How you pick up your take-out in my neighborhood
After a major visit to the oral surgeon yesterday, it seems wise to eat Soft Stuff. Which makes me immediately think of nouilles Pnomh Penh, a noodle dish (with little bits of Cut-Up Stuff) from the tiny Cambodian restaurant downhill.
So off I go.
As I’m coming out, I see a little boy - couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 - free-wheeling down the middle of the cobblestone street on one of those pedal-less plastic pre-tricycles only about a foot off the ground. A man I’m presuming is his father runs behind him, trying to catch up, because... at the bottom of that street, only a few yards down, it feeds into the much busier rue des Abbesses shopping street. To be fair, the kid ultimately has it under control and turns right, toward the curb of the sidewalk. But as a mother, the whole thing doesn’t seem like a very well-thought idea to me, although it probably is building self-assurance in the kid... if he ever makes it to adulthood.
As I said, Le Cambodge is a tiny place. Seating for 24 inside, around the display counter. And when the sun is out three two-chair tables outside the front door, now that the sidewalk has been widened. The owner greets me, in English, which he is determinedly trying to learn. When his vocabulary runs out, we switch back into French, until the paying and good-bye part, which he’s got down pat in English. He hands me a gift as I leave, a little container of sesame seed candies. It’s the gesture that touches me.
He and I have known each other since he opened this restaurant. His hair is much greyer now. One day, when there was no one else around - and he was probably sad and maybe lonely for some reason - he told me about walking out of Cambodia all the way to Thailand. His country was under Lon Nol’s murderous government then, and he had been separated from his family. He was 7 and totally alone in a camp. One day he just started walking. Someone had pointed in a direction and told him Thailand was that way. “Didn’t anyone stop you?” I asked him, amazed. “I was just a little boy. No one even saw me.” As my architect friend would have said, “He didn't appear on their horizon.” Distant uncles in France recovered him from the refugee camp in Thailand and brought him to France, where he ultimately opened this little place in my neighborhood, and I became a regular. He has seen my children grow up, and I his. That was 30-some years ago.
I decide to take a longer way home, one with a gentler slope. The ascension of Montmartre by the East Face. And that takes me past the couscous restaurant. Again I stop in. I’ve known this place for at least as many years as the Cambodian one, back when the father owned it. When he passed away, his son inherited it. A totally different personality. Far more effusive than the reserved but warm father with the gentle smile. “It’s been a long time,” he chides me. And it’s true that I haven’t been here yet this stay in Paris. Maybe when my American friends arrive Friday. His wife has been very ill with ovarian cancer and had to undergo surgery and then chemo. She’s not here yet today for the lunch service, but she’s back at work after many, many months in bed. With three boys, one still in middle school, and a restaurant to run, she would be sorely missed. And her radiant smile would be missed by us all.
And as I cross the square, now devoid of accordion music, I encounter my neighbors off to lunch somewhere, husband, wife and golden retriever. We shake hands and wish each other“Bon appétit!”
Montmartre is a village.