Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Paris loves me, this I know. For its people tell me so.

Paris initiates its newcomers with small pokes to the gut. It’s the city’s way of making sure its inhabitants are tough enough to walk the streets.

And so it was no surprise that my cab driver, despite my urging and repeated map-pointing, refused to believe that I could be dropped off at my front door.

“It’s complicated, the eighteenth! Too many stairs, not enough streets. That is not a street, it is a stair! So I drop you here. It is here where we say good-bye.”

Here was at the bottom of one of Montmartre’s steep, long staircases. I complained that I had a lot of bags with me, and told him that even though I have giant muscles, the bags were still cumbersome for someone of my frame. I begged him to take me to the top.

“Mademoiselle, it is not possible.”

And so I found myself standing at the bottom of the stairs, strapping one bag on my left shoulder, one bag on my right, and carrying two others in each hand. I started climbing. Slowly.

Hurried pedestrians ran down the stairs, huffing and glaring when they reached the barricade that was me. I tried, in my own jet-lagged way, to give them sympathy-inducing smiles, but they simply muttered “oh la la” and “c’est pas possible!” before ducking under the rail to the other side of the stairway. (Not one of the strapping young French men offered to help me with my bags.)

Wheezing a little, I reached the top and dropped the two heavier bags.


I looked up. Some random French woman had paused mid-step and mid-phone call and was speaking to me in English.


“Do you look for Rue Girardon?”

I was indeed looking for Rue Girardon, the street home to my new apartment. If this woman knew this, she was, logically…my guardian angel. I was excited. I always knew my guardian angel would be a crazy French lady with her neck wrapped in a giant summer scarf.

“I am Nelly,” she said, which roughly translates to “not your guardian angel.” Nelly was my new landlord, the woman I was supposed to meet at the apartment. I explained to her that my plane had been a few minutes late, and that I’d had some arguments with my cab driver.

“Oh, you speak French,” she pouted, and with that, she was off, leaving me to (attempt) to scurry behind her. She told the caller on the other end of her cell phone about how she had given up and had been leaving the apartment when she found the American girl in the road.

She was leaving?! This meant, had I shown up five minutes later, or had my cab driver dropped me off anywhere else, I would have missed her altogether. I would have arrived at my apartment (on top of the freaking hill nonetheless) to find no one. Apparently the average patience of French landlords is approximately 15 minutes. Not very good for a guardian angel.

In the apartment, Nelly was in a hurry (once she got off the phone).

“Sign here, and here, and give me the money, I go, and then you explore the apartment!”

That’s when I told her: I didn’t really have any money. I was worried about being late, so I came directly to the apartment. (And with good reason, apparently.) So she offered to drive me to the bank. She thrust a key in my hand, locked the door, took me to her car, drove me to a bank, counted my money, and sped off.

Wait, where was I? What time was it on my body clock?

Before leaving the apartment, I’d dumped all useful things out of my bag: cell phone, map, phone numbers, address of apartment.

I wandered around for a bit, but by the time I found the apartment 30 minutes later, I had realized something else: I didn’t know how to unlock the door. I tried and tried, but the door wouldn’t give. Not even close. French locks are tricky, and generally speaking, initiate some sort of freaky Pavlovian response in me that makes me have to pee (1).

My first thought was that I needed Nicolas and Chris. They could help me. So I headed back down the hill to find a café (with a bathroom), an internet café (to retrieve their numbers), a tabac (for a phone card) and a pay phone (to call the boys).

As I walked down the hill, it dawned on me. Paris was giving me my first test. And I was passing! I was locked out, sure, but I had all the tools to help myself. Or, more precisely, to find people to help me.

Chris picked up the phone, and shortly after informing me that he was naked (it’s good to be back), told me that I should give the key another try. Try for ten more minutes, he said, and if that didn’t work, he’d get dressed and come meet me for coffee.

Genius. The ten minutes worked. The door, after much cursing on my part and slamming of my body weight into it, finally yielded. I was home and could begin exploring, as Nelly said. And in any Parisian apartment, there’s much to be discovered.


(1) While studying abroad in 2001, I lived in a “chambre de bonne” – maid’s quarters – on the eighth floor of a building with no elevator. There was no bathroom in my room. The shower was in my host family’s apartment on the third floor of a different building, and my toilet was behind a locked door on the hallway of my floor. So whenever I had to use the restroom, I had to fight with a skeleton key and lock. Now add the complication of a broken light bulb in the WC itself and a timed light in the hallway. That’s right – hit the light and HURRY or else I’d be stuck in the dark. (Cue: somewhat traumatizing third grade memories of Bloody Mary.)

The moral of the story is this: over the year, my body learned that the sound of a key in the door meant that I was about to be able to pee. So now, when I unlock any door, I run for the bathroom. …Is this too private to share on a blog?


At 12:13 AM, Anonymous Chris said...

Welcome back baby! I do feel like a very bad friend for not being dressed when your plane landed. Dinner at my house Thursday. You missed another lovely picnic this evening.

At 4:51 PM, Blogger Imaginair' said...

Welcome in Paris. The rue Girardon is a nice place. I had some years ago a friend who lived in this street just in front of a square where a statue (Edith Piaf singer???).

At 5:14 PM, Blogger Emily said...

Yes, yes... It's actually Dalida. I don't know much about her, but I'm sure Nico and Chris can fill you in.

At 6:54 PM, Anonymous Nico said...

At least you picked up the phone, Chris. I too was in bed - and stuffed my phone under the nearest pair of dirty jeans.

The supreme irony is that of the three of us, Emily, who hates Dalida, gets to live down the street from Place Dalida. Dalida - a kind of proto Madonna, gay icon and kitsch machine.

At 9:43 PM, Anonymous Josh said...

Nico and Chris you don't have to help her with the door, but please do intercept all strapping french lads.



At 2:06 PM, Anonymous Chris said...

Mistaking Dalida for "Edith Piaf singer" is a bit like mixing up Cher and Ethel Merman. Oh, but if you could HYBRIDIZE Cher and Ethel Merman! Brilliant! Thank you imaginair.

At 7:52 PM, Blogger Buffy said...

This is great. You write so effortlessly.

I always get nostalgic in the Fall. It's when I first arrived at being ME and somewhere other than the States.

Your writing reminds me of all this. And makes me smile.

At 5:06 PM, Anonymous sleeping said...

When you're in Paris, you must not care your body clock!


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