In an old house in Paris - That was covered with vines - Lived twelve little girls - In two straight lines. They left the house at half-past nine - In two straight lines, rain or shine. The smallest one was Madeline | Ludwig Belemans, 1956
Without consciously knowing it, I've been dreaming of Paris since I was a little girl. Perhaps your mother read you bedtime stories about Madeline, too. It's a funny thing to discover a whole city lodged in one's subconscious and not even know it'd been thriving there since before you can remember. Venice is different because I sought it out quite consciously and lavished it with daydreams. The pictures I found in my mother's coffee table books and magazines weren't accompanied by sweet little stories for sleepy little girls. Paris on the other hand had been ingrained. And deeply so. Not only did my mother lull me to bed with fictional Paris, but from time to time she'd talk about her experiences and memories of visiting the city and traveling through Europe. In the end it wasn't quite the way I'd imagined it for Madeline or my mother, I suppose. But then, it wasn't all that different either. At some point, childhood fantasy and photographic reality meet to comprise a city that is just what you would expect it to be: Magnifique.
Haute Drame at SFO
When I went to check in at SFO the nice Air France clerk suddenly morphed into mysterieuse mode and excused herself with an "I'll be right back," before disappearing behind a large set of compound-caliber double doors. Ten to fifteen minutes later she emerged with a blank look on her face and I asked if there was anything the matter. "No, there's nothing wrong. I had to photocopy your passport." Uh, come again? What legitimate reason would require that you need a copy of my passport? She mumbled something. What? She mumbled again. What? "You're on the FBI list." (!!!!!) What the fuck? Long story short, if one is a photographer who travels with any degree of frequency outside of the continental U.S. you're evidently automatically put on the/an FBI list. This is what a reliable source told me and I haven't done the follow-up footwork of my own to verify it as fact. I don't particularly see how or why my photo trips to Paris and the like would be of interest to the Feds or why a filed photocopy of my passport would come in handy, but there's a lot about my government's various rules, regulations, and policies that strike me as, well, odd. Anyway, Big Brother is watching. Now that I think about it, I've always had "special" treatment at customs in Europe where they require me to crack open my suitcase and any other bags in my possession to inspect absolutely everything. On the way home it's real cute when they even demand to see what's inside the bag that I assure them is just an uninteresting and dirty assembly of socks and underwear. Nice.
Captive at CDG
I couldn't have been happier when the plane finally landed at Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris. It was a long, direct flight from San Francisco and I was more than ready for it to be over. It was clear that my fellow passengers shared my enthusiasm for the end of our journey and couldn't wait to get the hell off the plane, too. Seatbelts were unbuckled and a cramped combination of milling and scrambling to collect carry-on bags began even before we parked at the gate. Stupid, anxious us. There was some kind of "probleme" that kept everyone on the aircraft without the flow of chilled, recycled air for 45 uncomfortable and excruciatingly molasses-like minutes. Five minutes more and there would have been a riot. I say this sincerely because I'm relatively sure I would have been the one who started said display of onboard civil disobedience.
This little tidbit is nearly just as I typed it from an Internet café to my friends and family back home. I've preserved this long paragraph in its original form because there is no better way to enjoy a startling side story that arises in said Internet café. Enjoy.
Senegalese men really think I'm hot. Apparently. (Apparently this segment of the male population is in dire need of some serious corrective lens disbursement—asap.) While I might have considered going out for a drink or even to dinner with a particular Senegalese gentleman that I met on this trip to Paris, the desire instantly disappeared the instant he pulled me close to him, mere minutes into a seemingly harmless and quite normal getting-to-know-you conversation (Where are you from? I am from Senegal. Oh, I thought you were from Mexique or Morocco, perhaps.) I suddenly found myself in a position far too similar to a chokehold with my head to his chest and him petting—yes, petting—my hair. Under other circumstances I would quite enjoy a fine-ass man stoking my hair, but in this instance it was definitely petting and was absolutely unwelcome. I halfway struggled to get away, but decided that it couldn't last for another moment or two so I should just "go with the flow." (Oh wow, pause—a guy just sat down next to me and logged on to a hardcore porn site! I only looked over because of the mumbled moaning noises he's making as he types and looks at the page. Good fucking lord. It's 10:26AM and we're in a hugely public Internet café. Get a home computer and an ISP buddy). Sure enough the forced and awkward affection passed soon enough and then he had the nerve to ask me out. I decided he had to be semi crazy to behave in such a manner in front of his coworkers and all the clients (he worked in a different Internet café from the one I'm currently patronizing), so I opted for the "Oh I can't. I have a boyfriend back home and it wouldn't be right." story. My imaginary man usually comes in handy and successfully wards off all unwanted suitors, but it didn't seem to phase this guy. He wouldn't take no for an answer so I followed up with "Well, maybe. I'm here visiting friends for my birthday and I have to check with them first. They have made wall-to-wall plans for me and so I really can't say when I'll be free next." He accepted the maybe and rejected my simple goodbye with more forced affection—this time a very over-the-top, more-than-friends, far too long and loving kiss-kiss on each cheek (Euro-style). I'm not sure now what's worse. The porn palace I'm presently writing from or the petting zoo down the way. Dare I try a third time to find a decent G-rated Internet café in this city? Does one exist??
