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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Day 4, Sauced Up For The Evening

6:45 p.m.

The hostel is already pretty busy, more than usual for this early in the evening. Paul is just inside, drinking a beer and smiling at me. I start to tell him about the day and lead him toward the door. Nima is standing in front of the doorway, motionless, her eyes focused on the bartender. I look at the tables, each populated by a small group of silent young people. They’re all staring at the bartender.

“What’s going on?” I ask Nima. “Should we go? Should we get ready?”

She nods in the bartender’s direction.

“Well, I need to go up. I’d like to change clothes and--“

“We can’t go in. The door’s locked.”

“But it’s after four o’clock. We shouldn’t--“

She cuts me off with a teacher's glare, then nods toward the bartender.

It’s the one who’s so skinny he has to take some medical supplement to stay alive. He’s 6’5’’ and doesn’t weigh more than 120 lbs. He’s difficult to look at, because you can see his ribs through his shirt. I’ve seen this man speak to one person at the bar in English and one person on the phone in French, both at the same time. He switches languages like Jennifer Lopez switches husbands. Zing! He’s talking to a girl at the bar, and neither looks happy.

“I don’t get it,” I say, “why would he lock the--“

“Fuck YOU,” the girl at the bar says. I turn to look at her. She leaned in to say it, and was no more than ten inches from his face. She has a large nose, the kind that distracts from her eyes, and I imagine the bartender is staring at it. She said it with a low, even tone, and it sounded a lot like the tone you use when you say “I love you.” We felt the sincerity of her hatred from where we were standing...

Skinny guy spits his words at her. “I make fucking 7,50E per hour in this place. I don’t have to take--I DO NOT HAVE TO TAKE THIS KIND OF SHIT FROM YOU ASSHOLES! They give me nothing to work with, the staff is crap and nobody knows how to do their jobs, and on top of that is you fucking people. What’s the matter with you you want to come in here and tell me how to run this place? I should throw you the fuck out--go to another hostel. Now, I’m not opening the door until you apologize.”

“Fuck YOU!” now she sounds more excited. The bar is silent. I decide I’ve had enough. As a child of divorce, I want the conflict to end a) without causing it to escalate, and b) without dealing with any issues head-on. My weapon of choice is humor or distraction, today I will try both.

I ask Paul (and not quietly), “Remember that Simpsons when Homer kept trying to get Grand Funk Railroad to sing “Taking Care of Business,” then when they sang it, he yelled for them to get to the chorus?”

“Yeah, and then when they hit the chorus, he shouted, ‘working overtime’, ‘working overtime!’. Sure I remember. Why?”

“That’s what the Louvre was like today. I stood in front of the Mona Lisa and that’s what I kept thinking about. ‘Okay, now you’ve smiled, and you’re eyes are following me around the room. And you’re a little bit mysterious and you’re in this fancy room of your own. Well, I guess it’s time for the Venus! I was Homer today, telling the Louvre to get on with it. That’s the reason I didn’t want to do anything touristy. Now that I’ve done it I feel like I wasted my time.”

“You went to the Louvre today?” Nima asked.

“Yeah, I didn’t find my friend, so I decided to go check out the Islamic Art.”

“Ah yeah, that would be great for you, wouldn’t it?”

“It was. How’d you like it?”

“Honestly it was a bit overwhelming. I don’t think classical art really does it for me. I want to go to the Musee d’Orsay and see the Impressionists.”

I like her honesty. Most people I know (probably including myself) would just pretend to feel sad that they don't "get it".

“Yeah, me too. I think me starting with the Louvre to learn to appreciate art is like asking a three-year-old to do complex calculus. But I don’t think I’ll have time to go to the Orsay. Tomorrow I’m doing Hemingway and the Luxembourg gardens.”

She nods.

From behind her, the door opens. Skinny bastard opened it up. I guess they settled their differences, because the girl he was arguing with shoves past us and into the courtyard. Another girl follows her out there and they embrace. The girl’s shoulders are shaking as she sobs.

“I wanna go home, I wanna see my family!” she cries. Her friend rubs her back and whispers in her ear. I detest rubbernecking, so I guide Nima by the shoulders toward the staircase. She stops anyway.

“You saw the whole thing, didn’t you?” the consoling girl asks Nima.

“Yeah, and I’ve seen him do that several times to other customers. There’s no call to be that rude, not to anyone.”

“Will you complain about him?”

“Sure, mate. Definitely. I’ll do it tomorrow.”

We go upstairs. Justin is in the room already. Paul follows us in.

I suggest we get dinner, and everyone agrees. I want Moroccan, and everyone agrees. Our friend Erin shows up with the three Brazilians, and we discuss the plan.

Erin, Nima and I decide to get Moroccan after the rest of the men bail out in favor of drinking. We head up the street to r. des Entrepreneurs, not even a block away, and there’s a place. They sell it by weight. Nima and Erin order vegetarian plates, I order lamb over couscous. We eat it back at the hostel, and it’s good-but-not-great. The lamb is good enough, but it’s difficult to eat. It doesn’t fall off the bone like at Grains de Sel. No dessert. I’m starting to write off the idea that I’m here mainly to eat (four days into it). It’s a bit sad, but I'll do as much as I can in the next 48 hours to make up for it.

When we rejoin the group, there’s a new face. Angie. She’s a young American, and she wants to go dancing. She has a few French friends and they intend to meet in the Latin Quarter at 9:30p.m. I’m game, but I may not have the clothes for it. Everyone is excited, and we order another round. I’m on my fourth or fifth, and nothing is happening yet. Is it possible to develop a high tolerance in four days?

More talk of the Simpsons, American football, and avoiding politics. Angie starts to wonder if they should get dinner before they go. All the men are hungry now. They decide to get dinner. For thirty minutes and another round, they keep talking. Now it’s almost 9 o’clock and I’m talking to a charming British couple about my age. The girl is telling me that if I want to get people to get up and go, I should form a queue. Britons love to get in a queue!


Monday, October 30, 2006

Day 4, Le Louvre Before Sunset

12:30 p.m.

I labor back down the 284 steps and take the Métro to the Tuileries stop (close to the Louvre). They told us there was a super-secret entrance near here, where you can bypass all the lines and go right in. I walk right by the restaurant we visited during the bike tour and wave to the waiter who served us. He gives a little French smile that's hard to read. Further up, past the tourists, the tulips, and the tuileries, the green turns brown and the gravel pavement leads up to the Louvre Pyramid. The building itself probably covers as much ground as a stadium, shaped like a croquet wicket, with each leg several stories and very wide. The pyramid stands in the middle, looming over the crowd like an anachronism, and my opinion of it is not charitable. I don’t think it would be possible to have built something less appropriate to the surroundings, and it makes me even more sad that it cost more than a big “B” billion Euros to build.

As the building starts to wrap around me, a lithe young man, probably from the Middle East, asks me if I would sit for a caricature. “Your ponytail, I want to capture it". After some convincing, I agree, thinking it might be fun for me to suck it up and realize I’m pretty scary looking. When I agree, he goes and gets a much older gentleman, also Middle-Eastern-looking, squat and narrow-eyed. He talks to me for a few minutes as he draws me, switching from French to English indifferently. Some nearby French schoolgirls keep sneaking behind him and sneaking peeks. They grimace when they look at me. The man keeps talking about my hair and my American features, and I want more than anything to get out of here, into the museum, and to the antiquities that form this man’s heritage. I wonder if he knows anything about it.

He finishes and shows me a charcoal desert scene, with a triangular alien standing in the middle like Munch’s Scream. The alien has a ponytail. I want to pay for it just so I can destroy it. I look away and look at the French girls, and we exchange a shrug. I look back, hoping it will get better. It doesn’t. He lowers the price from 5E to 3E. I say no. He doesn’t look the least bit disappointed, so I guess this happens often. I’ve seen caricatures of me before, but that’s not what that was. That was an unfortunate man deluding himself about his skill level. But for the grace of some deity, there go I.

He walks off, and I say something that makes the French girls laugh. Behind the pyramid I see an enormous queue, and I look around. Just to my right is a statue of a man on a horse, and behind it is a small marble stairway leading underground. I go down, and immediately want to send the people at Fat Tire Bike Tours a thank-you note. There are people everywhere here, but a short way away is an entrance reserved for people with a Carte d’Orange, and nobody is there. I show them my card, and they wave me past, right into the Descartes wing of the Louvre. The line outside the Pyramid (the main entrance) looked like a good thirty minutes.
I'm heading to the Islamic Art section.
3:30 p.m.

