France, Part 4: En Passant
David is not here typically. He travels for work, it seems. Yesterday, he left for Singapore. I have the flat to myself. For me, this means standing nude on the patio draped in a sheet, 9PM, with a bottle of 3 Euro wine and a soft wedge of cheese, playing with words in my head as I watch the sun setting on the west side of the flat. It’s such a cliche image, but if a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it… if Aimee stands nude on a French balcony with a bottle of wine and no one sees her…
When I am sitting with Raoul somewhere in 6e, poking at a half-eaten sandwich, he merely looks at me glibly and says, “Tu es tres faible” (you are very weak) and what a thing to say to someone you barely know. But that’s Parisian men for you, verbal filter not included. I admire that a lot but it’s disarming and ambiguous because all I can do is lay it on the line and retort, “Mmm? Comment je suis faible?” American culture dictates that we shroud our interactions in a lot of superficiality but the way some people talk to you here, knowing little about them, people just say what they want to say–it’s like being in a folk song from the ’60s or something and it’s about to get to that point where I’m not sure if a tomato is a tomato or just a heavy-handed metaphor for a gay rights platform or something.
He points at the sandwich, and as my eyes are focused on that, he takes 3 fingers and picks my arm up off the chair and limply drops it to indicate that I am getting past a point of being just rakishly thin. For a few days now, I have felt nauseous and found myself in rabbit-like stages of nibbling on celeri remoulade and pain aux raisins. No one here knows me though. No one knows what I normally am like. What I look like normally. What I sound like when my voice isn’t quivering. What my smile really looks like when I let go. What it must look like in my eyes when I register a word in another language after a split-second of thought. But they will know me. They just don’t yet.
With Raoul, I have somehow convinced him to engage in an activity with me in which we construct the worst sentences we can think of in the languages we are learning and improvise stories based around these sentences. We are in Parc de Belleville, I am hanging upside down from my knees on a pull-up bar eating an apple and I say in a haughty tone, “Ton garçon est laid!” (Your son is ugly!). Raoul’s sentence is something to the effect of, “I think she wants two in her butt.” I’m pressing the question “two of what?” and Raoul says, “That’s the mystery.” I told him I felt sorry for his girlfriend and started laughing as I think of weird things you could have in your butt, like vacuum cleaners. Or more butts.
I am walking down Rue Oberkampf. I am picking up a lot of vocabulary just by walking around. Chaussures pops up everywhere. Soldes. But there is one store with a big sign that says “TAMPONS.” I was told by one of my Frenchy coworkers that although this means like rubber stamp, its alternate meaning is synonymous with the English word, but you’re supposed to append “hygienique” to that or else you might end up with a rubber stamp in your vagina.
Yesterday morning, I went to Pere Lachaise. This is a popular cemetery where some famous people are buried, like Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. I don’t really care about looking at anyone’s grave, but I’ve never been in a French cemetery and I have noticed that most of the graves were actually sepulchers, so it gave me proper context for when I play video games and end up duking it out with skeletons in said edifices, possibly the nerdiest reason for visiting a cemetery.
There was a large memorial for victims of Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. Someone had left a stone shaped like a heart that had the words “Ich vermisse Dich” carved into it, along with a really heartfelt letter from a daughter to her deceased father. Reading it, even in this public forum, I felt I was invading someone’s privacy. I would place the girl at age 15 or 16 and she was describing recent events in her life to him with a tinge of sadness that he wouldn’t be able to see it. Which I think is a common regret that young people express when they lose a family member. They won’t be there to see the milestones. I imagine each time you celebrate something major in your life, you end up taking a moment to think, “What if they were here with me? Would I make them proud?”
I don’t know what happened, but I somehow inadvertently ended up taking the stone with me, not thinking. I considered returning and putting it back. But I had this weird utilitarian debate in my head and I decided as long as the stone ended up with someone else who needed it, it wouldn’t make me a bad person.
On my way back, on Gambetta, a random man, who if I had to guess, was somewhere between 25 and 35, stopped me very suddenly and asked where I was going. I said in English, “To my flat?” and he said, “Wrong answer. You’re having dinner with me. You’re beautiful.” I said I was flattered but no. He asked, “Why? Do you have a boyfriend?” I said, “I don’t know what he is, but he’s a… something” The guy asked, “What is a ‘something’?” And it was a really weird question that I couldn’t figure out if it was highly philosophical or just a language barrier and so I stood there with a lot of deliberation, sort of pleased with myself that I was standing in Paris having this kind of conversation with a complete stranger, and finally settling simply on a ‘something’ being an elusive person who takes your breath away by their very nature of being an indecipherable puzzle. I can’t remember the exact words I said, but his response was 90% smile, and 10% him saying, “That is touching” before moving along.
I felt weird having someone tell me I am beautiful. I look at myself in the mirror and wonder what people see of me when they see me on the street. Because I am often so lost in my own head and I know I am playing out all sorts of things as I walk, my face making expressions in reaction to my thoughts. I imagine I must look silly. No one has known me as long as I know me. In the mirror, I see the 14-year-old who set fire to her diary in the woods one summer when all she wanted was to have a secret for the first time. I see the 19-year-old who stood atop Springer Mountain with hundreds of miles to hike ahead of her. I see every scar, every bruise, every scratch and imperfection… but mostly I just see a woman with a history. A work in progress. Wondering if there is any truth in this life to the idea that imperfection in itself is beauty. And that beauty maybe is not covering up every time someone sees your wounds.
In the elevator up to the flat, the intercom voice is like a mouth full of marbles when she speaks. She says “etage” and that means “floor.” When I get in, she says “levante” to indicate that it is going up. When it gets to the top, it sounds like she is either saying “en passant” (literally “in passsing”) or “vers le bas” (“down”). It sounds closer to the former though even though that makes less sense to me to say those exact words.
There is a big mural on a building that has dancing skeletons in a heart. It says “C’est nous les gars d’menilmontant!” (We’re the guys of Menilmontant). I don’t really know who Menilmontant is right now. At night, there are drums in the street. The neighborhood sits on a very large hill and when you get up and look down it, you see nothing. I lose track of time here so easily. There’s no air of “touristy” in this neighborhood and yet its so alive and I wonder when I’m breathing in its air, if the air I’m breathing back out is good enough.