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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