October 11, 2007


Last weekend Xavier and I ran a race, from Paris (starting under the Eiffel Tower) to the Chateau de Versailles (which is 16 kilometers south-west of Paris). I’ve run in a few races in the past in the US of A, so I sort of have a sense of race/running culture. The mixture of French culture and race culture made for an amusing day. The smell of body odor was incredibly potent for the entire 16 kilometers. At the start, we were squashed together (21,000 people ran the race) under the Eiffel Tower and I think 20,900 of these people had refrained from bathing for the past few days. Pungent and sharp. Xavier’s comment: “Ca sent le poney ici.” (It smells like pony here!)

We got going and I comforted myself by thinking that within a few kilometers the pack would thin out. Unfortunately, there was a total lack of organization to begin with (which lasted and amplified itself at the end with a 30-minute wait time to cross the finish line…[these frenchies, they love lines – after running that hard, they had earned their right to stand in one!]).

To my consternation, the whole race proved to be a series of people pushing ahead, using their hands and saying ‘pardon,’ while wiping their sweaty hands, arms, and other random parts all over me. I kept feeling the impulse to say, “It’s not a race!” And then I kept reminding myself that it totally was.

There were neat things also – at the kilometer markers, there were a few stations with oranges, prunes, and sugar cubes. Yes. Prunes and sugar cubes. A nice French variation on the water stop. A strange and pleasing adaptation…but also whole water bottles, which, in a long race, is harebrained because people took two sips and then threw the bottle in the road. We were tripping over thousands of bottles, 3/4 full.

Xavier kept the whole thing comical though. There was a guy running next to us at some point who started repeatedly shouting ahead, “Allez Robert!” (Go Robert!) Then Xavier began exclaiming: “Allez Jacques!” “Allez Bruno!” “Allez Jean-Pierre!” Different names over and over again. His volume was the best part. He was roaring the names. The runners around us relished his little performance.

…So, otherwise, I’ve been reported by many to be homesick here in France. I’ve spent some time thinking about this and I’ve come up with a different explanation for my bouts of tenderness here: it comes down to a personality problem. I have a different (and, sometimes, at odds) personality to the national French one. Me: indecorous and strident (all the while smiling); the French: proper, measured, pursed-lips.

No, but seriously, I think it might have something to do with that little personality formula. It can look like this:

Me bum cheek clenching.

The women in the streets who look down their long noses at me as I eat part of a baguette while walking and say to me, ‘bon appetit’ in a snotty and reproachful tone. I giggle a little. It is funny to think that it offends them if I eat bread in public. Still, it makes me uncomfortable.

Or the lady at the Prefecture de Police (where I will eventually get my working visa at some point in the next 20 years) tells me after waiting in line for 3 hours, “No, it is not possible. I can do nothing for you.” She says this with glee on her face. Literally. She is elated to tell me no. Not just ‘no,’ but no with a certain ‘you’ve wasted a whole lot of time coming here’ ring. Just tickled.

Sometimes when I stand at my kitchen window, watering my lavender, I hear from the adjacent window, “Ooh la la! Non – ce n’est pas possible comme ca!” (Oh, no, no – this is not possible!) It is Josephine (yes, our lovely neighbor still plays her part in our lives). The water dripping from the base of my pots is far too much. Clenching begins. She commences with her long lecture (without any eye contact at all, mind you). Out her kitchen window, her bossy, blaring words travel through the air over to mine. I quietly pull the two halves of my window together and fasten the latch to curtail her tirade.

I go into a shop with a paper cup of tea in my hand. I’m browsing nicely – touching things here and there. A gentleman approaches me and says in English, “I will take your cup until you are finished.” No thanks – I’m fine, I reply in French. “No, no, it is not for you. I will take your cup until you are finished.” Right. There they go again - clenching.

But then there are the lovely ones and the lovely things that would never occur, for instance, in New York:

The funny policemen who take themselves very seriously and pull me over on my bike. “Why do you think I’ve stopped you, Miss? (Not waiting for a response) It was because that light was red.” “It was yellow,” I respond. “No, it was orange,” he retorts back (because lights here aren’t ‘yellow’, they are ‘orange’)…so I win – he’s agreed with me after all and then we have a good laugh and he tells me lightheartedly to have a nice day, almost patting the back of my bicycle as I ride away.