After about three hours of cataloguing and study I leave the Islamic Art place to search for the Big Three.
  • In front of the Mona Lisa stands the longest queue I will wait in all week. I am not awe-struck by it, even after looking away and looking back. Mostly I’m stunned by the disco-strobe frequency of cameras popping off all around me.
  • Directly across from Mona Lisa is the Wedding Feast of Cana, as large as a badminton court. It’s much more impressive to me than la Joconde (the French name for the Mona Lisa), but you should enlist Sister Wendy to describe it for you.
  • The Venus de Milo was more impressive for its history than for its actuality. I did enjoy her curves.

It’s when I see the Winged Victory of Samothrace that I realize that I’m lost. The maps don’t seem to make sense. I walk up and down stairs, trying to find a sign that says “Sortie,” but can’t. I go back into the mall area below the museum, and something about this scene reminds me of what I heard about Sept. 11th, about the large mall below it and the subway station that was destroyed. That helps to motivate me beyond the fatigue. I circle around several times, trying to find the metro station. My eyes are still not accustomed to searching the little M with the circle around it. I pass a children’s shop, where they sell mobiles for far too much money (34E for one that looks a little like a Miro, but too small for the price). I see clothing boutiques, parfumeries, restaurants, and an upside-down pyramid that mirrors the one above (a village idiot once told me there's a Holy Grail down there!). At a bookshop I browse the section about Middle-Eastern art, hoping to find more detail about the craftsmanship, but I can’t find it. After searching through Spanish, French, and Arabic books, I settle on a small book of Arabic calligraphy examples. It’s too expensive (13E), but I buy it anyway.

I ask directions to the Métro station and get on board, after walking what feels like a mile underground.

4:30 p.m.

I take manage to get to the Varenne station, which is supposed to get me right outside the Rodin Museum. I should have time to stroll through the garden and drop by Napoleon’s tomb before 6.

I walk down the same street we passed on the bike tour (Bd. Des Invalides), but I can’t find the entrance to the Rodin garden. After making a full circle around it, I find what seems to be the least likely place for an entrance: it looks like a loading dock, and it’s under heavy construction. And the gate is closed. I look closely at the literature that came with my Carte d’Orange, and there it is in black & white (and English): the Musee Rodin is closed on Tuesdays.

Well, more time for Napoleon.

I cross the Boulevard and enter via the same side-gate Nima and I used the day before. The guard waves me in. to my right is the infirmary, and several young men sit outside, some in wheelchairs, some with crutches. One is smoking. They are sitting in the sun and staring, motionless, at the people in the garden. Injured or well, these French love to sit and act like statues.

I circle around to the front of the domed building and go up. My Carte d’Orange doesn’t list Napoleon’s tomb, but it still works.

Napoleon’s tomb is a coffin about twenty feet high, fifteen feet across, and about six feet wide. It’s made of a beautiful light-brown wood, polished to a mirror-like sheen. It’s not very ornate, but it has sleigh-bed like flourished on the ends and carved wreaths in the middle. To see it, you must stand against a railing on the floor above and look down. You bend at the waist and bow about 30 degrees, which was evidently Napoleon’s full intention, and all that that implies. Several other people are buried in this building, but none with this much grandeur. There’s probably nobody in Europe buried with more grandeur. Maybe the world.

Between trying to find the entrance to the Rodin museum and walking around les Invalides, it’s after 6:15. I was supposed to meet for dinner and the bike tour. I walk to the back of les Invalides to the garden, hoping to find a metro station. To get there I must walk through the war museum: battered tanks, 30mm guns on turrets, and bullet-pocked pith helmets lay about the corridors. I put my fingers in the bullet hole on a helmet and feel a little queasy.

The garden is full of people reading, strolling, and sitting in the grass. I hear French all around. The metro is to the left, la Tour Marbourg, conveniently on the Balard line. It’s only four stops to my old friend Felix Faure.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Day 4, l’Arc de Trimphe, le Louvre, et le Tombeau Napoleon

The church bells sound nine times and I lay there, staring at the ceiling. My roommates are already up, gathering their stuff. They tell me they are leaving today, so the first thing I do is plan to get the bottom bunk the moment they’re out the door. They take their time, and I lay in bed listening to suitcase zippers and the sounds of clothes being shuffled. Finally they leave and I fall asleep again.

When the church sounds ten a.m., I get up and nearly fall to the floor. The bottom bunk is clear, so I begin to move my stuff to it. I lock the door and take off my clothes. Then I waltz. Push, wash, scrub. Lather, lather, push. Push, scrub rinse. Anne-Marie’s towel seems to have suffered no ill effects from hanging off the top bunk frame for 36 hours.

Down at the bar, Nima is talking to Paul, Justin and Erin. They’re going to go to the Louvre in the morning, and we’ll meet for dinner at about six, hopefully then we can go on the night-time bike tour, maybe even go to the top of the Eiffel tower beforehand. I don’t invite anyone to go with me, partly because I don’t think they’ll want to, and partly because this is the morning where I’ll try to meet my parents’ friend on the Champs-Elysée. While I’m there I’ll check out the Arc de Triomphe.

I take the Metro to the George V. station, which puts me on the street right next to Lido, a cabaret near the gentleman’s office.

The fellow I’m trying to find is an exporter of French goods to America, and all-around well-connected guy. Evidently he’s quite wealthy (you’d have to be to have an office on the Champs-Elysée), and I’m hoping he’ll buy me a nice lunch or put me up in a fabulous hotel or something. Hey, it doesn’t hurt to hope.

I find Lido before I’m on the street level: it’s visible as I walk up the stairs to the street-level. I stand outside it, trying to observe whether or not it’s open. The buildings to the right and left look like modest office properties, and there are car dealerships and cafes not much further up and down the street. I enter the Lido and ask whether the doorman has heard of the man I'm looking for. He waves me past, to a set of double-doors leading to what turns out to be the auditorium. This is a world-famous cabaret after all. So, I’m excited now about two things: this guy should be able to get good deals on tickets to a world-famous cabaret, and the fact that I was waved right by means I definitely have the right place. Right?

Through the double-doors I approach a long desk with two people, a man and a woman, sitting in front of an enormous aquarium. I ask the woman if she knows the man, and she’s never heard of him. I explain that he’s a friend of my parents, that I have sketchy directions to find him at or near the Lido cabaret, and that my parents haven’t spoken to him in over 10 years, so this may well not turn out well. She has worked at Lido for well more than 10 years, and if she hasn’t heard of him, he’s neither an employee nor a regular customer. To humor me, she asks the gentleman next to her, after he’s off the phone, if he’s ever heard of the man. He hasn’t.

I thank them and walk back out to the street. The building on the left has no doorman but a placard with names on it. I scrutinize each of them, trying to find the name. On the other side of the cabaret the building does have a doorman (doorlady, I might say). There’s no name placard, and the doorlady is no help either. I'm going to call this project finished. I can’t call my parents now (it’s 4 a.m. in America). I should try to find a directory, but I’m kinda eager to be done with the whole thing. Truth be told, I feel weird about dropping in on him anyway.

Back on the Champs-Elysée, I approach l’Arc de Triomphe. You have to go underground to get to it, as the Arc itself is at the center of a roundabout where twelve streets meet. Jeremy from the bike tour told us there’s an accident there every 45 minutes or so, and seeing it now, I can believe it. I go under, through a long tunnel, and reach the ticket office. I calculate that at 18E, a Carte d’Orange for the day will pay for itself if I go to three attractions (the average price is 6,50E). A plan starts to form for the rest of the day.

After I have my ticket, I begin the stairs. 284 steps, most of which are in the narrowest spiral staircase I’ve been in. I count to 100 and take a rest, my hamstrings burning and my calves stretched. My blisters are somehow not terribly painful, but I think this is mind over matter. I walk some more, singing songs and counting as I go until I’m finally in a trance-like state, clomping my feet over and over again, up and up, trying to imagine my angle to the street or to the Eiffel Tower. When I hit a landing I figure I’m done. I enter a museum inside the Arc, a permanent exhibition of World War I photography and video. The pictures are in color. Never in my life have I imagined The Great War in color. I look at picture after picture, fascinated, until the burn starts to go away and I realize I still have a few steps to go. I approach the staircase a little frightened, but once I reach the top I’m inspired. I’ve never been to the top of the UT tower, but I’ll bet it’s hard to see the Eiffel Tower from it. There’s nothing quite like that. There’s a mistiness, a fog, hanging over the city, but I can see the dome of Napoleon’s tomb, the Louvre, and Notre Dame. Over on a hill, I can see the blinding whiteness of Sacre Coeur.

