Taking Off the Rose-Colored Glasses

I arrived in Paris on a weekday afternoon. This time I was here on vacation, my first trip back after having moved my life and luggage out of the City of Lights.

Excuse me while I râle:

I was sorely disappointed by almost no one offering to help me with the suitcase I was clearly struggling with up and down the many metro staircases. So many able jeunes français passed me by. Only one man helped me, at the end of my trajet. And no, I did not have the closed off, unapproachable face we sometimes make on public transportation. I was sending out the open-faced, help me vibes of someone who hadn’t realized how difficult lugging around a suitcase and full hand carry would be.

It made me think: Should I have been surprised or not? I didn’t remember this from my previous years in Paris. On the other hand, I lived on the train line that went straight to the airport, so I only had to go down one escalator and never needed help. Second question: Were people in the NY subway any more helpful? Is that why I expected aid? Well, not necessarily—at home I offer to help people with big suitcases or strollers, but that is because I notice that often no one else around is making a move to offer assistance. And what is true is that we don’t notice whether people have a tendency to help if we don’t need it. It’s when we need it that we realize whether people offer it.

When I told friends who live in Paris about my experience in the metro, one said, What do you expect, that’s the way Parisians are! Another was more surprised and said that people offer to help her. I don’t know. To people who have called Parisians rude or cold, I have always insisted that they are not so bad. I still stand by my statement that there are some really nice, warm people there, but my defense of the general population will be less staunch next time. I was tempted to give them a second chance, but after my experience the first day, I unhesitatingly booked a SuperShuttle to the airport for my departure day from Paris.

On the people who volunteer to help:

That same day, after getting through the metro; rendering speechless the young man at Orange with my ability to speak French after he had gone on his spiel in English about their “holiday” phone plan (while his colleague who could tell I spoke French chuckled the whole time and finally burst out laughing when I responded in French); meeting the friend I was going to stay with outside his building and catching up in his apartment—after all that—I headed out into the early evening to the soup kitchen I used to volunteer at every week.

I had told one of the volunteers there that I was planning on coming, but I still surprised her by sneaking up on her and exclaiming, “Hello!” in English. She made all the fuss we make when seeing a friend after a long time, then asked about my trip over. I started telling her about it in French, to which she responded with a big smile that my accent “New Jersey” had come back since my time away. Gee, thanks! She is one of the warmest people of the group and a wonderful presence for both the volunteers and the people who come to eat, so I knew her ribbing was good-natured even though I think she was serious about my American accent being more pronounced than before (though I can’t explain that?? I still speak French daily in my current life!).

I did the ‘bise’ with the other volunteers, who greeted me in slightly wide-eyed recognition. I didn’t chat with them that much, save for a woman with whom I had kept in touch after moving to the States. I had always enjoyed the work itself; after the repas came the socializing.

I made a beeline to claim what used to be my usual post—the table with hot food. Donning one pair of latex gloves and sticking a pair in my back pocket for later, stacking plastic bowls, breaking open the packet of spoons, deciding with the volunteer next to me who would serve the protein and/or vegetable and who would serve the grain. Gladly letting her choose the bulgur because she wanted to avoid the smell and splash of fish sauce because it meant I didn’t have to say bulgur (there ain’t no persnickety French ‘r’s in poisson). Saying “Bonsoir” and smiling hundreds of times. Once in a while, telling someone who tried to cut the line that “Il faut faire la file d’attente.” Responding in English to the occasional immigrant who didn’t speak French. Directing people to where they could find soup and coffee. It felt like home.

After serving the food and picking up trash, there was always a lull before the nearby boulangerie’s unsold bread, pastries, and sandwiches were picked up and distributed. This was the time that I loved shooting the breeze with the people who came to eat. A main reason I had come was actually to see how one of the bénéficiares was doing. I sidled up next to a volunteer who was still serving cereal and asked her, “Where is he??” As I scanned the area and felt dismayed over missing him, she pointed him out. He had just arrived. Of course. I forgot that he usually showed up late, after the main meal had been served. It seemed like he came more to chat than to get food.

I greeted him, and we had an enthusiastic reunion. “How is California?” he exclaimed. I laughed. “Wrong coast.” No offense taken. In the beginning of our friendship, it had taken him weeks to remember my name, though he associated me with Mickey Mouse. He also asked me multiple weeks in a row if I was Chinese and then asked me if I knew anything about qi (he sure did). There were key identifiers that somehow took a long time to imprint on his brain, so I was tickled but not shocked that he had missed by a long shot where in the United States I had moved to. And yet, on this night, he asked, “Où est ton pantalon rose?” I was surprised. I had completely forgotten that I used to wear my pink pants a lot to the soup kitchen during a period of time.

What I did remember was that for the first weeks that I knew him, I assumed that he was from a foreign country because of his accent when speaking French. I was taken aback when I finally asked him where he from and he responded “Toulouse.” I guess I had never heard a toulousain accent before. And I remember periodically moving a few inches away from him while we talked because he was taller than me and my neck was strained from looking up at him, and not understanding why he kept moving closer, until one day I realized that his eyesight was very poor.

I remember never questioning why some days, his hair was disheveled and his clothes were scrappy, and then once or twice he came wearing a suit and his hair neatly tied back.

I clearly remember opening up about my own stresses while I was looking for a job and seeing him really thinking about how to help and suggesting ideas. For the first months we had known each other, I had let him do most of the talking because I figured that was what I was there for. To be a listening ear, not even about his problems, just about whatever he wanted to talk about—tai chi, how food is cooked, cultures, what was going on in the city, anything. He is a very smart person and often knew things that were new to me.

