Monday, April 4, 2011

Market Men

So I'm experimenting in sharing some of my personal travel/life abroad stories. I've kept a series of journals throughout the past 3 years. They're full of what are, to me, quite treasured memories. This one stems from an encounter I had in August 2008, on my first trip to Paris.

One is from Tunisia and the other from Lebanon. The Tunisian man owns a little food shop in Montmartre, and Mr. Lebanon sells highly overpriced cigarettes there in the evenings, when all of the "tabacs" are closed. Mr. Lebanon wrote "Je T'Aime" on the overhand of the Tunisian man's shop.

Alex and I visited their shop during our summer visit. We chatted with them a lot, and on the last night, they gave us each a free soft drink. Upon moving back to Paris, I knew that I'd have those two to go back to. In fact, after unloading my suitcases into Greg's Montmartre flat, that shop was my first stop. They were the only two people in Paris who I knew. I learned that the Tunisian man was called Neji, and the Lebanese guy was Mario.

I passed the store every day on my way to and from work. I always stopped in, talked to Neji for a few minutes in my broken but ever-improving French. One night, Mario called me and invited me to have a drink with them. I assumed we'd go to the café across the street, but instead they pulled up a seat near the register for me and told me to pick a drink. We sat and talked and Neji told me I looked sad. I burst into tears, full of loneliness and winter depression. I didn't have the words to say any of that, so instead I was just some girl crying on a stool in a little food shop. "Je te comprend," Neji kept saying, and he told me to go pick out a candy because "Les filles adorent les bonbons".

Winter turned to spring and spring to summer and I spent many afternoons and evenings chatting with Neji. I sometimes ran into Mario in the neighborhood, wearing striped nautical shirts and a big white beard as he teetered on his red bicycle. And on the nights when I met him in Neji's shop, he and Neji were usually bickering. They got in fights over Mario's lewd behavior toward women, over Neji's strict parenting methods, over politics and gambling and everything in between. Meanwhile my French improved, and I learned how to work the cash register. I translated random tourists' broken English in to French for Neji, steered drunken late night visitors to the alcohol section of the store, and told desperate smokers the price of Marios's Marlboro's. Mario made me couscous dinners when I was sick, and Neji gave me oysters for my family's Christmas visit.

Neji and I talked about religion and philosophy, lifestyles and choices. He used to give me such spot-on advice, which at times seemed strange considering our many differences. It was a strange friendship, but it was really meaningful and it brought me a lot of comfort and stability during a lonely time in my life.

Somehow I came full circle and moved to Tunisia. I took a trip to Paris in September, and Neji was one of my first stops. He and Mario had gotten into some awful argument and hadn't spoken since I left Paris. He had converted his food shop into a souvenir store. The top level, which had once been the kitchen, is now an internet café. I'm sure it brings him a lot more revenue, but I have to say that I'll always miss that old store.

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