A young lady approaches me. She can’t be older than eighteen, with a beautiful face, and what is becoming a typical heroine in my fiction: olive skin and long black curly hair. She’s a foot shorter than I am. As she walks up I smile, and she asks me if I speak English. I don’t say anything and I look at her hands. She has the same exact Bosnian sob story as the woman near the Eiffel tower, handwritten on a small piece of paper.

I say, “Non, je ne parle pas anglais. Je suis désolé.”

If fire could shoot from her eyes I’d be going home in a crate marked “carbon sample”. She knows I’m lying as easily as she knows I’m human. She backs off and walks away, turning twice to glare at me. I want to apologize for some reason, but I know it will cost me money. There are a lot of rich Americans on this street. Let them pay her for my apology.

To my right there’s a young couple. They embrace and kiss each other. A little further down there’s a much older couple doing the same thing. I look out again across the swath of Paris on all sides, and suddenly it’s an empty experience. I’ve been going down the list of landmarks I can identify by sight, mentally checking them off, then moving on to the next. Not sharing it with anyone turns out to be a drag. I stay up long enough to get some pictures and study some things with my binoculars, and then I go down the 284 steps, not stopping again in the museum.
At street level I walk around the bottom of the Arc until I see the tomb of the unknown soldier. I always find these moving. The flame burns, hopefully eternally, just like it does in Westminster Abbey in London and at Arlington cemetery in the States. I stand for a few moments and watch the flame, trying to imagine what the body underneath looks like now. Is he wearing a uniform still? Was he decorated? Was he married? Did he have a little Alex at home?

After taking a few more pictures of the statues and garlands, I go down the steps again to cross over to the Champs-Elysee.

There’s a large, glass-fronted bookstore. I go in and try to find something to replace my copy of Madame Bovary, but the best I can manage is a mass-market edition (finally!) of the Da Vinci Code. I wish I could find it translated into French. I might learn a word or two, and I wouldn’t be distracted by Dan Brown’s dogshit prose. It’s 12E. I remember one of my teachers at UT telling me what a rip-off books are in the US. Yet another stereotype destroyed.

I walk downhill, mindful of the time and of my aching calf muscles. I need to decide what to do next, and soon. I don’t care too much about being on the Champs-Elysées, because I’ve been on Rodeo in L.A., I’ve been on 5th avenue in New York City, and I’ve been on Michigan Ave in Chicago. This may want to be different, but it’s not, and suddenly I feel like I’ve got to get out of here.

On the way to the Franklin D. Roosevelt station, I see across the street a Luis Vuitton shop, with a handbag, as big as my house, covering the facade. I take a picture for my friend Theresa, the youngest person I’ve ever met who has three (real) LV handbags.

Car dealerships, more cafés, more Americans wandering around. It’s getting to be lunchtime, so I start to look at menu prices. Everything is more than 15E for a fixed menu. I turn off the main boulevard and immediately run into a Lebanese café. Nothing is over 10E. I order a chicken shawarma and a beef kebab, served with rice on the side and a Coke. It's awesome. I eat it standing up, watching the plasma-screen show MTV-2. Very good-looking people. The food is fantastic, subtly seasoned and not over-salted. The chicken is tender and there are no “disturbing parts,” as K calls them. I pay and thank the man, and he complements my French. I thank him again.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Okay, so I'm doing it too...

I make no promises, nor do I obligate myself to anything. This is just an attempt to get some discipline back into my writing.

1,667 words a day is achievable, and I've held that pace before, but not for 30 days straight. When I wrote the Paris travelogue it was in 2,500-3,500 word bursts for several weeks, but I took a few nights off.

But my main problem with this, with all of NaNoWriMo, is that it takes place in November. For anyone who just sees this blog, the literary side of me, it may come as a surprise that I'm a bit of a sports fan. College and professional football play their best, most important games during November. So, my proposal (to myself) is this: Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights, I can only watch football during and after I've finished my word count for the day. That will mean I miss a lot of the action, but I'll still be able to look up when Al Michaels gets really fired up. My outline and characters are pretty much done, so I should be able to just rip on through.

Research is a big problem and a priority, but once the gates open up I'm going to make up everything I don't already know. This will be exceedingly difficult for me, since for the Basque novel I spent hundreds of hours researching everything from agricultural yields in Gernika circa 1937 to the chemical composition of the dynamite used to assassinate Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco in 1973. I wouldn't go on until I had the facts right. I can't do that here. I'll just have to use Word's highlighter feature to mark areas where, if I do anything with it after November, I'll have to revisit something.

In thinking about what research problems I'm going to hit, I've already come up with a thousand questions I won't even begin to have the time to answer in the next few days: exactly what would be the title of a Marquis' son in France circa 1788? What do they call the slip, or petticoat, or undergarment worn by ladies of the period? What exactly is the procedure for getting dressed in the morning? And what are the differences between the procedures for men vs. women? If a French aristocrat owns land far away from Paris, but still involves himself heavily in the management of such an estate, what would be the likelihood of his being treated fairly by his "subjects" when the Revolution comes?

And many, many more. Expect a very fractured rough draft in terms of research. I don't intend to do much to fix it before the deadline.

Anywho, wish me luck! It'll be very nice to be writing again. It's been over a year and I miss it like I miss, well, Paris...


Fascinating - Paris Syndrome

This article, from MSN travel, got me thinking. I experienced a completely different kind of delirium in the City of Lights...


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Day 3, Napoleon's Tomb and Back to the Hostel

5:30 p.m.

We leave, the mime spinning a tray on his finger and waving with the other hand. We cross r. de l’universite and Bd St-Germain and turn right on Grenelle. We can see the golden dome of Napoleon's tomb over the skyline. We turn again, left, then right on r. Varenne, and pass the gardens of the Musee Rodin. It’s difficult to see in, but we catch odd angles of bronze and marble. Wrought-iron fence and green hedges tower ten feet from street level, so we cross Bd des Invalides to see if we can get a better look. There’s the Thinker, but that’s all we can see. The museum is closed this late in the day anyway.

We walk parallel with the gardens of les Invalides until we reach a gate. The guard tells us we have ten minutes, and that it’s too late for the tomb, but we can knock ourselves out in the gardens.

We walk through it, admiring the bullet-shaped hedges and fountains. Tulips spring up in rows underneath thin trees, and benches sit in the shade and in the sun. People are reading in the little squares. We walk straight to the exit and look back at the dome. Through the binoculars I see angels and gargoyles, and I wonder if it’s easier to fashion gold or marble. I first decide it’s gold, because you can always fix your errors. But then I realize it’s got to be marble, because you have to get it right the first time--you can't ever know you're finished when you can forever change it.

We walk over the moat and leave the complex, trying to decide where to go exactly. We cross the front of the building and head down Ave de Tourville. On the other side of the street we realize that six different streets lead away from les Invalides. An older couple asks us if we’re lost. I start to answer in French, but Nima says, “Yes.” We’re looking for a street called Lowendal, and they point us in the right direction. We follow along behind l’Ecole Militaire and get back into a residential area. We pass a Moroccan restaurant with an elaborately carved door, and I take a picture.

We turn on Grenelle and see a tiny garden. We go in for a stroll and sit on the bench for a few minutes. I ask for my notebook and start to write. Nima does the same thing. I write about the lunch and try to finish a paragraph I’d started on the previous day, only I've lost my pen. I have to write in a different color ink.

We turn onto r. Commerce and see the church that has become my landmark for "the hostel is nearby". We stop in a small boulangerie and buy a baguette. We get back to the hostel and go to our rooms.

I take off my shoes and lay down for a few minutes, rubbing my feet and my calves the whole time. Nima’s in the next room and I can hear her, talking to Paul and Justin and making her apologies about missing them for "the run at 5".

I get up and join them. Justin has cheese he bought earlier that day and we all smear it on the baguette and drink wine Nima smuggled in. We drink it from paper cups and it seems very appropriate. After a few minutes I head down to the bar and order a beer.

Malcolm is there and tells me my story needs severe editing. I don’t want to hear it, so I invite myself to sit with the Aussie girls I’d been speaking to the night before.

10:30 p.m.

I’m very tipsy. I have the tolerance of a canary. I’ve had about half a bottle of wine and four or five beers over the past 4 hours, and my throat hurts from talking. Paul wants to write a Masters thesis on the Simpsons and their treatment of mob mentality (in particular Sideshow Mel's role in this). Justin wants to read my book (the one about the door carver, not the one about the Basques. Nobody cares about the Basques, dammit). Several more people are stacked up in the bar and I’ve gotten to know them all by name. There are Brazilians, Argentineans, Chileans, Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, and I think I’m the only Texan.

