I left the petite Musée de Montmartre, forgetting my plastic bag, the one in which I carried my notebook, my glasses, my pen box, the one the museum receptionist made me check, eliciting a muttered remark from me to the effect that I doubted very much I could fit any of the museum’s precious relics in my little plastic bag.
When I went back for it, the receptionist looked at me over the tops of her bifocals as if I were a rare specimen of insect. “Your leetle bag is over there,” she said in sniffy, precise English, pointing with her elongated chin to the corner.
“Merci,” I said, taking a step toward it.
“You know,” she added in French, smiling, “the little bag which you so cleverly remarked is too small to steal anything in this museum. Hmm?”
“Yes, thank you,” I said, returning her smile while reaching for it.
“As you no doubt have observed, monsieur,” she added while pretending to be preoccupied with something else, something more important, “our museum, small and relatively obscure though it may be, holds many priceless items which might very well fit into your small and, incidentally, rather unprepossessing bag.”
“Uh, yes, indeed,” I said, and started to leave. By this time the lady had withdrawn from under the counter a lethal looking knife, a Laguiole like the ones Josiane collected, with a handle of ox horn, or was it tortoise shell? With a flourish she popped out the serrated blade. It caught the harsh light of the vestibule. I wondered if she intended to slit my insolent American throat with it.
“You see this knife?” she asked, carving a square shape into the air before my eyes. “Two slices—comme ça—!” another square, “—and a document worth 100,000 … 200,000 …300,000 francs—more!—et voilà: out of the frame it goes and into a small, ugly, plastic bag such as yours.”
“You’re so right, Madame,” I said, and holding my bag tentatively, as if it contained either a priceless relic or a lump of merde, I started out of the museum again. But madam wasn’t through with me.
“And if you think it hasn’t happened, monsieur, think again! It has, several times! Only last month a man such as yourself, a foreigner, an American (she spat the word) left here with two—two!—small etchings of Vlaminck—oui, monsieur, in a plastic bag—one no larger than yours!” She waved the Laguiole menacingly at me and my plastic bag that, were it not for that knife, I’d have used to suffocate her. “So you see, monsieur, just how stupide was your remark, oui?”
Parisians, so critical yet so thin-skinned. The thing to do in cases like this is to humble oneself. Two things Parisians respond well to: insults and groveling. Nothing in-between will suffice.
“Madame,” I say, “You are so right. But then I’m just a loutish American tourist. What do I know of art, of museums, of thieves—of plastic bags? Forgive my insolence and ignorance. As long as I live, I shall never attempt to enter a museum of any kind with a small, plastic bag. Certainly not your museum, Madam, which I shall remember—along with you—for the rest of my days.”
—excerpted from “From a Paris Notebook,” from the anthology, Paris, Etc., forthcoming from Serving House Books.