenblic’s afternoon.

He forced himself to be polite, asking only how she had known he would be here, as she seemed to be waiting.

Madame Eisenblic had provided the information, the woman admitted before coming around to the question on her mind. Which seemed to be: Why are you preventing your wife from going on vacation with us?

He started to protest, saying that he had never forbidden anyone to do anything, not even drown themselves in a hot thermal bath if they so desired.

But that wasn’t her real question, he realized, as she continued: “Besides, we need you for Néris-les-Bains in September, Monsieur Eisenblic. We already have two people—my other friend and me. You and your wife would make four. With four, we could hire a taxi service I know of to take us from Paris to Néris, door-to-door, for about the same price as four train fares. Say yes, and I’ll call the driver later today, as soon as I get home. Say no, and my other friend—also a widow—and I will have no choice but to take the train, haul our own baggage, and arrive completely worn out!” Her emotion mounted as she spoke.

Looking over his shoulder for an escape, Eisenblic mumbled, “But Madame, do you think I want you to be tired or sick? I’d like for you to live to the age of a hundred and twenty! What have I done for you to make such a scene?”

She gripped his hand. “Pardon me for losing my temper, but I know perfectly well that you are absolutely opposed to visiting Néris-les-Bains. Ida told me.”

“Madame, please, what do you want from me?”

“Nothing so terrible,” she smiled. “Simply that you say, as would any normal man: Yes, all right, reserve a taxi for September 3rd. That’s all I want from you. I’m not asking the impossible.”

Eisenblic hesitated. This was a trap laid by his wife, he was certain of it! And a sure cause for divorce before any judge in the world. On the other hand, here they were on the terrace of La Samaritaine, it was summertime, the weather was beautiful, and nothing definite had happened yet. He needed time to think, to plan his counter-attack. Everything could still work out.

“You want to know something?” he sighed. “I wonder if you should be pushing so hard for this vacation. I’ve heard that it’s going to rain every day all over France this September, and even more in Néris-les-Bains.”

This news did not deter her. “We’ll take raincoats, what’s the problem? Neither you nor I nor your wife is made of spun sugar, right?”

“Maybe not, but it’s not good for people who have any kind of rheumatism. You never know.”

She lifted her hands and began to laugh. “People like you get rheumatism in the head by never going anywhere on vacation! Your wife has told me everything—you never leave Paris.”

“And why should I?” he protested. “It’s so pleasant in Paris! Look at this vista! Where else in the world do you have a panorama like this?” With one arm, he swept the horizon.

She shrugged.

“Look, can we count on you, yes or no?” she asked, folding her newspaper and slipping it into her handbag.

She was clearly about to leave. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, then he could take her seat. Only, he was sure he’d have a scene with Ida at home that evening. His wife would be even more frustrated by her friend’s failure to convince him than by her own. What should he do? Just let Ida’s friend leave? Or not?

He studied her more closely: actually, she was not an ugly woman. A widow, but not ugly. She even looked a little like Martine Carol, the movie star. Or, more like Martine Carol’s mother, if her mother had been an actress, too. She was somewhere between forty-five and fifty-five years old, lightly perfumed, and somewhat fashionable. She was certainly dressed better than Ida, who still insisted on making her own clothes. This unexpected realization emboldened him.

“Madame,” he began, “I hope you’ll pardon me for speaking frankly, but what would happen if we went on vacation together, and I flirted with you a little bit, which would be very possible if I were the only man with three women, right? Don’t you think people would talk? You know how people are. Three women and one man…”

She stiffened. She had not expected a comment of this sort. Now she looked more carefully at the person she’d been speaking with, staring down at her. Eisenblic had been coming to the terrace of La Samaritaine long enough to be weather-beaten by the sun. Under his gray hair, he had the broad shoulders of someone who might have been a sea captain, or perhaps an artisan fisherman who repaired nets in his retirement. Alfred Eisenblic had something Spencer Tracy-ish about him. In any case, he looked like a someone who was no pushover. Bizarrely, abruptly, suddenly—or any other -ly word you can think of—she realized she was talking to a man, and not just to the husband of Madame Eisenblic. She blushed.