“We need to go to the Eiffel Tower,” I say. Nobody reacts. Nobody fucking does anything.
An hour later. “We need to go to the Eiffel Tower and see it lit up and stand under it while we’re drunk.”

30 minutes later. “I’m going to the Eiffel Tower. Who’s going with me?”

Three Brazilians, Paul, Justin, Nima, an American girl named Erin stand up. We set out up Commerce. Following the route that’s starting to seem familiar, I turn on Grenelle. French people are walking with their children and their dogs and they barely look at us as they cross to the opposite side of the street and back again after we’ve passed. The Aussies are singing and Justin and I are talking about geek stuff. We all grab a crèpe from a little stand at Grenelle and Av de Suffren. Mine is called “Trois Fromages + jambon”, and it’s wonderful.

We cross the outer gardens and onto the gravel walkway. People are jogging, and Nima can’t believe anyone would exercise so late. I don’t think she appreciates that we’ve walked nearly 3 km from the hostel to where we’re at now.

There’s a group of French people trying to figure out their digital cameras nearby. Paul asks one of them to take his picture with his camera, and the man has trouble with the controls. I manage to do a fair job of translator, but mostly I just talk to them about the coldness and about whether or not there will be any more shows tonight from the tower. We were all told they would go on until 1 a.m., so until then we’ll have to believe it.

The tower is bright, its normal brown bathed in mercury-vapor-orange lamps. Erin steps over a small chain to walk on the grass, and I follow. We sit together lined up perfectly with the tower. We’re told that the sparkling happens every hour, on the hour, until 1am. We have a few minutes. She tells me about Spain and I tell her about Spain, and it’s cold and I offer her my gloves. She’s adorable in her youth and in how she refers to her boyfriend every fifth word. I hope I’m adorable as I mention my little boy Alex every tenth. Nima, Paul, and Justin are in a tight circle back on the gravel road, talking loudly and singing what sound like rugby songs.

The tower goes black, and people gasp. After fifteen seconds people start to grumble and mutter, when it erupts in a starburst. White speckles that look like they’re inches apart are going off all over the tower. They twinkle, like a thousand-foot Christmas tree. The light reflects off buildings and off the glass war monument behind us. I concentrate on one point on the tower, but it seems like the same light is never in the same place twice. Are they projected? No, they’re too precise. Are they physically moving? I may never know. It’s a completely silent show, put on for the world every hour, and once again I realize what an empty experience it is to see this show without K or the boy. Erin pulls her sweater around her and wonders aloud what it would be like to have an apartment that faces this.

“I’ll bet it’d be horrible,” she says.

“Not for a kid,” I say.

After a few minutes of this we see the Paul-Justin-Nima group start to head back, so we turn around. We have to go 3km in less than 50 minutes, so it’s a good time to start. My buzz is wearing off, but I’m not cold. Erin offers my gloves back but I say I don’t need them. We rejoin the group and walk back. The French people are still walking their children and their dogs. I see a thousand places I want to visit in the daytime when they’re open. Lingerie shops (Erin and Nima tease me about buying at least one nice piece for K), children’s toy shops, and culinary shops display beautiful scenes in their windows. We walk slower to get back than we did setting out.

We make it in plenty of time for curfew and I again wake the Italians as I climb into the damned bunk. I’m 32 years old. There should be a hostel rule that says anyone over 27 should get to sleep in the bottom bunk. We’re in the real land of égalité, fraternité here, right? Make me equal to this my-brother-the-whippersnapper by kicking him the hell out of my bottom bunk!

I take Tylenol, drink a lot of water, and I’m asleep within 5 minutes.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Day 3, Nôtre Dame et Le Cathedral Ste. Chapelle

We circle around, in and out from under the columns. Woodwork is everywhere. Two priests walk around in the clerestory, looking at the ceiling. I look up, and pull out the binoculars. I can’t remember the details, but what I do remember is the cherubs. In the twelfth century, little boys were every bit as adorable as Alex. Maybe I should carve Alex in marble--

“Hey, pass those over!”

I pass the glasses. Nearby the chairs are still out, leftover from the morning mass. I sit. Nima studies the ceiling for several more minutes while I look back down, at the alter, at the cross-bar section of the nave, and at the people milling about. I want to talk to these people, find out why they would come all the way inside the church, unlike most people who just want to go to the top.

We walk around to the back, where there’s a roped off section, reserved for “silent prayer and reflection”. Nima goes behind the rope and takes a seat. I sit beside her. She closes her eyes. I close mine. After several seconds she taps me.

“What are those?” She points to funny-shaped chairs in front of us. The “seat” is low to the ground, and there are armrests where the back would normally go. The chairs face us, as if the are meant to point you away from the chapel.

“They’re kneelers,” I answer. As if to answer her question, a woman in her 40s approaches, teenage daughter in tow, and kneels.

We sit for a few more seconds, Nima with her eyes closed and me watching the people, trying to guess at what they’re praying for. There’s a flyer on the chair next to me and I pick it up. It’s from a prayer Pope John Paul II gave in the late 1990s when he visited the cathedral to canonize a saint. It made me think of the people in Vatican City shouting “santo subito, santo subito” during his funeral a few days before. I translate it for her. She decides to keep it in her bag.

After a few more minutes she says she’s ready. We walk back to the front, trying to decide whether we should climb to the top or not. We rationalize that a) it costs more money, b) there are better high places to climb, c) the line is too long, and d) we have a long way to walk before the day is over. We go out the front door.

Outside someone bumps me and I suddenly remember that there are pickpockets in the city, so I whisper something to Nima and we both tighten our grip on things. I do a quick check around my person and everything seems okay.

Near the hedges that separate Notre Dame from Ste Chappelle, a swarm of birds appears to be attacking an old man. He has a piece of bread, and dozens of sparrows hover and pick at it like hummingbirds. Near him several kids, sitting, start to hold up bread. For them, pidgeons show up instead of sparrows (630, 11A). We walk toward Ste. Chappelle, and Nima starts to talk about being tired and wanting to rest. There’s an open-air market nearby and we wander over. It’s a pet market--canaries, spice-finches, rosellas, and several Amazons chirp in cages too small for mice. Nima wants to buy one and so do I, but we figure we can’t get them back to our respective countries very easily. We walk through stalls of hamsters, chinchillas, small dogs, ladders, bells, and cedar shavings. The musk of the animal market is carried away by the breeze as we approach the Ministry building in front of Ste. Chappelle.

We go up Boulevard du Palais and follow the island street around to the back, to get into a queue in front of the smaller chapel. The admission price is 6,10E, and I give the ticket-counter lady 11,10E, hoping to get a 5E note back. She doesn’t give it to me, and I momentarily forget. When she’s finished with Nima, I tell her I gave her the 11,10E to get a 5 back, but I never got the 5. She questions me two times about exactly what I did, never switching to English, then calls her manager over. Then she pauses, her face changing expression. She starts nodding slowly, never breaking eye contact. Before her manager shows up, she reaches in front of her register drawer and picks up a 10E note. She holds it and looks at Nima, then at me.

Je vous crois. Je crois que c’est correct.” She opens her drawer and gives me a 5, explaining that she thinks she remembers it, and that otherwise she’d have to have her boss count her drawer right now. Her smile is pleasant, and it seems genuine. I thank her and leave, glad to have slightly more battle-tested French credentials.

We go into the chapel, and Nima seems let down. It’s a long, narrow room, somewhat ornate but mostly just red and brown. I’m not particularly amazed by it, but then I know something about what’s upstairs. I guide Nima to the right and we go up the tiny spiral staircase. As we enter the upstairs area I hear the gasp again. Blue, red, yellow and green cover the floor in glows, like embers from a rainbow on fire. The source is a series of fifteen-foot tall stained-glass panels from one end of the room to the other, about 100 feet away from us in all. It’s a sunny day, just like Melissa’s mother told me it should be. I walk from the front to the back, studying the panels and the lead-work in between the panes. One pane is gone and it makes me want to cry. The figures are like cartoons, outlines in black and filled in with strong primary colors. I get out the binoculars and study the facial expressions, painted on in brownish paint over the flesh-toned glass. Nima finds a couple of seats and calls me over. As she’s calling, a loud “SHHHHHHH” comes from one corner of the room. She puts her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing. I sit next to her and hand her the glasses. She sighs long and heavy as she moves from one pane to the next. I watch the reactions on people’s faces and they come out of the stairway and see the place for the first time. We’re facing West, watching the sun as it moves slowly down from behind the glass. The pamphlet says there are over 6,300 square feet of stained glass in this chapel, and I have trouble believing that could be possible. I’ve attempted stained glass. How could a square mile of stained glass exist in the whole world? Especially when they didn’t have rotary sanders?!

