Monday, January 31, 2005

sans son

I've always liked the title of the Simon and Garfunkel song, "Sound of Silence." Sure, the tune is a little heavy-handed, especially with the pregnant pause in the chorus: "and touched the sound............of silence." But silence--and those vibrations closest to it--have always been my favorite sounds.

Last night I heard the deepest Parisian silence yet. I was out late in the Marais with some friends of the family who were in town on vacation, and I had a long haul back to my bike, which was parked near Champs-Elysees. Metro was closed, and the lines at the taxi stands and night bus stops were extremely long, so I decided to walk.

It was an intimidating hike. I started off on Rue de Rivoli, which runs in a straight line along the Seine above the Tuileries. The road is the second longest in Paris, and it seems truly endless. The balconies and arcade arches are identical as far as you can see, in a perfectly straight line. Whether Napoleon intended it or not when he built the road, it seems a perfect metaphor for his imperial aspirations.

This is starting to sound like another late night misadventure story, but it's not. Rue de Rivoli is straight and long, and I walked the whole thing. I passed dozens of small groups of people waving in vain at every packed taxi that passed them. After seeing the lines at the taxi stands a mile back, I pictured the hailers there in the morning, still waving, perhaps one or two of them slumped sleeping on the sidewalk. (Of course I didn't tell them about the taxi stands. If you can't figure out which way to walk after fifty cabs pass you by...)

At Place de la Concorde, I passed the obelisk's silhouette and headed down Champs-Elysees. At Avenue Montaigne, I turned left, then right, then left again, unlocked my bike, and rode over the Pont de l'Alma to the Left Bank.

I wasn't far enough away from home to have to look to the Eiffel Tower for direction, so it wasn't until I was just about under it that I noticed that its lights were down. (New York is the city that never sleeps; Paris needs its beauty rest.) The tower was still beautiful. The 3am winter sky in Paris is flaky charcoal, and the tower that leans back on it like a pillow is pure slate.

The Left Bank was almost completely silent. I say "almost" because I don't believe there is such a thing as pure silence. Otherwise, I would say it was completely silent. Unbelievable. Not one sound, beyond the rattling of my junky bike, which I dismounted when I was a few blocks from home so as not to disturb the sound....

....of SILENCE. [insert fingerpicking of ominous minor 7 chord]

Once into my apartment, I discovered another uniquely Parisian sound. I could actually hear myself going broke. I thought abstract concepts like the exchange rate and cost of living were silent, but I was wrong. The smallest demonination of Euro printed on paper is 5. Denominations of 1 and 2 are coined. This means more jingling in your pocket early in the day, progressively less during the day and into the evening, and a mocking tinkle on the bedstand when you empty your pockets before getting under the covers.

After reading about the development of Paris, the tinkling of my own change became much less significant, and the silence outside my walls grew louder. In my neighborhood, silence is the sound of gentrification. When Haussmann demolished old Paris to make way for his wide, tree-lined boulevards and stately apartment houses, Paris's legions of poor were forced to the outskirts of town, where they remain for the most part today. You can only face the cavern of silence for so long before truth rushes in to fill it up.

Saturday, January 29, 2005


Paris has stop signs and a subway and people and sometimes it rains. It's a city. When you are working full-time--at home--and not interacting with people very often, sometimes your mind tends to reduce your surroundings to their very elements. It's like saying a word over and over again: garage, garage, garage, garage, garage, garage, garage, garage, garage, garage, garage, garage...a hard g, ahs where you expect ays, a soft g.

I look out my window and see a Volkswagen dealership. And pavement. And I could be anywhere. It's usually quiet on my block--Parisians don't honk as often as Americans--but if someone is blocking the road, even if it's a utility truck that has nowhere else to go, well, then! Honnnk honnnk honnnk honnnk honnnk honnnk honnnk honnnk. Yes, we must teach this driver a lesson. How could he have blocked the road?! Monsieur, we simply don't do that! This is a disruption, and we'll not stand for it!

