My mother emailed me, “Take care and enjoy Paris. It’s a big city with lots of diversity. Try to get to Notre Dame. It isn’t as beautiful as the churches in Italy but still worth seeing.”
She can be such a snob. My parents never have much good to say about France. The more I grow up, the more I see how little of them I find in myself.
Someone else had crunched their nose up at my mention of Versailles and said “It’s a bit dry for my taste.” When you repeat these little snarky remarks to a Parisian, they burst into laughter. To turn your nose up to France is absolutely moronic. There is a reason the French are snotty, because they earned it!
From Père Lachaise, I took the Metro to Notre Dame. I had 10Euroes left, which didn’t leave me enough to eat and pay for the transit to the airport. I still had a $20 American dollar tucked away in my wallet from my Mom. So, I took the Metro back to the heart of Paris and grabbed myself some kind of delightful blueberry cheesecake bar for a couple Euroes that filled my stomach before I could finish it.
There was a long line into the Notre Dame Cathedral, so I rushed underground to use the toilet beforehand. There was a line and a few older women managing the toilets. That’s right, they were managing the toilets. Both looked like they had grown up, there, underground with the moldy tile and dripping plumbing- one obese, the other tiny. Neither smiled. They directed men to one end and women to the other, guess who had the wait line? One woman after another had trouble locking the stall, wandered around for the ideal porcelain toilet, while the rest of us had to wait behind a bar, with full bladders and money in hand. It cost 50Cents or so to use the facilities.
After clenching my abdomen and wasting time in a basement under Paris, I finally had my turn to use the toilet, it was surprisingly clean (cleaner than LA toilets), I locked the unlockable stall, finished and tipped the two women. That made me the hero, all of a sudden, their faces brightened to reveal missing teeth, they clucked goodbyes and nodded in thanks.
Above ground, I got in line for Notre Dame, mass was about to start. Admission was free and the line moved fast as I shuffled in through the teardrop opening into the cathedral. It was dark and smelled of incense. The organ music was shaking the walls and the line of tourists was pushed around the center, away from the pews and churchgoers.
The day filtered through stained glass windows. The sculptures of saints stood still as everyone walked by to gawk at them. The place was heavy with history, and you could feel it pulling you into the floorboards.
I stopped at Joan d’Arc’s statue, she was surrounded by candles and I read the plaque:
Good old Joan, at 16 years-old she was granted leadership of the French army under Divine instruction. The King only allowed it after all other attempts to protect France against the English and Burgundians failed. Joan was tested on all accounts of morality in her life and background (I take that to mean that she was not allowed to lead the army until they made sure she was a physical virgin). When they verified her “purity”, she took back one French fortress after another, suffered injury to her neck by arrow, ignored the War councils orders- since she wasn’t invited to their meetings anyway and continued to recapture many parts of France despite a head injury from a cannon ball and a leg injury by cross bow.
The English came to a truce, but shortly thereafter it ended, Joan was on horse again, leading the troops to defend her country against the Burgundians and English armies. When she was captured, pulled off her horse, refusing to surrender, the French Royal family did not offer money for her ransom.
She tried to escape, jumping 70 feet out of a tower onto dry ground, but, in the end, it was the English who paid for her, not the French. They initiated a trial, accusing her of heresy; the typical bullshit with no legal aid, no French partisans at court for trial and then forced her to sign away her rights in the face of immediate execution. While imprisoned, they tried to molest her, rape her- maybe they did. I can only assume they did.
They forced her to wear a dress, later stripped off of her during an “attempted” assault. They finally allowed her to wear men’s clothing to deter further sexual abuse in the hopes she wouldn’t be found in her cell completely naked . . . again. That must of been a ray of sunshine before finding out you had to be burned to death at the stake.
After the first burning, they made sure everyone saw her remains before burning her two more times, this way everyone present could verify that she did not escape and no one could collect anything left of her. Then, her ashes were dumped in the Seine. So she has no grave, but she still runs through France.
What is it about man? They find something truly spectacular, truly marvelous and inexplicably phenomenal, and all they can do is capture it and kill it. They refuse to learn from it. And they refuse to love it. Maybe that is how they love, by stealing its physical body and collecting its soul. They conquer and destroy. Bravo.