They used to store holy relics here, including the crown of thorns, but they were all dispersed after the Revolution. No matter how unlikely I think it could be that they had the actual crown of thorns, it makes me sad. I look at the depictions of cruelty, of kindness, of the whole human experience played out in colored glass, and I’m amazed that we could be here. From two sides of the world, this girl and I are in a place somewhere in the middle, sitting in a building that’s 600 years old, and we’re about the same physically and mentally as those humans were then.


I look over at Nima and she’s no longer studying the glass. Her eyes closed and her lip is trembling. A tear falls and she sniffles, then wipes her cheek. Her eyes snap open.

“You ready?” she asks.

“Yeah. I’m ready.”

She hesitates. “I just don’t know when I’m ever going to see anything like this ever again.”

“Yeah, me too.” I touch her shoulder and we walk out, this time to our right.

On the street, she wants to know what we should do next.

“Napoleon’s tomb?” I ask.

“Sure. Do you think we could pass the Musee d’Orsay on the way?”

“Yeah, but I don’t think we’d have time to do it justice.”

“Right. Offyago then, mate.”

We cross back to the left bank side of the Seine, to the Quai Malaquais. Book vendors are out now, with large metal boxes mounted onto the railing over the Seine, and we stop to browse. I look up the Seine, at the buildings that line her and the boats going under the Pont du Carrousel (630-10A). The books are almost all classics, Voltaire, Moliere, and Sartre, in what look like early editions. I don’t have any cash, however, and I probably have enough books.

We continue to walk, passing the Hotel des Monnaies, and several smart boutiques. Up ahead is the Musee d’Orsay, but we decide to turn left on r. de Beaune to follow the smell of crepes. The waiter is a bald young man, round-faced and my height. He motions us in without a word and acts like a mime with a gun to his head when I speak French to him. He sits us down and asks Nima what she wants. She wants champagne. I order a cafe au lait and a chocolate crepe with whipped creme. The waiter is clearly annoyed that I speak French and my lovely companion doesn’t. I weep for him.

The drinks come, and I clink my cafe au lait to her champagne. We toast to being in Paris, and to not really being alone. The crepe comes, and for someone who doesn’t like sweets, this girl goes a bit nuts. She doesn’t eat much overall, but she does enjoy it.

“Where did the chocolate come from?” she asks.

He looks at me, then back at her. I say nothing, suspecting he does speak enough English to have understood that.

“C’est le chocolat maison.”

“It’s the chocolate of the house,” I say. She smiles big at him. He points at his chin, and she begins to wipe. She gives me a dirty look for not having told her.

“There was nothing there,” I said. “He was fucking with you!”

She laughs.

When we ask for l’addition, he brings one for her and one for me. Hers says 0.00E. Mine says 17E. I hold out my Citibank card and he backs off, hands in the air. Again, mime in a stickup. Shit.

“That was a very nice thing he did,” I say. “But I’m afraid I don’t have any cash. I meant to stop at the--”

“No worries. I got it.” She throws the bills on the table. She's not the slightest bit annoyed. I attribute this to Australia, not to her being one-in-a-million, but I’ll probably never know.


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Overlooked Fiction (from Slate)

Check this out if you're looking for some good winter-time reading. I intend to add most of these to my wish list :) I especially love that they included my fave lit blogger, Moorishgirl.

Just one more reason to love Slate...


Friday, October 06, 2006

Day 3, Lunch

12:30 p.m.

We leave the church and we're hungry. We walk up and down streets with names like “r Huchette”, “r Danton”, and “r. St Andre des Arts”. One place offers two formulas: a 10E and a 15E, each with entree, plat, and dessert. We agree, and are seated inside near a spiral stairway leading up and down. Our waiter tries to flirt with Nima, but he can’t seem to understand her accent and she doesn’t speak a word of French. I have to translate their flirtations, and I don’t do a great job of it.
For entrees, I order French Onion soup, Nima orders a simple salad. The soup is amazing, but really only in texture. I don’t know what it is about the texture, but it just seems smooth... doux is the best word for it, even if you don’t know the French. The taste isn’t even quite as good as my mother’s, but then again I’d probably say that about the lasagne in Italy and the cheesecake in New York.

For Plat, I order a filet of salmon with bearnaise sauce. It’s served with very plain pasta and a simple tomato confit. The texture of the salmon is soft and the taste is not at all fishy, but I’m not very hungry so I don’t finish. The sauce is too strong and too thick for the mood I’m in, and the pasta is completely lost on me. Nima has a sandwich.

For Dessert, Nima orders Chocolate Mousse and I order the chef’s surprise. I ask the waiter whether I should order the Profiterole or the chef’s surprise, and he urges me on the surprise. Now I can’t remember what it was, but I definitely remember it wasn’t as good as Nima’s mousse. I think it was a simple fruit tart with custard.

Over lunch Nima starts an interesting conversation.

“So, how was dinner with your friend last night?”

“Well, I guess it was--“

“Did you get… amorous with her?”

“Well, no,” I say, as I clasp my hands together, rubbing them in a way that puts my ring about seven inches from her nose.

“Have you been… amorous with anyone since you’ve been here?”

“Well, no.”

“Interesting. Do you normally travel alone, or are there people you usually go around with? You said you went to Spain, who were you with?”

“Well, let’s see, several friends, or… my spouse.” I’m not looking at her when I say this and I’ll regret it later. I have no idea what her reaction was.

“Well, that sounds like fun. Do you have any children? Are you still with your, was it, spouse?”
I show her Alex and K.

She calls Alex “a little person!” and tells me how gorgeous my wife is. Suddenly I start missing them, feeling as though I’m betraying them somehow, not by being at lunch with this girl, but by being four thousand miles away with no better reason than “I wanna go”.

Nima then tells me of her recent twelve-year relationship and how it ended. She’s in Paris, and in Europe, spending all the money she had saved for a wedding. She’s 32, trying to find meaning in her life, and looking to find herself in the Old World. Sounds familiar, only she’s not limited. Oh well. She’s a middle-school teacher with a stalker. One of her students, a girl, gave her a travel-journal that looks very nice. Nima reads me the note that came with it, a lot of poetic nonsense about how she’s the only friend the girl has ever had. I comment about how it sounds like the girl said the same thing over and over again.

“That’s not the worst of it,” she says, and hands me the book open to the first entry. It’s from the girl, and it’s more of the same.

“What do you teach?” I ask.

“Writing and literature.”

The writing is flat and cliché, moreso even than what I can remember from middle school. “I take it she’s not one of your best students?”

She smiles like a sister plotting revenge against her brother. I’ll get to know that smile well, too. It symbolizes our relationship, and all that that implies.

I tell her the plots to my two novels, and when I get to the “mystery of the lines” and how it works out, she says she’s got shivers. I believe her, too, though I don’t expect the subject to interest her at all outside of this context. I’m just flattered to have an audience--everyone at home is sick of my stories.

We get to talking about literary influences, and she confesses she’s never read Hemingway, and that it’s not on the program for middle school in Australia. I definitely agree with that decision. I read The Sun Also Rises when I was in my early twenties and didn’t get hardly any of it. I think you should only read that when you’re past thirty and have been married for several years.

“It’s an interesting story,” I say. “Tragic, really. It’s something I never understood when I read it the first time. There’s a man, the main character, and he’s injured. Hem’s pretty vague about the specifics of the injury, but it seems the man is unable to, well, ‘perform’, yasee. He and Brett, that’s a beautiful lady friend of his, are hopelessly in love. Literally without hope. They kiss, they refer to the times in the past when they’ve wanted to be together, they’ve tried everything, but they only end up in frustration. So you have the contrast between the love that can’t be consummated, then the woman, Brett, who can’t love anyone but Jake. She has affairs with nearly every man in the novel, but she doesn’t love any of them, doesn’t even feel pleasure with them. You get the sense that if she could truly love Jake, she’d probably treat him just like everyone else, and she’d get the hell out of there. It makes me want to cry to think about it.”

“Definitely. I’ll have to read it now, you know?”

“I’m sure you can get a copy of it here.”

We get l’addition, and for the second meal in a row I’m tempted to grab the check and change my mind. I changed my mind with Heather because I knew her company would pay for her part. Does that make me a bad man? With Nima, I just didn’t feel like it was necessary, and that something would be implied (implode) if I did.

We walk back onto the busy street and look up and down. People are everywhere, in every class of clothes, walking in every direction. The smells of the roasting chestnuts and fresh crepes make me wonder whether or not I ate enough, but I decide to ignore it for now.