It reminds me of the harsh schoolteachers you see in French new wave films like The 400 Blows: they seem incalculably cruel, but you know they are just going through the motions. It's cultural glue: that teacher had a teacher who suffered through the same kind of teacher, and so did that teacher, and the one before, all the way centuries back to the advent of the Sorbonne, when students were running wild, drunk and brawling in the sewage-drenched streets, and if this teacher didn't make a spectacle of terrorizing his students like his teacher terrorized him when he was unruly, well, then, the whole system would just fall apart.

So they keep honking.

And I remain at my desk by the window, trying to run a Student's t-test, wondering when Paris is going to thrill me again. Because now it's honking honk honk honk, and the plugs and voltage are different, and I have to eat three times a day, and my thumb makes the same motion each time I ignite my lighter, and in my head I'm rehearsing the next short French conversation I'm going to have so I don't freeze up ("bonjour madame, je cherche anglais on dit 'batteries,' comment on dit en francais?"), and I meet people out for drinks, and they're quite nice, but really they are just friends of someone I know back home, and...

Why did I come here?

Then I walk outside for a cigarette and the Eiffel Tower is blinking, 20,000 lights blinking at once, and I turn around and notice that it's even more beautiful to see the reflection of the lights in the windows of my building. And this is more beautiful than looking directly because I can only see parts of the tower, the parts reflecting in the window, but my mind fills in the rest on my visual canvas, and I realize that my mind does the same thing with language more and more each day, filling in the blanks, and what my mind can't fill in, the people I talk to can, and I like speaking French, and they like speaking English, and we're sort of dancing with language, and then I think about my Latin teacher in high school and I feel like a humanist, and then I realize that deciding to learn another language is like deciding to accept all of humanity, and talking to anyone is like talking to everyone, and the longer I'm here, the more I understand how connected today is to 2,000 years ago in a country like this, a normal country that wasn't a social experiment half a world away isolated between two oceans, and if I let myself drift out with the undercurrent, past deGaulle and Haussmann and Napoleon and Louis XIV and Cardinal Richelieu and Henri IV and the Knights Templar and Philippe Auguste and the waves get longer and higher and Caesar, eventually I'll wash up on the same shore as everyone else.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


Dear God,

I'm sorry. I know it was wrong to gloat. As much as I loathe winter and was ready to hightail it out of America after that below 20 business in early December, I should not have snickered last week as I walked around Paris when it was 50 degrees and intermittently sunny. I should not have logged on to and just for the schadenfreude of seeing their 14 degree current temperatures and 10 degree forecasts.

I should have known that I cannot have my cake and eat it, too. There's no way of getting around winter, and You Have A Reason for that. Pangloss was right: all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Those one-off 70 degree days in February wouldn't seem so special if we didn't have 10 degree days in December, right? Or maybe you are trying to teach us a lesson about how comfortable we Americans are, and how the glory goes to you, not to ourselves, and how you can unleash destruction any time you care to.

So, as a penitent supplicant, I humbly ask you: could ya please knock the temperature up just a few degrees? It's frickin' freezing here!

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Il neige là-bas?

If you’re on the east coast, you’re probably into your third or fourth inch of snow right now. Send me pictures! It never snows in Paris. That’s one of the first things I learned.

The cab driver who drove me from the airport to my apartment told me that. He would have told me more interesting things, but all I could ask him was, “Does it ever snow here? Do you like driving cabs? Do you have any sisters or brothers?”

The first thing I asked him was where he lived. In a way, I was doing penance for a vocabulary sin I had committed last time I was here. See, to ask someone where he lives, you ask, “Òu habitez-vous?” “Habiter” means “to live.” When I started studying French again in anticipation of this trip, I realized that I had been mixing up “habillez” and “habiter.” “Habiller” means “to get dressed.” Last year, when I thought I was asking people where they lived, I was asking them, “Where is it that you get dressed?” I can only hope I wasn’t leaning in, smiling, or leering when I said it.