I sat down next to Joan, and said hello. The church wanted $5Euroes to light a candle for a prayer. Growing up Catholic, we were accustomed to that small section in the church, lighting a candle and praying in distress or worry. I slid in a 50Cents piece, just so it looked like I was dropping something in before grabbing a candle and lighting it. I prayed to Joan to protect my dogs and cat, all the animals I loved, all the ones I lost, and to ask that there be as little less suffering in my future, because I am not sure my heart can take it.
I walked around the tourists with video cameras, documenting every step in front of me, as if they would ever watch it again. Can you imagine them, on their couches in their living room,“Hey Mom, forget ‘American Idol’, let’s relive our walking tour through Notre Dame.”
The saddest part is they were never present to feel the place; the small blades of light finding their way through the windows and roof, the sound of the priest during mass, first the words low from his mouth then again, as they echoed off the back walls, the idea that people throughout all of history, the wars and the disease, fled to this little church for protection. Napoleon crowned himself Emperor right there, right where I was looking.
Sitting down, Mass continued. I wanted to step out of the constant stream of videotaping tourists. Families from all around the world kept crowding around, trying to get the best angle with their camera. They always tried to push as close to the actual Mass as possible, but people in uniform were stationed there to protect the real churchgoers and keep the tourists back.
I walked down the Seine, the opposite way of the Eiffel tower, to see what was down there. Texting with our liaison from the Cannes Film Festival, a resident of Paris, he invited me to a party later that night and offered to help me get on the right train to the right airport.
All I wanted to do was get lost, and I did. I walked off the cream and blueberries and cheese, stopping to look at random art along the way. Sculptures were left along the Seine for no other reason than existing. I loved that.
I crossed a restaurant where a Chef was arguing with a patron. As they pulled her away, she spit at him and he charged her, in furious French. People pulled both of them away and I thought, “God, I love this place.”
Then, I saw a sign: “Bastille” and an arrow pointing to the other side of the Seine.
That was the landmark I was offered at Père Lachaise to help lead me to Jim Morrison’s final flat in Paris. Out loud, I said, “Are you kidding me?”
I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Alright. There is the sign, let’s do this.”
Walking back over the Seine, the street vendors thinned out. The carts with French pastries, the magazine stands, the tourists all slowly disappeared and were replaced with fruit markets and school children. I wasn’t sure where I was going, occasionally there would be a sign and I would follow it, cross through an alley and feel lost just before finding another sign.
Eventually, I ended up at Rue Beautreillis, which was a very short street, just enough for the restaurant on one side and the residential building on the other. I stopped, looked up and said, “Ok, Jim, I saw it.” He wasn’t there either.
There was no rush, the day was set aside for me to wander. I felt happy, skipping along the bridges, listening to the music I remembered word for word, feeling the breeze pick up off the water and tickle the sweat down the back of my neck, and under the wire of my bra.
Getting back on my feet, I wandered some more and stumbled upon a small garden dedicated to Louis Armstrong.
It was small, just a little park you could see all the way through while passing by. It still felt like it was for me.
I walked through and down, trying to find the maps to make my way back to the hostel. My phone would ping with texts from my Paris contact, who wanted to know when I would be in his part of Paris (I didn’t know), Aldrich, who wanted to know when I would be able to call him that day (I didn’t know) and Gade, my French stranger who kept pressing me to cancel my flight and stay with him in a flat in Paris for a few weeks. Damn it. Just not possible.
As I turned back around, trying to reorient myself to this part of town, I got a little frustrated. I had to keep deleting texts to get more since my phone memory was quickly used up with questions I couldn’t answer.
A large drunk tourist crept up behind me, and just as I felt his hand reach for me, a few of his buddies swept up between us saying, “Whoa whoa whoa, no!” leading him off.
When I made it back to the hostel, I opened the luggage closet to see a pile of bags just thrown on top of the each other, taller than all of me. Complaining to myself, I opened the door and threw out one piece of luggage at a time, to dig out my one bag, on the floor and under a shelf. Baby powder spilled all over everyone’s bags.
A tall, handsome Australian approached me, “Need some help?”
I said, “Yes, they just made a garbage pile out of everyone’s luggage. Unbelievable! There are empty spots on these shelves, I mean, look at this bag, for instance, THIS could fit right HERE!”
He lifted the heavier bags over me and said, “Well, just so you know, mine is on the shelf in there.”
I said, “Well, of course, you seem like a nice, young man. Of course yours in on the shelf.”
