Eleven o’clock on a Friday night. The seamy, sex-obsessed center of Paris. I balanced over a Turkish toilet in a tiny bistro, one stiletto heel propped against the wall to make some kind of writing table out of my knee, trying desperately not to touch anything around me as I wrote an invitation to my dorm’s next student party. And I used to imagine a life of foreign adventure as so romantic.
Okay, so it’s not that this wasn’t romantic, in its way; but heretofore, tottering over a reeking hole in the floor of a two-foot-square room had not been part of my vision of romance. Before I moved to Paris as a graduate student, it had not even been part of my vision of possible ends to the digestive process. In my hometown, in Georgia, women didn’t have a digestive process; we only used the ladies’ room to freshen up. Highly refined women used the “little girls’ room,” but that was why I had fled the country. The mind could only take so much before it cracked.
How, with this upbringing, had I sunk to writing an invitation to a strange man while trying to avoid falling into merde? Two possible explanations offered themselves: either I was desperate, or it was all somebody else’s fault. I couldn’t possibly be desperate, so I figured I should blame it on Paris.
Paris and I, well, we just weren’t hitting it off. Maybe she’d been oversold, or my attitude had been affected by my first month, during which I cried myself to sleep every night over a necessary breakup the move to Paris had facilitated.
“Maybe I’m just not meant for a big city full of French,” I told my sister Anna on the phone.
“You have to like Paris,” she said. “Everybody loves Paris. You have a moral responsibility to love Paris. What is wrong with you?” It’s amazing how many conversations I have where that question comes up.
“It’s got an awful lot of French people in it. A disconcerting amount, really. I read about that in Mark Twain, but you don’t really appreciate the impact until you’re here. Do you know I scare people?”
My sister choked. At five-foot-three, I rarely evoke terror until people get to know me better. “Well, you scare me,” she said, proving my point. “But I’m kind of surprised you’re having this effect at first sight. What do you do? Wear white tennis shoes?”
Okay, I just want to point out here that my sister thinks white Keds are stylish. Any comments from her to a woman who had just bought a pair of black stiletto boots were way out of line. True, I’d only bought black stiletto boots because I couldn’t find any other kind of boots in Paris, but at least I owned some. “I smile.”
She burst out laughing.
“I’m not kidding! Today an older woman actually jumped back and put up her umbrella to ward me off. I was just being friendly.” Not being raised in a barn, I tended to nod and smile at anyone whose path I crossed. This provoked surprisingly panicked reactions in Parisians, as if they thought I was insane.
On the other end of the line came lots of choking sounds, as if my sister were coughing up a hairball. This is possible. She has lots of long curly blond hair, and when we were little one of our brother’s friends mistook her for a poodle. Really. I wouldn’t mention it, but she was mocking my pain. “Sorry,” she said, finally spitting out the fur. “I really shouldn’t talk to you while I’m eating. Any other woes you want to tell me about today besides terrifying old ladies?”
I pulled the phone far enough away from my ear to glare at it, my phone card clicked down to its last unit, and we lost the connection. I stepped out of the phone booth, past a waiting fellow student who gave me an intolerant look for talking so long, and looked around at the Cité U, my home sweet home. The Cité Universitaire is a giant collection of student dorms on the south side of Paris, across from the Parc Montsouris, the only park in all of Paris that rambles instead of following classical geometry. Evening was settling in, and students traipsed to and from their various houses and the main building, where our student status qualified us to eat very bad food for very little money. I had a credit card and planned to win the lottery in a few years to pay it off, so I didn’t take advantage of this privilege nearly as much as I should have.
Aside from the food, I loved the Cité Universitaire, with its vast parklike grounds and its thirty-seven different houses sponsored by thirty-seven different countries. I liked to walk past the fields of students playing soccer, the students chatting each other up, the men pretending they were students to try to hit on young women, and study the houses each country had built. We had everything from a sedate neo-Gothic to something that strongly resembled a bomb shelter. As the architecture suggested, the place hosted a lot of oddball cultures: French, Moroccan, Danish, Canadian. There were even some Americans who, taken out of their element, are about the strangest creatures on the globe. I tried to hang out with them at first, but when they caught me speaking French with the natives, they considered me a snob and a traitor to class, country, and above all, language, and pelted me with the half-eaten pastries they always had in one hand. Okay, I made that up about being pelted with pastries. Still, no Europeans ever nibbled on delicious pastries in the Métro. How come I was the only American who noticed, realized eating in public was considered barbaric here, and stopped doing it? I’m rarely considered a paragon of perception and sensitivity to others, so come on, how hard could it be?
Anyway, rumors of roaches surrounded the Fondation des États-Unis, so I ended up living in the Maison du Canada. There, students also tended to hang out in large groups dissing the French, but at least we did it in French, so those obnoxious Frenchmen could understand us. The Canadian house made me pay extra rent to live there, though, which was downright rude. Did they have any idea how much of my tax money went to pay for their nuclear shield or to subsidize businesses that destroyed their ozone layer?
I hadn’t figured out how to make calls from my room yet, mostly because it involved putting down a hard cash deposit, and I had spent my last bit of cash at a really nice chocolate shop that didn’t take credit cards. My sister could call in, though, and a week or so later she caught me, huddled under my rough, orange, dorm-issue blanket, clutching my teddy bear for warmth. The dorm hadn’t turned the radiators on yet; for some reason they thought it didn’t get cold enough until November. “Where have you been?” she said. “Did some old lady stab you with an umbrella? I was starting to worry.”
“No! I’ve been trying to enjoy this stupid city. Do you know I’ve got an art history professor card that lets me go into the Louvre anytime I want? For free! Three-hour lines of tourists circling around the Pyramide, and I just wave my card at a guard in the Cardinal Richelieu gallery and waltz right in. It’s like having my own secret entrance to the Bat Cave, only better because there is cooler stuff inside.”
“But you’re not an art history professor,” Anna pointed out. “You don’t know anything about art.”
“I wish you wouldn’t get caught up in the details. Valérie gave it to me. She&