Paris People #1
Every time I go into an English supermarket and see a Crespo jar of olives, I secretly smile and think of my old friend Lucette Corviaux, the owner's mistress. I never met Henri Crespo but I heard all about him, how he and his brother had begun to import olives from Algeria into France in tins in the 60s, even his virile manhood in his late 60s despite being at least 20 years older than her in the early 80s and even saw a completely naked photo of him which Lucette showed me lying on her bed!
I first met Lucette about 1980 when I was living in Paris and stalling out at Marche Montreux on Saturday and Sunday mornings. My neighbours were Max and Andrea and it was she who first introduced me to her friend, the VAT inspector Lucette, a top investigative administrator, pursuing business people who avoided paying their VAT or IVA in France.
Lucette lived in the 5em in 2 chambres de bonnes (maids rooms) on the fashionable rue Monsieur Le Prince, near Odeon, right in the heart of the Quartier Latin. I would often clamber up the stairs to the third floor where she would warmly welcome me and cook a tasty hearty meal.
Her whole life was controlled by Henri, her lover, who would call her on the dot of 8.50 am to say 'Bonjour' before she left for work and at 10.00 pm to ask how her day was and tell her his day too. They would then be on the phone for at least an hour. She had first been the mistress of his brother Antoine for a couple of years. The two men were originally from Algeria and both lived in Marseilles. Where they met Lucette, I know not.
Lucette would fly to Marseilles and elsewhere just for lunch when he needed to entertain clients. It would be engineered so she could conveniently take time from her important job on a Friday or a Monday so they could spend the weekend together if it was not just for the day. He appeared to be a 'mean' man apart from expensive lunches and air tickets which would have been on his large expense account. It took her years to persuade Henri to buy her a fur jacket after I had introduced her to my Polish furrier on the Blvd Saint Germain, the charming Monsieur Kummelrich. Later she would tell me he would discuss his business problems with her and ask for her advice! He had a wife somewhere who he would never divorce and children who were destined to take over the family business but Lucette was the one woman in his life who he was faithful to and passionate about despite being very possessive. French Mediterranean men are so practical when it comes to the affairs of the heart and in his case, money!
Eventually between Parisian flats, I stayed with her. She gave me her bedroom which was next door to her room while she slept in the bigger room with the kitchen and shower where her phone was so Monsieur could phone her at his regular hours like clockwork. She was like a bird in a gilded cage. He knew her every move and who she was with. Moi! I think we did speak on the phone to say hello a few times. I suppose he wanted to make sure I existed.
Over the years she would moan to me that she was fed up living in two rooms, like a student, on a third floor and, as the official mistress of an older wealthy man, needed security for her advancing years. A practical French woman was Lucette and quite rightly so. In my eyes Henri was using her as an unpaid executive on the board of Crespo. She started to drop a big hint that he wouldn't have to go to expensive hotels when he came to Paris if she had a two bedroom flat, bien sur, bought by him in her name! The ruse finally worked. The penny dropped or should I say the Franc and eventually Lucette became the proud owner of a modern conventional 2 bedroomed flat on a third floor with a lift in a respectable block in Plaisance, 15em but at least it was hers for ever.
I recall I stayed with her a few nights and she would cook me a delicious Normandy dish with veal in a creamy sauce with oyster mushrooms and a fresh green salad with the perfect vinaigrette. Then the phone would ring and I would have to disappear into the second bedroom so she could talk in private at length. Ooh la la and it was thus every day and night.
I recall she came to London once with Henri on business after I had married Martin in 1983. Andrea came to our mid-summer wedding but not Lucette but my memory is blurred as to why not. I just recall photos of her at my dinner table wearing a blue sweater with her short boyish ginger cropped hair and lovely smiling green eyes but without Henri.
The years passed, I hardly went back to Paris after Martin became jealous of my unknown French lover - Paris! She and I drifted and eventually lost touch. Then in the 90s at some point I looked her up again but she had aged. Her winning smile had gone. She had a cute little fluffy dog who went to work with her. The child she never had. She had the same job and was heading for retirement. Now she wore metal framed glasses all the time and two piece suits so she really looked like an executive office worker. Gone was the vivacious Lucette I had known and laughed with. In her place was a conventional rather boring middle aged woman, who had never married, and still only spoke about Henri this and Henri that. I was so bored when I took her out for dinner, that she must have seen I was detached and nodding off after a few glasses of good wine. No, you can never rekindle a friendship.
I am surprised to see Henri is still alive and President of the family Crespo business. I wonder if Lucette is still his lady after all these years. I will never know and I hope he never reads my vignette but if I recall correctly, he never spoke or read English which was another reason why Lucette was necessary at all those business meetings. I wonder if she liked eating olives! I never once a glass jar of them chez Elle.
Written in the Villa Perla, Kaleici, Antalya, Turkey on 7/3/17.
Crespo olives website - our history