The lady in the chocolate shop who demands recognition. I walk in with an American friend in the middle of a conversation. We don’t stop talking to respond to her initial “bonjour.” It comes back again, louder, perforating our discussion. “Ahem, bonjour!” I turn to her and respond. Then she asks, in French, if we’d like a taste of chocolate (I guess assuming we wouldn’t know what she is saying). When I respond in French that I’d love a morcel, she says with surprise, “Ah, but you speak French!” Then she is just lovely and lets me try 3 little pieces of dark, rich ganache chocolate, her eyes brightening when I smile and tell her what a treat they are. She goes into a charming overview of the little chocolate company and tells us about their stores in Provence.

And truly, the best French people of all are Xavier’s family. His sister, Marie, encourages me with her eyes when I speak. His mother tells me to call her when I am sad (perhaps not realizing that self-expression is the source of my gloom). His dad, handsome guy, tries out all of his American expressions on me as he chortles. Jules and Louise – my niece and nephew in-law, love me unreservedly, language downright aside. Jules’ enthusiastic high-fives, just for me. Louise’s many cadeaux (gifts) – ceramic trinkets she’s created, pictures drawn, and ‘American’ hugs. And, of course, my little step-one, Miss Marguerite...my favorite little being in Paris. She is only smiles and delight with her little words, formed with her already french mouth, and the open way she laughs with me.

September 5, 2007


Last week, I had the strange, somber and culturally instructive experience of attending a traditional Catholic funeral in France. The funeral was for Xavier’s uncle, only 68, who was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer and who, within a month’s time, went downhill, could no longer eat and whose body succumbed to the illness and died. Since Xavier and I only arrived in France in June, I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to meet all of his extended family. The funeral was thus a series of introductions at something of a sad and inopportune moment. His aunts and uncles greeted me with tears in their eyes, each of them kissing me ceremoniously on both cheeks. The French never miss this ritual. Xavier’s father is from a family with 7 children and thus, the bisous were plentiful.

Xavier’s father, Vincent, is an enchanting man. His smile is luminous – mostly stemming from his eyes. He is vibrant and charismatic, and he always holds himself in a dignified way – one hand to a cuff of his opposite sleeve, perfect posture and yet at the same time, not at all stuffy. He is warm with me – generous – he confers his generosity by listening carefully to my slow sentences as they make their way out of my mouth and he puts the pieces of my word salad together. A gift from a French man. He takes the time to explain things as they happen and he encourages me each time he sees me in my little plight here, saying “Language takes time, but what progress you’ve made!”

At this moment, however, Vincent is unrecognizable. He is engulfed by grief. His eyes don’t shine; they look very tired, almost dull, and his posture betrays his usual poise. We enter the church – a mass of people. Vincent stands to read the words of his sister, Christine, who could not be at the funeral. He gets up. He stands in front of the 200 people in the gothic church, in front of the wooden casket laid out in the center aisle. He is unable to read the words. He hands the paper to the priest, who, in his somewhat benign and condescending manner recites the words on the page. Vincent repositions himself in his seat in one of the front pews.

The silences are filled by the priest. He sings and the congregation joins him. Although most people in France are Catholic by birth, few attend church more than for occasions like this one. And yet, despite rampant secularism, when the hymns are sung, people know the words. Xavier’s mother knows the words by heart. Xavier sings the words and recognizes the melodies. The priest asks the family to stand. Xavier, his sister and mother stand with the rest. They file out slowly into the center aisle and approach the casket one by one, shaking a gold baton filled with oil over the wood. The oil glistens on its side. Every person in the church, individually, performs the same ritual. The church is heavy – the air feels like it.

