March 30, 2005
BOOMS and BLASTS - Life in the Parisian Fast Track
It began with going to the airport with Catherine to see her off to Minneapolis. We took the RER commuter train from our La Muette metro station to the Saint Michel metro station in the middle of town. There we changed to another RER train and rode it out to the Charles de Gaulle airport. Quick and easy. Once at the airport, it took a few minutes of wandering around before we found our terminal and the check-in line. Want to know where the Americans are in Paris?—they’re at the airport. It felt like I was home.
No sooner had Catherine gotten to the front of the check-in line than there was an influx of French security people in the terminal waving their hands and telling everyone to go out to the sidewalk. Of course, this was in French and it took us Americans a moment to respond. Finally getting it, grumbling and confused, we pushed out the terminal door, luggage in tow. Outside there were more security people, police, and military men in camouflage herding us away from the terminal and down the sidewalk. They seemed very calm but insistent that we keep moving. Apparently an abandoned suitcase had been found in the terminal and the French were not fooling around.
Down the sidewalk and out into the street we travelers pushed, slowly, jockeying for position as we went. I heard one American woman declare “This is as far as I go.” Minutes later I saw her retreating farther down the sidewalk with the rest of us. Finally we had been pushed enough. Standing in the middle of the street, we turned and looked back longingly at our now abandoned terminal. Police and GRS security people milled around, official vans with flashing lights pulled up in the distance. The crowd took to their cell phones. Just as everyone was slipping into a state of bored resignation, there was a loud BOOM. We all looked at each other. Did they blow up the suitcase? Was it a test? Are bigger explosions on the way? It certainly was a punctuation mark at the end of our grumblings. Then all the police got on their walkie-talkies, confirmed that the coast was clear, and we were let back into the terminal to resume our lives. No big deal. Booms everyday. Just doing our jobs. Back at the check-in line all the Americans tried to politely reclaim their exact spot (“no – he was in front of her”). I waved goodbye to Catherine and went to find the RER.
So much for the Booms – now to the Blasts.
In this last week I have visited nothing less than five homes in Paris! I’ve been to my first party here, attended a coffee-on-the-terrace gathering, made several new friends including a French friend, had numerous lunches and dinners, and went to a Black Writer’s Salon in the heart of the 6th arrondissement blocks away from rue de Fleurus where Gertrude Stein had her Salon.
On top of all that, spring is sprung. The trees in our courtyard went from bare to blossomed overnight. Branches which were lifeless sticks are now covered in tiny buds. The Seine is flowing silvery green, the Parisians are shedding their winter wear and tulips abound in the flower shops.
[A sidebar here about the French flower shops. They stay open longer and more days of the year than almost any other shops. This indicates something about the importance of flowers in Paris. The Fleures (flower shops) are open on holidays and on Sundays and early in the morning. Even late at night when all else is shut down the flower shops are doing a booming (and a blooming – tee hee) business. The clerks always ask “Pour vous Madame?” before wrapping the flowers I have chosen. Evidently, wrapping a personal bouquet is one thing; wrapping a gift bouquet is another. And there are famous florists: Christian Tortu, renowned for his twigs and moss, and Henri Moulie, who recreates famous historical arrangements, to name a couple. Lastly, the number and kinds of florists is astounding. I have found eight stores within a couple blocks either way from our apartment without even looking. Who knows how many there really are. And among those eight are such choices as Orchidee, dedicated solely to orchids, Au Nom de la Rose, strictly for roses, and Le Bois Auteuil, which specializes only in yellow and white flowers.]
To return to the Blasts – the having a great time kind…
What is so exciting about visiting homes here? A home is a home, an apartment is an apartment. Couches and chairs and beds. Kitchens (well closets masquerading as kitchens) and halls. Windows and doors. Sixth floor walkups and tiny elevators that fit three people and a little dog. Not really all that earth shattering. I think my excitement comes from the fact that seeing homes means I am getting connected here in Paris. One cannot see homes without having someone to visit in them. Visiting homes is like moving one ring in from the social hinterlands. I am no longer looking through the windows at the people on the inside; now I am one of the people being watched (metaphorically speaking). Although, I have to say that my hold on this “insider” position is tenuous to say the least.
