Chores are fun

June 29, 2010

Something happened. I unloaded the dishwasher this morning because it felt good to take out each clinking cup and hefty dish. I cleaned the kitchen because afterwards I knew it would feel like expectation and warmth. I did the wash (even though duh the stuff would just get dirty again), made my bed (even though duh I’d just ruin it again tonight), and put away my clothes (even though duh they’d all coat the floor in under a week).

Now I live in a bright yellow house, the yellowest on the street, in grown-up San Francisco. Now chores are fun.

Hello world!

June 28, 2010

I’m back. Here is what happened right before.

— — —

And with a jolt, the beginning of the end began. The train docked and we disembarked. It was absolutely necessary to find first a toilet and then recharge the metro pass. The colourful signs cheerfully directed us to a public restroom within the concrete bowels of the station where a bitter, beefy woman declined to either offer the toilets for free or to offer change for a bill, preferring to twist her four chins into an expression of strangled delight after turning away customer after customer without the proper seventy centime in coins. Our bladders were full. So were our wallets. The famous French customer service showed its finest.

After a heated exchange in fluid French capped off with “good day”s so sharp and frosty they could cut slice beer, we moved on. In the station we found eighteen metro pass recharge machines. We found all eighteen of them because not one would accept our foreign credit cards or paper money. We stormed the gates and jumped the metro.

Such it was that the final return to our home away from home had greeted us with malevolence, cold disinterest, and institutionalized lack of empathy. We were uncomfortable from the beasts in our bladders screaming for release, and from the growing dread of feeling unwanted by this city we’d come to love. Commence la crise touristique. Well understand, I didn’t want to exactly be French Parisian. I wanted to be myself in Paris – a Parisian American. An amalgamation of everything I love about my motherland and everything I’d learnt and discovered and uncovered and grown to adore about my surrogate. But at that moment I felt more like an American Tourist in Paris: lost, non-belonging, and rejected.

Step two: the epiphany. The answer. The reassurance. After the initial onslaught of panic about being no more at home in Paris than the first day I hobbled its cobbled streets, came the most terrific and unexpected series of vignettes lasting fully a day that convinced me otherwise, and told me whether or not I made my plane back to the States, I would be at home.

We got off the metro in the souk of Chateau Rouge, a mishmash north-African neighborhood tied together with corn-cobs roasting on shopping carts and the sweet smell of fresh Chinese polyester wafting from the honeycomb of discount stores lining hectic boulevards. As I walked through the one-way metro exit gate a large man held up his hand from the other side to say “STOP” and began trying to wrestle his way past me through the doors. Without a second thought, firm yet sympathetic French flew from my mouth telling him to chill out because man, that just doesn’t work, haha. I held my ground and he let me exit, trying his luck with the next guy behind me.

Next, bought a duffel bag in one of the cheapo stores to take back all my new euro clothes. I will look European for months. San Francisco will lap it up.

Then back in the metro to meet a French friend for a farewell lunch. I ask Lara what one is allowed to do to a pickpocket in the metro, can you hit them? Kick them? What if they are young, female, malnourished, and Romanian, like we were warned about months ago during orientation? We agreed it would be generally considered bad taste to throw them in front of the coming train. Doing so would also make it difficult to retrieve your wallet.

We change trains at Denfert, the station that would like to say “in hell” or “hellish”. As the doors open on car three, two girls move to get out. They see Lara’s and my day-trip backpacks and about-face, deciding to stay on the train. In hindsight everything is so clear. The atmosphere felt turgid, tense, and not only because of the poorly ventilated carriage. We get on, and I sit down, look at Lara, I see one of the little girls eyeing Lara’s purse like a snake, I jump up and shout What does she think she’s doing at her in French, Lara grabs the girl’s arm, her comrade bolts and Lara jumps off the train after them, I follow, my heart slamming against my throat, Lara screams, keske tas pris, what did you take, they shout back angrily, foiled, they hadn’t taken anything, yet, and the train is still at the platform behind us, doors open, because it all lasted less than one second, and then they’re gone, penniless. Lara still has her purse and all of her valuables. We get back on the train and sit down, smiling, triumphant, not-so-touristy after all. I ask Lara what the word for “pickpocket” is in French, and in classic French style, the young man sitting next to me pipes up “c’est le meme: c’est pickpocket”.

Parisians are distrustful of strangers, because they live in a hectic, pulsating city with people everywhere waiting to take advantage of them. Thus they will treat you coldly, with méfiance, when you speak to them out of the blue. But there are tricks to the game. A common situation can provide assurance that you are in the same boat as them, not trying to scam them. Thus our stranger friend, who witnessed the whole ordeal, let down his defenses, and we talked in fact, like Americans. But in French.

He said he’d known right off the bat that the two girls were pickpockets. He said that everyone in the train car probably had. But hence comes the second important finding about Parisians: to assert oneself to a stranger is to arrogantly assume you know better than them. Thus Parisians will rarely offer help (though they will be wonderfully helpful once you ask for it – providing they’re not paid to do it, à la our friend at the public toilet). I asked him what one was supposed to do, and he said, well, we did it. I asked him if there was a way to alert the station so others, who may be less alert and Parisian, don’t get pickpocketed. He said no, it would take five minutes for them to put an alert over the loudspeaker and by that time the girls could be anywhere, the alert would be useless.