My cab driver, who lives—and, presumably, gets dressed—outside of Paris, immediately dispelled the stereotype of the French as cold and aloof. We talked the entire half-hour drive to my apartment, and he spoke slowly and simply. He even complimented my French: “Oh, you speak very well! You’re staying five months? You’ll speak perfect French by the time you leave.” One of the things I was looking forward to getting away from in America was our tendency to blow sunshine up each others’ asses, but I was very happy to be lied to about my speaking skills.

Anyway, snow. is predicting snow showers for Paris tomorrow night. They’re predicting that the temperature will hover around freezing for the next few days. I had been gloating since my arrival, knowing that you all were freezing to death in another one of those cold spells that I had to suffer through in December. Perhaps I spoke too soon.

Honestly, I don’t know why bothers predicting. The winter weather in Paris never changes. Well, "never changes" in that it’s consistently unpredictable. Not that British kind of unpredictable where it hails for five minutes, then becomes sunny and warm for five minutes, then rains for five minutes, etc. Rather, it’s just gray and gloomy all the time, and cold. Not freezing. You need a scarf, but you don’t need gloves. But it always looks like it’s going to rain, and it at least mists once per hour. Sometimes the sun will break out brightly, and you wish you had your sunglasses. Sometimes, though, it just pours for a half hour, and you wish you had an umbrella. When it rains, I’d say three-quarters of the people I see are umbrellaless. It doesn’t seem to bother them. It’s weird—they’re so particular about some things, but they seem to have gotten used to walking in the rain. It’s not so bad—it usually doesn’t rain longer than 15 minutes. Which must be why everyone remains fabulous and perfectly coiffed after the rain.

I’m serious about sending me pictures. The one picture at the Atomic blog is nice, but I need more. Last time I saw that much snow, I had just moved into my house. Two feet fell, it was 13 degrees, and my @#$#@% furnace died the second the first flake fell. Tough love. So it means a lot to see Hampden (or Bolton Hill, for that matter) blanketed in snow.

Someone have a heated whiskey for me. (Speaking of which, guess which kind of Irish whiskey they have here in Paris that they don’t have in the States? Paddy, baby!)

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Cinderella III

I hopped on my bike and looked for the Eiffel Tower. The skies were too cloudy; I couldn't find it. And it was drizzling. But I knew which way was south, and even if I didn't go straight toward home, if I could just find the Seine I could follow the quay to my bridge, no problem.

Still, it would have been nice to have remembered my map.

I hopped on the bike and started down the hill. Hot damn! I've had two bikes stolen, and I hadn't bought another one since the most recent theft, a couple years back in (where else) Baltimore. It was very exciting to mount MY bike. Now I could go more places, faster. The wind could blow in my face, and my quadriceps could burn, and I could switch gears and go faster, and I could ring my bell if someone was in my way.

I found my way to the wide Boulevard de Clichy and headed west, past Moulin Rouge and the red light district. The streets were nearly empty, so I was really cooking. Accessing the fuzzy map of Paris in my brain, I realized that I needed to turn left when I entered the 17th arrondissement. I looked at one of the street signs that they have on the buildings at every street corner and saw "17e." I turned left.

Now I was going downhill. I had to stop at traffic lights, which was a drag, but I did not want to run afoul of the Paris Police, not even for a minor bike violation (even though La Vendeuse told me that she had been caught several times going the wrong way on a one way street and successfully pulled the "Je suis desolee! Je suis americaine!" card).

After a while, I felt like I needed to turn left, so I turned left. Then I thought I ought to bear left a little, so I did. Then I thought I had gone too far east, so I turned right. (I'm looking at a map right now and I wish I could tell you the street names, but I was seriously effin' lost by this point.)

I found a wide boulevard and decided to just follow it: I attributed it to instinct, but it was really desperation. I ended up at Porte Dauphine, which I knew was bad because "Porte" is the word they use to describe all the circles along the city limits. I was almost in the suburbs. (Honestly, I had thought I was on Champs Elysees, but looking at the map right now I see that the only big boulevard that leads to Porte Dauphine is "Avenue Foch." Indeed.)

