“Wow!” Vicky said, “that’s a pretty cool toaster!” She said it with an air of amazement over how well Europeans disguise simple, every-day objects with their never-ending flair for international design.
“Honey, I believe that is our dishwasher.”
“Oh shit! It is a dishwasher. Are we gonna play house or something? My Suzy Homemaker version was bigger than this!”
We were surveying our new digs: an apartment/hotel on the Left Bank in the 6th Arrondisement and Parisian quartier of St.-Germain-des-Pres. The location is great – we are on the Quai des Grands Augustins overlooking the famous Pont Neuf and Ile de Cité – the little island that is best known for the cathedral of Notre Dame and Point Zéro – the precise point from where all distances are measured in France. We certainly cannot be any more centralized in Paris than this. St.-Germain-des-Pres is a wonderful section of Paris full of antique shops, art galleries, bookshops, fashion boutiques, small but excellent restaurants and funky little bars. It was once a haven for artists and intellectuals (until the Griswalds arrived!) The area sort of enjoys the best of both worlds: The lively (and rowdy) student-filled Latin Quarter (5th Arrondisement) to the east and the more sedate and elegant neighborhoods of the 7th Arrondisement in the shadows of the Eiffel Tower towards the western boundaries of central Paris.
Our journey began with our typical mad dash to the Evansville Airport. I guess we got there thirty minutes before departure which is well ahead of our normal ten or fifteen minutes before departure. But a rookie Delta employee insisted on abiding by the carry-on rules and we were forced to consolidate already overstuffed backpacks, duffle bag, computer cases and purse. We flew from Evansville to Cincinnati where we were unfairly tricked: our connecting Air France flight was actually a Delta 767. The flight was surprisingly full.
We arrived to a rainy Paris morning with heavier than normal traffic. A friendly Arab taxi driver named Youssouf crammed all of our luggage into the back of his small hatchback. Aside from white sneakers, excess luggage is always a dead giveaway for Americans. Kind of like the Beverly Hillbillies on safari…
Since traffic was bad, Youssouf made beaucoups de detours. Greater Paris is surrounded by many ethnic neighborhoods and I believe it is impossible to enter Paris without traveling through an Arab quartier. We were in a very out-of-the-way little neighborhood. We stopped at a traffic light and I looked over to see a large group of men dressed in turbans having a heated discussion outside of a Laundromat. Maybe it was a Taliban council meeting deciding whether or not women should be allowed use coin-operated washing machines. The decision was unanimous: Why change now when they are so used to washing clothes in the river?
The thought briefly crossed my mind that Youssouf was driving us into a pre-planned ambush. Even Vicky later admitted the same thought passed through her as well. But in reality, Paris is a very civilized and safe part of the world. Many of the Arabs that live here have been here for quite some time – Youssouf told us he has lived in Paris for over 25 years. Many obviously prefer Western culture – otherwise, they wouldn’t be here.
We finally arrived at the address Vicky’s company had given us: 53 Quai des Grands Augustins. Youssouf kept telling us earlier on that he knew the address: it was the Citadines Apart’Hotel which did not, he said, allow dogs. But it turned out that the Citadines was further down the street from number 53.
Youssouf dropped our dog, our luggage and us at the door. We were on a busy street and blocking major traffic – otherwise, he would have stayed. The fare was a lot more expensive than last time and I suspected we were considerably overcharged – especially when Youssouf gave me his card and told me to call him anytime we needed transportation. But what the heck, I thought, we had a dog and beaucoups de baggage (baa-GAHzhe).
Number 53 was a rather weathered and beat up door. Like most Parisian addresses, access was controlled by a code. Yet there was no intercom and it was raining. While Vicky called her office to verify we were at the right place, I walked down to the Citadines Hotel. The number was right under their sign: 53.
The luck of The Griswalds, I imagine. Here we were seventy feet from the wrong address. Not a problem if you travel lightly. The receptionist confirmed that we had reservations and that they accepted dogs. When I asked if there was someone who might help us with our luggage, she looked at me with a cruel grin as if to say, “No, monsieur, here at the Citadines, we pride ourselves by torturing Americans,” and pointed to the luggage carts near the door. [by the way, these are called chariots in French and one of your first questions at Charles de Gaulle Airport is aptly, “Pardon, monsieur, ou sont les frigging (free-GAN) chariots?” – you never find them – I assume that out of all workers in France, the chariot collectors are probably the ones who go on strike the most.]
Back in the rain at Number 53(A), Vicky was still talking to her office with a puzzled look on her face. She told me that an Arab man had answered the door. She laughed because she said the guy almost looked Puerto Rican which reminds her of the many frequent times she stops to wonder how she would feel if the September 11th terrorists had been Latinos. “My goodness,” she says, “I don’t know what I would do…” The man confessed that many people before us had made the same mistake in regards to the number 53. I told her of the mix-up and we began the long process of transferring luggage: Vicky guarded, I hauled. Remember, we are on a busy Parisian street; French drivers are looking at us like, “Not only do these Americans haul way too much luggage around, they have no sense to get out of the rain.” The only smiles we got were directed at Stinky.
I struggled with the heavy load and when I got to the hotel’s entranceway, the luggage toppled over as I pulled the chariot over a small three-inch-high curb. French drivers who were stopped at a traffic light looked over as if to say, “Now what exactly is this stupid American up to?” It was humid and hot because we were over-dressed; I was sweating like crazy and it was still raining. It was a very frustrating experience.
