Thursday, December 25, 2008

Growing Old in Paris

Some thoughts bear repeating.

I mentioned to my family this Christmas that although I am delighted to be back in the U.S., I ultimately want to spend my dotage in Paris. Yup. It's a long way off (hey, in my mind I'm still quite the spring chicken), but now's the time to plan! When and if I have to grow old, for umpteen thousand reasons I'd prefer to do it in Paris. And preferably sooner rather than later. (The Paris part, not the aging part.) Hmm. More reflections on that reasoning for a later post. Meanwhile, it reminded me of something I wrote this time last year, which I offer here, slightly edited, for cheap regifting appeal. 'Tis the season.

Excusez-Moi, Madame

This has now happened to me three times in the past year. I'm striding down the sidewalk, high-heel boots clicking confidently as I bob and weave through the tangle of pedestrians. I'm concentrating on my next destination -- métro, bus stop, café, or wherever. Then, from nowhere a sweet, quavering voice calls out, "Excusez-moi, madame." I slow down and turn to see a diminutive dame d'un certain age, elegant wool coat buttoned against the cold, silk scarf neatly knotted, gripping the knob of her cane as she inches in baby steps toward the curb. "Est-ce que je pourrais vous demander de me rendre un service et de m'accompagner à traverser la rue?" she asks. ["Can you help me cross the street?"]

Each time this happens, I positively melt. MELT! I'm not quite sure why. First off, I'm honored that from a quick glance she has deemed me trustworthy enough to ferry her across a treacherous passage. The high curbs, you know; and the cobblestones are so uneven and the traffic so aggressive. I'm also pleased that she addresses me in French. And finally, of course, I do sincerely like to help; and this has never happened to me in the States.

I offer my elbow, and we begin five minutes of exchanging pleasantries. "Oui, oui," I nod, "it's not so easy crossing the streets these days. Oui, je comprends. Non non, madame, cela ne me dérange pas du tout -- it's my pleasure." We wait for the walk light to change as she clutches the crook of my arm; then we inch slowly across while she looks up at me, chatting in genteel appreciation. As we reach the safety of the next curb, she offers her most winning smile and heartfelt merci. Then our mutual au revoir et bonne journée, and we part company. I pick up the pace and continue on my route, this time with more of a spring in my step.

Every time this scenario happens, I get a lump in my throat.


Perhaps because I have an 85-year-old mother. Perhaps because I recognize my own future.

I deeply hope that some day, thirty-plus years from now, I'll be tottering down the streets of Paris, coat buttoned against the winter winds, hesitantly approaching a curb and eyeing the passersby to nab a younger woman whom I can stop and ask,

"Excusez moi, madame, est-ce que je pourrais vous demander de me rendre un service et de m'aider a traverser la rue?"

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Joyeux Noel 2008

This is a vintage card from the 30s or 40s that I found at the Marché aux Puces de Vanves. At first glance there appeared to be no inscription inside. But when I unfolded the card, in the interior was a lengthy love letter penned by a forlorn Frenchman to his future bride. So sweet.

I hope this Christmas, wherever you are in the world -- whether you have the gleaming snow or not -- brings as much cheer as that little bird and as much warmth as the yellow light shining from the cottage.

Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année, y'all!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm...

...After they've seen Paree?"

It's a song that rings through my head daily.

Here's my version of the farm, where I am living in Virginia.

And the view..

And the neighbor, my new best friend.
It's hard for me to imagine that three short weeks ago I was an urban dweller, a resident of Paris. I am now surrounded by hawks and fields and rolling hills; Paris is a world away.
At the same time, it's hard for me to believe that I am not still in Paris. I meet other Americans here who have lived in France. We talk of the urge, the need to return. Or some who claim that "you can't go home again."

Home meaning Paris.

I'll keep writing about Paris and France and the French connection as I settle into my new life (when current spotty Internet connections permit..) I've realized that Paris is in my bones, no matter where on earth I am.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Etat des lieux

Etat des lieux.

The very phrase strikes fear in the heart of those who rent apartments in Paris.

"The state of the place." It is the official walk-through of the apartment chronicled in a boilerplate tri-fold document which will ultimately decide, when you exit your apartment, whether your caution [security deposit] is refunded in full, in part, or not at all. There is 1) the état des lieux d'entree and 2) the état des lieux du depart, and if there is any difference between Thing One and Thing Two, you might be out a euro or two -- or thousand.

For my moving-in état des lieux three years ago I was all Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, so thrilled to have my dream apartment that I hadn't wanted to fuss about minor paint issues or sticking doors. The very next day a seasoned Paris expat reacted in complete horror when I told her how trusting I'd been in the walk-through with the landlady and the management company.

"Oh My God," she'd said. "You should have checked every prise [electrical outlet] to make sure they work, checked every tiny little detail and written it down on the damned document. Otherwise, when you move out they'll blame it all on you. Trust me. I've done it a dozen times."

Oh, great. Typical Polly naiveté. So ever since I'd been living with this dread, this sword of Damocles over my head: that I had been a trusting fool to have been so agreeable and say the apartment was mostly in fine shape when I moved in. The Seasoned Expat had told me tragic tales of woe about persnickety, tightwad apartment-owners who withheld the lion's share of the deposit due to trivial blemishes that most of us would consider normal wear and tear.

