The French Couple / by Admin

It is about 7pm. Wednesday evening. 10 days ago now. I walk up the stairs to the Lotus Lounge, a trendy, made-for-tourists restaurant in the old city of Varanasi, overlooking the Ganges. There is a Nepali-serenity-US dollars accepted theme going on. It is actually quite a nice place, just a vast terrace on top of the river with mosaic on the floor and a huge painting of Krishna (or maybe it’s Buddha) on one of the walls, peacefully looking after you. Food is delicious and it is made clear on the menu that everything you will order has been washed with purified water. I really wonder what that means exactly, purified water, and if it was purified by Buddha himself (or Krishna for that matter)… But I don’t dare ask.

So after a long day filming at the school (I am starting a documentary film project about this school that offers free education to underprivileged kids in Varanasi), I decide to treat myself to a nice meal in this gorgeous setting. I walk the 4 kilometers that separate this part of town from Assi Ghat near where I am staying. It is already night when I get here, so the views of the Ganges won’t be on the menu for me tonight, but the whole experience is still quite enjoyable. From where I sit, I can hear music being played on the steps of the ghat (the ghat itself is flooded) and the special Varanasi mist is slowly spreading its thin veil. Beside me, at this early hour, there is only a Spanish couple (I can hear them speak) in their mid-thirties. She’s attractive and keeps on staring at me as if I had come out of a grave or something. He is wearing his hair very short and sports a few days old beard like pretty much all Western guys I have encountered throughout my trip. By now, I have come to believe that it is a sign, a way to communicate with other fellow travelers, something like, “I’m in India, living like a local (at Lotus Lounge…) and I’m roughing it!”. Since arriving in Varanasi, I have made sure to be clean-shaven everyday. At this point, I can’t look at a beard anymore without thinking: “Phony”, but I also have to disclose that I lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for almost three years, so beards and phoniness, you know…

I try not to pay too much attention to the small crowd that slowly comes in. Young and trendy couples, all European. I take a few notes on my Moleskine notebook, read a few chapters from this book by Arundathi Roy about Indian Maoists (the Naxalites) that Nick gave me before I left Mumbai, and order a Nepalese chicken curry with a ginger, lemon and honey tea. I am enjoying myself, quietly, even though I have to admit I’m slowly getting irritated by the crowd. I know I am part of this circus, just like any other character in this play, but it is still annoying to see it unfold. Too much. There is too much of the same in just one place.

Finally, they arrive, like the cherry on the cake, the French couple. I had already noticed them a few days ago at Café Sala, not far from here. I noticed them because he reminded me of a good friend of mine in Paris, and she looked like your typical young Parisian woman, similar to so many I used to see when I was still living there. They must be in their mid-twenties, 27 maybe. From the moment they come in, it is actually difficult to take my eyes off of them, or think about something else when I manage to look away. To make a long story a tad shorter, I am puzzled. Even the Maoists are unable to hold my interest now. She is wearing the official uniform for Western female tourists in Varanasi: colorful light and large pants found in any authentic-US dollars preferred stores in the old town, a mid-length kurta in a completely different, non-matching and flashy color, a turban (yes, a turban…), and to complete the picture with the needed mystical touch, a small orange Hindu bindi on her forehead. Next to her lay the gorgeous and delicate leather hand-made sandals she got for herself in the past 48 hours, fully and duly covered in holy Varanasi shit. In one word, she looks like most of the Western hippy-ish girls I see in the narrow streets of the old town when I make it up to here. If it were only her though, by herself, I would not have paid much attention, probably would not have even noticed her. But she was not alone. He is with her.

He, it’s her boyfriend, same age as her, and the reason I find myself writing about the French couple. In a way, I could start by saying that I know this guy. I don’t mean personally of course, but I can tell by his accent, the way he moves, even the words he uses, I can tell where he comes from, which city, neighborhood even. I’m not even thinking France here, I know it’s Paris, there’s no question about that. If I were feeling bolder, I could even venture a guess on the name of the street and I’m sure, absolutely sure, that I would not be far off. Ok, so I know this kid, I went to school with a version of him, smoked my first joint with another version, dated (or at least wished to) the same girls. And today, I am staring at him as he is asking the young Nepalese waiter if he actually is Nepalese, and telling the poor kid who starts having cold sweat running down his face that they just came back from Nepal and everybody looked just like him. And as he says that with the most relaxed, even friendly tone, I can’t stop thinking that he is actually dressed in a gorgeous black and plum silk Nepalese Lungi tied around his waist. That’s it. Just that scarf. That’s what the French young man from the French young couple thought would be a good idea to wear tonight at Lotus Lounge, overlooking the holy Ganges. I look at them and I get lost in my thoughts, lost in a meaning that will never come. I feel numbed by the total and utter incomprehension of what he and his girlfriend (wife maybe) think they are experiencing of India, but more generally of the world. I look at them and I wonder whether all these signs that they are wearing, each one of them potentially able to tell us something about them, are losing all substance and meaning now that they have been reorganized and appropriated by them. And I keep on sitting there by myself, eating my spicy chicken curry, more and more overwhelmed by my surroundings and totally disconnected from what is really going on around me. I hear a girl in the back with the strongest British accent asking: “Are your juices made wid wataa? Are they made wid wataa?” And I think that the Nepalese boy waiter (who, as it was ultimately decided, looks like all Nepalese people the French couple saw in Nepal when they were there a few days ago) responds quite nicely by saying (at least, I think that’s what he said): “No ma’am, they’re not made wid wataa, but we do pee in them”.