Our room looks like a large college dormitory with a small living/dining area, a tiny, tiny kitchen, a fairly sizable bathroom and shower, and the typical separate, dark, cramped space for a toilet. Evidently, the French are ashamed at this aspect of our human functions and like to remind us of the fact. One exception to this was a toilet we saw in one of the apartments on the last trip: although small and cramped and surrounded by the enclosing four walls, it had enough bookshelves to qualify for a small library. Of course, the first light bulb to go out in our apartment was the one in la toilette!
I think the heat is on full blast in the building. Hot as hell. There is a little gadget on the wall that has numbers from 5 thru 35 and fan icons on its face. I thought the numbers represented degrees in Celsius and put the thermostat on its lowest setting, ‘5’. Now I know it does not represent Celsius – it simply means 5 x the outside temperature or 35 x the outside temperature. Rarely do French buildings have air conditioning and Vicky & I immediately see this as a potential problem when summer rolls around…
Determined to adjust to French time, we unpacked and tried to find a place to put everything. Hours later – around 7 pm was Paris time – husband, wife and dog were sprawled about in various locations. All three were snoring loudly. I got up and tried to coerce the others into a little stroll and early dinner out. No such luck. Vicky & Stinky were dead to the world…
I went in search of my favorite cyber café – Café Orbital – to check my email. Just around the corner, I found another small, deserted cyber café owned by a young Chinese man. I was the only customer in there. After hearing my poor French, he switched to English. He asked if I preferred an American keyboard to a European one. I opted for the American version. He directed me to a monitor. When I sat down and opened up MS Internet Explorer, I was jolted by a visual explosion of Chinese characters on the screen. Everything was in Chinese! Thankfully, I know Explorer’s menu bar by heart. Then I looked down at the keyboard and saw another visual jolt – the keyboard’s individual keys were marked with both English and Chinese characters. I am a fast hunt & peck typist and I basically have memorized where all of the characters are but I like to watch! This certainly added an element of confusion (not to be mistaken for Confucius.) As I sat there for a moment and figured out what certain four-letter words look like in Chinese, my gracious host put on a background audio CD of John Denver and The Carpenters in my honor, I suspected. Thanks….I guess? It was so surreal to be in Paris emailing across the world on a Chinese computer with John Denver singing in the background…
Back at the apartment, Vicky & Stinky finally roused at 9:30 and we called a local delivery service for dinner. There is a brochure in the room that advertises a company that delivers from various restaurants. We can order French, Sushi, Seafood, Indian, Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Lebanese, Italian, Greek, Alsatian, Moroccan, Spanish, or American Barbeque. They will also deliver beer, liquor, wine and a full assortment of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.
We opted for comfort food – spinach salad and cheese quesadillas with a bottle of Chateau Peyrabon. The food was delivered promptly and was surprisingly delicious.
The next morning we had a nice Continental breakfast in the hotel lobby. There is one of those complicated-looking European self-service machines that makes several dozen versions of coffee. I usually hate coffee out of an automated machine but this stuff was really good! Vicky announced that she was taking a taxi to work and I objected because her office is so easy to get to by Metro. Vicky has resisted taking the Metro all along and I think it is because she has yet to figure it out. It is actually quite simple and a great way to get around Paris. The downside is that you do not see too much from underground tunnels – maybe that is why walking is probably the best way to see Paris.
We argued over taxi versus Metro and I explained that roundtrip taxi fare would run $20 US daily as opposed to several dollars for roundtrip Metro fare. Vicky agreed – only after I told her I would accompany her to work. She has an easy ride from the Pont Neuf Metro station up line #7 a few stops to the Opera. There’s no connection which makes it even easier. From there it is a few blocks’ walk to her office. Vicky told me she felt like she was in kindergarten – on her first day of school and hated to see me leave when I dropped her at the office door on rue de la Victoire.
I spent the day pricing cell phone service, espresso machines and Internet providers – along with calling various banks, credit cards, etc. to make address changes (yes, I FORGOT to do it before we left.)
Stinky is adjusting very well. He has learned the layout of the hotel and feels very comfortable inside. When he gets outside, he hesitates – I imagine from the street noise. But he is building confidence and every time I take him out, he gets bolder and bolder. He has even met a few French doggie friends. He is also keeping les Poopiers (my name, I don’t know what the French call the guys in green suits on converted green motorcycles equipped with high-powered vacuum cleaners) busy!
Last night we made reservations for dinner – there’s no need to waste temporary living expenses on take out food! There is a very nice restaurant around the corner (near the Chinese cyber café) called les Bookinistes. We had a superb dinner there last night: we started with an appetizer (entrée, in French) of grilled tuna with fennel and chicory. For a main course, Vicky ate a roasted chicken with a chanterelle & leek sauce; I had duck ravioli with a fig & kumquat reduction sauce. We swilled it down with a 1999 Mercurey from Faively. Dessert was a mango/banana soup pour moi and a French version of ice cream and brownies for the missus.
Tonight we will have dinner with a co-worker of Vicky’s. He is a lawyer and fellow American expat. He arrived in Paris last Monday.
We will resume apartment hunting on Monday. There is not much in le Figaro, so I imagine it will be difficult. We will spend the rest of the week and weekend organizing and decompressing.
Although we complain and joke about things not to our custom, Vicky & I are back in our element. Paris will be a wonderful experience for both of us. There is so much to be had here! The readjustment to a new culture is always difficult but always fun if you keep your sense of humor at hand and are willing to try new things and see life from a different perspective. It certainly would be tough to go at this alone, so it is nice to have each other as moral support. Gosh, even Stinky has his role in the stability factor and it is interesting to witness how the three of us are individually adapting to our environments. We are grateful to be here – even though it is a strange time to be leaving America – and we vow to make the most of every minute here.
October 25, 2001