Selections from Sidewalk in the Sun

I Can Make You Dinner

It’s a small village directly south of Puy-de-Dôme. Dore-l’Église. The Roman gate is famous, very low and rounded, but there’s no risk of being bothered by tourists, even in the middle of August. You arrive there late in the afternoon and take a long walk around the fields encircling the hamlet. The sun is beginning to go down when you return to the car. There’s a small café terrace. You can’t resist the pleasure of sitting down. You’re the only customers. As no one comes to take your order, you get up and, just at that moment, an older woman comes out the door. Nothing on draught, of course, but a Perrier and a beer, bottled. You comment on the heat, no more, as a matter of mutual politeness, and to earn the right to linger. Nothing new or surprising, but soon enough a distinctive feline pleasure curls itself up in the silence. It’s the light that settles in, overflowing with soporific honey, on the surrounding fields, in deepening shades of color, as if each drowsily resisted standing out from the rest. Above all on the church, the church of gold, a dull gold that so peacefully pierces the stone with the coming night. The gate stands out in smooth innocence. It’s the unity of light that accentuates its rounded perfection. It’s curious how it seems to float, suspended, and stand out distinctly in inverse relation to its plainness.

The light is in you too. With each passing second you cling more to this miracle. A summer evening. How can you leave? No sign, no menu on the café windows. Nevertheless, when the owner comes to collect the glasses, you risk asking, on the slightest chance, this question, which you pose anticipating a negative response—“You don’t serve dinner, do you?” The woman doesn’t answer right away, and the scale teeters between constraint and possibility. And then, “I can make you dinner.” She hasn’t really answered. She doesn’t serve dinner, but she can make you dinner—from a marvelous menu where everything will be good, because there will be no choices. You will dine with little subdued bursts of astonishment—Excellent sausage!…did you see the size of that piece of Cantal? You will not have left the round, slightly rusty café table. The gate will blaze the color of coral when it’s time for coffee. Dore-l’Église. I can make you dinner. 

You’re Not Invited!

These spring Saturdays come around every so often. If it’s a nice day we say, “They’re so lucky.” But it’s even luckier not to be a part of the wedding. There’s nothing worse than obligatory happiness. Everyone is there—stiff and starched, in smiling, uncomfortable groups—on the esplanade in front of city hall or the church steps. Conversation is distracted becauseWe are waiting for the bride and groom!” so intent in our focus that their appearance slightly dampens the enthusiastic commentaries. After the ceremony, it’s a relief to return to the cars. At least there’s movement, some fresh air. The men move so quickly even their starched suits seem to billow in the flurry of motion. “Do you have a ride, Christiane?” The women hold their hats in place as they duck into cars. Once back in the enclosed car you can finally lay on the horn in celebration. “Is it far?” “No, just a few kilometers. It’s a garden on the shore. They went there Thursday for photos.”

Later, there are small round tables, and when you have found your place card there is that anxiety of reading your neighbors’ cards, of gauging the pressures to come. This is your lot when you are just a friend, or a distant relative. At all moments you must be prepared to toss out a “That’s lovely” or “That’s great” and “Aren’t they a handsome couple?” as prelude to more artificial conversation. This is particularly trying since you know you’ll never see these people again and you still have to bubble over good-naturedly just one more time.

But it’s even worse to be the center of attention. The bride and groom never know if everyone’s happy, which is really the mothers’ concern, thinking the newlyweds must get up and go from table to table to be sure. Before, after, there are bitter family disputes over the choice of Sancerre wine and the crustiness of the foie gras. The video montage, memories of business school, delights Hélène’s side, but Christophe’s side is a little peeved. You hardly even see him in it. After the wedding cake, the loud music triggers bittersweet commentary, but that’s useful when you haven’t got anything left to talk about, like your new 4-wheel drive, how crazy you are about marathons, and “Look at these two, they’ve really got it made.”

That’s how it always goes. It’s a nice day. It’s magnificent not to be invited.

The Whole Beach in a Grain of Sand

It’s nothing but a path above the beach. The town constructed an embankment on the shore, just fifty centimeters high. Little by little, the sand has accumulated on the seaward side, the windiest. I was gazing at the horizon between familiar islands, the red speck of a trawler, its peaceful progress with its putt putt putt on the oily surface. I always tend to look at the farthest possible point on the horizon. And then I lowered my head, and, at first absentmindedly, I focused on the minuscule hill of sand on the embankment. Against the backlighting of the still-rising sun, I could make out patches of shadow and others that remained sunlit, the color of raw silk. A succession of folds upon folds, so loosely hemmed: no ridge, all curves. The edge of light makes this infinite series of hillocks difficult to distinguish, as it stretches off in endless variations, repeating itself, fascinating. At the base of the more ample rolling hills, valleys where the texture of the sand, glinting with mica, promises possible collapses. There, the sun has already asserted itself, the idea of an unrelenting milky heat.

It’s just like those panoramic photographs of deserts seen from an airplane or balloon, in album presentations intended to let us discover the world from above. Where, in turning the pages, we realize that there are astonishing macrocosms revealed this way, a secret harmony to discover above the earth by taking to heights, by rising above the torments of existence to see beauty outlined from a distance. But this morning on the seaside path, I find all this simply because I’ve grown weary of the too-predictable trajectory of a red trawler between Erquy Point and the Dahouët harbor. Yes, an entire Sahara at ground level. The immensity of the world at my feet.

March 21…

March 21: Spring, the equinox. You watch for each sign of the lengthening days. The year starts to speed forward; everything accelerates in the march toward summer. After June 21, already the days begin to shorten. Which seems funny, because of course the best months of summer are yet to come. Strolls in the warm streets, candlelit meals on the garden terrace.

“Even so…,” someone always blurts out, prompting annoyed disapproval around him. “Even so, the evenings are already shorter.”

At sixty, you’ve long ago crossed the threshold of summer solstice. There are still lovely evenings, friends, children, things to hope for. But that’s the way it is: you are sure of having crossed the threshold of solstice. This may be a good time to try to cling to the best: a taste of nostalgia seeps into the heart of each sensation, making it both more lasting and more threatened. And so, to stay light in the moment, with words. Summer solstice may already be Indian summer, and doubt creeps into the seasons, the colors. There’s no time to mess around; there’s no time to lose.

To remain solar, with words. I know what people might say on the subject: what is essential is in shadow, mystery, the advancing night. And then how to be solar when humanity is suffering all around, when physical and moral pain, violence and war pervade? Well, maybe to stay solar because of all that. To notice, to denounce, are essential tasks. But it’s possible to say something else here. The more the days pass, the more I want to watch for the light, all the more so as it is dwindling. To stay on the side of the sun.

Some Black Cherries

The canal boat stops at Burano. I let the waves of tourists pass, lured into the first alley lined with lace vendors’ stalls. Over there to the right, under the trees, along the sea, I’ve spotted a laid-back space punctuated by some old wooden benches, comfortably worn in by the familiarity of so many bodies in repose. Early afternoon, midsummer heat. The locals relax there, chatting with that Italian vehemence that, in aspiring to drama, makes everything less dramatic. Others are lying quietly, stretched out their full length. In the distance, the silhouette of a bell tower rises from lagoon grasses. Another island, no doubt, and I’m lost in thought for a moment. Several benches remain free, and I go all the way to the end of the esplanade. It’s beautiful to see the many-colored houses of Burano standing out in this way, that light blue, matte yellow, that brick red splashed by light, beyond so much shadow. I pull some black cherries from my bag. They’ve just barely stained the brown paper. But beneath their surprising firmness, their imperceptibly moist skin, what a sun-kissed offering, what a deep, sweet revelation of succulent flesh! They say that all other cherries—from the yellow-pink Napoleons, a little tart, to the clear red Burlats—are nothing but rough drafts of this perfection so mysterious and sweet: black cherries!

I want to stay there a long time. When I’ve eaten all the cherries, maybe I’ll take a nap. Nothing calls me. No reason to worry about the return trip. Here, there’s always a canal boat waiting for you, and you put out to sea as a natural routine, nevertheless surprised by the Italians who read the paper during the voyage. No book under way, and, I promise myself, for a few days at least, not even a vague idea of a book to start. I feel it, I touch it here, lying on my bench, in this timelessness: this is summer, and this is what vacation ought to be like always—a bubble of peaceful eternity before a possible nap.

This morning, I bought La Gazzetta dello Sport, for the pleasure of leafing through the pink pages, guessing the meaning of the headlines. This is the spice added to any true rest: reducing to its simplest form the effort of others, restricting yourself to the simplest immobility. Counting those thirteen strides between hurdles in the four hundred meter event, I must have dozed off. I wake up and everything is still there, the sun hasn’t yet descended into the branches. Of course, I’m in Burano, but this could be somewhere else, anywhere without mail, without telephone. Sheltered from the waves that, in their perpetual restlessness, cross through and bring to life an eternal forward march. Here, idleness and absence lead me back to sensations, fragments of childhood, memories of bathing in the Garonne in the shade of old plane trees, and these mingled odors of silt and poplar leaves—bread-butter-chocolate at snack time—wrapped in a towel. Yes, this nothing is deceptive, it opens clearings deep within, in the silence and the warmth, the body at rest seeks out paths of memory.

In Burano, on planet Earth, there’s this light of summer, of all the summers gathered together. The journey is within you, it begins when you stop. It has the deep, light taste of a handful of black cherries.

Have a Good Afternoon

Of course there’s heavy traffic, horns honking and buses jamming on the brakes suddenly when a cyclist darts out and runs a red light. Of course, exiting the Metro Laumière, we distinguished a group of young boys, all playing soccer, video games, sending texts. The neighborhood is rather green, that almost translucent green of the end of April, a green mist, muggy and fruity, at the top of the chestnut trees.

Exiting the Metro, we feel a little lost. We’re the couple, grandparents, taking their grandson for a walk. Ill at ease with the stroller, the bag with the bib, diaper change, the bag with the shovel and rake, in case of a sand box. All this that hampers the walk—especially when the baby, tired of the stroller, has asked to be carried—draws a comforting image in the social fabric. We know we don’t frighten anyone. We don’t hesitate to hail the first young woman who comes along with her daughter: “Pardon me, we’re looking for the Buttes-Chaumont Park?”

There’s always that little uneasiness on the faces of those we approach—but that quickly dissipates. The daughter is about twelve. Proudly, she gives directions at the same time as her mother. And as we thank them, the mother hesitates before resuming the hurried course of her walk, pausing to consider the direction seekers. Grandparents. A very young boy, the Buttes-Chaumont Park—apparently they are going there for the first time. The unexpected mildness of the afternoon. Actual sunshine, they said, for at least three days. Maybe the pride that we always feel responding to a question asked. Grasping the intentions of the party that has stopped her—surely they’ll go to the merry-go-round, he’s too young for the puppet show. But maybe something stronger, too, a human warmth that doesn’t waste words but instead reveals itself astonishingly just like that, on the sidewalk, for a few seconds. We no longer hear the hostile buzz of the traffic. With barely a touch, the woman has rested her hand on the grandmother’s wrist, she is already moving on. She says, “Have a good afternoon.”

Le Bras Pudding

Sugar icing and a candied cherry in the middle. That was it, basically, the little round pudding at Le Bras Patisserie, under the stairway at Saint-Lazare. A crackled white ice floe. I didn’t fish out the cherry. It had to be reached to be deserved, a little like the illustrations in the Bibliothèque Verte children’s books. Beneath the thin glaze of sugar, the tips of your teeth revealed a soft, moist brown underlayer, like a warm house out in the country in the middle of winter.

When it was time to return to the suburbs, my mother had calculated in a stop for a treat, standing, waiting. Looking up, I mixed with the flavor of puddings those monochromatic orange landscapes circled with lead like stained-glass windows, where the SNCF had asked artists to depict all the attractions of the more remote towns served by the station: Dieppe, Cherbourg, Le Havre…. We wouldn’t be going that far. But, for dinner, my mother had five other puddings wrapped in a pyramidal package, tied with a brown string.

I never wondered if I might have preferred some other pastry at Le Bras. The ritual gave the pudding a superior essence. I found it delicious, but still more delicious this homey bakery in Paris. I had just scurried across the first floor of Printemps department store, drowned in the immense perfume department where blonde goddesses, shimmering in Oriental fragrances, had condemned my country bumpkin self with their silent elegance. And there it was, with the reassuring name of Le Bras, the marginal location of the bakery, the unstylish complicity of a pleasure to garner under the stairs, that Paris offered itself, familiar and easy, as I was about to leave it. This taste of white icing and dark sweet pudding that, if we liked, we could enjoy again a few hours later. The Saint-Nom-la-Bretèche train, direct all the way to Saint-Cloud. 

Sidewalk in the Sun

“Shall we cross?”


“For the sidewalk in the sun.”

It’s nice in the shade, we aren’t seeking out the heat. A true summer evening. Passersby fan out along the side path, their pace easy, unhurried. Before dinner? After? In the city, you never know. After all the contractions of winter, the hesitations of spring, it’s good to walk, to stretch your legs, to feel in your hips the slight shifting of weight from side to side, instead of plowing straight ahead toward some distant goal. This evening, it is happening here and now.

The sidewalk in the sun; that says a lot. The buildings across the street have already taken on a blue cast. Some patches of light remain, where little cross streets open, a sun splashed café terrace, and this bench, just on the corner. You will sit down there, legs extended, hands crossed at the back of your neck. It’s funny, the cars have turned on their headlights, and their red tail lights look like raspberries at the end of the avenue. In contrast to clear mornings when noises stand out, there’s a low murmur, a vague haze. You look at the sun across the street, then shut your eyes to the first dancing iridescences. It’s an eternity that will yield without melodrama, and fall asleep rather than vanish, in the palpable persistence of well-being. It’s just a feeling, it’s no more than an idea. The sidewalk in the sun.


Philippe Delerm

Philippe Delerm was born in 1950 in the Paris suburb Auvers-sur-Oise. A retired middle school teacher, Delerm writes fiction, essays, and children’s books. He lives with his wife, Martine, a photographer and illustrator, in Normandy. His first book was published in 1983, and his oeuvre includes over forty titles. He has won several prizes, including the Prix Grandgousier for his 1997 book La Première gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules, which was also a number-one bestseller in France and translated into English.

Ellen Sprague

Ellen Sprague lives in Godfrey, Illinois, where she teaches writing at Principia College. She served in 2017 and will serve again in 2019 as program director for Principia's study abroad programs to Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. During her MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, she translated into English 26 of the 60 récits, or brief essays, in Philippe Delerm’s collection Le trottoir au soleil (Gallimard, 2011). Some of these translations have appeared in Asymptote. She was a scholar at the NEH institute “The Centrality of Translation to the Humanities: New Interdisciplinary Scholarship.” Her personal essays have appeared in The Laurel Review and Emrys Journal, where “Braking for Buntings” won the Linda Julian Essay Award.

Copyright (c) Editions Gallimard, Paris, 2011. English translation copyright (c) Ellen Sprague, 2019.