He smiled at me. Covered in baby powder and sweat, I looked down to blush, everything was too God damn tempting for me here. How the hell was I going to leave? I knew back in the States, men wouldn’t look at me that way anymore.
I knew all the freedom I felt to drift, and consume, and adore would be shadowed with obligations, parents and money. I get it, that’s life. The difference was, in France I was standing inside of myself. Back in the States, I would have to keep one foot outside of my mind, just so I could navigate back into a life of some kind.
Grabbing my bag, the Australian released me back on the streets of Paris so I could get on a Metro to the Arts et Métiers. My bag was enormous, and there were a lot of stairs up and down the Metro. At first, I had trouble, but as I dragged my luggage, I always felt the end lift in the air like it had wings, just before turning around and finding a strange man walking up the stairs with me, my bag in hand. That happened about four times before I got to my destination.
I was to go to a woman’s flat who was throwing the party tonight, drop off my bag and meet my Paris Liaison for dinner. I walked around in a broad circle, maybe twice, before finding the right Rue to cross down. Then I had to climb 7 flights of stairs with my enormous bag. That . . . sucked.
The girl opened the door for me, she was a cross-eyed Romanian, shorter than me and very curt. She took my bag into her bedroom and said she was getting ready for the party. I thanked her profusely and then asked if I could sit down, she gave a quick nod and then hid in her bedroom from me.
It was only a two bedroom apartment, so that was awkward. I texted the liaison, who said that the Romanian was texting him from her bedroom and needed me to leave so she could prepare for the party. Nice.
So I left my bag there, and flew on foot down the road to find his apartment. Let’s call him Jacques. I wanted to try and find it with as little instruction as possible, and Jacques played the game with me, only answering “hot” and “cold” to landmarks I stumbled upon.
The neighborhood I walked into was suddenly black, as in the people were black. All this time, I hadn’t really seen many black French folk, but here, all of a sudden, I was glaringly white. It also seemed like a poorer neighborhood. There was garbage on the ground and the buildings were falling apart. Bed sheets as curtains. Crowded. Loud. I wondered why blacks were poor here too. Were they rich anywhere?
One of them was smiling and pushed his friends back, “Yes, yes, yes. I speak English. You are lost?”
I showed them the map and where I needed to be, and repeated the words the Romanian repeated to me before closing her door on me. The three men argued about the best way to go, and then all decided, together, that I needed to backtrack a bit and turn right, then left. I lifted my eyes to remember that as I nodded.
The young man who was the most eager to speak among them said, “You are in luck. I specialize in teaching American women French. I can teach you.”
I smiled and said, “I understand.” And chuckled a little. “Compris.”
He said, “Give a kiss, please. As payment.”
I didn’t have time for my “Cultural Differences” speech so I said, “OK, on the cheek though.”
Leaning in, I made that noise, “MMMMMMMWAH!” and quickly made my exit. They all cheered goodbye and I thought, “Well, this is a friendly neighborhood.”
Between two tall buildings, I wandered and realized I was there but was never given a building number or apartment number. A woman stopped to ask if I needed help, and all I said was, “Do you know Jacques?”
She shrugged her shoulders and I said, “Its ok. He will find me.”
And he did, I stepped inside a door and climbed a narrow staircase to Jacques apartment. He is short, maybe 5’5, small in all his features but his prominent nose. In a utilitarian brown vest, he has black hair and skinny legs. I always thought if you were to draw a Frenchman as a cartoon, Jacques would be the perfect model.
In his forties, there is something attractive about him. A childlike spirit, an unapologetic artist and an odd genius. Sometimes, you are attracted to someone because you think you have uncovered a secret. They are sexy because they are different- then you realize they are in on the secret and so are most other people around you. And sometimes, only sometimes, that obliterates the attraction. That was the case with Jacques, and I also think, at times, that is the case with me. You aren’t so offbeat anymore, when people realize you are the only one on-beat.
In his apartment, there were stacks of books, videotapes, DVDs and computer parts practically falling off the shelves, and continued in piles on the floor. Thank you notes were taped to the wall. Little stuffed animals were pushed into an odd corner here or there. He was in a one room studio, and on his futon sat one of our students from Cannes; a pretty Chinese girl who was studying film in Los Angeles.
I knew she was staying with him, but it seemed awkward in this one room, filled with stuff and only one futon to share.