The bus stop at Porte Dauphine had a map, so it was at this point that I realized I was at the city limits, a long way from the Eiffel Tower, which I had even more trouble seeing because it was also at this point that it began to rain. Hard.

I followed another boulevard because it looked like it ended at the Seine, which I could then simply cross to be in my arrondissement. Wrong. Porte de la Muette. Muette means silent or dumb. Which I was not. I triangulated and headed in what I thought was the right direction. I rode down the sidewalk because the surface was smoother and, hence, faster. I passed several sadsacks walking alone under streetlights in the rain, and cued up Miles Davis's soundtrack to Louis Malle's L'Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud in my mind's ear.

Finally, I saw the blasted Tower. I zigzagged through the one-way streets, unable to see the Tower because of the buildings I was riding between, but sure I was going the right way. Then I saw it again. Finally, I saw the Trocadero metro stop, which I knew was across the Seine from the Tower.

I got to the stop and found the spot directly across the river from the Eiffel Tower. It was a magnificent colonnade beneath the gorgeous, inspiring Palais des Droits de l'homme. The thing was, the colonnade was raised about 40 feet above the bridge. I delicately walked the bike down the slippery marble stairs and crossed the bridge. I rode under the Eiffel Tower; this is perhaps the least attractive perspective of the tower in the whole city. It almost felt impolite.

After an hour and a half of riding in the rain, I finally made it back to avenue du Général Tripier around 1:00 a.m., feeling like a soggy pumpkin.

Cinderella Part Deux

La Vendeuse was very excitable--her plane was leaving at 7:00 the next morning for Cairo, and she hadn't even packed her bags yet. I handed her the money for the bike, and she yelped, "I'm rich!"

She invited me to join her friends for dinner. I told her I didn't want to intrude on her going away dinner, but she insisted. I understood--she had been moving around so much that her going away parties were more like solstices.

Once again, I was nervous. It was crowded and they'd have to make room for me. I suspected her friends would be speaking French, and it's extremely difficult to understand French over crowd noise. At Saturday's relatively quiet dinner party, I had considered asking someone to switch seats with me because I was sitting next to the speakers and couldn't understand what people were saying.

The second I walked in, my glasses fogged up. Cold and damp outside, warm inside. I wiped them off, and they fogged right back up. I tried again. It was like blowing out a trick candle. I took off my glasses and the room became blurry. And since I had my winter coat on, and it was too crowded to take it off, I started sweating.

The proprietor walked over to accommodate his new guest, and La Vendeuse stood up on her seat. She climbed across the table and squeezed into the booth, and I took her seat. I felt like an ass. I tried putting my glasses back on (this is one of my defense mechanisms; I do it if I want people at a big meeting to think I'm smart, or if I'm playing music and want to have anything, anything, between myself and the people who are staring at me, or if my eyes are red from, say, an allergy attack), but they were still foggy. She introduced me to her friends, and I squinted at each one and said, "Enchantée."


"So how did you like living Baltimore?"

"Oh, I love it!"

"Reeeeally? Why?"

I know I'm not the only Baltimoron who has encountered that sentiment. And like most Baltimorons, I thought, "Because you don't live there." It was a bad start. And the rest of her friends were speaking in French, so I couldn't really turn away. And I didn't have a drink. I reached for my glasses. Clear!

Everyone was picking with toothpicks at a plate of hors d'oeuvres in front of us, and La Vendeuse offered me some. But I didn't have a toothpick. She said, "Oh, they must have brought four since the reservation was for four."

So I watched them eat.

Then our aperitifs came, and we all lit up cigarettes. And her friends started asking me questions in English. Turns out they speak it pretty well. Then the fondue came, and someone took a picture with a camera phone. "Oh, j'apporte un camera digital." "Oh, good!" They passed the camera around and people took pictures of each other.

Another one of the proprietors came over and served our big baby bottles. He was such a funny man that his humor transcended the language barrier and caused me to laugh hysterically. He had long gray hair in a ponytail and a thick, perfectly trimmed moustache, and his eyes were such that he always looked like he was on the verge of telling a slightly bawdy joke. He looked like a mix between Captain Kangaroo and David Crosby, in Neil Young's clothes. That, or maybe a raccoon.

