Excerpt: BLAME IT ON PARIS, chapter 1
Eleven o’clock on a Friday night. The seamy, sex-obsessed center of Paris. I balanced over a Turkish toilet in a tiny bistro, one stiletto heel propped against the wall to make some kind of writing table out of my knee, trying desperately not to touch anything around me as I wrote an invitation to my dorm’s next student party. And I used to imagine a life of foreign adventure as so romantic.
Okay, so it’s not that this wasn’t romantic, in its way; but heretofore, tottering over a reeking hole in the floor of a 2-foot square room had not been part of my vision of romance. Before I moved to Paris as a graduate student, it had not even been part of my vision of possible ends to the digestive process. In my hometown in Georgia, women didn’t have a digestive process; we only used the ladies’ room to freshen up. Highly refined women used the “little girls’ room,” but that was why I had fled the country. The mind could only take so much before it cracked.
How, with this upbringing, had I sunk to writing an invitation for a strange man while trying to avoid falling into merde? Two possible explanations offered themselves: either I was desperate, or it was all somebody else’s fault. I couldn’t possibly be desperate, so I figured I should blame it on Paris.
* * *
Paris and I, well, we just weren’t hitting it off. Maybe she’d been oversold, or my attitude had been affected by the first month crying myself to sleep every night over a necessary break-up the move to Paris had facilitated.
“Maybe I’m just not meant for a big city full of French,” I told my sister Anna on the phone.
“You have to like Paris,” she said. “Everybody loves Paris. You have a moral responsibility to love Paris. What is wrong with you?” It’s amazing how many conversations I have where that question comes up.
“It’s got an awful lot of French people in it. A disconcerting amount, really. I read about that in Mark Twain, but you don’t really appreciate the impact until you’re here. Do you know I scare people?”
My sister choked. At 5’3”, I rarely evoke terror until people get to know me better. “Well, you scare me,” she said, proving my point. “But I’m kind of surprised you’re having this effect at first sight. What do you do? Wear white tennis shoes?”
Okay, I just want to point out here that my sister thinks white Keds are stylish. Any comments from her to a woman who had just bought a pair of black stiletto boots were way out of line. True, I’d only bought black stiletto boots because I couldn’t find any other kind of boots in Paris, but at least I owned some. “Smile.”
She burst out laughing.
“I’m not kidding! Today an older woman actually jumped back and put up her umbrella to ward me off. I was just being friendly.” Not being raised in a barn, I tended to nod and smile at anyone whose path I crossed. This provoked surprisingly panicked reactions in Parisians, as if they thought I was insane.
On the other end of the line came lots of choking sounds, as if my sister were coughing up a hairball. This is possible. She has lots of long curly blonde hair, and when we were little one of our brother’s friends mistook her for a poodle. Really. I wouldn’t mention it, but she was mocking my pain. “Sorry,” she said, finally spitting the fur out. “I really shouldn’t talk to you while I’m eating. Any other woes you want to tell me about today besides terrifying old ladies?”
I pulled the phone far enough away from my ear to glare at it, my phone card clicked down to its last unit, and we lost the connection. I stepped out of the phone booth, past a waiting fellow student who gave me an intolerant look for talking so long, and looked around at the Cité U, my home sweet home. The Cité Universitaire is a giant collection of student dorms on the southside of Paris, across from the Parc Montsouris, the only park in all of Paris that rambles instead of following classical geometry. Evening was settling in, and students traipsed to and from their various houses and the main building, where our student status qualified us to eat very bad food for very little money. I had a credit card and planned to win the lottery in a few years to pay it off, so I didn’t take advantage of this privilege nearly as much as I should have.
Other than the food, I loved the Cité Universitaire, with its vast park-like grounds and its 37 different houses sponsored by 37 different countries. I liked to walk past the fields of students playing soccer, the students chatting each other up, and the men pretending they were students to try to hit on young women, and study the houses each country had built. We had everything from a sedate neo-Gothic to something that strongly resembled a bomb shelter. As the architecture suggested, the place hosted a lot of oddball cultures: French, Moroccan, Danish, Canadian. There were even some Americans who, taken out of their element, are about the strangest creatures on the globe. I tried to hang out with them at first, but when they caught me speaking French with the natives, they considered me a snob and a traitor to class, country, and above all language, and pelted me with the half-eaten pastries they always had in one hand. Okay, I made that up about pelting me with pastries. Still, no Europeans ever nibbled on delicious pastries in the Métro. How come I was the only American who noticed, realized eating in public was considered barbaric here, and stopped doing it? I’m rarely considered a paragon of perception and sensitivity to others, so come on, how hard could it be?
Anyway, rumors of roaches surrounded the Fondation des États-Unis, so I ended up living in the Maison du Canada. There students also tended to hang out in large groups dissing on the French, but at least we did it in French, so those obnoxious Frenchmen could understand us. The Canadian house made me pay extra rent to live there, though, which was downright rude. Did they have any idea how much of my tax money went to pay for their nuclear shield or to subsidize businesses that destroyed their ozone layer?