It's not that you should skip the Louvre. Not entirely anyway. The museum is just so massive that you should skip the majority of the galleries and just focus on one or two that you really want to see. I've only been to the Louvre once in three visits to Paris. I'm a huge fan of Ancient Egyptian art and so this was the collection that I focused on. And this alone wore me out in a single afternoon. I managed to squeeze in the Winged Victory of Samothrace and called it a day. Personally, I like my art overload in smaller doses and settings. This time around I chose to OD at the more intimate Musee d'Orsay. Like several other museums in Paris, the Musee d'Orsay and the Louvre are admission-free for tout-le-monde on the first Sunday of each month. I took advantage of this on my last visit and got to the museum first thing that Sunday. Getting there early before the crowds made all the difference. My friend and I got to roam around for free with many of the galleries all to ourselves. It was really nice. And because the d'Orsay isn't a behemoth like the Louvre, we were able to breeze through the entire museum in time for an early lunch. Parfait.
Fun with Fondue
In general, I love French food. I've never ventured to try escargot or some of the other fare that I'm quite convinced would require a sprint to the nearest toilette for an upchuck, but whatever. Southern French food is my personal favorite. But I'm generally always willing to try something new. One night with a Parisian buddy as my guide, I had some typical French food that was absolutely atypical to me—fondue. It's not the way I'd always thought of or known fondue, with warm bread and gooey cheese. It was this other thing (I've already forgotten the name) where you're delivered a platter of raw beef and another platter of yummy potatoes. You cook the meat yourself in a little pot of boiling oil. Quaint. Dangerous. Disgusting? The meat wasn't seasoned at all (quelle dommage) and instead you spiced it up by dipping your questionably cooked chunks of cattle in two unmarked sauces, which both looked to be mayonnaise-based (C'est ou les toilettes, s'il vous plait?). It wasn't half bad and I left happily stuffed, in the end. If I ever go back to a place like that I want to try yet another kind of fondue where you cook your meat not in oil but on a small hot slab of stone. Several other tables had chosen that method of culinary French flair, and it looked equally, adventurously, fantastique-ly fun.
The French Grill
I'd like to comment now on French dentistry and oral hygiene, or lack thereof. My friend and I had a waiter one afternoon whose grill rivaled that of the infamously gnarled and tea-stained choppers of the British. I was prepared to write it off as a freak occurrence, rather than make a sweepingly generalized assumption that this was a prime example of the standard French or perhaps specifically Parisian smile. But after two weeks of so many jacked smiles I began to wonder how much worse teeth in the UK really are, or if in fact that's just a myth that the French created to deflect attention away from their own dire need for twice yearly cleanings and a mouthful of orthodontia.
Email, Porn, and a Little Self-Gratification au Publique
I ventured back to the super cheap Internet café and although no one sat next to me looking at porn there was a guy in front of me looking at porn with his right hand and with his left... Unbelievable. And there was a girl at the end of his row who was totally oblivious. Suddenly the 2,50 Euro per 15 minute Internet café looked attractively affordable.
Rue de Rodents
There's a pharmacy off the Rue de Rivoli that has a huge window display of rats in old steel traps caught in Paris in the early 1900s. I laughed out loud in passing because not ten minutes before I saw a strikingly similar rat the size of a well-fed kitten strolling down the gutter. I guess they haven't set out too many of those traps for a while.
