City of Darkness
A week ago, Max and I were walking home from his school along the Seine, crossing the picturesque Pont d'Alma, when a woman in front of us bent down and picked up a gleaming gold ring. Now Max happens to be on the constant lookout for golden things, motivated by an interest in ancient Egypt and affection for things relating to pirates, not to mention pure and simple greed. Having heard that my great-grandfather found no fewer than four diamond rings in his life (the stones were all set in one ring that he had made for my great-grandmother) Max is determined to beat the family record, and as a result is always walking with his head in the gutter, and driving us nuts by picking up any gleaming piece of trash--usually bottle caps or rusty hardware, tucked between dog droppings.
So when this young woman picked up a golden ring and held it out at his level, saying in accented French, "Someone dropped this and it doesn't fit me. Do you want it? Jour de chance!" it was clear that he did indeed think it was his lucky day. I was tired, burdened by bags, and confused. Was she really offering my son this ring she'd somehow found? Why? Was there any reason I should say no? I shrugged and reached out for it, at which point she asked for a few euros to buy a cup of coffee. Quickly realizing that I'd been had, I took the path of least resistance, offered her a 2 euro coin, at which point she got angry and told me that the ring was worth way more than that, yelling at me before storming off. Max wasn't exactly clear on what had just happened, and neither was I, but he no longer wanted the ring. "Maybe it has a curse," he said, echoing my exact thoughts.
The ring sat heavy in my pocket, and at home I did a quick Google search on "gypsy ring scam Paris," finding out that this is apparently a method of scamming tourists that's as old as time, and always follows the script spelled out above. The handing over of the ring is some kind of defense-weakening, trust-building exercise. It worked like a charm on me, which is why I was left feeling so irritated. I didn't care about the 2 euros, but about having been pegged for a gullible tourist before acting the part. As a matter of pride, I want to fit in! I don't want to be the obvious, bright eyed and bushy tailed American, the fool in Paris.
The last time I was an expat, I was living in Japan—the first year in a nuclear power plant town, and the second in the small provincial city of Kanazawa. I arrived speaking the barest minimum of Japanese, and immediately had to start a job for which I had almost no training and little aptitude. By contrast, living in Paris where I can keep doing my job remotely is expat-light. I feel like I have no right to complain about anything. I have my family here with me. I went to a Lycee as a kid where I learned to read in French before English. I lived in France for a year in high school, and I still speak enough French to communicate pretty much whatever needs to be said, if imperfectly. For instance, I managed to explain to the plumber who came over yesterday to see about our erratic water heater that we typically get about an inch of boiling water in the tub before the flame on the boiler sputters out. Our showers go from scalding to icy so fast that I’ve come to understand the stereotype of the unwashed and malodorous Frenchman. Max used to take a bath every night, but here in Paris, once every three days seems more than enough.
One problem with living in a 17th century building is 17th century plumbing. Apparently it’s as hard for the water to travel up the pipes as it is for me to hike up five flights of stairs at the end of the day, lugging groceries, my traveling office (laptop and books) and the backpack of a six-year-old who likes to pick up rocks wherever we go and give them to me because, “They’re heavy in my pockets.” This morning, on the jam-packed Metro, I got dirty looks from people who clearly found the number of bags I was carrying to be an affront, as if I were taking up way more than the amount of space that my 1.60 euro ticket afforded me. I would take the glares personally, but they’re being shot in every direction. One man, who crammed into the train right before the doors squeezed shut, apparently pushed another man into a pole.
“Do you have a problem with me?” he asked.
“You almost impaled me,” the other man answered. The way they bickered, neither one caving or apologizing, made me glad the gun control laws are stricter here.
Apparently, more than a handful of Japanese tourists have come down with something called, “Paris Syndrome.” This is the official term (there's an article about it in a medical journal) for the depression, veering into psychosis, that has sneaked up on Japanese tourists who've found that the City of Lights didn’t quite live up to their preconceived illusions.
According to one article, there is an expectation among the Japanese that French people epitomize refinement, the women all chic, the food universally gourmet, that this city is somehow exempt from the grind of modern urban life. “Paris Syndrome” was actually named by the French psychiatrist who was called into one hotel room after another, to treat a string of Japanese tourists suffering from anxiety and agoraphobia, waiting while their embassy arranged return flights to Japan. One man apparently refused to set foot outside after becoming convinced that he was Louis IVX. He must have been appalled by the proliferation of KFC and “Macdo.” A picture on the Pizza Hut on our block shows a pizza with tiny hamburgers somehow baked into the crust.
