Saturday, April 19, 2008

First time in France


My arrival was rocky, as I knew it would be. I’d need to employ my shaky French skills right away and call the property manager of the apartment I was renting to arrange a key hand-off. I’d been warned by the American woman I was renting from (who I’d found on Craigslist) that this guy spoke not a word of English, and though I’d been working hard on my French for the past few months, the idea of a phone call was daunting. There’s something about face-to-face conversation, with all its context clues and facial expressions that makes speaking a new language easier. Thinking I’d rehearse first (and feel a bit more at ease), I asked the nearest official-looking guy where the toilets were, in perfect, French-class français. Thrilled that I understood and was understood myself, I thanked him sincerely… and in Spanish. Those months in Mexico were still with me.

Without a cell yet, I found a credit-card-operated phone and dialed Fred. I explained who I was and that I guessed I’d be there in, I don’t know, an hour?? He gave an enthusiastic yet incomprehensible response; I chose to believe he’d understood. Skulking around the arrivals lobby were taxi drivers looking to line up complicated fare deals but I refused to pay the €50 for the convenience and searched instead for the train. One shuttle, one long line, one train, and one short taxi ride later, I arrived on dark and creaky Île St. Louis. It was 10pm by then, more than two hours after my call to Fred, and I was at a loss as to how to contact him next. The island it seemed, was too posh for such things as public telephones. Finally, after wandering the streets pathetically, I asked a grocer at the small market next to my apartment if I could use his phone s’il vous plaît, because otherwise he’d have an American girl and her pink suitcase sleeping on the street outside his shop that night. To my surprise, he looked at the address and said, “Oh, you’re Barbara’s tenant? Of course! Bienvenue à Paris!” I was welcome in France. I had been expected! It was as though I’d waited all night to get into this club, and now the bouncer was telling me my name had been on the guest list all along.

One Chic Shoebox

The apartment itself was the size of a shoebox… make that a kids-sized shoebox. But it held a futon, a kitchenette, a miniscule bathroom, and even a private outdoor terrace (which I would never use, alas, since the weather never ceased to suck). I don’t have a date for the building exactly, but it is surrounded by others with plaques listing years in the 17th and 18th centuries, and if it could make me feel like a giant Alice in a shrunken house, I knew it had to be from an era of shorter-statured people.

But the location! In the theater of Paris it was the best seat in the house! (On Easter morning, it was just three minutes from my doorstep to Notre Dame Cathedral for the most spectacular mass I have ever seen.) The smaller of two islands on the Seine that splits Paris in two, Île St. Louis is a nucleus concentrating all the charm of Parisian culture into a few cobbled, narrow streets. How I’d managed to find a place here that cost half what a bad hotel would anywhere in the city… I was lucky. I tried not to feel like an interloper, since the ritzy few residents who do actually live on St. Louis are notoriously annoyed with the crowds drawn to it for its famous Bertillon sorbet. (The stuff is so good, it was even worth me huddling in freezing rain under an umbrella to taste. Imagine fruit at its most godly ripeness, made coolly, scoopably luscious… it makes sense that the islanders might want to keep it to themselves). The density of loveliness on the streets surrounding me was overwhelming – nothing but the finest boutiques, frommageries), boulangeries, creperies, specialty shops, and galleries. But it was fine in a way so completely different from Madison Avenue or other elite shopping districts; Gucci and Prada are, to me, so laughably beyond reach that they fail to even trigger my temptation. But here, oh, these places had character; it just shone through the shop windows, oozed out under their doors, wafted in the air outside and drew me in.

Hedonic Refugee

For so long I had sensed that I would love France, that it would fit me just right. In Eric Weiner’s Geography of Bliss he introduces the concept of the “hedonic refugee,” one who emigrates to find the place that best provides his or her requisites for happiness, his or her unique version of pleasure. Weiner’s book centers on this idea that surroundings affect state of mind, contentment, and the tenor of daily life. And being on tour is like one big test of his hypothesis! Not to sound unstable, but I’ve watched my mood swing wildly from one city to the next: I am beautiful – no, ugly. I am active – no, lazy. I am social - no, an utter hermit. I love this world and everyone in it! No, humanity is basically depraved.

Yet I felt that France and I might hit it off. And while it tried to discourage me by raining all the time and making everything so damn expensive, I’m sure I was right. It didn’t disappoint. I met a cynical guy at a party who told me, “You know, most of what you think of France is just cliché…the Frenchman with the baguette under his arm and all.” To which I responded, “But you do carry baguettes!” He smiled and admitted I was right. And since my own personal brand of hedonism merges so well with French culture, I think I’ve found my match. What follows, I guess, is just a demonstration of this, the proving of my theory that France is where I belong.

To be continued...