“Don’t say that, Monsieur Alfred. At our age?”

He noticed her use of his first name.

In truth, he was also Monsieur Alfred, not just Monsieur EISENBLIC, as his name appeared on his identification card. There were feelings that could pass between them. He was in a completely different state of mind than scarcely five minutes before. He pulled out a chair and sat down at the table.

“Perhaps you’d like a cup of coffee? Maybe some ice cream?” he suggested.

“Another time, thank you, I’ve already had coffee and I really must be going. My friends are waiting for me,” she simpered.

“I know, I’ll walk with you part way,” he said firmly, pushing back from the table.

She stood up, steered her way between the chairs, and passed right in front of him. She brushed against him, and again he noted that she smelled very nice. As they continued across the terrace, he took her arm as if to protect her, although no obstacle stood in their path. She allowed him to do so.

Like two dear friends, they began talking as they walked, going down the stairs, taking the elevator. They were still chatting when they reached the ground floor. Even though there was no reason for him to continue holding her arm, he did not let go. And she seemed to find that perfectly natural. Oh my, she was wearing such a lovely perfume, this woman, he thought on Rue de Rivoli, where she gently pulled away to say good-bye.

Watching her trot toward the bus stop, Monsieur Eisenblic could probably not help thinking that maybe, if destiny so decided, this year he would leave Paris and the 1st arrondissement in September for a nice vacation. Maybe even at Néris-les-Bains. Maybe even far from the excellent terrace at La Samaritaine.


Zalman Albetoug’s Beautiful Ideas


“Thanks to engineers, the world works, but thanks to artists, the world lives,” Zalman Albetoug loved to say. He was neither an engineer nor an artist, but rather a leather goods wholesaler. Therefore, when he decided to have the flooring replaced in his store on Rue du Temple, Albetoug chose a poetic color of linoleum.

He dreamed of a solid blue—like the ocean—or a bright yellow—like the sun—but the flooring store could quote nothing in these colors at a good price. In the end, the linoleum they installed on the floor of his shop was dark brown. It was neat, clean, and easy to wash, but it was not artistic. Because of this, Albetoug felt a vague resentment toward his lady bookkeeper, who had taken care of the negiations with the linoleum store, but he put up with the drab color.

Time passed. Ten years after the installation, the flooring had holes in it, and the old bookkeeper had retired. Albetoug decided it was once again time to change the linoleum for something with a little more warmth. Without asking anyone’s opinion, he ordered a nice velvet carpeting in a truly-pink pink that gave his store the air of a candy shop.

The Monday after the installation, he received a visit from his neighbor Australinder, also a leather goods dealer, who complimented the work and suggested that the walls now be repainted. This idea pleased Albetoug, and he had the work done while the store was closed for the weekend. Australinder suggested a few other interesting improvements. A week or two later, the store had been transformed. The effect was so nice that Australinder, now caught up in the game, had nearly identical work done to embellish his own shop.

The two leather goods shops that sat side by side kept their same dull exteriors, but now when customers entered either location, they felt as if they had walked onto a theater set.

Albetoug and Australinder had consulted neither architects nor decorators. They trusted their own taste and the talent of a local painter. In both stores, the ceiling was now painted light blue with tiny white clouds floating across it. The walls were yellow with green birds hanging on them, and the counters were covered with decals of plants and trees in every color. And of course on the floor was the plush pink-velvet carpeting.

Little by little, other ideas sprang forth from their conversations. Did the renovated spaces have an influence? The painter’s successful work? The continual talk about art and progress in the world? Or something else? No one ever knew, but one day Albetoug and Australinder decided to stop dealing in wholesale leather goods and sell something else: joie de vivre. The joy of life. At wholesale.

They abandoned their former work. After filing the necessary administrative and fiscal paperwork, they changed the letterhead on their billing forms and labels. They dedicated themselves to their new business, selling joie de vivre at a reasonable price.