We file out silently and go to the cemetery. Cemeteries in France are peculiar to me. Like most things cultural, I don’t even notice the particular way an American cemetery is set up until I see how vastly different it can be. The rows of graves aren’t headstones – they either lay completely flat on the ground or, more commonly, they are small houses – sanctuaries, I guess. The houses are made of stone – they line the “streets” of the cemeteries with front doors and small stain glass windows. Candles usually burn within. In the big cemeteries of Paris (le Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise or le Cimetiere de Montparnasse) there are literally maps – exactly like a street map, with street names and grave houses marked on the plan.

The casket is wrapped in white plastic and is essentially dumped in the grave with a crane - an odd juxtaposition between something antediluvian and something strictly modern. I feel unease with this; I look around and it is clear my sentiment is shared. Yet, the casket in the ground lightens the mood somehow and people start opening and up and talking more freely. They turn to me.

Pause: I must take a minute to explain my language situation at the moment. I feel like I am in a fog. I am sure plenty of people in a similar circumstance have described it in exactly those terms. Fuzzy. Hazy. Vague. Imprecise. Even when I understand all the words in a sentence, if I miss the tense of just one verb, the whole thing is transformed and I am disoriented and adrift with my own little account of what I think is being said. Often, I feel the impulse to reply to something only to find that the conversation has moved on entirely. I am too late. Seventy-five percent is clear and the remaining twenty-five percent is left to my imagination: idiomatic expressions, colloquial terms, jokes based on semantics, and sometimes “verlan.”

Verlan is a popular way of speaking in French – something light, even fun, stemming from youth in the banlieues (the neighborhoods bordering Paris, usually impoverished). Speaking “verlan” means inverting the syllables of French words. For example, “chez moi” (at my house) becomes “chez oim”; “bizarre” becomes “zarbi”; “vas-y” (go there) becomes “zyva”; “fete” (party) becomes “teuf.” For a girl just trying to make it with her standard French vocab, trying to anticipate what is essentially pig-latin in French becomes a bit tricky. (As a side note: the fact that verlan has crept into common usage in France is miracle. There is a whole national assembly of language preservation police who determine what words can be officially “French” or not. And the French are racist toward the Arabs who inhabit les banlieues, so it is truly wacky they allow these youths to invert and twist their beloved language. And then they actually feel comfortable using the morphed words).

They turn to me. They ask me how I find Paris. “I find Paris wet,” I respond. (Paris has had 46% more rainfall this summer than average). “Yes, yes,” they agree, but they continue by providing the many reasons Paris is a star. (And she is a star – even I would agree).

One more language note: the French and their pronouns. Because everything is gendered – either masculine or feminine, part of my confusion in French stems from people always throwing around the pronouns “he” and “she.” While speaking of Paris, a French person might say – “she is lovely, she is luminous, she is vibrant.” Then I, having missed the initial antecedent (Paris), think to myself, “I would love to meet this person – she sounds captivating,” only to find it is the city being discussed. This problem is ubiquitous for me; Xavier, speaking of chair we just bought, says, “she is round, red and heavy.” I ask aloud, “Who are you talking about?” I find myself in a little world full of characters described in the strangest ways. I have to get used to the fact that a candle is a “she” and my “cell phone” is a he (…don’t forget to bring him).

So, yes, Paris is wet. And then the characters of la famille Joly show up. Vincent’s youngest sister, Gaby appears. She looks exactly like one of those stacking Russian dolls (the set of dolls placed one inside each other, increasing in size). Her eyes are like Vincent’s – warm and encompassing. She gets you in her gaze. Xavier introduces me, because we have not yet met, and she looks at me intently and says with big, wide eyes and perfect sincerity, “You’re lucky I’m not a man, Xavier, I’d have such a crush on this one.” She pronounces this with an open face, humor, but completely seriously. If she were a man, it would have felt creepy. As it were, I just felt flattered.

Next, it’s Remi. Remi is Xavier’s hippy uncle, who lives in the South of France and who came to the funeral despite being firmly against such events (death, I guess). Remi looks at me and says, “Are you sure she’s American? I always picture Americans having the heads of hamburgers.” (Les tetes d’hamburger, quoi).