Prelude to the Paris Riots
On the way to drinking, after a movie, my friend and I had to walk through Les Halles, which is supposed to be a bit unsafe at night. We made our way through about 20 police officers swarming around to ask any and every Black, African, or Arab looking teenager for his or her papers. My friend said this is typical and of course, unfortunate. A couple of the officers were eyeballing me, but I just started speaking English louder with my White ami and we strode through without any trouble. Sigh.
Age Ain't Nothin' but a Number
When my American friend was in town she kept commenting on how youthfully dressed the geriatrics are here. I always seemed to be looking the other direction at a monument or something, and missed these freakish episodes of over 70 French fashion. But one day, finally, I came face to face (or back/ass to face, as it happened) with one of these hip older ladies. I was walking home (I fell in love with my hotel. It genuinely came to feel like home.) from the Place des Vosges and found myself admiring the shoes trotting along in front of me. They were what I like to call mini-stilettos—about one inch high as opposed to three or six—and they were to die for. Then I noticed the ultra chic jeans and began mumbling to myself in disgust at all the tiny figures here who sport overpriced denim. I gave the coif a look and thought that was pretty amazing too—professionally colored the most delightful multi-faceted blonde—and just when I was about to speed-pass this twentysomething fille, I noticed the hump. She had a hump in her back to rival Quasimodo's and it was really protruding quite unfortunately underneath her fancy white rabbit fur coat. I was so shocked that I almost tripped and catapulted myself into her bobbing hump. But thankfully I didn't because surely I would have taken her down with me and inevitably broken her 90-year-old hip! I raced ahead to get a glimpse of this lady's face and sure enough, to my utter shock and dismay, she looked to be days, perhaps hours, from a rapidly approaching death. I think the pope looked better his last few days than this woman did. Despite the layers of Lancôme, there was no hiding the fact that 80 was well over ten years ago for this grande dame. I thought about asking her to stop and pose for a picture, but couldn't think of a way to do it without laughing and inspiring her to beat me with her oversized Louis Vuitton handbag.
Black Like Me
In talking to my mother about my trip, I realized that I forgot to include one interesting aspect of the chokehold-petting story. The headlock took place right after I answered the question about my nationality and then my ethnicity/race. I should really give more consideration to just sticking with a claim on Hawaii as a place of origin, I guess. When I explained to the Senegalese Frenchie that my father was Black and my mother White it was at that precise moment that he went for the affectionate, if not affectionately scary, embrace (peppered with petting) as he mused, "Ahhh! You're Black like me!!" Yes, yes I am. Sort of. But after he released me and before I bolted for the door, we had a brief exchange about my father. "Where in Africa are his people from?" Uh, are you kidding me? Hello, slavery! I can't be any more specific than somewhere in West Africa. "But he does not know where his people are from??" he replies in utter shock and confusion. No, no. He does not know where his people are from, as is the case with the vast majority of Black Americans.
A Stroll in the Gutter
I really had to rely on my Berkeley jaywalking skills here. I don't recall this from past visits but in trailing my friend from bar to bar, much of the trek took place in the middle of the street it, seemed. Parisians walk in the road, in the gutter, and are constantly being missed (just) by speeding cars. It reminds me a bit of crossing streets in NYC but a pinch less life threatening, though it appears to be far more dangerous. Go figure.
La Tour Eiffel
Third visit and I still haven't made it up the tower. Not even half way. For some reason, it just never happens. And now I can't decide if it would be more interesting or somehow romantic if I never ventured up. You know? Or maybe I roll the dice and save that treat for some sad visit in my old age when I think I'm seeing Paris for my last time. That would be kinda cool, too. Or maybe I finally go up and the dashing man on my arm proposes to me when we get to the top! Okay. Now I'm just getting carried away. Leave it to Paris to get you dreaming up all of the most idyllic or ironic scenarios.
Vacating in France
It's fun listening to French people lament their short vacations of 25 to 27 days, respectively. "It's just not enough! I should find another job where the employers are more reasonable. My friend Jean-Claude has 32 paid days off." So the conversation went as I laughed. French people that I've met generally agree that although it might be fun to work in the States for a few years, they couldn't handle the inevitable lack of paid leave and so they stay in France, where life is more livable. Even with only 25 paid days off in a calendar year. C'est la vie, indeed!