Forget the French, the social climb within the ex-pat world is challenging enough. Who knew? Unfortunately our rung on the ladder is rather low. Actually it is only one step up from tourist. At the top of the food chain are those ex-pats who speak fluent French and have found a real life here…the longtimers. I would say a longtimer is someone with more than 10 years here. The best of course is someone who has a French passport as well as their US one and a great accent to match. After that, the social pendulum swings near and far depending upon one’s fluency, permanence and knowledge of the bus system (not really, but it does get points.) Being transients and embarrassingly unprofficient in la langue francais, we have to try extra hard to crack this ex-pat nut. This requires a lot of humility. I am ashamed to say I pulled out the stops on my bus acumen at the Black Writer’s Salon and did get quite a few nods when I knew that the #89 bus went along the quai de la Gare in the 13th arrondissement.
Speaking of parties,,
Our first party was at M.’s home in the 11th arr. for his birthday. Catherine was only there in spirit as she had already gone to Minneapolis – but she was invited so it was almost as good as being there.
M. lives in a charming top floor apartment with a grand view over slate rooftops, lots of chimney pots and church spires. Pigeons were roosting just outside the windows, terrine and pate and cheeses and potato salad were spread out for lunch. A chocolate torte of sorts from the bakery across the street and deep, rich espressos made one at a time came last. His apartment is just around the corner from Pere Lachaise (where Jim Morrison and Gertrude Stein and Chopin and Oscar Wilde among other luminaries rest in peace) so I stopped at the flower shop next to the cemetery and bought a white begonia in a weathered clay pot as my present. I understand bringing cut flowers to a French person’s party is gauche as it forces the host to get to work arranging them. But I figured a potted plant would be OK. The sales clerk was Albino and fantastically interesting. Man, woman, gnome? It was hard to tell. (M. said she was a woman, so I will take his word for it.) As I paid for the begonia, this Albino clerk whispered to me “Is it for someone next door?” and tilted her head towards the graveyard. I replied quietly “Non, un cadeau pour mon ami…a present for my friend.” She smiled and whipped out the fancy wrapping paper and ribbons and did up the plant in grand style.
During the party, we talked about the French working system – one woman had 9 weeks vacation and was expected to take it! Everyone mourned the demise of the socialist system what with the new 35-hour work week and demands for greater productivity in France…ridiculous, inhumane, positively without culture. And we had a rousing discussion around the words “garnish” vs. “garner” when talking of the trouble people have gotten into by being late on their taxes. After consulting one of M.’s many dictionaries, it was found that I was correct! Wages are garnished, not garnered, in these sticky situations despite the fact that “garnish” also means to decorate with a sprig of parsley or a rose radish. I guess in terms of the taxation banquet, the attached wages are a bit of decor to an already heaping meal.
On to lighter subjects we veered. Holidays & Easter – and how about those chocolatiers and their obsession with the Easter fare. Chocolate chicks and eggs and fish and bells – even a bunny or two. Everything from one-inch chicks to chocolate eggs 4-feet tall fill the windows of the chocolate shops. I learned that in France the going concern is the bell that flies in from Rome rather than the Easter bunny that hops in from who-knows-where. Don’t ask me why or how these bells fly, because that’s all I know.
Emma, a longtimer, told a story about arriving in France 20 years ago and trying to find a pumpkin for her first Halloween. Everyone was horrified when she set her carved Jack-O on the windowsill, especially her young daughter. Since that time, it seems the French have tried to take on our Halloween holiday but can only get as far as Dracula or perhaps a vampire. They definitely haven’t been able to master the fairy princess or mermaid yet. Emma said that interest was lagging and she doubts Halloween will really take root.