Heads of hamburgers. Right. I laughed for a full 5 minutes after that one. And then he thought I did, indeed, have the head of a hamburger.

My mother always had a problem with her children. We were far too critical. Like Xavier, we would describe people in unnecessarily mean ways. She always tried to re-appropriate the given insult by sprinkling a compliment on top of it. Classic example…Us: “She is so stupid and fat.” Rosie: “She has lovely, shiny hair.” I’ve always sort of relished my critical view, my attitude of slight superiority. My siblings and I used to sit in church and have a roaring time comparing people to animals, finding blunders in the way they spoke, essentially general criticism for all (my dad would even participate occasionally). However, I have entered a country where everyone I meet plays this same game. And they are generally better at it than I. They play it with their eyes in the metro, with their words as you walk down the street, with their body as they speak to you (with permanently pursed lips) and gesticulate. It is not as enjoyable as I thought it might be (my mom would be pleased with the lesson I am learning). Xavier, first and foremost, peppers my existence with his running critical commentary:

- “You look like an egg in that dress.”
- In reference to my hygiene: “I believe the balance you’ve found is interesting.”
- And in reference to my progress in French (said with enthusiasm): “And it’s not like you sound retarded anymore!”

And while I actually smile and laugh at his commentary of me, because he really does offer it jokingly, it would be funnier if he extended his observations to himself. But, alas, no – the French are not extremely self-reflexive people. He is, by contrast, self-congratulatory.

- Most recently: “I’m so much faster than everyone else.” (Said with total sincerity and as if it were really germane)

Xavier read that last part and claims it is a bit mean…perhaps true; however, I’ve not edited it out because it is true and funny and I write it with a smile.

July 23, 2007


The bikes are in the cave. Josephine and her gall won out.

It came down to Xavier and me just trying to sneak out of the apartment, making as little noise as possible, to avoid her nagging. It was a futile attempt to escape her glare – for her eye is perpetually at one of her windows or on her Judas (as French people call the little peephole in a front door).

One morning I was leaving the apartment pretty early and found Josephine waiting for me in the hallway before I had even shut the front door. She is at least a head and a half shorter than I am, but twice as wide. “Je suis tres en colere!” (She was very mad), she cried. She took me, almost by the arm, and explained that she was going to give me a key to cave and she was escorting me there that moment to open the door. I felt like a boarding school kid being lead by his ear to the head master’s office. We arrived at the door to the cave and with terrible frustration, Josephine found that the lock to the cave was somehow broken, or that in her rapid attack plan, she had grabbed the wrong key. We went back up to the fifth floor to find the right key. Opening her door with ferocity, she cried out for her husband, Jean-Pierre, who was still asleep. He appeared in his striped pajamas, grumbling, and asked her what she was yelling about. He was to find the right key to the cave; she had already been up for hours, she explained, and thought that he could do something to help out. “Depeche-toi!”(Hurry up), she commanded again and again. The funny thing is that as she would bark orders to him, she would turn to me, look at me, and furtively wink – like she was showing me how to effectively operate a marriage. I thought to myself, life is hell for poor Jean-Pierre. Jean-Pierre was ordered down to the cave to get the key working, but to no avail. The lock was apparently broken! That morning I left Josephine practically sobbing by the door of the cave, frantically trying every key she owned. I felt bad and stayed for a little while, but after 15 minutes of saga I turned and said, “Bonne journee, Josephine,” walked to the courtyard where my bike was waiting for me and took off. Oh happy day.

Josephine’s assumption that the lock to the cave was broken turned out to be false. And in the meantime, Josephine had continued rallying the people of the building against our poor bikes. A sign posted above our bikes the next afternoon read: “The courtyard is not a parking lot. It is not a place for bikes. Please be polite and move your bikes to the cave.” After reading this, Xavier pulled out a pen and wrote, “The lock to the cave is broken. Please call me to discuss this…” The response that came next was the best. In big, thick, green permanent marker, written directly on top of his writing, the sign writer responded triumphantly, “C’EST FAUX!” (It’s false!) The lock, apparently, wasn’t broken at all; Josephine just has an issue with keys, I guess.

