December 1st, 2021
Josephine Baker in the Panthéon
If you lean far enough out of the window of my fourth-floor flat in Montparnasse, trying not to kill yourself with a downward tumble, you can just make out the blue plaque on the corner of the street: “Josephine Baker Square: Josephine Baker, 1906 – 1975, Music-hall Artiste, Sub-Lieutenant in the Free French Forces.”
It’s right outside the supermarket Monoprix. Josephine Baker has just been “Panthéonized” – honoured with a tomb in the Panthéon – one of only six women, including Marie Curie and Simone Veil, and the only black woman. Wonderful, beautiful Josephine, with her exotic dance routines, embracing “les années folles” of Paris in the twenties, and going on to fight for human rights, regardless of colour or creed. A trailblazer, mother of twelve adopted children, the “Rainbow Tribe”. Her memory, revived by the ceremony at the Panthéon, brings light and hope on a dull winter evening.
Now, on this street corner, tired shoppers, masked in these pandemic days, trickle out of the supermarket, their eyes fixed ahead, weary in the December drizzle.
One man doesn’t. One man stands beside the post that holds up the blue plaque and shouts, to whoever: “Osez, Joséphine!” Then he dances. Yesterday, he wore a string of ripe bananas as a belt and wiggled his hips in an imitation Bakeresque dance.
I like him – Khaled.
He is highly qualified, once a maths professor at a renowned university in Algeria. He could talk about algebra and equations. He gave it all up to become the town crier in this corner of Montparnasse.
As the news changes, so does he. Last week it was “La fin du monde est proche.” He threw a black shawl over his head and droned out his message all day long, until the pigeons plucked at the thread of his wrap and he threw it on the pavement. He always carries bread for the birds so they follow him around, cooing and pooping at his prophecies. From so many pigeons over so many years, his old dirty raincoat is torn to shreds – it has become a work of art: ribbons blowing in the wind, ribbons flowing from his shoulders and wrists.
Now he moves them to full effect.
“Osez, Joséphine. Tu as été Pantheonisée ! Go for it, Josephine. You’ve been Panthéonized!”
I am walking out of Monoprix with a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread.
“Bonsoir, Khaled,” I say, as usual.
His black eyes are shining in the rain.
I want to ask him what happened, what is his story. Rumour has it that his beloved broke his heart, and he never again wanted a home, a roof, a hearth.
His dark eyes tell me I can’t ask. Khaled is Khaled, with the secret veil that shrouds him.
I don’t ask him. Of course I don’t. Instead, I ask him to help me with the pronunciation of “Panthéonisée”.
Which he does. And we laugh. And do a wiggle of a dance together.
And I walk the short distance back to my flat in the winter rain to his cries of: