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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

  • Dinner at the Gostilna Novljan (Chris Berdik, Slovenia, October 8, 1997).

  • The Dacha Regime (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, September 25, 1997).

  • Blazing Telefonini (Tom Mueller, Italy, September 8, 1997).

  • French Games (John Robinson, Madagascar, August 27, 1997).

  • Heaven in a Ballotin (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, August 13, 1997).

  • The Tentative Tourist (C. Michael Curtis, Spain, July 30, 1997).

  • The Sausages of Wrath (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, July 16, 1997).

  • Classic Tricks (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, June 25, 1997).

  • Alone on the Brink (William Langewiesche, Chile, June 11, 1997).

  • Globetrotting with the Doozer (Jeffrey Tayler, Greece, May 29, 1997).

  • The Car as Social Barometer (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, May 14, 1997).

  • Of Bird Songs and Buddhas (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, April 30, 1997).

  • The Discreet Charm of the (Chilean) Bourgeoisie (William Langewiesche, Chile, April 16, 1997).

  • Beware the Eighth of March (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 2, 1997).

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    France - October 22, 1997

    On my last day in Paris, a dry, warm May morning the week before the French Open tennis tournament, I took the Metro out to the southwestern neighborhood of Auteuil and found the Stade Roland Garros. Every spring since I was ten I had watched the tournament on television, and I had read of all the legendary battles played out before my time on the famously slow red clay. Now for the first time I was in Paris in the springtime, and I would have to leave just before the tournament began.

    I walked around the majestic, surprisingly circular (not oval) structure, looking for a way to get a glimpse of the historic Court Centrale. There were no side entrances open, but the main gate appeared unimpeded. A few men sat talking on a bench to one side, but otherwise the grounds were deserted. As I approached the entrance, however, one of the men rose and sauntered toward me, scolding, "Non, non, non." He was a round, pastry-filled fellow of about fifty, with a thin gray mustache. I noticed for the first time his dark blue uniform.

    "May I look at the Court Centrale?" I asked in abused French, repeating the sentence I had practiced while sitting in the efflorescent Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil next door. The entryway was open, the corridor tantalizingly free, the court itself almost in view.

    "Absolutely not. The stadium is closed," I vaguely understood him to say.

    "But the gate is open," I protested, the boorish American reverting to English. "There's no one here to mind," I started to go on, "and I just wanted to have a look at the court ..." His defiantly uncomprehending face reduced me to a few pleading facial gestures.

    "Non. C'est fermé." He turned away from me, folded his arms, and loitered purposefully in the vicinity of the open entrance.

    Just as I had given up hope and was about to leave, one of the other two men on the bench approached me. He was short but powerfully built, with dark skin and long dreadlocks, wearing shorts, sandals, and a French Pepsi T-shirt. He sauntered up to me like he owned the place. "Hi. You are American?" he said in English with a mysterious accent.

    "Yes. I was hoping to look at the Court Centrale."

    "I am Ramana," he shook my hand. "I'll take you in, no problem." He spoke a few words to the guard, who barely nodded as we passed him.

    I was delighted but dumbfounded. "You work here?" I asked.

    "No, no. I just hang out with the players; they're all practicing here this week. I'm in Paris for the European hang-gliding championships." We had entered the stadium now, and before me was the red dirt tennis court I had heard about all my life, the court on which Tilden and Budge, Laver and Rosewall had played. I was struck most of all by the smallness of the place: like Wimbledon's Centre Court, Roland Garros's Court Centrale feels like a dollhouse compared with the gargantuan stadium at Flushing Meadow. But I could hardly drink in the atmosphere. Ramana, who had appeared like an apparition to escort me into the stadium, was an apparition in search of an audience. He maintained a continuous monologue as we circumnavigated the court.

    "I am the hang-gliding champion of Tahiti. I've hang-glided all over the world: the U.S., Europe, Australia, South America. I'm here for several months to train for the European championships, which will be held outside Paris. While I am here I party with the tennis players. You have to call me next week, I'll tell you where all the best parties with the players are.

    "I have seven exotic birds of my own in Tahiti. I also work for Marlon Brando, taking care of his exotic birds. When I go hang-gliding at home, I take the birds with me. They fly freely with me, making circles around me. I tell you, that is the most beautiful, peaceful thing in the world.

    "I am a great painter as well. I will show you my pictures." He disappeared for a minute, giving me a respite from his autobiography and a chance to appreciate the empty stadium from a box seat. The red clay was swept in perfect rows; the net posts stood untethered, resting before the fortnight of combat.

    Ramana returned, a leather portfolio in hand. He began showing me photographs of paintings of a nude in various angles of repose. "My girlfriend." He may not have been a great painter, but he was a good one. "Here, these are of my wife and daughter." More nude studies, equally skillful. He also showed me a number of paintings of his birds in flight, soaring in the company of a man, himself, stretched taut against the pull of silk wings.

    I would have liked to spend a few more minutes there, alone, but Ramana led me out of the stadium, back into the courtyard. The friend he had been sitting with earlier came up to us. "Do you know Fabrice Santoro?" asked Ramana.

    "I certainly know of him," I said. The young man, one of France's leading players, was slight of build with sandy hair. He hardly looked at me as he shook my hand. "Aren't you coming to the party at the Centre Pompidou?" he asked Ramana.

    "Of course," said my host. "Write down my number," he said to me, and I did. "Call me tomorrow, and I will set you up with some parties in Paris. And you must come to Tahiti. No, there's no need to write down an address. Just ask for Ramana when you get there; everyone knows me." We shook hands, and he and Santoro headed toward the Boulevard d'Auteuil. "Come to Tahiti," he repeated over his shoulder with a wave. "I'll teach you to fly."

    It was hard to believe some of Ramana's grandiose claims. And yet he had gotten me into Roland Garros, and he did know the professional players -- at least Fabrice Santoro. Did he really fly through the skies of Tahiti, with Marlon Brando's birds gliding in halos around him? Well, I was in Paris, and it was pretty to think so.

    Marshall Jon Fisher is a freelance writer and the co-author of Tube: The Invention of Television (1996). He has written recently for The Atlantic Monthly on computer scams, furniture restoration, and bike-messenger racing, and for Atlantic Unbound on ecophobia.

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