The whole sign thing was troubling. It went on and on and I just didn’t get how sign-writing is an effective means of communication…a bit passive aggressive (not that sneaking out our apartment to avoid the lovely Josephine didn’t reek of the same). The posted signs reminded me too much of my roommates when I lived in Hawaii, one of whom became so upset about other people consuming her sliced American cheese, she firmly placed a note on the wall by stabbing a large butcher knife into it. We all got the point and I pretty much avoided the kitchen after that point entirely (the cockroaches were a good enough deterrent anyway).

Finally, the last sign was posted. It was a sign threatening a visit from the syndicat, some amorphous, all-powerful person involved in the functioning of the building. (And I thought New York co-ops were bad). The syndicat came and went and we received a visit from a nice man who explained that the bike issue is, indeed, not a big deal, but even still, we would simply have to park the bikes elsewhere. We conceded. Since I use my bike everyday, it is now parked out in a public square near our house, waiting to be stolen or vandalized (pretty much inevitable in this city). And Xavier’s bike has been banished to the cave. He only uses his on weekends and so the journey down into the cave and back up is feasible once or twice a week.

Last weekend we were going out for a bike ride to enjoy the sunshine (which appeared, incidentally, for the very first time since I’ve been in Paris). I was waiting at the top of the stairs to the cave for Xavier to fetch his bike and watched him disappear down them, around the slanting stonewalls that smell terribly of toadstool. Behind me, Josephine was approaching. I caught her figure out of the corner of my eye and looked around for a place to escape to…the cave! I ran down the steps and turned the corner. But from above, Josephine’s voice boomed down. “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?” Xavier blew air out of his mouth in the typical French way (a ppuuuhh sound). “Yes, Josephine, loud and clear,” he replied. She went on for a moment about the bikes (of course), how much better it is they are in the cave, and trailed on…something about the mildew smell in the cave. Xavier retorted snidely, “Josephine, it smells bad down here and my bike is really heavy, I can’t seem to get it up the stairs. Can you please come down here and help me out?” Josephine’s response was another classic French noise (booouuff) and Xavier smiled amused as he hefted his bike up the stairs.

Xavier does this funny movie announcer voice, like the guy who narrates trailers for American films. It is the voice where his French accent is the least conspicuous and only occasionally you think he might have a slight speech impediment while the voice is going (but not an accent). We came to start thinking of ways we could get back at Josephine throughout this whole thing and Xavier would narrate our ideas like the trailer of a film. (Imagine the voice that starts the trailer): “Josephine is watching…she is always there…she knows what you are doing and why…she is at her window…she is behind the door…(and then long and drawn out): J o s e p h i n e…”

Mostly we came up with ways to sabotage her attempts to spy.

Scenario #1: Xavier finds sulfuric acid and covers her Judas with it, preventing her from spying from her front door ever again.

Scenario #2: We leave our front door open a tad, with all the lights off in the apartment. There is a large bucket of water balancing on the door from above. She will not be able to resist the lure and will enter the apartment. She will be soaked.

Scenario #3: Same set-up as Scenario #2, minus the water. Xavier and I are merely waiting in the dark for her to enter, look around and then we get close and scream. She leaves very frightened.

Scenario #4: (Background: Josephine has often looked at Xavier with coquettish eyes and smiles. Highly amusing. She is, again, a 65 year-old, white mushroom in a very large, floor-length, t-shirt at all times). So in this scenario, Xavier seduces Josephine with chocolates and his fox-like head and expressions. She falls for it and allows our bikes to stay wherever we would like them. The arrangement is maintained by only a few waves from the windows of our apartment from time to time.

We will let you know if we decide to produce a full-length feature. Meredith, maybe you could help out...

Here we are at the Sacré Coeur

June 19, 2007


Xavier and I were lying in bed talking the other morning. It was the weekend and we could finally both sleep in and talk about the week. As we talked, I turned toward the window and watched the patches of mid-morning sunlight streaming in through the open window onto the weaving of our sisal rug. I listened, trying to be as enduring as possible, to his rather bossy ideas of how to best approach pursuing work here in Paris. Xavier always means well in these conversations, but sometimes misses the point that in order for me to feel peace about the process, it has to be mine. He has the tendency to try to solve immediately. Even so, I was feeling peaceful, like it will be fine.

