My Very Frahnce Trip To France, 1998
In 1998 I was 29, and living in New York, and wanted more than anything in the world to go to Paris. As luck would have it, my friend Natasha called me up one day. Natasha was slightly older than me and very chic. She was working at a guide book company and had to review some hotels and restaurants in Paris. Did I want to go there with her for five days? I’d have to buy my airline ticket, but much of the rest of it would be free. I bought a ticket as soon as we hung up.
France started working its charms on me before I even got there. It was so admirable how most of the people on board our JFK-CDG red-eye refused to smile automatically when our eyes met. So many unfamiliar perfumes mingling in the darkness! Daylight bloomed in an instant, and suddenly there were croissants everywhere, bobbing past at eye level.
We took the RER into the city. “AHR-EE-AHR,” I said, practicing an accent. “EHR-EU-EHR,” Natasha, who had lived in Paris for a few years, corrected me. “EHR-EU-EHR,” I repeated for the whole 34 minute ride to the Gare du Nord, which was marvelous, and the ten minute walk to our hotel, a dump that I liked for being in France. The walls were the color of Grey Poupon and so was the muslin bedspread on the lumpy bed, which I eyed with drowsy interest. Paris would still be there after a delightful nap. But Natasha, who I in some ways knew well and in others not at all, turned out to be no dawdler, no taker of naps. We took turns in the tiny shower with our tiny cake of soap and were back on the street within 30 minutes.
At the Louvre we fulfilled our tourist obligation by seeing the Mona Lisa. Luckily it was the 90s, so we were able to get close. We saw the Renoirs and the Rubens and the Caravaggios and dutifully took in the Pyramid. “Being a famous architect doesn’t look very hard,” I said, and Natasha snorted.
We had lunch at L’As du Falafel then we shopped on the Rue Vieille du Temple, where I bought a green sequined bag with quilted satin straps. I wanted to go back to the hotel and sink into the glorious embrace of an afternoon nap while staring at my new bag. “We have to go to the Picasso Museum,” Natasha said, as if this were a law. We went, I remember nothing.
All that desire to sleep disappeared the moment it was permitted. I remember being truly amazed that jet lag was a real thing, and not just something glamorous people complained about to make people less jealous of them. I slept a few hours and awoke to another ambitious agenda. We walked to Montmartre and then to the Marais where I had coffee in a bowl and don’t mind telling you that night I wrote in my journal, “Today I finally had coffee in a bowl.”
We shopped more, everywhere. At times it seemed every rack in every store held only ugly polyester scarves, gritty to the touch. “These are very FRANCE.” Natasha said the word with an hard A, like “can’t,” or “lamp,” but more exaggerated. Later, in nicer stores, where the scarves were softer, lighter, and ten times as expensive, she said with a soft a, as in “arm,” or “father,” “These are very FRAHNCE.”
We developed a theory of France/Frahnce that was to take up most of the discourse of our trip. This is probably all not right but we decided: Going to the Louvre was FRANCE, going to the Promenade Plantée was FRAHNCE but the prix fixe special at the bistro on the Promenade Plantée was FRANCE, the cafes in the Marais were FRAHNCE. Bon Marche was FRAHNCE, Printemps was France, or was it the other way around, and, similarly, the 20-something guy on the Metro wearing a Lacoste hat, Lacoste shirt, Lacoste shoes, Lacoste glasses, FRANCE or FRAHNCE? We could not decide!
Our first hotel was France, and the hotel we moved to for the next few nights, fancy but overdone, too much chintz, too many flowers, and voluptuous window treatments was, according to Natasha, “France trying to be Frahnce.” The receptionist with the maroon hair and matching maroon scalp who hated us on sight was just French.
I had been fighting exhaustion with lots of coffee and cold white wine, not sleeping well, and after lunch on day three we were walking to see some very Frahnce modern artist at the Pompidou Center (both France and Frahnce) when I hit a wall. “I have to go back to the hotel,” I said. “Just keep going,” said Natasha, “Otherwise you’ll fall asleep.”
“I am asleep,” I said. “You just can’t tell because I’m standing up.”
She was annoyed that I was tired and reminded me that we were having dinner that night with her friends from college, who I knew, because we had gone to the same college.
“Everyone I have ever met from your group of friends is a nerd,” I said testily, “They’re all like “I’m going to do well by doing good.”
“I’m sorry all my friends aren’t gay alcoholics,” she sniffed.
“You should be,” I said. I did not get my nap. We called on some French friend of hers who had the neatest, sparest closet I’ve ever seen, and I memorized it while they spoke to each other in French, a formative experience. Then it was onto dinner with the college friends. As Natasha punched the code into the pad next to a heavy door painted a glossy French blue she said, “Try to be polite.”
Her friends from college were exactly as I had remembered. The hosts were an American couple wrestling with the deep existential dilemma of where they should go for their MBAs; their concurrent drama centered around whether they should move back to the East Coast or stay in Paris. Everyone was willing to engage on this subject at great length, and I slipped away for a polite snoop.
On their refrigerator was a list of pros and cons that I thought must be a joke but was, in fact, absolutely serious. Pros included “amazing fresh produce,” “chance to really take time to make wonderful meals together and with dear friends,” “living in a country where art and theater are valued.” Cons were about missing friends and family, in particular a grandparent who went by “Mim-Mim” or “Plinky” or similar and who was, one gathered, not long for this world.