As my état des lieux du depart approached, I tried to reassure myself that I'd been a model tenant for 2-1/2 years. Nevertheless, I was scared spitless. I had made only three nail holes in the entire apartment, having mostly hung large-format posters with scotch tape. I had improved much of the apartment, polished all the brass fixtures. I had covered the parquet floors with rugs.

But, paranoid to the hilt, prior to the final état des lieux I had nightmares akin to Tom Hanks' antics in The Money Pit. In my bad dreams, my feeble attempts to patch plaster pin-holes resulted instead in gaping three-foot holes between the studs, with the landlady peering at me from the other side.

In preparation for filling my three minuscule nail-holes, I had gone to the trusty neighborhood bricolage/quincaillerie to fetch an equivalent to Spackle. Ah, Spackle: another brand-name product for which I didn't know the proper word in French. "Bonjour, Monsieur. I need the product for filling in nail holes before un état des lieux," I asked, hoping for his complicity and understanding of my predicament. I was not disappointed.
"Oh, vous voulez de l'enduit," he said, pointing to a 5€ tube of white stuff.

Hurrah. I learned yet another French household term just prior to the moment where I wouldn't ever need it again. Of course, my friends had recommended using tried-and-true toothpaste to fill plaster holes. But I happened to possess only a tube of inappropriately bubble-gum pink Irish toothpaste, which wouldn't do. I came home and applied the enduit, with only three hours to spare before the troops arrived for inspection.

The real estate guy showed up first. Then my landlady arrived. With a hint of forced cheeriness in my voice, I greeted them in the echoing apartment, and realized that -- heh, heh -- it was dark outside and there were only a few overhead lights.

We chatted amiably, took a spin around the apartment. The real estate man asked, "Do you have anything to point out?" "Non, rien," I replied in all honesty, "though you might want to fix the shower before the new tenant moves in next week."
They looked around, smiled, and said, "You have really maintained this apartment so well. It's been such a pleasure to have you here and we're so sorry to see you go." I nearly fainted.
Without blinking, my landlady wrote me a check for the full caution, and added, "I may owe you more; let me know. " Something to do with extra rent from moving in late and leaving early. We both signed the tri-fold déclaration d'état des lieux, and she laughed, "How lucky we are that it's so simple in France. When I lived in Belgium, the état des lieux form was a 20-page tome and the landlord inspected every square centimeter with a magnifying glass! It was awful!"

We laughed again and said au revoir; and for the first time since I'd known her, we exchanged bisous.
"And keep in touch when you come back to Paris," she said. She really meant it.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Jewelry Heist of the Century in Paris

Definitely naughty, not at all nice.

Some thieves did some early holiday shop(lift)ing in Paris on Thursday.

To the tune of $100 million.

Dressed as women, the jewel-hungry villains robbed the Harry Winston boutique on avenue Montaigne at gunpoint in "the Heist of the Century," snatching diamonds, watches, and other jewelry.

Pere Noel will be depositing a lump of unrefined coal in their stockings this year. If he can find them, of course.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Walking around Paris, I never lack for visual surprises. Some -- most -- are splendid and architectural.

Others are subtle and enigmatic. For example, this pair of trousers splayed in the middle of the sidewalk off avenue Daumesnil in the 12th. They seem to be rather successfully running away from their owner.

A few days later, I spied the foot-weary partners, perhaps. They'd made it as far as boulevard Montparnasse.

Let me know if you find the rest of the outfit.

Monday, December 01, 2008


It is after midnight.

I am riding home in a taxi from a farewell dinner. "Brrr. Il fait froid," says the driver. "Moins 2"

We make pleasant chit-chat and I note with irony that just as I'm leaving Paris I'm beginning to recognize the Celsius temperature readings without a mad mental scramble to do the math.

The car slides silently along the quai, past the Statue of Liberty on Ile de la Cygne, past the high-rise apartments across the Seine in the 15th. "How can I ever replace this?" I wonder. Even the mundane modern buildings take on importance. Suddenly the Eiffel Tower surges into sight; its brilliant blue lighting is breathtaking. For a brief moment I consider asking the driver to stop so I can take a photo, but it's too cold, I'm too tired, and I would have no way to upload it when I get home, because there is nothing left in the apartment.

Well, nothing but seven suitcases and a bed.

Entering the apartment, I feel like Audrey Hepburn's character in Charade, opening the door of her Parisian apartment to find it stripped bare. Mine lacks the gilt and the Givenchy of the Hollywood scenario; but the emptiness of a tall-ceilinged Parisian apartment is dramatic. In addition to the echoing from the parquet to the moldings, there is the stark blackness: I have no more lamps.

In the kitchen, one of two rooms with recessed ceiling lights, I sit at my improvised desk -- the rejected ironing board lowered to 3-feet tall -- and sit on a tiny metal sidetable, also a tag-sale reject.

Is this any way to spend the last night at my home in Paris?

It's odd. In every other house I've lived in I've felt a deep sense of sadness leaving the actual dwelling. Although I adore this apartment, I'm not emotionally attached to it. The sense of place and home, and the angst at leaving, is more about this big engulfing city.
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