He played jazz bass and frequents the jazz bar we would later go to that night. He said to look out for a strange little guitarist named Jumping Jeff. Then it was our stop and we got off.

We ate lunch at our friend’s house. At this point I realized I had a friend in Paris who would cook me an elaborate meal and put me up in his home for a month.

After a lazy afternoon of rosé and gentle sunlight filtering through the window, we went to the US embassy for a special event. A private screening of Sex And The City 2. Joking with the French barman about the various chic/chick cocktails featured was as smooth as the drinks themselves. The film however was a colonialist masterpiece of capitalist propaganda, a culture shock like I’d never thought possible to have with one’s home.. All happiness comes with enough money. Having not enough money means you can’t have happiness. Fashion is imperative, luxury is quotidian, the West is absurdly superior to the East, the dream is still alive, and God Bless America. Perhaps this was an inoculation for my flight the next day.

When we emerged, the nearly full moon was sitting on Haussman’s rooftops and the air cooling like a soft white in a tub of ice. Next stop was a jazz cave. Beneath the cobblestones of the Latin Quarter beats swing, blues and bebop in tiny cellars filled with beer, people, and syncopated rhythms. We found the Cave of the Forgotten and submerged ourselves in a six hundred year old basement to watch non other than Jumping Jeff himself purse his face and jiggle as he got jiggy with his solo and melted his guitar into his hands. Outside for some fresh air, a combination of English and French flew around me and a group of French friends, each person speaking in their nonnative tongue about travel and Sweden and herrings.

Pause for a Greek sandwich, stuffed fat with gyro chicken slowly spattering as it rotates on its spit, flinging grease onto the halogen construction lamps above, which, after years sitting in this spot have come to resemble gyros themselves, languidly drip the fat back down from their plastic housing onto the meat.

Bar Dix offers homemade sangria rich with cinnamon and thick with hunks of fresh orange. It’s only a walk away, and is the quintessential Parisian bar. The sign out front broke lifetimes ago, and has been replaced by the chalk scribble “Bar 10”. The bar is about the size of an ensuite bathroom, with crumbling walls and affectionate graffiti on everything. It seems like the barman was born in there. It’s closing soon, but it’s less uptight about the 1am curfew than anywhere else. An anachronistic digital jukebox bleats out French oldschool hits. We’re the only ones in here now.

When it finally grates its grille closed we leave and head to the streets. A simple bench on the side of the road proves to be the perfect spot to chat about life and humanity and perfection and meanness and the future.

But finally, we must leave. My friend uses his French ATM card and linked bank account to fulfill my one last wish in Paris – to ride the velibs, the public bicycles, home after a long night (my American account doesn’t work, and I had given up hope). I speed through the deserted orange streets, in a blur, in a dream, and am suddenly at the Seine with it bridges, at the Louvre with its pyramids, at Concorde with its fountains, and up up up up the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe. A glory ride around the biggest, wildest round-a-bout I’ve ever seen on a gifted bike in the pristine night staring up at the symbolic gateway to the city. Then I park my velib at a station right next to my place and approach my front door.

It is 3am, a warm night. The new door code doesn’t work, and I’m unable to get in. I have a key in my pocket, but that’s for the inner doors. I panic. I have to repack and leave first thing in the morning! I text my host mum who is currently vacationing somewhere in the Alps, hoping she won’t forever hate me for waking her up at this hour. I call Lara frantically looking for reassurance and a solution. Without even my requesting it Lara’s jumped into a cab. As I wait for her I walk around – that bike ride made me thirsty, parched even, and I go into the first bar and ask the barman for a glass of water that I know he is obliged to give. I explain my peculiar situation, he grunts. C’est la vie.

Lara comes to my rescue like a fairy, like a genie, like a veritable personification of generosity from across the city; and my host brother emerges from behind the locked door and lets us into the building. I’m in! I’m home! I’m safe, I’ll catch the plane after all. Dommage.

As I let Lara out the 5am sky turns sapphire. I step into the elevator on the way back up, and a suited, politico looking gentleman steps in with me, bodyguards in tow. I recognize him from his stance – he’s our elusive next-door neighbour who I’d been wanting to bump into the whole quarter – the French Minister for Something. I comment that it’s so early right now that it’s bizarre we’re both up – except that for me, it’s actually just late. I haven’t slept, I explain. Such a life has become normal. He looks at me with a bemused smile that says he feels me, but that his reasons for skipping sleep were a little more work-related, and wishes me a good morning.

I hit my bed and crash. As I freefall into sleep I wonder at that perfect end to my frolic in Paris. I came here wanting to learn French but keep my tone of voice; I came here wanting to find the friendly behind the detached in strangers; I came here wanting to find a second home, where I knew the ins and outs and tricks of the trade; I came here wanting to become a French American composite; I came here wanting crisis and solution. In this day, I found it all.