Somehow, probably via r. St Andre des Arts, we end up on the Quai des Grands Augustins. As we approach the Seine, Nima yelps. She’s just seen Notre Dame. She waves her hands again and starts to walk faster. I’m still feeling heavy from the meal, but I manage to keep her in sight. She fumbles for her camera without looking for it, approaching the grand facade. I pull out my binoculars and study the thousands of details around the entrance (630, 9A, 11A, 12A): the Gothic arch towering over the main doorway, with the central carved-stone bas relief sculptures, the telescoping arches of figures lined up head-to-toe and side-to-side. The two innermost arches are angels, an audience for the Christ on the central throne. The four outermost arches line the Saints up, each with his or her own face, body shape, and pose. I want to touch each one, to find out how they were done, what they were thinking about when their artist formed them, and at what point did they become living things carved from a rock. The imagery is so dense I imagine a series of graduate students trying, and failing, to catalog all of it.
The line to get in is short and moving quickly. A woman approaches us in a headscarf and asks us if we speak English. I say nothing, but Nima says “yes.” The lady hands her the same note the lady from the Eiffel tower showed me Friday morning, and Nima reads it before giving her some change. Then we file into the line and shuffle in, drinking in the details, discussing the handiwork, in awe at the grandeur. The statues greeting us at eye level are probably 1/3-scale figures, old men nodding at us with their eyes closed. They all have beards and simple robes. As I pass under the arch, I notice that one figure, directly beneath Christ, is a devil figure, standing next to a child. He holds a scale, a small person in each side. The lines holding the cups are fully articulated, and I start to imagine the carver, working behind the marble ropes, smoothing over the devil’s belly. How fragile is that marble? How long did it take to release it from the rest of the stone? What if you cut it too deeply?

By this time I’m well past it and into the nave. Nima stops and several people mutter under their breath. I walk up beside her... she looks like a five-year old walking into a Disney Store.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, certainly nothing like this in Australia.”

I feel guilty that I’m not as awe-struck. I’ve seen Westminster Abbey, and I seem to remember a similar entrance and similar details around the inside. I read a 1200 page book about how one of these would be constructed (The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett). I’m only able to enjoy this so much because I’m with someone who can still marvel.

“Yeah, not in Texas, either,” I say.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Day 3, On the Way to l'Ile de Paris with Nima

I wake up when I hear the church ring nine times. My roommates are still asleep and groan when the bells won't shut up, but I tell myself I can only feel so bad for them. They made a hell of a ruckus when they left and came back last night, so my sympathy is gone. As I dress and pack my stuff, I hear snoring. Today I want to pack light, so I only have my jacket, my camera, and my notebook & tour guide. As I open the door I have to pull back the blackout curtain. I look back to my roommate on the bottom bunk and he’s wincing like a vampire at the light. I apologize in French and close the door after I’ve made sure the key is on the sink.

Down the stairs I realize it’s too warm for my jacket, so I take it off. It’s too cold to be without it. I enter the bar area.

An early 40s French woman with long dirty-blonde hair asks me if I want jus d’orange or coffee. I take both. She hands me half a foot of baguette, split open with butter smothered inside, more than I’ve ever seen an Englishman put on. I smother at least that much more orange marmalade over it and begin to eat. I can’t believe the lightness of the bread, the crispiness of the crust. Even in a pedestrian place like this they get bread that would be called “superb” in the US. Amazing. The coffee, however, is horrible. I sit at a table and get out my tour book. I grab a Galeries-Lafayette map from the display and open the book. I look for rue Mouffetard and the Censier-Daubenton stop on line 7. Nima appears in a black sweater, wide headband, and black jeans, looking fresh as the baguettes. She grabs breakfast from the lady and sits at my table.

“So what’s it to be today? I’d rather like to see Notre Dame.”

“I can do that. I was planning the Hemingway walk, but I’d really rather do that on a day when everything is open.”

“Good, then. I think I’ll come with you.”

Just then two guys come in, an Aussie and an American, Paul and Justin. They say they’re leaving as though they expected her to jump up after them, then look genuinely sad when she tells them about what was evidently a change in their plans. I can’t help but feel a small victory, like the one I got I won a bet with a bunch of guys from my youth group--we were in Colorado and wanted to see who could get one girl’s phone number. This victory is much more hollow. Nima tells them she’ll meet them under the Eiffel tower at 5 and they’ll have a run.

“Do you run, Marcus?” She pronounces it, “Maa-kis”.

I decide to dust off an old chestnut, “Only when I'm being chased.”

She laughs.

I don’t let her laugh long, “that’s not original... it’s from a movie a long time ago.”

“Well I don’t care, you could have put anything by me I think.”

We eat and drink and finish breakfast. She offers to carry my notebook in her little backpack and I let her, with vague trepidation, but ultimately deciding it’s worth the slight risk of my bad memory.

We walk up Commerce to the Commerce station, get on the Métro, and get off at Cluny-La Sorbonne. At street level we’re completely disoriented. We stand for a while in a large square, trying to find the streets and the metros and the monuments. Our maps aren’t good enough. We see a dome nearby and this turns out to be the Panthéon. The streets here feel more metropolitan than homely. In the 15th arrondissement, near the hostel, it has the feel of a neighborhood, but this feels more like London near Big Ben. The buildings are taller and more formidable, each one looking like it’s under armed guards and surveillance cameras. One building is a little more gray than the others, and I’m able to confirm it’s the Sorbonne. Nima has no idea why I want to see this building. It’s at least 4 stories, with small windows and thoroughly locked doors. We’re on the Boulevard St-Jacques, and if we go around to the other side (I don't find out until the next day), we probably won’t want to leave the area at all.

Anyway, we walk around r. Soufflot to the Place du Panthéon, and we see the dome. Nima can’t believe the size of it. Like St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, it stretches impossibly high, supported by columns and perfectly straight stones, capped off in stone that’s almost black. I offer Nima my binoculars so she can see the detail: around the rim of the dome there are carved vines like laurels and wreaths, probably no more than several inches across but lovingly detailed. The craftsmen obviously didn’t care that the audience for these touches would be more than a hundred feet away, unable to appreciate the craftsmanship.

Nima is fumbling with her digital camera--she just bought it and has no idea how to use it. She begins to explore the features like black & white exposure, sepia tone, and shallow vs deep focus. I look around me to confirm that yes, of all the people near the Panthéon, only the two of us are looking down at a camera instead of up at the dome. I have a sudden fear that I’ve chosen the wrong travelling companion for the day, but I decide I need to give her another chance. If it goes on much longer this is probably a fine place to split up, and I already know she's fine travelling alone.

We move to the church right behind the Panthéon--l’Eglise de St-Etienne-du-Mont--and she’s never seen anything like it. It is a Gothic church, but it doesn’t have the flying buttresses like Notre Dame, so I tell her she hasn’t seen anything yet. This seems to excite her. We take a few more pictures, then head up r. St. Jacques again, passing the Sorbonne on our left this time. We still don’t have a great idea of where we are in relation to Notre Dame, so I ask a random passer-by, one of a group of French schoolboys.

Excusez-moi, c’est probablement une question stupide, mais... où est la Seine?”

The kid smiles, I think without irony, and points down r. St. Jacques, in the direction we’re heading.

Et voilà, monsieur,” he adds, “Notre Dame--elle est là!

Merci,” I say as he bounds off to join his friends.

“What was that?” Nima asks.

I explain, and we head toward the river. I don’t know why, but I actually expected to see water. I expected a bank like the Mississippi, and boats and a small church sitting on a small island. As we got closer it started to feel like something you’d call the Latin Quarter. Restaurants are popping up everywhere, the buildings are demonstrably shorter, and the smells of a thousand cuisines saturate the air. Nima starts shaking her hands up and down rapidly, a habit I would get to know well when she was excited about a new find. She charged ahead of me and went around l’Eglise de Saint-Severin. It’s another Gothic cathedral, slightly larger than the last one, and I'm really starting to appreciate her enthusiasm. If this is "excitement", what will her reaction be when she sees the two main churches? Her energy could power the lights of a large suburban village!

We walk in to Saint-Severin, and already she can’t believe the columns, the capitals, the ceiling lines, the small chapels that line the outer edges of the nave. She wants to read every plaque and photograph every statue. I'm not going to use any film here, and I don't have an agenda, so I tell her to go nuts. She does. When a crowd begins to form in front of the alter, she wants to go have a sit and find out what’s going on. It’s 11:00am and I’m in a Catholic Church. I’m about to attend my first mass!