We all agreed that it is difficult to transport rituals from one culture to another. Some things are just untranslatable.
Which brings me to the 21st century Parisian salon of Patricia LaPlante Collins, a black American orginally from Georgia. She is a longtimer here and quite well known for her Sunday evening soirees. It took a nap, three outfits, and a good talking to myself to get out the door and over to this Black Writer’s Salon. It was Easter night and I was feeling a bit hesitant about this bright idea. Mingle with strangers? Talk to strangers? Dine with strangers? What had I gotten myself into? I simply told myself I could leave if it was uncomfortable and then I channeled Catherine saying “It will be fun.” (We had been talking everyday on our Skype Internet phone and I had told her of the impending Salon affair.) Off I went.
The Salon was held at a gorgeous apartment on Boulevard Raspail with huge front windows looking out at the boulevard. It belonged to an American couple. Aside from the regulars (which I picked out because they all knew each other – these included the former editor of the Herald Tribune, a director from Sotheby’s Impressionist department, a simultaneous English/French translator, an airline pilot, several journalists and writers, a filmmaker from Zimbabwe and a guitar maker from Bolivia…to name a few), there was a tour group of women – about 30 of them - retirees from all over the US. They had come with their tour director, Patricia Sweetwine, to meet Janet McDonald, the writer being featured this evening, and to visit a real Parisian salon. Catherine and I had met Janet McDonald in the summer and I was anxious to see her again. Janet’s first book, Project Girl, tells her story of growing up in the Brooklyn projects, going to Vassar and becoming a corporate lawyer (now turned writer) in Paris. Talk about culture hopping,,,
The evening was a Blast – Janet was funny and warm. She read from her book and talked about new projects (of the written kind). The guests were friendly and interesting. And I mingled, and talked, and dined. I even road part of the way home on the #10 Metro line with two French women who had been at the Salon. All they could talk about was the noise – almost unbearable! They cringed and shook their heads. They said it must have been because there were no rugs or paintings in the house. I kept my mouth shut even though I knew we were all thinking it was the Americans and their loud voices, not the rugs. Some things are better left unsaid.
And last but not least, about speaking,
It was after our second day of French class. Stephanie, our professor, said we made a huge leap from Day 1 to Day 2. I think this was true. On the second day both Catherine and I seemed to have loosened up. Words long forgotten were popping out of our mouths. At moments I spoke easily and cleverly. Catherine was talking up a storm.
After class we went to the gym. Did I tell you we joined Le Club Med? It is close to the house - just down at Porte d’Auteuil across from the Auteuil race track where Hemingway went in the spring. As long as we were exercising our tongues, we thought it would be good to get a little tonification (as they say at Le Club) for the rest of ourselves. Hence the gym membership.
We were on the #52 bus going home. It was absolutely beautiful outside. The endorphins were running high. Catherine and I were standing in the back of the bus, bouncing along down rue d’Auteuil watching the boucheries, boulangeries, and yes, flower shops go by. As our French professor had instructed, I was dutifully eves dropping on the conversation between two French teenagers standing next to me, or at least watching their expressions. The Parisians (and I assume all other groups but it is the Parisians I am studying) have a whole set of facial expressions and sounds they use during talking. Le body language. (Actually I was miming this to Catherine in our French class telling her I didn’t really need to learn any words; I just had to perfect the French body language.) The petite grunts, the raised eyebrows, the emphasis with the shoulders, and let’s not forget the exaggerated “poofs” with pursed lips and a slightly disgruntled look on the face…these denote concentration or frustration. (Madame at the newspaper kiosk in the neighborhood always makes this “poof” sound when I try to order something. No matter how hard I try, she is not pleased with my ordering practices. So I have decided it is a game we play – I’m the impossible foreigner and she’s the disdainful vendeuse (vendor).
As I’m watching and listening to these two teenagers, I realized that I love they way they talk. It was quiet and refined but passionate nonetheless. Then I realized that I was in Paris (for the millionth time) and, frankly, enchanted.