I sucked on the nipple (that ought to get some interesting google traffic) and took in a gulp of white wine. It was a little off-putting; but it was the only way to get to my wine, and everyone else was doing it, so I continued, uh, nursing for the rest of the night without embarrassment.

The rest of the night was fun. La Vendeuse's friend, it turns out, is doing a master's in foreign language and is studying anthropology, with a focus on educational systems. We talked a good bit of shop. The crowd got livelier and lost any inhibitions about climbing over the table. I put my camera on the table, turned the flash off, nonchalantly rested my hand on it, and took pictures of people while they were talking to me without their noticing.

Later in the night, I walked back to the bathroom. Captain Crosby said, "Parlez-vous italien?" I said, "Non," and wondered what the hell that had to do with going to the bathroom. I then grabbed the handle and jiggled it. I couldn't tell if it was locked or not, so I jiggled it again, then left it alone. A couple minutes later, a beautiful Italian woman walked out, and I heard Captain Crosby cackling as she passed.

After the fondue, we drank coffee and shared our desserts: fruit salad, chocolate cake, and lemon glace. All the food was good. Not great, but good. It became great when I found out that everything--aperitif, hors d'oeuvres, fondue, wine, and dessert--came on a prix fixe menu of 15 euros.

I collected e-mails (so I could send them the pictures), struggled to put my coat back on, wished La Vendeuse bon voyage, and walked out to my new beat-up bike.

Cinderella Part I

In Paris, the last Metro train runs at midnight. If I'm out late across town, my only way home is a long walk or an expensive cab ride. There are night buses, but it would take more time to find one and make the transfers than it would to walk. Around 11:30 Saturday night, I was across town in Bastille, and I asked my friend what time it was. He said something in French, and the only words I could make out were "metro" and "Cinderella." Realizing he wasn't talking about the band, the light bulb over my head smoked, sizzled, and flickered, and I hustled off to catch the train.

So I went to craigslist and found a cheap used bike. What better way to discover Paris, right? Cruise the grand avenues, tool around the Bois de Vincennes, get knocked to the pavement by a maniac on a scooter?

I met up with the vendeur in Bastille. She's a waitress from L.A. who skips from country to country every few months. Her sentences all inflect upwards, as if she were asking you a question? I took her bike for a spin around the neighborhood.

The first time you ride a bike in any city is scary, but this was more so than usual. Too much to process at once: figuring out where to look for the traffic light, finding a one way street to help you complete your circle, skinny streets, how do I signal a turn, is that a stop sign, cars whizzing by on your left, scooters whizzing by on your right, being lost...but like any city, if you survive your first ride, you're ready to go. I decided to buy it.

She told me she needed to keep the bike for two more days, so we made plans to catch up Monday night. She was going to meet friends for fondue in Montmartre, so I told her I'd meet her in front of the restaurant at 9 p.m. Easy enough--19 rue des trois freres, a block away from Sacre Coeur.

I have fond memories of Sacre Coeur. Last year, after a long lunch and a bottle of wine, I fell asleep on the lawn behind the basilica. I woke up to a sunny autumn afternoon and one of the best views in all of Paris. Realizing the correlation between good views and altitude, I perked up like a little kid about to pull the emergency brake on his Big Wheel: my ride home on the bike would be all downhill, with very little traffic. And I wouldn't get lost, because I live under the Eiffel Tower, which is very tall and bright.

Around 8:30 Monday night, I packed for my excursion and walked to metro. I have to "pack" every time I leave my apartment, since I'm still finding my way around. Passport, carte orange (monthly metro pass), map of Paris, cell phone, and if I'm going to buy anything, a backpack.

When I got off at Anvers in Montmartre, I realized I had forgotten two things: map and cell phone. Merde. Not good. I needed the map to find the fondue place, and I needed the cell phone to call the woman in case I couldn't find her. It wasn't a good situation: if I didn't see her in the restaurant, or if I didn't recognize her (possible after two days), I had wasted a trip and lost the chance to buy a very cheap bike.