The sunlight on the floor changed slightly; the angle of the sun had caught itself on something new. Jospehine, our dear dear neighbor, had opened her window and was falsely fluffing the flowers in her window box, taking the opportunity to catch a glimpse of our life across the courtyard. This particular window of hers faces ours directly. As a result she considers herself very lucky. This is apparent by the amount of time she devotes to tasks that require her to hover directly around this window…waiting for the moment that we are doing something of interest (and the threshold for something interesting for Josephine is actually very low; standing in the room suffices). For example, she found Xavier vacuuming the room absolutely thrilling. He is handsome, but in this case, she could only see his legs and the base of the vacuum since the curtains were half-way drawn, hardly enough motivation to watch enthralled. I could picture the way her face fell when Xavier closed the curtains fully so that she was blocked out from scrutinizing his housekeeping.

Our peaceful moment was interrupted by her shrill voice penetrating the morning air. She had been up for hours fussing. Knowing that our window was open and that we could unmistakably hear her, she leaned far out of her window to holler down to a neighbor two floors below her and across the courtyard, whose window was providentially also open. “Les velos!” Josephine bellowed. I thought perhaps the neighbor below might not be receptive to this kind of communication – blather across the courtyard through open windows, but au contraire. Josephine had found an audience. Xavier and I giggled with wide eyes as they discussed the calamity of our bikes still being parked in the courtyard. "What audacity! What a daily inconvenience to each tenant in the building! Insolence! The bikes must be brought to the cave!" (Said as if decreeing some kind of sentence for a couple of criminals).

The bike issue really makes me laugh. It is a huge courtyard. They are two lovely bikes with baskets and they are parked nicely and neatly by the trash cans. When Josephine first spoke of the “cave” that first day we moved in, I thought it was a funny term she used for a basement. I am American. I can’t get away from that sometimes. No, I should have taken here far more literally. The cave is exactly that. A huge hollowed out medieval space below the building made of stone blocks. When I was brought down there by the guy who did all the work on our apartment, he warned me on the way down not to be scared. The door to our allotted portion of the cave looks like the door to a medieval prison, with a lock like that and all. The spiders even looked like they were from the 12th century. I was scared. And to be honest, I want nothing to do with the cave. Carrying my bike down the winding stone, semi-dark staircase everyday seems like a really mean sentence decreed upon me. Like I’ve done something criminal by owning and riding a bike.

The situation became more complicated when my handbag was stolen in Rome (in which the precious keys to the cave were stored). Xavier and I were taking a little nap on a shaded bench in that hot city and I had placed my handbag just underneath us, thinking that I would sense anyone who tried to come that close. Not so. The Italians have a reputation that, unfortunately, they lived up to nicely for us those few days we spent in Rome. To be fair, I loved Rome and the Italians…the strange Vatican experience; the monks and nuns selling Jesus paraphernalia at the gift shops, the wretched beggars sprawled on the streets in supplication (I think assuming that their tragedy and piety in begging would be more lucrative and convincing to the gawking tourists), the endless rows of grey plastic chairs in the middle of the vast Vatican courtyard, all presumably awaiting a visitation from the Pope…the Italian men, letching at any woman under the age of 65 (“maybe just one kiss is possible?” over and over)…the scalding sun already in early June…the rich sense of place that permeates all of Europe in the architecture, the vestiges of civilization preserved, especially for Americans…and the cab drivers, oh the drivers. One night Xavier and I were returning to our hotel in a cab and our driver was absolutely wild. 19 years old, soccer jersey, big smile, not a word of English, loud loud music (which, ironically was in English, a hip hop song called “Wild Boys”…absolutely fitting and he didn’t even know it) and the most insane driver I have literally ever experienced. I thought drivers in New York cabs were a bit reckless. However, there is a world between an imprudent New York cabbie and this fellow. Red lights meant absolutely nothing to him. People in the street didn’t really mean anything either. Neither of these were indications to slow down or to stop. He didn’t even really consider that a road (even an Italian one) is fashioned for traffic that runs in two directions. Both lanes were his, the sidewalk, the cop he almost ran over and then had a brief exchange of pleasantries screamed over his music and the noise of acceleration, his.