We take our seats and the priest begins. Nima wants me to translate, but I can’t... he’s going too fast. They've left hymn lyrics all over the place, however, so I can translate the words to the songs. As a kid, I never sang in church, to the chagrin of my family. I couldn't do it. They're all singers. I have an okay voice, but I always felt self-conscious. I've sung maybe a half-a-dozen church songs out loud in all my life. But somehow here it's different. We both sing them with the crowd. It's inspiring. I begin to feel that electricity I felt when I was a child and my faith was, well, like that of a child. It’s almost an endorphin high. Nima wants to leave after about ten minutes of the mass, and I confess to her that I enjoyed that a lot more than I would have had I been alone.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Day 2, Dinner, then Back to the Ducks

In the restaurant we both speak French to the servers and to each other, at least for a while. I order a Pastis (I think it was Pernod), and she orders something more complicated. We decide to do the 25E formula each, and we’ll split each dish, finishing half and passing it over.

I have some trouble understanding the menu and Heather has to help me. I try not to let this be humiliating. I’m having exactly the same problem with this menu as I was with the one from the night before. Finally, we settle on Entrée, Plat, Dessert, and a bottle of provincial red wine.

The Entrées are amazing, one a duck confit (basically a duck loaf with bits of duck meat, duck fat, and carrot, bound with an amazing sauce). The other is a similar concoction with lamb. I like mine better than hers, but that may be because my duck was hot and her lamb was cold. I’m not quite used to cold meat, though it’s something I know I need to work on.

The Plats are mixed: mine was whitefish on a bed of rice with sauce, and honestly I could have made better myself without much trouble. Hers though... my god... hers was rare lamb shanks sliced 3/4’’ thick, and I wanted to eat that for the rest of the week. You could pull the meat from the bone with your lips and chew with your tongue. You never wanted it to be finished. I don’t even remember the sauce, because who needs it?

At this point Heather and I have covered the following in conversation: the pros and cons of marriage for both the man and the woman, the pros and cons of children and how she doesn’t want any, career vs travel and vacation, what we really want to do when we grow up, what we like in a partner, and how amazing it is to be an educated American, which allows one to appreciate good times like this. We toast, and I’m afraid I’m getting toasted.

Dessert is again mixed: my fondant au chocolat avec la creme anglaise is a bit much. The chocolate isn’t the quality or texture that I would imagine, though the crème anglaise is perfect. Heather has the calvados apple tart in phyllo pastry, and it blows my mind. It comes with handmade ice cream, and it crumples in your mouth as you taste the combination of brandy and cinnamon. There’s ginger in there too. And nutmeg. I like it more than Heather does.

At this point I think I’m babbling. Holy shit, alcohol just doesn’t work well for me. I’m not hammered, exactly, which is why I'm aware of the period where my level of conversation heads down. I start gossiping about some mutual friends and other folks. I go on about how Hemingway was the greatest American author ever and Heather strongly disagrees, bringing out the arguments much better than I can because she’s read a lot more. I can’t believe I never knew how smart she is, and I'll say that both drunk and sober. Suddenly, as she tells me she had wanted to go out but is feeling too tired now, I realize that I’ve let a real opportunity slip. She probably could have been a real friend to me had I not labeled her as “drunk make-out girl” nearly seven years ago. I’m an idiot. She’s got her whole life ahead of her and I’m, well--I need to walk her back to the hotel. She agrees to one drink in the hotel bar.

As we walk in the cold night I begin to sober up. We walk down streets between tall steel buildings and I feel like I’m in Chicago. There’s a highway in front of us, eight lanes with frontage roads, and I feel like I’m in Houston. Looming ahead of me is the Hotel Sofitel, dozens of stories high, and I feel like I’m in Dallas. We tear across the highway and the frontage roads and she asks if I’m okay getting back to Balard. She’s not even going to stop for a drink. That’s it, I’m not drinking any more on this trip. We hug goodbye and I walk back to Balard depressed. My head actually hangs low. I desparately need water.

Balard to Félix Faure is very quick, and the walk from Félix Faure, past the Citroen dealership, is even shorter. I enter the hostel and throw my notebook on the only remaining empty table. It’s 11:00.

Nima is still sitting at the bar. She’s making marks on a map. I leave my jacket and notebook on the table and head to her table.

“What are you still doing here?” I ask.

“Just trying to plan the day.”

“Hemingway tomorrow?”

“Yeah, sure. I’m just trying to see what else there is to do in Paris. I’m going to go up to bed now, mate. Did you have a good dinner?”

“Well, yeah, I guess. Dinner was good, I mean I think I may have--wait, you just wanted to hear it went fine, didn’t you?”

She smiles and winks. “I’m gonna head up to bed. Brecky tomorrow? We’ll meet?”


I sit back at my table and write:

Je suis un homme ennuyeux. I’m in the most romantic city in the world, and I’m alone. Je suis seul. Ban, voilà.

Such profundity. This is going nowhere quickly. Then I write down the details of the dinner, thinking I'm on to something interesting. That only lasts about a minute and a half. Then I feel morose again

Nobody here wants to listen to my bullshit unless I’m sober. I guess that makes sense, but it’s depressing. I thought I would be adopted by a bunch of Austrailians, but so far it’s only happened with a bitter old man whose young marriage is obviously falling apart.

I feel as if everything happening is something I predicted. And that somehow that means something, like when I’m confronted by disappointment, at least I can say I knew it was going to happen. Like it had to, otherwise the alternative is much worse.

I’m too serious... always have been. At least K knows she’s too serious and only rarely puts herself in a position where it’s an inconvenience.

It’s 11:15 pm and I feel like I’m at the Draught Horse [back in Austin]. Everyone around me speaking English and I’m drinking German beer.

I plan to pressure Alex to come here and do the things I can’t do--take a year off from college, travel here, get drunk under the Eiffel tower, hang out with French girls, work some ridiculous touristy job, and learn to enjoy life before it becomes routine.

I’m the libertine who doesn’t know how to live, the amant who doesn’t know how to seduce, the gourmand who doesn't know how to indulge. I...

The moment I begin the next paragraph three American girls walk in, looking confused. They get their room key and I invite them to my table. They come over and I get up, trying to let them have it so I can sit at the bar, but they insist I stay seated. We talk about our days and I tell them about La Douleur. I end up showing them Alex’s picture. Soon they talk about their fourth roommate--an old man (“No! He’s wayyy older than you!!”) who won’t stop talking about his mouse. "Where's my mouse? Have you seen my mouse? Non-living mouse?". Evidently he started to go through all their bags before they finally asked him to stop. They still don’t entirely know what he’s looking for, but they locked their stuff up in the common storage room. He also snores. Then we end up talking about Texas vs the world and George W, and that lasts far too long. I’m dying to hear the end of the story about their roommate, but the cutest one, the one in the middle, has to go to bed. They leave me with a smile.

I start to write again:

I’m surrounded by youth, and rather than be refreshing, it’s depressing. I have missed my chance, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s all my fault, because I didn’t know who I was, nor did I understand just how big the world is.

I’m morose and in Paris. [My Nine-Inch-Nails-loving friend] Sean would be so proud. It’s like I live two lives: the life where I don’t care about politics and I wish I could be a citizen of the world, and I think Americans are ignorant and fat. Then there’s the other, where I belong in America and I believe 100% in its goodness, and I do my job and appreciate it and want more out of life.

A Marcus divided against himself will opt for stability. Every time.

Then two lovely Australian girls need a place to sit. Again, I start to stand up, intending (really) to go upstairs and turn in. Again, my new friends insist I stay. We talk about our days and I tell them about La Douleur. I end up showing them Alex’s picture. They want to talk about Texas vs. the rest of the world and George W, and that lasts far too long. At 2am the bartender rings the bell for last call and I head upstairs. My roommates are all in bed, and I take my shoes off very carefully, massaging my feet and promising them more, much more abuse in the coming days. I’m asleep within three minutes.


Monday, October 02, 2006

Day 2, The Funiculaire and My Old New Friend Heather

Everyone is speaking their native tongue, including me. What is going on? What’s happening to us? Are we about to fall? Can I put some people in between me and the downward wall if we go plummeting down the 45-degree angle? Next to me is the emergency call button. I push it. People are cussing all around me. I understand the French words, but I only know the Arabic speakers are cussing because the littlest kid has his hands over his ears. Looking back up the hill, I see a small figure in uniform climbing down toward us. Slowly. She’s holding a key. Step, step, step. I begin to count out loud in French, and that gets a laugh. The guy next to me, one of the Frenchmen, is muttering obscenities I’ve never heard before.

