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Book Chronicles a Life of Distant Travels

Detail from the cover of <i>The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer</i>.
Detail from the cover of The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer.

Eric Hansen is not the kind of traveler who visits museums and monuments. He's more inclined to wriggle his way into the local economy as a hotel handyman on a Pacific island or by hatching a plan to smuggle dried fish into Sri Lanka.

Along the way, Hansen takes the time to meet the oddest collection of characters in cities and villages around the world. In a new book of essays called The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: Close Encounters with Strangers, he details some of his most memorable explorations from a 30-year span of travels.

Excerpt from 'The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer':

Arlette and Madame Perruche

It was a warm summer evening when I met Arlette. She was an old woman by then, but in good health. She still wore red lipstick and obviously took pleasure in dressing in a simple but elegant way. Valerie Tatiana von Braunschweig, a former dancer with the Bejart Ballet, and I were driving from Monaco to Juan-les-Pines to spend the summer of 1989. As a way to extend our meandering journey and for me to meet Arlette we decided to take her to dinner at L'Estaminet des Remparts, a small, unpretentious restaurant in Mougins, which is a quaint hilltop village in the south of France. As we settled at our table on the outdoor terrace, Arlette apologized that her companion was too ill to join us. The waiter cleared away the fourth place setting and returned with a bottle of chilled rose. He poured the glasses and set the bottle on the table as Arlette began the story of how she met Madame Perruche.

For nearly forty years, Arlette had lived in a modestly furnished apartment in the hills behind Cannes. She was once a principal dancer for the Marquis de Cuevas and the Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo, where she had danced with Valerie's mother fifty years earlier. But when the company failed Arlette was too old to join another company. And so she became a teacher at a local ballet school which catered to well-to-do families with young daughters of average talent. She lived in reduced circumstances as the Cannes of her youth succumbed to the traffic and featureless concrete monoliths that began to dominate the older hillside neighborhoods of summer homes covered in blooms of ancient bougainvillea. But she lived frugally and managed to get by on a modest salary from the ballet school. Arlette drove an ancient motor scooter and on most mornings she went to a small park near the train station to feed the stray cats.

There was a street woman who frequented the same park. She was known as Madame Perruche (Madame Parakeet). The woman was given her name because she fed the birds, but also because of her frail body and hooked nose. She owned two sweaters. One blue and one black, to go with her blue skirt with the white polka dots. No one knew much about the woman or where she came from. She slept on a park bench and used poste restante at the main post office to receive mail. No one could remember when she first appeared in the neighborhood, but it had been years ago and by the time Arlette met the woman Madame Perruche was more or less accepted as a permanent fixture in the park.

Arlette usually smiled or said hello to the woman during her visits to the park, but Madame Perruche rarely replied and when she did it was with a vigorous shake of her head or a brusque huffing sound. Her years on the street had made her wary of strangers and it was clear that she wanted as little contact with people as possible. She preferred the company of birds. Several mornings each week Madame Perruche could be found seated on the same park bench. Birds would flutter around eating seed and dried bread at her feet and occasionally one would perch on her hand for a brief conversation. Wild birds would take sunflower seeds from her lips.

Then one autumn day, as she was feeding the cats, Arlette thought about how odd it was that most people felt uncomfortable about giving food to humans but not to animals. Arlette brought the woman a fresh baguette and a small wedge of cheese.

"Merci, madame," said Madame Perruche sharply, as she snatched the food from her hand and walked away.

The following week Arlette persuaded the woman to go to a local cafe for a cup of coffee and a pastry. The regular patrons, hunched over the zinc bar sipping their mid-morning pastis, appeared to take scant notice of the women. But as soon as the women were out the door, there must have been words, because their cruel comments were later passed on to Arlette by her grocer. Arlette's friends, knowing her generous habits, urged her not to get involved with a woman who lived on the streets.

When winter set in that year the mistral blew from the north bringing days of bitterly cold, rainy weather. Sitting at her breakfast table, sipping a steamy cup of tea and listening to the torrent of raindrops pounding on the windowpanes, Arlette could not bear the thought of the old woman wandering the streets looking for shelter. And so, during a lull in the storm, Arlette drove to the park and returned home with Madame Perruche, and her plastic bags of belongings, perched on the back of the motor scooter.

"She was soaking wet when I found her," Arlette told us. "I gave her a dressing gown and a bath towel, and left her with a cup of chocolat chaud while I took her clothes to the laundromat."

Madame Perruche stayed for two days until the weather warmed and then she returned to her park bench and her birds. Arlette's friends were horrified when they heard that she had allowed a person from the street to sleep in her home.

"But what are you thinking!?" a neighbor yelled at Arlette once Madame Perruche had left.

The two women continued to get to know each other in the little park, and, when Arlette was invited to visit friends in Paris, she asked Madame Perruche if she would like to stay in the apartment and take care of the plants and collect the mail. Arlette's friends threw up their hands in exasperation when they heard that she was planning to loan her apartment to the bird woman.

"Impossible! There won't be a thing left when you get back," they warned her. "She will make a copy of your key. You won't be able to get rid of her."

Arlette didn't listen to the advice of her friends, but to avoid problems with the doorman and the other tenants in her apartment building Arlette gave Madame Perruche a new pair of espadrilles and some clothes from her closet that she no longer wore. She installed Madame Perruche in her apartment, with a small sum of money for groceries, and then packed her bag and left for Paris.