Back to Josephine. It has now been a full week that the bikes have been in the courtyard and Josephine’s nerves are entirely shot. I was laughing about it until I heard a persistent and severe knock on the door this morning. She had spoken to Xavier on his way in from work last night. (You see, she peers through the peephole in her door every time she hears noises in the hallway. The sound of a key in the keyhole of our door is utter excitement for her. It means we are home for surveillance). She jumped out of her apartment, hearing his noises in the hallway, and demanded straight out that something be done about this galling situation. Xavier feigned a call from his father and quickly removed himself from the situation promising to make a copy of her key to the cave as soon as possible and get the bikes down there. Coward. It was me who had to face her music this morning. Standing in front of me, she was wringing her hands, literally. I watched her as she pressed them against each other over and over again, her face twisted in suffering.

By the time I shut the door, it was me who was fretting. I called Xavier at work and told him that he must do a better job of explaining the situation to her, or reaching some understanding. Wise Xavier. He responded, “Emilie, don’t you see that this woman is delighted? She has something to agonize about, to fret at night, even to lose sleep over. She is in heaven. She can’t believe her luck, that she got such neighbors.”

In so many ways Xavier is not French in any sense. He is, by nature, in a hurry, impatient. Efficiency is chief. Our biggest fights in moving have been over my inability to be passably efficient in moving boxes to and fro or in getting up and down staircases quickly enough. This is not French. His co-workers drive him mad. He turned to me last night and said, “It is impossible to work between 12:30 and 2:00pm at my office. There is always someone missing, gone for lunch. First, it is lunch all together and then coffee, of course. A procession. I am considered antisocial because I skip out on coffee. I am already tortured by the whole process.” And meetings, he cannot deal with. He plans to tell his boss outright that the meetings stretching over the entire morning are unacceptable. But French people seem to love them. In many ways, Xavier is very American. It is a good thing he is in business.

Xavier the businessman

My favorite bike path along the Seine

This was taken with my mobile phone while buzzing around Paris on my bike

June 5, 2007


I am sitting in our new apartment, which happens to be a dream. It is in the central north part of Paris (9th arrondissement) and has just been renovated nicely. Big, thick moldings (about a foot or more) along the floors and in some rooms, molding that runs halfway up the wall. The ceilings too. There are three fireplace mantels, in the living, dining and master bedroom. And the whole thing just has a lot of charm. The apartment is much bigger than I thought it might be, with windows almost floor to ceiling and they've just been replaced; not a sound when they are closed. I can have window boxes with flowers in all the windows, especially the kitchen one, so I am going to need my mother, Julie, and my garden editor at Martha Stewart Living to consult me on what to plant, etc. I am really excited. I feel like I've walked into a really enchanting life and providentially, it is mine. There is a nice room for Marguerite and an entirely extra bedroom on top of that. I am going to put a desk in there and the little piano Xavier acquired for me, but the point is that this room is a perfect place for guests. An entirely superfluous room that needs to be occupied by your bodies. This apartment is way better than a hotel, so I expect all to visit, and soon.

Right across the hall from us lives a woman named Josephine. She is amazing. Xavier and I came to see the apartment on Monday night when I first got here and she heard us come up the elevator (to the fifth floor, her apartment faces ours across the hall), she opened her door widely and made a little speech about the new hallway runner she just purchased and installed for the common good. She really didn’t even say hello. Next, there was a little lecture about the elevator door and how noise in the hallway is something she cannot tolerate. (Thank goodness none of our walls directly abut hers). She looks like a mushroom with a white top in a nightgown (and we’ve seen her three times now, in the exact same nightgown with the same stains on it right above the navy blue writing on the chest).