I made jokes about wanting to hold his hand in Cannes, but he was not the vulnerable artist-nerd everyone assumed. He knew what he was doing, and I wondered if it was entirely appropriate to be with such a young, female student in such a small living space.
Who am I to talk about what’s appropriate or not? In France, everyone has permission to do whatever the hell they wanted to do. That’s why I loved it.
After greeting both of them, I asked if it was cramped. He said, “Oh, I have a room across the hall, too.”
A beautiful French woman stopped in to say hello.
Jacques, “Are you going to the party tonight?”
Gorgeous French woman, “I don’t know yet.”
Jacques, “Do you want to join us for dinner?”
French woman, “I don’t know, I might stay in and cook something.”
Jacques, “What are you going to cook?”
French woman, “I don’t really know yet.”
Jacques, “Ok, well text me when you know.”
She unleashed some kind of magical smile that stopped time before disappearing across the hall again.
Jacques said, “She doesn’t like to make up her mind.”
Me, “Oh that’s alright.” And I sat on the floor and stretched out my legs. “She lives across the hall.” I meant to say, “With you?”
He nodded slightly and said, “Would you like some tea?”
Me, “I would love some. I really love this place it reminds me of my place . . . before . . .”
He said, “Before what?”
I said, “Before I lost all my money and had to move out.”
Taking out my camera phone, I tried to grab a few pictures. I thought about asking and then remembered him filming me on the bus in Cannes without permission. I turned and caught him with a camera in my face, then smiled. He stole my smile.
Putting down my camera phone I said, “Eugh, there isn’t enough light. I guess I will just have to remember it.”
He said, “Yes, its like me, small and full of surprises.”
I asked, “Where do I buy the ticket for the train to the airport?”
He said, “I already bought one for you.” He slid it over his desk with my cup of tea. That was kind.
The three of us walked to a nearby soup kitchen, and we each ordered a bowl. It was a small restaurant with seats at a counter that bordered the mirrored walls like a bar, and a few small tables in the center of the room. You couldn’t push your chair out without hitting another one. My soup was lentil, handed to me in a wood bowl with pieces of pita and silverware on the shelf by my knees, below the bar. I could see through the mirrors on the wall, the handsome, Middle-Eastern soup chef watching me. We made eye contact through the wall and I smiled. He was around my age, large but in a way that suited him.
I like it when men enjoy watching me eat. I like men who cook food and then watch me eat it. MMMMM!
Jacques asked about my life, so I took him backward, and ended my story 6 months before, when my roommate hung himself in our bathroom.
I always like to tell that story with a little comedy, just because I can’t stand the heavy concern everyone offers me, with the hand on the shoulder, the gazing into my eyes followed by, “If you ever need to talk about it . . .”
Jacques took the hook and laughed along, occasionally nursing the Chinese student who couldn’t finish her soup because of a stomach ache.
I asked if it was my story that bothered her, she said, “No, its Paris. It doesn’t agree with me.”
Me, “Impossible. Paris agrees with everybody.”
She said, “Not me.”
Jacques doted over her as I moaned in delight over my lentils. I took pieces of bread to mop up anything remaining of the soup before dumping it in the bussing station at the bar. They both looked up at me, and I said, “Frankly, that was delicious.” They smiled.
We got up to leave. The chef smiled and walked us out of the restaurant. I allowed one last sultry stare before stepping into the cool night street.
The Student went back to Jacques’ apartment, too ill to attend the party. I wasn’t really looking forward to going to a party where the hostess hated me, but there I was. Unfortunately for her, I had to defecate in her toilet and do something about my body odor since the hot Paris day worked out every drop of water I had. So I shuffled through her perfumes and tried to disguise as much of myself as possible. She was waiting for me outside the bathroom door, cold and concerned.
I smiled and walked back into the party. There were a number of Romanians all sharing a drink called Țuică, which was a clear alcoholic beverage they made and stored in used glass bottles. Almost everyone who wasn’t Romanian passed on drinking it, but Jacques said I should try it.
The hostess said, “Its very strong. Very strong and very bitter.”
I said, “Ok.” Who am I to pass up on Țuică? So as everyone in the room stared at me, I took a drink. No one said a word. I swallowed and then said, “Not bad.”
Jacques laughed. “She liked it.”
I said, “I just thought it would taste like gasoline but its not bad at all.” I sucked it off my lips, “Not bitter at all.”