"But weren't you concerned about your belongings?" I asked Arlette as she paused to take a bite of her dinner.

"The only thing of value that I own is a photo album from my youth. And what sort of person would steal something like that?" She laughed.

According to the neighbors, Madame Perruche rarely left the apartment while Arlette was in Paris. By the time Arlette returned a week later she found her home in an astonishing state. The woman had cleaned the entire apartment, washed and ironed the bed linen, scrubbed and waxed the floors, and cleaned the windows inside and out. Fresh flowers, picked from the park, were set in a small vase on the kitchen table. Arlette was delighted with what she saw, and suggested that Madame Perruche stay. She could take the small room off the kitchen. The bird woman accepted, but only on the condition that she could make herself useful. She continued to clean the house and helped with the shopping and cooking.

Arlette had the good sense not to pry into the woman's life, and each morning they continued to walk to the square to feed the cats and birds. Madame Perruche never talked about her past, but there were telltale signs in her behavior that convinced Arlette that the woman had come from a good family. She took note of how the woman set the table and folded the bottom corners of a bedsheet; and how she paused to listen to Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 6 in A Major that Arlette played on the phonograph one afternoon. The two women lived simply and quietly, but many of Arlette's friends found it impossible to accept this new living arrangement without comment. They thought Arlette had lost her mind. Several neighbors suspected the women were lovers. Arlette told us these possibilities were perfectly in keeping with their small minds and empty lives.

The first winter passed and early in the spring a letter arrived at poste restante for Madame Perruche. The return address was of a law firm in Lyon. Madame Perruche left the letter unopened on the breakfast table for a week, but Arlette finally encouraged her to read the contents. The letter was brief. Madame Perruche was requested to contact the law firm as soon as possible. A distant relative had died and Madame Perruche had inherited an unspecified amount of money.

"Maybe it is a great sum," Arlette suggested, urging the woman to reply at once.

Madame Perruche didn't want any contact with her past, but after two weeks of putting it off, she let Arlette convince her to write back. Within days of her reply a telegram arrived with the startling news that she had indeed inherited a great sum of money. The lawyer arranged for papers to be signed and notarized, a new bank account was opened in Cannes, funds were transferred, and within two months Madame Perruche found herself with a small fortune.

Uncertain of what to do, she continued living with Arlette. She kept herself busy cleaning the apartment, but she immediately insisted on sharing the rent and other expenses.

"You can imagine how quickly the news of this inheritance cooled the hysteria of the neighbors." Arlette laughed. The waiter set a generous slice of fig tart and an expresso in front of Arlette as she continued her story. "The neighbors, those meddlesome, bourgeois fools. They had nothing better to occupy their time than to talk about us," she said.

As summer arrived Madame Perruche announced that she would like to buy an apartment. She invited Arlette to move in with her, but Arlette, who had always helped others, found it very difficult to accept favors. She had grown accustomed to giving rather than receiving, but in time the woman convinced Arlette that she was merely trying to return a favor and that there was no reason why her sudden good fortune should break up their friendship.

A real estate agent found a more beautiful and larger apartment not far from the park where the two women had first met. Madame Perruche paid cash and by the end of the summer they had painted the rooms and moved in. Arlette brought her photo album, her motor scooter, furniture, bedding, pots, pans, dishes and kitchen utensils, and she insisted on paying a modest rent.

"As you please," said Madame Perruche.

At the first sign of winter Madame Perruche suggested that the two of them take a journey. Arlette explained that she could not afford to travel, but that she would be happy to stay behind and take care of the apartment. Madame Perruche laughed at this suggestion and returned later that day with two one-way boat tickets from Marseilles to Alexandria.

"It will be warmer there," she explained over Arlette's protests. And so, with little knowledge of their destination, no hotel reservations and no tour arrangements, the two women bravely set forth to discover Egypt. They visited the sights of Cairo, then sailed up the Nile on a converted felucca, and explored Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. They saw such things as mummified baboons and crocodiles.

Toward the end of dinner, Arlette reached into her bag to show us pictures from her photo album. In one photo, the two of them were standing in front of the great temple at Karnak. In a second photo, Madam Perruche was perched on a camel in front of the pyramids. She had a pair of sunglasses set on her nose and a wide-brimmed straw sun hat tied at the chin with black ribbon. The photos had been taken ten years earlier.

After dinner, we drove Arlette home. That was the last time I saw her. She no longer sends me postcards from places like Fez, Prague or Madrid, but common friends keep me informed. According to them, most of Arlette's acquaintances in Cannes have either moved away or died or lost their minds. Arlette still manages to ride her motor scooter to the weekly open-air market when the weather is fine. She no longer pays rent and now that both she and Madame Perruche are getting frail, a woman comes by the apartment once a week to vacuum, and do the laundry, and to prepare a few simple meals. They still try to get away for a trip during the winter, but in recent years they have seldom ventured any further than Paris.

Spring is their favorite season to be at home. It is a beautiful time in the south of France. The migratory birds are returning from North Africa and mimosa trees grace the boulevards with their fragrant bright yellow blooms. Most mornings, at that time of year, the two friends can be found in a small park near the train station. Children run by the park on their way to school, but they hardly notice the two old ladies standing at opposite ends of the square where one is feeding the cats, and the other is feeding the birds.

Excerpted from 'The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer,' by Eric Hansen, 2004. Used by permission of Random House.

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