If I had to characterize the Parisian character, grouchy comes to mind. Maybe it’s January, but everyone seems to have PMS. The plumber, trying to arrange his schedule on the phone with his office, got into a fight with a coworker. “No, I can’t come back tomorrow,” he said in a scathing tone. “I have plans with my wife. J’ai une vie, moi aussi.” I have a life, me too. Whenever I hear one of these fights, I get the feeling that I’m eavesdropping, which makes no sense given that the people are talking in the language that everyone here understands, and making no effort to be quiet. On the contrary, people seem to enjoy telling each other off in public. Again on the Metro the other day, I was absorbed in my novel when a man standing over me said in the haughtiest of tones, “Madame, vous pouvez vous lever?” Madame, will you get up please? Somehow, that “Madame” felt like the harshest word ever. There are folding seats in the standing compartments , and this one had been pretty empty when I got on the train, and I hadn't realized that it was getting crowded. By standing up, I probably created 3 more inches of space. Even after I did what he’d asked, the man glared at me like I was dog shit on his shoe.
That was the same look that Max got at the Musee d’Art et Metiers: a museum dedicated to the history of machinery, with a special exhibit on robots. Was I crazy to think that this sounded like something geared toward kids? “Non non non!” a guard barked at him when he pressed his nose to a glass display case. That guard didn’t even deign to look at me, as if he knew that I couldn’t control my hyper child on this rainy afternoon. Not that he was wrong. “Where’s the stuff we can touch?” Max asked. I was reminded of going to the home of a childhood friend whose mother had made an elaborate Victorian dollhouse with working electricity that we were forbidden to play with.
Yesterday was our second “Adventure Wednesday.” I woke up with a sore throat and a panicky awareness of how much work I had piled up that I couldn’t possibly get through in the 2.5 hours before I'd have to pick him up from school, and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to trying to figure out what to do on a cold and rainy afternoon. It’s been unbelievably dreary and cold for the past week, making me understand why people who know France well suggested that we get to Paris for the holidays, when at least the city is festively decorated, rather than at the start of January, when it’s just wet and dark all the time. But Max was excited—he’d been counting down to Wednesday afternoon since Monday morning—and since I couldn’t fathom bringing him back to the apartment that early in the day, I decided that we’d take a picnic lunch to the “berge d’hiver.”
The berge d’hiver is something that the three of us discovered on Saturday, on a walk that took us from our home to, "L’as de la falafel," in the Marais (where we had amazing falafel that definitely deserves the Lenny Kravitz seal of approval painted on the window) to the banks of the Seine, where we walked all the way to the American Library. The charming children’s librarian was holding a special “wizard and magic tricks” program that afternoon, which Max greatly enjoyed. On the way home, again walking by the Seine, we stopped to stare at a huge gray tent that seemed to be inflated rather than merely propped on the riverbank.
“Come in,” said a man at the door. “It’s free!” So we did, discovering a large communal space with heat lamps radiating warmth from the ceiling, a dozen ping pong tables, a stage area with twenty or thirty beanbag “poofs” laid out by a trunk of board games, and tables of free art supplies. There was also a coffee bar, and a long row of novels with a sign marking them as free.
After I got Max from school at noon yesterday, we walked the half hour back to the berge. I’d picked up baguette sandwiches and a “double-decker” éclair for Max—called a “religieuse,” to which he has developed a religious devotion.
“Can we eat lunch in here?” I asked the man outside the berge.
“I don’t see why not,” he said agreeably.
He also handed me a brochure about upcoming events at the berge: a free knitting class, and a “ping pong blacklight night for families,” this weekend. Later, when I suggested that we should go to this dorky but potentially fun event, Matt reflected that it’s a little weird to come to Paris and hang out in an inflatable gray tent. True. But it’s like this socialist utopia in there, a bubble in which people are exempt from the grouchy mood pervading the rest of Paris this January.
Max and I ended up hanging out there for a good two hours, cozy while the rain splattered the clear plastic sheeting overhead. I stretched out on the bean bags and even read a bizarre French translation of an American YA novel about demon possession, while he rolled around next to me and drew pictures of monsters, using the free art supplies. And as we whiled away the afternoon, I remembered why I like adventure Wednesdays. It’s nice to be forced to have a break in the middle of the week. There was nothing else I could be doing in the bubble of that tent. It had no wifi. I had no work with me. Time slowed down a little, and I forgot whatever I'd been feeling anxious about. And when we emerged from the berge, and I saw the Seine lapping at the riverbanks, the Musee d’Orsay to our right, the Louvre to our left, I couldn’t resist seizing Max by the shoulders and telling him how lucky we are to be here right now, even if it is the worst part of winter. The rain had eased up, the warmth of the berge lingered and we decided to walk home.
We were at the precipice of a bridge crossing the Seine when a squat woman with a long dark braid dropped a gold ring right in front of us.
"Non!" I barked harshly before she could begin her spiel. "Non non non!"
She looked sheepish, and let us proceed without interruption, and I felt better than I should about having snapped at her. I'd sounded positively French in my grouchiness!