As the night went on, another mysterious bottle would be passed my way, and I was prodded into drinking it. I took a shot or two, buzzing ever so slightly from it. I knew I had to sleep in the airport tonight, so maybe it would help.
A beautiful Romanian girl chatted with me, she said she moved to Paris to pursue art, but the town was too expensive, and she wasn’t sure it was worth it. She preferred the cinema community in Transylvania, where everything is smaller, the films were more charming, and there was a greater sense of community.
I said, “I wish I could move to Paris, but I have three dogs.”
She said, “You should try it, bring them.”
Me, “I will look in to it when I go back home. I am starting writing school.”
She said, “And you are actress, too?”
I smiled and nodded, “Yes.”
She said, “I can see it in you. You have the stars in your eyes. Very special.”
That was one of the best things anyone has ever said to me.
The last metro was leaving at midnight, so when I realized how late it was, I bustled to get out of there. When the hostess realized I was leaving, she was suddenly warm and kissed me goodbye.
Jacques asked which airline I was leaving for. I told him I forgot. I didn’t even think about checking in on-line when I was at his place near a computer. I hadn’t bothered to prepare to leave at all, partly because the idea was so unpleasant.
I said, “It always works out. I wing everything.”
We got to the right metro stop for the airport and he said, “Call me or text me if you need help. I will be up.”
I hugged him a big thank you and rushed down to the train. I went the wrong way, and in four minutes, missed my train.
I texted him, “Fuck, I think I just missed it.”
That was the last train for the night.
He told me where to catch a bus, so I ran over, with my huge luggage and waited for the bus. I already used my metro ticket for the train that I missed, so I wasn’t sure if they would take it after the machine punched it. If they didn’t, I was fucked. I had only $5Euroes left and that wouldn’t be enough for a new ticket.
I was stressed out, it was midnight, and my right eye was infected. I don’t know why, it was burning red. Aldrich kept texting, “I am tired, when can I say goodbye to you.”
I said, “Almost to the airport. Please wait for me.”
On the bus, I acted like I didn’t know how to use the ticket machine, so an attendant accepted my validated ticket.
Collapsing on a dark seat on a nearly empty bus, two young American couples crashed near me. They were young and loud.
Girl, “That wasn’t so bad. We missed the show but getting drunk under the Eiffel Tower was pretty good, too.”
Boy, “Well, it was so awesome seeing Kanye up there on stage. He totally killed that show. I think he even made eye contact with me once.”
I rolled my eyes and popped in my ear buds for more Doors to flood out my reality:
Full of grace.
Savior of the human race, your cool face . . .
Natural child, terrible child,
Not your mother’s or your father’s child,
You’re our child. Screamin’ wild.
It was over a half an hour before the bus sadly dropped us at the first terminal. The airport was dark and nearly abandoned. I saw KLM, and remembered that was my airline.
I texted Jacques to tell him I made it safe, and thank him again.
A few of us drifted around the glass doors, tugging on one or two that were locked. The two young American boys started getting restless, “Whoa, this is NOT cool.”
I walked further down a little, making eye contact with the Egyptian janitor. I smiled. He quietly indicated the open door, and it easily opened for me. Everyone followed me in, and we all dispersed in an empty airport.
Everything was closed until morning, so it was kind of like camping. You had to find a spot that looked hidden away but exposed enough that you wouldn’t be raped or killed quietly, and get as comfortable as possible.
My eye was really infected now, so I took out my contact lens, used the bathroom and called Aldrich.
He was very groggy. I said, “How far away is this airport from Paris? It took forever to get here.’
Yawning, he said, “Very far.”
I said, “Oh look! A flight to Toulouse! Tomorrow at 7am.”
He laughed, lightly.
Me, “I don’t see my flight up here. Can you look up my flight number?”
I gave him my gmail account details, and through labored English he said, “13,267 unread . . . emails.”
Me, “Yeah, I hold on to things.”
Me, “Yes, yes, yes, look under my folder, Paris Cannes Trip? What is my flight number?”
He found it for me, as I settled into a seat across from the metal detector. I tried to lay everything out so my legs, waist and head could all line up comfortably, but gave up and crunched my body to fit in the seat.
We chatted on the phone until he stopped answering my questions, and all I could hear was the even breathing of a sleeping boy.
I listened for a little longer, knowing I would never hear him again, and I hung up.
My head grew heavy too, I took out Abe’s ipod and popped on “Fight Club” until I drifted off to sleep.