I hadn’t figured out how to make calls from my room yet, mostly because it involved putting down a hard cash deposit, and I had spent my last bit of cash at a really nice chocolate shop that didn’t take credit cards. My sister could call in, though, so a week or so later she caught me, huddled under my rough orange dorm-issue blanket, clutching my teddybear for warmth. The dorm hadn’t turned the radiators on yet; for some reason they thought it didn’t get cold enough until November. “Where have you been?” she said. “Did some old lady stab you with an umbrella? I was starting to worry.”
“No! I’ve been trying to enjoy this stupid city. Do you know I’ve got an art history professor card that lets me go into the Louvre any time I want? For free! Three-hour lines of tourists circling around the Pyramide, and I just wave my card at a guard in the Cardinal Richelieu gallery and waltz right in. It’s like having my own secret entrance to the bat cave, only better because there was cooler stuff inside.”
“But you’re not an art history professor,” Anna pointed out. “You don’t know anything about art.”
“I wish you wouldn’t get caught up in the details. Valérie gave it to me. She’s at the study abroad program where I work. I can get into the Musée d’Orsay and all the other public museums that way, too.”
“I wish I was in Paris,” Anna said. “I would love to be able to do that. And I wouldn’t spend all my time whining about it like you.”
“Yes, you would, too. It’s freezing here, it hasn’t stopped raining for the past three weeks, and guys keep coming up to me talking about my breasts.”
A pause. We had both grown up in the same small, polite Southern town. “Eww,” she said. “I thought Frenchmen were romantic.”
“Yeah, well, welcome to the non-Disney version. They also seem to think I’m a blonde.”
My sister snorted. Possessed of long, wavy, chestnut hair, I had given her a hard time with the blonde jokes while we were growing up. “So is the Louvre open late at night? Because I’ve been calling at, like, 10 there.” Ten is late in Georgia.
“No, let’s see, last night I went to see Molière with a friend, and then two nights ago, we went to see a play by Marivaux.” A fellow graduate student was doing her dissertation on Marivaux, and I loved his dialogue and his hilarious send-ups of early 18th century society. “Friday night I went out to a restaurant and then dancing with some new students I met here. Oh, and Tuesday, my program had tickets to the opera.”
“Wow,” she said. “It’s too bad you hate Paris. Otherwise, you might be able to have fun there.”
“I do hate it! It’s cold, it’s grey, and people are hateful. They’ve got no call to be that rude, really they don’t. But I’ve got a contract to stay here for a year, so I can’t waste it
, can I? I’ve got to try to enjoy it.”
“Yes,” she said, “you do. Every time I turn on the radio these days, there’s some Lucy Jordan woman singing about how her life has been wasted because she never rode through Paris with the top down and the wind blowing in her hair. You are in Paris right now! You’ll look back on this moment when you’re 50 and gloat because you haven’t wasted your life!”
Well, I’d look back on living in Tahiti and Spain and gloat at not having wasted my life. Paris I wasn’t so sure about. “You can’t joy-ride through Paris with the top down. It’s too cold, it’s usually raining, and you wouldn’t have the wind running through your hair, you’d be stuck in a traffic jam with dozens of angry drivers honking all around you.”
“You’re violating the myth of Paris with a little bit too much reality for me,” Anna said. “Do you want me to come visit you in the spring or not?”
I sighed. It’s not like I wasn’t trying. As a graduate student, I should have been spending my time in classrooms and the library, but I was afraid to let my sister down. I had a moral obligation to love Paris and to enjoy every minute of it, and I couldn’t do that in a classroom or in a library. So I went to the theater and saw Marivaux acted in the centuries-old Hôtel de la Monnaie that could have been the real setting for his comedy of manners. Period-dressed actors greeted us at the door as if we were houseguests along with the characters in the play, and a period-dressed chamber orchestra played Lully as we climbed the wide stone steps to the room in which the play would take place. The next night, I heard Corneille declaimed in grandiose alexandrins in a tiny stale theater with an audience of a dozen and one actor who smelled so badly we knew whenever he was waiting in the wings. I got off work afternoons and said, “Hey, I haven’t seen Monet’s Rouen cathedrals in days,” and strolled into the Musée d’Orsay, installed myself in a chair, and just stared for an hour at those extraordinary paintings and all the heads that kept blocking my view of them. I had only ever seen Monet on greeting cards and as a poster on my dentist’s bathroom wall before. Bless Valérie for my art historian card. I lived in fear that one day some security guard would look at the card, squint at me suspiciously, and ask some trick question. “What’s the point of such-and-such in the Pompidou?” he would ask. I’d try to stammer out something logical, which would be dead give-away, and the gig would be up. I wouldn’t be imprisoned, but when Parisians sniff at you the humiliation scars you for life.
Still, I braved it, waltzing past security guards with increasingly aloof confidence and grinning giddily every time it worked. Emboldened, and showing great discipline in my determination to enjoy Paris, I set out to explore every chocolate shop in the city.