I had drunk quite a lot of white wine by the time I saw the pro and con list. Moreover, everyone at the party knew each other and spoke French. It was for this reason that I took it upon myself to make up a fake list of pros and cons and pin it up on the refrigerator next to the real one.
- Can hang out with Pepé Le Pew whenever we want.
- Can walk down the street wearing a beret with a baguette hanging out of a bag w/o feeling conspicuous.
- Might see Charlotte Gainsbourg at Monoprix someday.
- Everyone speaking weird language def not English: WHAT IS GOING ON?
“Bad behavior,” Natasha said to me on the way out.
“Are you sure you want to go to sleep now?” I said. “We did forty thousand things today, why not do ten thousand more, maybe Pepé Le Pew is up for a nightcap!”
On our very last night we were staying at the Ritz. It’s been redecorated since and I haven’t seen the new Ritz and almost certainly never will. But at this time, twenty years ago, it was like the frosted top of a supermarket birthday cake, pink, blue and green pastel, ornate, too sweet but still tasty, because, in our case, it was free. Natasha went to meet with expat guidebook writers and I went straight to the Ritz’s famous pool, which was empty. I swam back and forth speaking French into the surface of the heated blue water: RER, La Défense, Invalides, Abbesses, Luc Besson, Francois Mitterand.
Natasha had one last piece of official business in Paris, and this was to go to Versailles, the dull suburb, not the palace, to see some English writer who was writing up several sections of the upcoming guidebook. “You don’t have to come with me,” Natasha said.
“I promise I’ll be good,” I said. I really wanted to see a Parisian suburb, and the inside of a Parisian suburban home.
“You’ll probably just be bored,” she said. But I managed to convince her to bring me.
The English writer — Nigel? Winston? Stanley? — lived in a lifeless, symmetrical subdivision of off-white, brown-trimmed attached condos (or so I recall). His wife answered the door. She was French, in her 30s, pale and plain, with poorly cut brown hair, a thinner, more feminine version of Martin Luther. He was English and in his 40s, round and frumpy in a white sweater and dull brown pants, a bit like a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a sugar cone, after it gets a bit wet and sagging. He talked endlessly about wine. I managed to seem interested, because I sort of was, not in him, but in the information. The information wasn’t bad. Natasha almost dozed off. “Thank god you came,” she muttered when he went off to open up more bottles of the only thing in the world he had ever noticed other than himself. “This is the worst.”
He talked for hours, pouring, talking, pouring, talking. Natasha probably drank half a glass from each bottle, I probably had one, and he had the rest. His wife nursed the same glass of white and kept excusing herself to take care of a child, quite offstage. He lectured us about how tacky the Ritz was, how silly we were for staying there. “It’s for free,” Natasha said. “For my job.” He ignored her. His wife served us supermarket croquettes with a white, pea-studded filling and a salad before vanishing into thin air. He drank more and more, and Natasha tried to nail him down on deadlines. “Could you manage January?” she ventured. It was May.
“You know,” he responded, “I’d really like to fuck you.”
Attractive as she was Natasha had truly plastic features, a slightly drooping right eye and a wide, expressive mouth. Plus she was pretty drunk. She did not respond to him but instead looked at me and made a very funny face. I laughed out loud.
“I know why you came here,” the Englishman pointed at Natasha. “We’ve had a real connection.”
“I’m married,” said Natasha. “Also, no.”
With great effort the writer rotated his egg-like torso in my direction. “Well, you then!” he said. “You’re not married.”
I looked around for available exits but also assessed: how big was this guy? (Not very.) How shitfaced? (Very.)
At this point he stood up and lunged in our general direction. This might sound scary, but it wasn’t at all. He lost his balance and toppled over on to his side just as his wife appeared in the doorway with a tray of cookies. She took one look at the situation, turned around and went back in the kitchen.
The writer proceeded to chase us around the dining room, still on his knees. With little difficulty we escaped to the living room.
“We have to get out of here,” I said. “I mean, the worst thing that’s going to happen is I will be forced to kick him in the face, but I’d rather not, so we need to go.”
“But I don’t even know where we are,” Natasha said. We didn’t have phones. The train station was miles from here.
We agreed we needed to leave and then worry about what would happen next.
The door was locked, and required a key to exit. Somewhere, a toilet flushed. We just stood there, staring at the door.
Then we heard steps. It was the wife, no less and no more grim than usual, holding a keyring. She said something to Natasha in French and let us out.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“She said “Go left and walk to the top of this road. Then go left again, and you’ll see a bigger road. You’ll have to get a cab. One will go by soon.”
The neighborhood was dark and dead silent, the dwellings more symmetrical looking than ever. The wife had not made a wise choice in her mate but she did give good directions. Soon we were settled into the seat of a cab, watching Paris come towards us.
“Was that France or Frahnce?” I asked.
“Frahnce,” Natasha said.
A few months later my closest friend from high school moved to Paris and I went to visit. Her apartment was in the 11th Arrondissement. I was there for ten days and barely left the area. We did go to Père Lachaise cemetery because it was free and down the street, but I saw no other sights. We went to the same restaurant, one block away, four times. I discovered that this, for better or worse, is what I like to do when I go anywhere. All the running around just proves that you don’t live in a place, that you don’t belong there, that you have to gobble it all up in case you never get back, and that’s just depressing. I like to go to a place and just pretend like I live there, and that anything I don’t see I will eventually get to, because there is all the time in the world.