The girl next to me on the metro is coughing and blowing her nose in my direction. I can’t move away, and I am certain it is a deliberate attempt to infect me with her plague. I am trying to hold my breath, but there are 5 stops left, and I am afraid I may lose consciousness before I can escape. If this happens, please check the cars on line 12 and call 112 before 11pm. It’s getting dark now. I must go.
Oh good. Weekend plans.
Sunday mornings in Paris are peaceful. The streets are quiet, without the hustle and crowds of the day before. The cars are tucked back in their garages, the weekend revelers home at last, and the few shops that open for the day are yet closed until after noon, so even the buildings themselves still sleep, their gates pulled snugly down to mask their windows. Only the occasional tourists can be seen getting an early start, walking tentatively, a look mixed of awe and bewilderment belying them. These quiet Sunday mornings have an unexpected way of gently filling and renewing the spirit. Like a glass overflowing, the cloudy waters of the week before are pushed out as fresh pours in, clear and ready for the week ahead. The slight breeze washes over you, the silence soothes you. A deep breath, and the peace of Sunday morning fills the soul.
When you move to Paris, your friends and family will tell you what an incredible experience this will be, how you’ll learn so much, that you’ll carry these memories with you for the rest of your life. And they’re right. But what you’ll also carry with you for the rest of your life is an army of new germs that you’ll spend the next several months, and likely years, battling to little avail. Little, that is, but a few new stories and a few new antibodies, if you’re lucky.
So here I find myself sick for the third time in my short tenure in Paris. In July no less, a fact I find highly undignifying, particularly for someone who prior to this year had not so much as sneezed in a decade, and I blame it on the Parisian Spring, which has technically ended but continues to cling on like a kitten to a t-shirt. Or so I’m told. But no matter, I have food in the fridge, pharmaceutical aid in the cabinet, and friends who’ll force me to the doctor if needed. So go on then, Monsieur Le Rhume. Let’s get this over with.
A few related tips for all those pondering a future move to France:
- Find the nearest pharmacy immediately upon arrival. Buy a box of Actifed.
- Ask that pharmacy which doctor’s office they recommend. Google map it immediately.
- Find a grocery store and immediately stock your pantry. Keep at least a spare bag of ramen on hands at all times. Do not eat that ramen. It is for medical emergencies only.
- Find a friend. Ask them if they mind 3 am phone calls. Please note to your new friend that these phone calls are not for fun.
- Please note that the French version of 911 for medical emergencies is 15. They do not speak English. If you want the English-speaking version, be sure to have your medical emergency before 11 pm.
- Oscillococcinum will not make your cold go away faster. But it will make you happier.
- Old episodes of Quantum Leap will also make you happier. They can be found on hulu.com without a subscription.
So there you have it. Seven suggestions for a somewhat literal survival in France. Now where’s my Actifed? The ramen’s ready and Quantum Leap is about to begin.
There’s a lovely street nearby, situated in the shadow of a lovely old porte. A triumphal arch, built for the glory of King Louis XIV. There are many lovely things hidden in its shadows. And many less lovely things. With such majesty before you, it is easy to mistake the district for something quite royal.
But first impressions can be somewhat deceiving.
I’m often here for work. So are many other women. Our professions are… somewhat different. Those women dress up a bit more than I do, with thicker make-up, higher heels, and shorter skirts. They line the doorways along the rue, pursing their lips in a lure, ready to reel in their next client.
Me, I work for a leasing company which happens to have an apartment here, just a block off this marauding street. It is here that I had an appointment yesterday evening, to check a new tenant into his new home. I passed the ladies in their doorways along my walk, then entered the apartment and set about preparing for the check-in. I turned on the lights, set out a welcome basket, organized the check-in paperwork. And then I went down to the street to wait for the tenant. He was running a bit late, and I was a bit reluctant to leave the entrance for fear I might miss his arrival. So I waited, there in the doorway.
Not three minutes had passed when I saw a young man with sandy hair crossing the street. He seemed to be looking for something, and he was carrying a large pack like a suitcase. He glanced around nervously, and as he crossed, he looked in my direction, then turned on a heel and headed my way. “Ah,” I thought. “Here must be our tenant.” I smiled inquisitively as he approached, wondering if this was indeed the right man, ready to greet him and help him with his bag if so. I listened as he opened his mouth to introduce himself. And instead I heard…
I… I’m sorry… I must have heard that wrong… “Comment?”
And again, “combien?”
Okay, I heard that right. But… how much?? That doesn’t make sense…
Shocked into near speechlessness, I shook my head and stuttered, “Non, non non, monsieur, non, certainement non. Non, non.” One more “no” for good measure, and that should do it. Surely that must set him straight. Clearly he is mistaken. I’m covered head to toe in nice, warm clothes and a long coat. No heels, no red lips, no short skirt and tights. He’ll realize I’m obviously not who he thought, and he’ll apologize and go along his way. I wait to hear the words…
You have got to be kidding me. Too early??? Too early?! Too never, monsieur! So much for his dawning of reason and embarrassed apology. And on that note, time to go. For both of us. I chose to wait the rest of the time for the tenant from behind the building’s closed doorway. He’d knock.
And so I learned a few new lessons last night. First, wait not in doorways around the Rue St. Denis, lest ye be asked “how much”. And for those who do wait, a different lesson: flat shoes and jeans, a high-necked sweater and a long coat will apparently do the trick. You ladies can be warmer in those doorways.
I was also reminded that identities may be easily mistaken, especially in the shadier places where lines of normalcy are blurred. And so I find too that perhaps I’m not so different in so many ways from the women of Rue St. Denis. I’ll keep that thought in mind the next time I pass them in their doorways. It seems my life converges at times with a world I never expected it would. Such is life in the City of Lights. And in its shadows.
Winter is damp and cold in Paris, and lingering, as though it seeks through sheer will to last the whole year round. It shuffles us from one warm, dry spot to the next, without time ourselves to linger for the small pleasures of a walk in the park, a café on a terrace, or a sunset by the water. Tonight spring regained a bit of ground. It was warm out, and the clouds had cleared from our morning rain. And so I took a moment for one of those rare pleasures, and walked down to the Seine, to watch the sun melt into the river. Others gathered there too, a middle-aged tourist with her maps, a father and his two daughters, and many others who came for a quick photo and then walked on. I stayed until the sun disappeared, and left a rose-colored glow on the water below.
There are a lot of refugees here. They line up to apply for asylum outside the building where I go for my visa renewal appointments. They look dirty and desolate… yet hopeful.
I wonder what most-prized possessions they brought with them on their journey here. A water bottle? A cooking pot? A diploma from their home country’s university? What they chose speaks to stories of a life that has endured far more than I ever will in my expat experience. Their stories are valuable.
In these captivating photos by Brian Sokol, you can see what they found valuable. Click the link below.
Quite possibly my favorite words in the French language.