I knew the restaurant was up the hill from the metro station, so I began walking. I poked my head into a store and asked a man if he knew where rue des trois freres was. He didn't know, and he said something about the "funiculaire." This is the little train that goes up the hill to Sacre Coeur, and I knew where that was. I found a map of the neighborhood there and headed off to the restaurant.

On the way, a French woman asked me if I knew where "Gabrielle" was. I had no idea what she was talking about, but it was reassuring to know that I didn't look as clueless as I felt. As gregarious as I can be, I'm shy and I get nervous in unfamiliar situations. So I felt a little better after that and finding the map.

On the way up the hill to the restaurant, I had one of those magical French experiences that seemed right out of a movie. In fact, it was very much like my favorite scene of all the films I've ever seen. In La Dolce Vita, Marcello's father surprises him with a visit and they go to a cabaret. His father comes to life there, full of reverie and braggadocio as he flirts with the dancers and reminisces about his wilder, younger days. While his father recaptures his youth, you can tell that Marcello, although delighted with the surprise visit, is seeing himself in 30 years. It's a touching scene already, and then a man with a trumpet walks out on a stage covered by balloons. When he finishes his corny, misty-eyed piece, he walks off stage with his head hung low. And the balloons follow him! Kills me every time.

Anyway, back to rue des trois freres. I was walking up this steep, windy, cobblestone street, when I heard what sounded like a Brazilian percussion troupe. I thought it was a street musician, but I looked down and there were 6 plastic beer cups following me up the hill. I guess because of the altitude and the wind patterns in these labyrinthine streets, sometimes trash just blows right up the hill. But it was only these 6 cups. Nothing else. They passed me, the clatter like unsupervised children running home from school. They they stopped. It was right out of Toy Story. I passed them, and a minute later I heard them a good distance behind me, the sound more faint this time, still climbing the hill. This happened several times, until I got to the restaurant and could barely hear them anymore.

I looked in the window and didn't see her. It was a tiny place: a wisp of an aisle down the middle, and a line of tables against each wall from end to end. There were chairs lining the aisle and booths against the wall. I had no idea how people got themselves into the booths. It was very lively and extremely crowded, all people in their late twenties twirling cheese and bantering. Several groups of people on the street walked up, hoping to find a seat, but they were waved away.

This wasn't a place I felt comfortable walking into and looking around for someone. Anyway, I could see the whole restaurant through the window, and I didn't see her. I reached for my cell phone to call her, and found nothing but a lighter and some change. Phooie.

I figured that she and her friends had seen how crowded it was and moved on to another restaurant. I stood there like a dunce, hoping she was late. After five minutes I saw a woman walking a bike up the hill. It was her.

Monday, January 17, 2005


WPFW is broadcasting King's speeches today. You can listen online. Or read transcripts.

I'm listening right now, and it's very difficult for me to hear it without my feet touching the ground in America. Perhaps I'll go to the Pantheon and stand between the tombs of Voltaire and Rousseau...

Where are King's children? Why hasn't anyone since been able to inspire change? Is it that no one has been up to the job, or is it that not even the mightiest man or woman can change anything because we're not listening?

This is what I'm listening to him say right now, from his speech on Vietnam from April 4, 1967:

"The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing 'clergy and laymen concerned' committees for the next generation.

They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa.

We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. So such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God."

I wish I was in America right now.

We have to change ourselves first before we go changing anything else.

le dimanche

Sundays are what make Paris different than the United States. It's still a day of rest here. Even Monoprix, a big, boxy Parisian store that is half Target, half Whole Foods, is closed on Sunday.

That's not to say the streets are dead. Even here in my corner of the 7th arrondissement (7e), where it's usually very quiet, the market street rue Cler starts bustling around 11 a.m. Rue Cler is shut off for the pedestrians so they can shop at the dozens of stores. Butchers, bakers, olive oil makers, fishmongers, wine sellers, and produce merchants all do brisk business with the Sunday morning crowds.