From then on, whenever the open-air market vendors and their former customers needed joy, they came to Albetoug and Australinder to stock up. Not on daydreams, but on real daily joy sold in boxes of twelve, with the thirteenth box thrown in free for good customers. Albetoug and Australinder continued to be conscientious professionals, not entertainers or magicians; they were organized, and their customers loved the new merchandise. It was magnificent. Business was booming.

Time passed. About a year after reinventing their businesses, a certain Hector Meismacht showed up in Albetoug’s store.

Meismacht ran a boutique in the provinces, and he was an old customer from the leather goods days. He had not been apprised of the transformations to their businesses. He too had faced many changes in his professional life, so wasn’t the type to be easily thrown off. Abandoning his plans to purchase faux-leather traveling bags, he ordered twelve boxes of joie de vivre. Thirteen, with the bonus. After all, in his province, there was a greater shortage of joie de vivre than traveling bags or cardboard suitcases. Afterwards, he stopped at Australinder’s, as he’d always done in the leather goods days, and also ordered twelve boxes of joie de vivre from the competitor, with the same bonus.

He received the shipments from both wholesalers at the same time, about a week after his trip to Paris.

Albetoug’s joie de vivre was packaged differently than Australinder’s, but the products were very similar. To tell the truth, the only difference between them was the way they were packed for shipping. This led Miesmacht to form some mental reservations about the delivery service, and then several orders later, he called Albetoug’s store with an aggressive complaint.

Until this call from Miesmacht, none of Albetoug’s customers had ever expressed any dissatisfaction. As for better or worse packing materials, who would complain about that? So, Albetoug’s first reaction was to reply, “Monsieur Meismacht, you can always call to ask a question or complain nicely about the merchandise. But let’s not exaggerate! For forty years I’ve used the same delivery service, and I’ve never received any comments on the shipping.”

“Yes, but before it was for leather goods,” grumped Meismacht, “not this new product.”

“New product, new product,” said Albetoug, becoming irritated, “what’s that supposed to mean? Happiness existed back when people lived in caves, and wore sheepskins, even to the beach! It’s not really new merchandise, it’s something that’s been around forever.”

“Yes, but not at your store,” said Miesmacht, growing just as irritated. “The proof is that your neighbor’s merchandise is completely as it should be, and I received his packages without so much as a scratch on the wrapping. But just seeing your name on the label makes my feet hurt! Last time, a dozen boxes fell right on a corn on my foot because your delivery man was so careless. In fact, I’m sending you a registered letter of complaint with a copy going to my lawyer.”

This announcement did not please Albetoug. Although he’d lived quite serenely for more than a year, he raised his voice now.

“You can send all the copies you want. You can make a copy for your plumber, for your sister-in-law, even for the President of the Republic, if it makes you happy.”

“You’ll see!” retorted Meismacht. “I’m not going to be pushed around by some humanitarian with a worthless delivery service!”

That was too much. At his age, Albetoug had been called many things, but never had he been called a humanitarian in such a snobbish tone.

The altercation continued, becoming more and more tense. Old Albetoug was so irritated, and his blood pressure rose so high, that he had a sort of blackout. He dropped the phone and collapsed onto the pink carpeting.

Lying there next to the phone receiver, he could still hear the other man arguing.

Dragging himself across the floor to hang up the phone, Zalman Albetoug struggled to think of a new saying that would make him feel better. Something that would allow him—despite his age and blood pressure, despite everything—to get up and regain his optimism as a seller of joie de vivre.

And he found it. He said, “Thanks to wise men, the world is making progress; thanks to artists, the world is worth living in; but the world will never be completely happy until all the fools and imbeciles are dealing full time with the corns on their feet, instead of ruining other people’s lives.”

 After this incident, for reasons relating to Miesmacht’s feet, or something else, Zalman Albetoug never heard from that pain-in-the-neck again, and the world once more became as pink as the plush carpeting in his shop.

This tale, for it is a tale, ends here. Ah, what beautiful ideas Zalman Albetoug had, and how we miss him!