Paris, Part I
26.08.2009 - 28.08.2009
At Charles de Gaulle airport—was it simply my relief at finally arriving, or did the airport employees seem unusually cheerful? There were all laughing and joking together, answering my questions with a smile. Or was my impression due to remnants of my francophilia? To be sure, my idea of utopia does not include forced second-hand smoking every time I step outside, nor dog feces threatening every dozen steps. (Supposedly, if you step in it with your left foot, it’s good luck, but I think that’s just to make themselves feel better half the time.) One explanation would be the number of accepted vacation days, twice as many as ours. Clearly, time to relax and see loved ones is essential to emotional health. Yet we (we being mostly companies) too often don’t seem to recognize that in the US. I am no businesswoman, but it’s obvious to me that companies that allow their employees only the bare legal minimum (if that), with a focus on the bottom line, are really compromising quality of work/service and effectiveness. As with many things, taking advantage of others for your own profit—individually or globally—eventually bites you in the ass. Unfortunately, asses don’t think about long-term consequences.
Of course, more social benefits for most doesn’t mean there is no poverty here. Of course there is still exclusion, there are still cycles of poverty, still gaps in the system, etc. There will always be those with more, and those with less. How to make sure there is at least justice, inclusion, and access to resources/education for those who have less? Probably through an enormous amount of political will, education, and solidarity of a population despite much diversity. I find it very hard to imagine all three in my own country, sadly.
Where was I—yes, Paris. Fleeting memories of previous impressions of my very brief visits. Sometimes alone, sometimes with others. Meeting up with a friend from the south of France…playing tour guide for my Swedish friend…that crazy New Year’s walking halfway across the city back to my hotel room in the rain…the platonic weekend with my honorable and generous Swiss friend…chasing after that Parisian years ago whom I met at l’Institut du Monde Arabe and childishly thought it was a sign--he was the spitting image of Sex and the City’s “Mr. Big”, and managed to be even more arrogant…there always seemed to be excitement lurking around every corner. Sometimes there was. My francophile self always thought I would live there at some point. But now, if it doesn’t happen, I won’t be disappointed. It really is time to move on.
This time around, it was just to see my friend Emmanuel, catch up on sleep, and plan for Toulouse. I didn’t even have time to venture outside of his neighborhood in the SW corner of the city. Emmanuel had just moved into Paris—conveniently for me, except that the internet hadn’t yet been set up. Thus several trips between the nearest cybercafé, phone booths, etc., to figure out whether I’d be taking the train or carpooling, etc. That time, carpooling didn’t end up working out. Fortunately, that didn’t prevent me from trying again later. The idea of it is beautiful to me. The online networks are free, and the passengers pay the drivers based on mileage. Everyone saves money, it can be faster than most public transport, and you can meet really friendly people. (The best one in France is www.covoiturage.fr.) I’ve done it in Quebec province, but I don’t think the vast majority of my fellow countrymen/women would go for that. Too individualistic, too distrustful…but hey, at least we smoke less.
Back to Emmanuel. We were casual friends back in DC, where he worked for a while through some joint initiative between the French and US militaries. Normally I wouldn’t run into a managerial-level engineer in the French military, but we happened to meet at some French language meet-up group (the only time I bothered to go). He invited me (and everyone else in his path) to his birthday party and subsequent cocktail-film soirees at his place near GWU. Welcoming and personable, he attracted men and women alike. I will never know what attracted him, but in any case it’s always a pleasure to be around him. Emmanuel with his do-it-yourself attitude, hard-working mentality, good taste, loquaciousness, good humor, precise movements, dramatic flair, and skillfully evasive answers to personal questions. He insists that the French work longer hours than Americans, and that there is more social mobility in France than in the US. I find both harder to swallow than the Korean delicacy of live baby octopus. We all have different impressions based on personal experience, but the statistics must be out there. Then again, 47% of statistics are made up on the spot or skewed beyond usefulness.
It took me a couple tries to find his apartment. The fact that many streets and buildings aren’t labeled (or the signs hidden) doesn’t help. And I still haven’t learned that when I assume things like, “this must be his building, based on the other numbers”—it generally turns out to be wrong. So there I was on the 7th floor of a building with no elevator—just as he’d described—with a kind gentleman keeping an eye on my suitcase below. “Emmanuel? No, nobody with that name here…” at every door. Finally, one girl asked if I had indeed gotten the building right, and then I saw the light. Poor Emmanuel carried my suitcase up, minus a few heavier items. Gotta love those century-old apartment buildings. It was not the last time I swore to myself that I’ll be replacing the suitcase with a backpack next time I travel. Not so much to be a hippy backpacker as a minimalist. And there won't be any souvenirs (at least not carried by me, perhaps mailed though. Your odds increase if you respond to this blog post! ).
I’m sure I must’ve related to my friend at some point my abhorrence of the military—any military. Or else he could’ve gathered as much from my peace/justice work of the past. But things like this, he just brushes off (or else doesn’t really feel like listening); as a result I don’t let it be an issue. In any case, when greeted after an exhausting journey with a nice spread of baked dorade (sea bream?? anyway, fish), shrimp, vegetables, fresh baguette, cheeses, and cider (alcoholic), not to mention a fold-out couch, one must choose one’s battles. And so we dined, and then I slept about 12 hours straight.
[He’d asked me if I remembered the red couch, surprised that I didn’t (apparently he’d shipped all of his DC furniture to France). How am I supposed to remember someone’s couch that I haven’t seen in two years, when I have a hard enough time remembering faces? I blame it on my over-reactive defense mechanism that kicked in early on to help me block out a good chunk of memories relating to my parents’ divorce and years of peer torment for my lasting and unforgiveable dorkiness.]