On Pastis, France and the Glory of Strangers

The year was 1998, and it was July and everywhere was talk of soccer. Earlier, I had been on the beach in Marseilles and the beauty of the water, the riot of colors and accents belonging to the men and boys and women and girls running around, some dressed some not, had mesmerized me.

Later on, I had been invited as a guest by a former French diplomat at the home of an artist or businessman he had known. I had met the diplomat because he lived in the building where I had rented a room for the Coup du Monde. (I think The Netherlands were playing the Irish and tempers were high, even in France which, in the early days of the tournament, still believed soccer was beneath them.) The building I was staying was spectacularly famous, the iconic Unite dā€™ Habitation by Le Corbusier. I had known none of this when I booked the room at the last minute to fly to France for a magazine assignment. I had stepped out of the cab asking where the front desk was, not knowing that it was a private building.

But from the pool in the back of the diplomat's friend's home, we could see the water's edge along the bay where, they told me, Cezanne had come again and again to paint. It was not hard to see why.

Dinner is over and someone brings a tray, with a bottle of strange local spirits and five small glasses with a pitcher of water. "This is pastis," the diplomat tells me, knowing that he is the only one fluent in English and that I have no French.

I drink it down, it's spicy and warm and smoother than I expected. "Ohh," say several of the guests, mildly alarmed. "Slow," says the Frenchman whose guest I was. "This is very strong." I slow down, but couldn't help but tell them, "Well I am from Kentucky and we have bourbon there. This can't be stronger than that, can it?"

Paris and the Ritz and Grant and the Seine and huge red light district at the foot of the Church of the Sacred Heart, Notre Dame and good wine and tiny rooms were all around the corner, a week out for me. But those few days in Marseilles, the day of drinks and waves and the nighttime view, had been my introduction to France, to beautiful beaches and to pastis.

I leave early next month for a return trip to Europe, this time to Rome and Italian countryside. I am in the law library at Stanford and come across this 1957 interview from The Paris Review, and all of the above comes flooding back. The scene is set thusly:

"This interview takes place in the apartment of Ralph Ellison at the American Academy in Rome: a comfortable room filled with books and pictures. Mr. Warren, who might be described as a sandy man with a twinkle in his eye, is ensconced in an armchair while the interviewers, manning tape recorder and notebook, are perched on straight-back chairs. Mrs. Ellison, ice-bowl tinkling, comes into the room occasionally to replenish the glasses: all drink pastis."

The light here drew Cezanne back to the Marseilles shoreline again and again.

The light here drew Cezanne back to the Marseilles shoreline again and again.