After two full minutes of stale air the lady arrives and puts her key in some slot outside. Nothing happens. The people inside start barking instructions at her but she doesn’t pay attention. After a while she goes step, step, step all the way to the bottom. I don’t count this time. After several minutes of thoughts in my own head I hear a banging on the outside of the tram. The lady has returned with a younger lady and a ladder. They are standing on the stairs that run parallel with the tram, and the ladder has two legs that are meant to rest on the same lever. They’re putting the ladder on the tram even though the doors aren’t open yet.

Ouvrez la porte, MAINTENANT!” shouts one of the Greeks.

The younger lady bangs on the glass and shouts something about working as fast as she can. I wipe the sweat from my forehead.

Across the park, we see groups gathering and pointing. Flashbulbs twinkle.

Salope de putain de coup de merde,” says one Frenchman, “ils prennent des photos comme si c’est une plaisanterie!”

They stick their keys in the outside slot again and the doors open a tiny bit. Between all the men near the door, it slides open. Before it’s open all the way, the Frenchman and the Greeks are all yelling at the two Metro workers, blaming them for everything, explaining that it’s not just tourists who are hurt by this, but longtime residents as well. The ladies won’t have any of it and continue to ignore them. They tell us to start going down. I stand back to let some women go first, but the man next to me pushes everyone aside and goes down. Then another man. Chivalry--alive and well in the country that invented it.

I wait until everyone is off but one of the Greek men, and he waves me down. When I hit terra firma I’m sorely tempted to kiss it to get a laugh out of the onlookers. I also consider whether or not I should stick around for a Metro refund. Yes I should, but no I won’t. I’m on Place St. Pierre, and I eventually make it to rue Turgot and the Anvers Metro station (line 2-Etoile). I take it back to the hostel, this time getting out at Felix Faure (line 8-Belard)


I'm supposed to meet Heather, a friend from America, for dinner tonight. She just happens to be over on business.

As I enter the hostel I see a young woman with black hair, a pink headband, and a beige sweater. She has light brown eyes and clear olive skin. I immediately think she’s Moroccan.

I fumble for a Euro and head over to the terminal. I haven’t used this thing yet, so it takes some getting used to. Yes, Heather has written me back, leaving phone and room numbers again. I have to try to be at her hotel by 7:30 because that was the plan, and she doesn’t think she’ll be able to check email again before then.

I go upstairs to shower. I take off my clothes, constantly paranoid because of the relative lack of privacy; I have the room key, but that means I’m not supposed to lock the door. I reach in the shower and feel for faucets, but I can’t find any. I take a look, and I don’t see anything. I put on my shower shoes and step in. I can't see a bloody thing. Then I find it: it’s a button embedded in the wall. I push it and, well, the best thing I can say is that at least the water isn’t freezing right out of the faucet. After 10 seconds, the water shuts off. I push the button again. Again 10 seconds. I begin to formulate my strategy.

It’s hard to explain, but after a short while you get used to the pattern. Push, wash, scrub. Lather, lather, push. Push, scrub rinse. It’s like a waltz. Done with that, I begin to use Anne-Marie’s towel, which is more like a chamois for a car than terrycloth, but it sure does pack small. I dress and brush my hair, then go back down to the bar.

The Moroccan-looking girl is still there. The bartender, a man about my age, brings her a beer.
“Goodonya, mate!” she says as he delivers it. Evidently she’s an Aussie...

I sit at the bar and begin to write things down, recording whatever comes to mind. This brand of beer Malcolm introduced me to, 1664, sounds good. As I drink my third, I start to wonder if I’ll have wine for dinner and whether or not that will--Oh, shit! I have to go!

It’s 6:45 now, so I have plenty of time to find this hotel Sofitel. I look in the phone book, can’t find any numbers because there’s more than one hotel Sofitel. When I do finally reconcile the location with Heather’s email I try to call the number, but the three phones in the bar only accept phone cards. Where can I get a phone card? The tabac down the street. Are they open now? Of course not. Julie at the bar lends me her phone card (she keeps it for emergencies like this--she uses a cell phone) and I call the hotel. Of course Heather is out, and of course the guy doesn’t route me to voicemail. Of course that wouldn’t do me any good anyway.

Now it’s 7:00 and I have to leave. I stand up from the phone and head toward the door, stopping when I realize I’m still carrying my notebook, and I’m a bit warm with my jacket on. I put my notebook on a table next to the Aussie girl and begin to rearrange everything. She invites me to sit down. I look at her more closely: wide round eyes and thin lips. Lots of white teeth and a bit of a smirk that I will get to know well, not just as hers, but as that of an entire continent. I look up at the clock and figure I can spare 10 minutes.

I introduce myself. Her name is Nima. She’s starting her first of six days in Paris, and she hasn’t slept since she got off the plane. She asks what I’m doing tomorrow, and what she should do in general. This is the first day she’s ever been off her island, and she’s asking a Yank what she should be doing. Well, of all people I guess I’m not the worst choice. I tell her about the Hemingway walk and show her the map. She seems interested and I invite her to tag along.
As I walk out the door and head toward Félix Faure, it dawns on me: she won’t be going with me on the Hemingway walk tomorrow. From the first instant I could tell she’s the unstoppable type, move move move, wouldn’t want to stop and admire all the details I’d be interested in. I decide to change my tactic a little bit. I’m here for four more days, and I could probably use some company. If I see her, I’ll let her decide what to do. If it’s something I was planning to do anyway, I’ll be game.

I arrive at Félix Faure at exactly 7:25, figuring I’ll be in pretty big trouble if I can’t reach her. I buy a local phone card. 7,50E for 50 minutes. I call the hotel again and I get Heather. We agree to meet above ground at the Balard station at the end of line 8. In 10 minutes. I’m still a bit fuzzy on the metro at this point, so I put in my ticket and find the direction I’m going. Funny enough, it’s line 8-Balard. I hop the train and get out when two train lanes go down to one and people are entering and exiting both sides.

Construction is everywhere as I reach the street. I can’t cross without going back underground. The corner I’m at is dead storefronts with papers slapped over every inch of glass and concrete. Concerts, political rallies, museum exhibitions, ballet, theater, and television shows run in both directions as I look down. Across the wide avenue I see a small parfumerie and a newsstand, both of which appear to be in business. I cross underground and somehow feel safer. I put my hands in my pockets and look on the ground as something about this situation makes me feel like a fool.

“Hey, Marcus!”

Of course it’s her. She’s smiling brightly under her burgundy beret and locks of red-brown hair. She looks a lot better than I remember, but maybe Paris can do that to you. She’s adorable in her khaki trenchcoat and black boots. She’s also never been this happy to see me before.

Heather and I go back a bit, but in several strange ways (Heather, if you ever happen across this, please keep reading. In the end I'm the drunken fool). She worked at some dot-com at the same time I did, when they used to have a party every week and they’d serve beer to all their employees, no ID check required. It looked like a mixer for young models and pharmaceutical reps of the future. I think it was used as a recruiting tool for visiting college seniors, to convince them that yes, they can essentially stay in college after they graduate.

My wife and I attended several of these, but on one occasion she pointed out this small blonde girl who was making out with a guy, in a way that looked spontaneous and first-time and definitely induced by chemicals. This continued for at least two hours. Forever after that we referred to her as “drunk make-out girl”. The moniker stuck, and it seemed a little more respectful than Elaine Benes’ “office skank” (Seinfeld reference), anyway. I never worked close with Heather, but I was familiar with her, and she was familiar with some shitty work I did on one particularly bad project. It never affected her directly, but that didn’t matter. I didn’t get the cold shoulder, but I’d say we would only have smiled politely to each other if passing on the street.

Fast forward three years to 2002, and I was far more successful, having been brought in as the fresh young mind dedicated to test automation for another dot-com. My boss met Heather at a party and they began dating shortly afterwards. It seemed highly appropriate that I be more polite than I had been, and then one night I learned she spoke French. That changed everything, and I immediately began to seek out her company. Her American accent is strong, but it’s obvious from talking to her for one minute that her accent doesn’t matter. She has it all over me in vocabulary and common usage. After she and Mark broke up I heard vague references to her now and then from my friend Ryan’s camping group. Then one day I told Ryan I was going to Paris. He told me she was too. I knew it would be awkward, but I thought there was a chance it could be lovely. So far, it looks like I'm going to be right.

Back above the Balard Metro station, I try to think of something interesting to throw out there. “You know,” I say as we walk a block to the restaurant, “I can truly say that I never in my wildest dreams imagined I’d be in Paris--with you... It’s a pleasure.”

She laughs.