“Wow,” my sister said, “you’re so gutsy.”
“Well, I am. Do you know how many chocolate shops there are in this city? It’s the chocolate capital of the world!”
“Just shut up already. Although I did figure out what was wrong with that city. It’s the Eiffel Tower. I was reading a feng shui book.”
“No, it’s—will you keep up with U.S. fads? It’s about the way the space you’re living in is arranged and how that affects you. The author said having that great rusty arrow pointing up above the city bleeds all its hope out of it.”
“It’s got a great big lighthouse beacon beaming from the top of it, too,” I said. “It circles over the whole city. The government said the beacon was to symbolize how Paris was the center of the world and everyone should come to it, or something like that. But lighthouses really are supposed to warn people away from dangerous rocks.” How like the Parisian government to warn people away with their attempts at hospitality. She was growing on me, though, the Eiffel Tower. I didn’t want to admit it, but at night when the lights came on, that daytime rusty metal look changed to a warm copper glow. There was something so glamorous and romantic about her, there above the city.
Sensing weakness, my colleague and only Parisian friend Valérie convinced me to give Ladurée a try. This took some doing because every time she mentioned Ladurée’s legendary macaroons, I got unpleasant visions of coconut. When I finally ducked through the velvet curtains on Rue Royale into this 19th-century salon de thé, I discovered instead macarons, concoctions made of lightly crusty air and luscious ganache. As I sat on a park bench eating a chocolate one that could have been served in Heaven, a couple passed by, and the older man grinned at me, the first unsalacious grin I had ever received from a strange Parisian: “They’re the best in the world, aren’t they?”
I hated to confirm a Parisian in any conviction of superiority, but I had to give him that one. Okay, I said to myself. A city that can produce macarons like that has to be survivable. Keep at it, girl.
Still, when I went home for Christmas, I thought I had died and gone, if not to heaven–which might be a little sophisticated for me–at least back where I belonged. I drove down that long country road, where a farmer still had a tractor upended in a ditch from an accident 20 years ago, and when I saw the sign PIGS 4 SALE, I about had tears in my eyes. Our house is set on a hill removed from all civilization, and the access to it vaguely resembles a roller coaster. I drove up that bumpy driveway and saw my dad standing outside in shirtsleeves with a television sitting on a pillow in the clearest spot in that wooded yard. He held a remote in one hand, and every once in a while, he would gaze thoughtfully at the sky and adjust a small satellite dish again. “Finally,” I said, “I’m back where people act normal.”
“If you need a hair dryer, you can borrow your dad’s,” my mom said, after she’d finished hugging me, our collie had finished jumping all over me, and our black half-Chow stray had finished gazing at me with dark, reproachful steadiness. “He bought one to dry out his ear.”
Well, maybe a little on the eccentric side of normal. But at least this place wasn’t strange. It was mine. The dried leaves underfoot. The light of sunset shimmering off the dark riverwater—very shallow now, the year must have been dry. The fuzz of moss on bark or the flake of lichen.
“Swimmer’s ear,” my dad explained. “A hair dryer is a perfectly logical thing to use.”
“We bought all the ingredients for your fruitcakes,” my mom said, her eyes gleaming in anticipation. So I sank my hands deep into slick batter and brightly colored fruit and the sharp slivers of almonds and cooked Christmas food with my family until the tables overflowed. I hung out in a squirrel-eaten hammock barefoot and in shirtsleeves and watched a giant mosquito-catcher float through the soft day, tossing in the breeze, glimmering in the sunlight against the backdrop of green grass.
I didn’t want to come back to Paris. I didn’t even start crying on the plane, I just sank into my seat in despair. Well, and nausea, since I get sick on planes, but the two feelings combined very well to reflect my attitude toward Paris. I had to do it, though, and it wasn’t just because of my contract. I was the world-adventurer, and I couldn’t bail on a year in Paris just because it wasn’t going in the skippy-dippy way all my other travels had gone.
A couple of days after I got back, I had a strange experience. No, the sun didn’t come out or anything; I’d been told that didn’t happen until May. I got off work just at six. It was already dark, with the early, depressing winters of this northern city. I stopped at a tabac to buy a stamp, and the owner yelled at me and pounded his fist on the counter because I forgot and tried to put the money directly into his hand instead of sliding it to him on the counter as Parisians did. I sighed, wishing I had the guts to tell him he was an asshole.
But I didn’t, and I humbly took my stamp, then continued to the Métro. On the long descent of the sloping street, the Eiffel Tower was clearly visible across the city. She really was growing on me, the Eiffel Tower. She had a certain Auntie-Mame style. I was thinking this, as I descended the street, and a guy in pink grunted at me like a pig and tried to bite me. I dodged him and continued on without breaking pace, by now used to this kind of thing; and a couple of seconds later, the Eiffel Tower started sparkling. She went up like a bottle of champagne, in white lights like a horde of escaping Tinkerbells. She just fizzed and danced and sparkled her little heart out, there above the grey, winter city.