When did my switch flip and give me permission to wake up in Paris?
At first, the idea of actually living in Paris was a fleeting thought, followed by a longing, then an aching. Next came the discussion about what if, and how could it be? And finally, it exploded all around me consuming my senses. Every color was lavender. All my shirts were puffy 18th century and all smells bakery. It dominated my cerebral cortex. In my head, I was already a Frenchman. I’ve got the crooked teeth and the skyward nose to prove it. Forward motion would take me around the bend.
The reality that my life is finite and that nobody can live it for me took on a new urgency on the night of November 8, 2016, and has since accelerated. The Universe provided a combo pack, (not necessarily in this order, but probably) of Donald Trump’s toxic Death to Democracy Rodeo and an insanely strong housing market in my bloated and unrecognizable hometown of Seattle. I happened to have a house to sell thanks to the last real President’s Making Home Affordable plan. Thanks, Obama. This croissant is for you.
There were challenges, of course, but there was also my deep desire to butcher a language and meet people not quite like me. I’m blessed with an artist wife who shares all the positive traits I listed above and who’s equally game, fluent in the language and will only butcher the occasional chicken (but only if it was ethically raised).
She guided me through a series of punishing BBC extravaganza’s on the French revolution to make my landing just a little bit softer, just like that puffy shirt. Then there was the whole nerve-wracking, apply-for-a-visa thing. Et voila ! Nous sommes arrivés. We arrived.
But it wasn’t as if by magic that we found ourselves in Paris. We did the footwork in our fancy new shoes. Reconnaissance, which is a French word by the way. Two visits, six-weeks and three months, respectively. We had adventures.
I became intimate with La Grippe and learned about the awesome healthcare system that awaits me after I’m hit by a Peugeot. I did battle with a female transit cop, who bandied about her authority like a French rooster with a badge. She tried to take ownership of my wallet over a spent metro ticket that I had discarded.
According to my wife, she said, “No spent ticket is a 75 Euro fine.”
I said, “Heeelllll no, that’s bullshit, I ain’t payin’ no 75 Euro fine,” which is not exactly proper English.
“What did he say?” asked the badge, lathered up ready for a French duel.
My accomplice held her mud, (prison slang for didn’t tell on me).
“He says he’s very sorry and respectfully asks your forgiveness,” my wife said in French.
This volley of B.S. went back and forth a few times. With arms flailing, I killed a bevvy of tunnel flies and wore both her and my ma femme down. I came away with a small €1,40 fine and a heaping helping of silent scorn.
But you know what? I live in Paris!
I deftly practice my Fred Astaire moves as I dance around the K-9 sidewalk fudge that’s so skillfully laid down by man’s best friend. Because lawns are a rare commodity in Paris, a dog’s gotta do what a dog’s gotta do. And like magic, it’s all washed away in the morning.
Every newcomer gets to have a turn in the French bureaucratic barrel upon arrival. Today was my wife’s turn, a welcome gift from the government. We crisscrossed the city like ex-pats possessed, burning through metro tickets like Nazi’s burned books.
“Excusez-moi, ou allons-nous, where do we go?” we’d ask.
“Go to this police station to register, au revoir” we were told in French.
They left out the “I’ll put a cap in your ass. Now don’t let me see you around here again,” so often heard in American neighborhoods.
We targeted a dot on a map miles away, Rinse and repeat, five times. I took a breather to mail a letter at La Post. They had one of those sponge thingy’s to dip your stamp in and avoid the dreaded lick. I stuck my thumb in it instead, attempting a thumbprint, out of force of habit from a bygone era (read about it here!).
My wife told me, “that’s for the stamps.” Monsieur Post laughed, can you imagine? What can I say, he was in uniform and looked official and old habits are hard to break. We made the complete loop, meeting most of the cops in la ville. Then we discovered that the correct office is only, two doors down from where we had started. There was a sign on the door, “closed for the day,” naturally.
My apartment sits at the pinnacle of Paris in the 19th Arrondissement near Buttes-Chaumont Park just off the Pyrenées metro line near Pere Lachaise cemetery. It’s a working-class neighborhood that teems with excitement. A car from a marriage procession burns to the ground, a party goer falls out of an adjacent window, an angry young woman shoves an exposed breast in my face in the subway. Where was she 30 years ago? So much to see, so much to do. Three nights a week the voice of Edith Piaf fills the night air accompanied by Miles Davis. Only these extraordinary talents are alive. It’s an infusion of Paris directly into my hungry soul.
One thing I’ve noticed about Parisians is, no matter the amount of the baked goods, they’re not exactly tipping the scales. You won’t find any elastic waistbands, motorized shopping scooters or SUVs backed up to the garage unloading the Costco run. They shop daily on a trek for the freshest everything. Scaling flight after flight up the spiral staircase to replenish their skinny Frigidaire’s.
Wow!, here I am, an ex con in Paris, la vie est belle.