I squeezed my way through the rue Cler crowd around 11:30 Sunday morning to get to Café du Marché for a coffee and salad. Because I don't speak the language fluently, crowds are especially disorienting. My mind, which only wanted to get me through the crowd to the café on the next corner, had to handle the additional baggage of giggling children, bantering adults, barking butchers, and a man singing over a hand-cranked organ.

Fortunately, my French is improving, so I heard a few words jump like porpoises out from the sea of sound. Children's voices always get my attention first; I gauge my progress by how well I can understand them. It's pretty frustrating when I can't understand a five-year-old, which is still often the case.

I finally made it to the café and squeezed into a booth. And I mean "squeezed." I'll use that word often here. Paris doesn't have much space for anything. This is an old city, everyone wants to be here, and it's not expanding anytime soon. To sit down in a café, you often have to pull the table out to get to the booth. The tiny apartments are the same way. I've already broken two glasses just trying to negotiate my way around my "kitchen" (a sink, two ranges, and two shelves inside a portable closet).

Paris isn't sounding very restful, is it?

Well, rue Cler was completely cleared out when I left the café. The crowds were gone and the shops were closing. The street was silent except for men whistling and apples being dropped in boxes. I turned left on rue de Grenelle and walked toward Champs de Mars, which I have to cross to get to my building. The streets were so empty that the clacking of my shoes on the cobblestone actually echoed.

Most stores are closed on Sundays, so when I saw an open boulangerie (bakery) and realized that I was feeling too lazy to cook dinner, I stopped in for a baguette. This is always safe bet: the French government regulates the price of a baguette (today, it's 0.85 euro).

I was lucky enough to stop in right after they had pulled a fresh batch out of the oven. On an especially cold Paris afternoon, nothing feels better than a warm baguette in your hands (except maybe sitting right underneath the overhead heater when you get stuck with a patio seat at the café). I picked off chunk after chunk as I walked through the Champs de Mars.

Looking up at the perfectly trimmed trees and realizing I was carrying my baguette parallel to the ground--not perpendicular, which is more natural--I realized that the first lesson of living in Paris had sunk in: Everything Is Just So.

You have to hold your baguette just so, or it will break in half as you are carrying it, especially if it's warm. The trees in the parks are trimmed just so. You have to walk on the sidewalk just so, or you'll step in dog shit (this is a completely justified stereotype of Paris, by the way). No one dares leave the house without tying his scarf just so. At least in my neighborhood, which is admittedly a bit chic (although considerably less so since my arrival), all the dogs are just so: I haven't seen any mutts; just pure bred, beautiful dogs. Parisians seem less enamored of cats, which surprises me. Parisians seem like cat people: cats are aloof, sleek, and they move gracefully. But I think the Parisians realize that there is much more variety in appearance to be found in the wide range of dog breeds. With more variety, more beauty. So Parisians have dogs. However, they train them to behave like cats. Seriously: they walk like cats, and they never bark.

The culture, also, is just so. Parisians do everything together. They say the same things each time they greet. They know when to go to rue Cler, and they know when to go home. I'm always just missing the wave. I wake up too late and get to rue Cler just as it's closing. I run out of cigarettes on Sunday and realize that every "tabac" is closed (only tabacs are allowed to sell cigarettes in Paris). I say "Bonjour" to the boulanger, but freeze up trying to decide whether she's "Mademoiselle" or if she's old enough to be "Madame."

Hopefully I'll catch a wave soon. I feel like I've been further up on the swell lately. At least I know now that if I hold on to the baguette too tightly, it will break. That's a good lesson to learn.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

My favorite metro stops

These Metro stops are my favorite just because they sound funny in any language, I've come up with my own translations, or they make me titter like a schoolboy.

Les Gobelins

Noisy-le-Sec: "sec" means dry, so if you only translate half of this, it's "Noisy the Dry."


Mairie d'Issy: "Town Hall of Snoopville"

Picpus: pronounced "peek poo"

Avenue Foch

Duroc: sounds kinda metal

St. Germain en Laye