Do you remember in the movie "Amelie", the woman at the base of the building who was into everyone’s business and knew what everyone was doing and where each tenant was? Buildings in Paris formally have these women, called “concierges.” Well, Josephine is not the concierge of this building, but she certainly thinks so.

All of our things from New York were delivered this morning and there was major busy-bodiness from Josephine going on. She heard the movers and ran out of her apartment, down the elevator to the courtyard, where the movers and our things were congregated. “Mon jardin!” she kept lamenting, while puffing out her cheeks, totally exasperated. Our building has a main entrance off the street, which opens into a big, square courtyard, where most of the apartments face. It is nice, because our apartment is silent albeit we live on a rather major road in Paris. Jospehine, like most things in the building, has taken control of the courtyard. Truly, it is a handsome “jardin”. Plenty of potted ferns and rhododendrons and nice big plants. But her reaction to the movers’ hands on her pots was like a mother whose stroller sheltering her brand new baby was being moved by some bystander. She was not happy. Fretting, she ran next door and found the true concierge and demanded that someone act as a sentinel for her plants as the movers were setting up the huge lift that would hoist all of our belongings from the courtyard up to one of the windows of our apartment (that indicates how big the windows are; a huge, three cushion couch fit through one of the windows easily).

I was looking on and found the whole endeavor delightful. It seemed impossible to simply bring in a lift and basically never to have to climb a step with all the stuff. Josephine had a different perspective. Her next panic was that the lift would crack the tiling of the courtyard and then, worse, fall down into the caves below! (This is what she called the storage area in the basement of the building). At one point, Xavier looked at me and said, “We are going to have to walk a fine line with this one…we really don’t want to make an enemy here, and at the same time, she’s got to know what is hers and what is ours. Our apartment, for example.” He looked scared. But, to be honest, I think she is hilarious and, in fact, as I write, the bedroom window is open (so is hers) and I can hear her through the courtyard bossing her husband around in their apartment.

The most delightful part so far has been Xavier’s sister, Marie, and her family. They have a really incredible little apartment in the south of Paris. She is a painter and I wish you could see how meticulously they’ve renovated this apartment. There is a dearth of “things,” almost in a way I didn’t really think possible with two little kids. We were laughing as we sat down to have lunch (an avocado, endive, cucumber, tomato salad and an assortment of cheeses, olives and onions) on the day I arrived, because Jules is appreciative of me, since I am about as articulate as he (he is two). Not really, but Louise (7) has fully embraced her role as my French tutor. And Jules makes the funniest noises all the time. He has longish, brown, curly hair and is always dressed in blue and white horizontally striped shirts with little buttons on the shoulder, classically French. Louise has her hair perfectly coiffed, split down the middle with a headband running across the two sections.

After educating me on the nuances of 16th century french living: the moat, the many princesses gliding gracefully about the chateau, the elves and sorcerers, the horses and kings and queens, and of course, the monster (Jules, who crashes the castle and chortles, overjoyed with himself), Louise read books to me for three hours yesterday. Listening to how she sounds out words is such a lesson for me. And she is so long-suffering and patient. I often make her pause to clarify a word or to explain the sense of something. She calmly looks at me, smiles and says, “C’est a dire” (that is to say), and then gives details and examples to make things clear. While reading a delicious book about 100 different types of princesses, we came across “poudre” (powder). I repeated the word “poudre” and Louise repeated the word and then chose snow as the first explanation for the word…and then chocolate powder when baking a cake…and then she looked into my eyes and asked, “c’est clair?” Yes, clear indeed, Louise. Xavier teases me and says that my best friend will be a seven-year-old, that I have a lot to learn from her. It is true. And Marie, Xavier's sister, is such a beautiful person. Like Louise, she is incredibly enduring and kind to me. She will make me a big bowl of tea and then ask which of three types of honey I would prefer: lavender honey, orange honey or rosemary honey. Three types of exquisite honey; that is luxury.

This is our apartment | Dining Room

The Entry

Marie (Xavier's sister), Jules, Louise
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