It was only when I started talking more about what was going on in my own life that I realized how good it felt to talk to someone who really cared and who would ruminate over how I might solve a problem I had. Where I didn’t feel like we had to move on from the topic because it was a downer, but that he was completely engaged in the conversation and came up with ideas specific to my situation.

I remember the last night I had volunteered there before moving back to the States. I spent longer than usual chatting with him after the other volunteers had moved on to the nearby bar we frequented every week. Then we parted and I was completely touched again as I arrived at the bar and the volunteer organizer presented the tarte aux pommes he had been waiting to take out, along with a thank you card for me.

You can see why I have a soft spot for the residents of Paris, who are human, after all.

Another person who greeted me warmly for my return was the long-haired, gentle Peruvian man who regularly came to eat. On my last day volunteering a couple of years ago, we somehow struck up a conversation for the first time after having seen each other for about a year. I told him that I was actually leaving France soon, and surprised by the timing, he said he was glad that he had talked to me then, that he had wanted to say hi for a while but somehow was timide to approach me (as someone who in some situations can be timide myself, I have never understood that someone might see me as in any way intimidating).

I’m not sure there is anything better in life than being embraced by good people. You can see why I fought back my travel fatigue to go dish up some fish and conversation.

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Straight to the Heart

Let me start from the end. My last day in Paris this past vacation found me sitting at the bottom of the long staircase at Montmartre, crying my eyes out with the beautiful Sacré-Coeur Basilica in view at the top of the hill.

When I recounted this story to my friend a week later, back in our routine of Tuesday lunch in New York, he laughed and said, “That’s so Parisian!”

I had to laugh. I know he didn’t mean it in an unsympathetic way, and I wasn’t in an emotional state at that point. I guess it was quite an image. I hadn’t seen it from his perspective since I could hardly see through my own tears while living it.

No, I hadn’t fallen down the stairs of the Sacré-Coeur. I had had an unexpected negative interaction with a close friend, and in that moment, it knocked the wind out of me and seemed to put a damper on my whole trip, which upon reflection during my flight back to the States, had actually been full of beautiful and fun and pleasant moments in addition to the disappointing and frustrating ones.

Some vacation, eh?

I have traveled quite a bit, and I realize that my experience on this trip was due in part to my ties in France, which have loosened from being away but are still rooted. Ever evolving and changing but still existent. I was coming back to a place where I have history, a place that I love where people I love live, but once in a while who and what you love can hurt you.

From what I’ve seen, most expats and immigrants have a multifaceted relationship with their adopted country. It is enriching and spectacular and difficult and challenging to make one’s life in another culture. I admire those who do so to escape a precarious political situation, for their safety, or for a better life. When I moved to France, it was just for myself, and indeed there were still hard moments. I know that I was lucky in that despite the frustrations of applying for visas and getting paperwork through and dealing with administrative systems, I had a country to come back to where I have citizenship and the right to work.

Let’s go back to the bottom of the staircase. I thought of calling someone to talk to. Who would be available back in the States? Mon copain ? I considered. I wasn’t going to call my friends in France, who would be at work. As I sat there, lo and behold, a French friend called me to ask how my trip was going. The poor guy, who was probably expecting me to tell him I was gallivanting around Paris eating pastries, got a blubbering explanation of my tears. He gave me some words of strength and insight and comfort, and after patiently listening to me a little more, kindly told me that he had to get back to his meeting and that he would call me that night. He had phoned me during a break and they were waiting for him.

I contemplated what to do next. Nearby, a girl started to play the piano that was set up at the base of the staircase. It was composer Yann Tiersen’s song from “Amélie.”

How magical.

If you’ve watched “Amélie” starring Audrey Tautou, you will know why. There is a scene in this classic film where a character runs up this very staircase. We are held in suspense along with him as he darts up to the top, wondering and hoping to find what he is seeking. I love this song in general, and to hear it here—well, I hope you can imagine. It was the stuff of dreams.

Paris, what you do to me.

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Scraps of Memories

I readily admit that I have sentimental attachment to objects. When I see minimalist friends’  living spaces, I admire them and think that I would like having so many clear surfaces too, but then I go to recycle my piles of paper and the process is slow because each brings back a memory.

Recently I went through my paper bag from my recent years in France and found:

  • Printed list of “Contacts in France”- names, phone numbers, and addresses. It was only one page and listed literally everyone I knew in the country. A family friend, the former director of my undergraduate study abroad program, my former host family, a friend, and several acquaintances. Included a note at the bottom on how to dial French numbers from the U.S. and vice versa, which would later become second nature to me. +001…
  • Printed list of my online address book, just in case. Contrary to the previous list, was very long and in tiny typeface.
  • My boarding pass from Newark airport to Paris Charles de Gaulle.
  • My ‘carte jeune’ and its cute little holder provided by SNCF. The carte jeune is a travel pass for 18-27 year olds that cost 50 euros a year at the time. It paid for itself many times over through reductions on train tickets.
  • A faded receipt for my first dinner in Paris—Chez Gladines with my friend and her boyfriend, the people I was staying with while I looked for an apartment. I remember sitting in the restaurant with them and feeling grateful to be with familiar friends rather than alone.
  • A form I had signed authorizing the school region I taught for to post on their web site an audio recording of me and two other teaching assistants (a Welsh and a Texan) singing Christmas songs.
  • A handwritten list an American friend and I made of Christmas carols we planned to sing in front of Hôtel de Ville.
  • Sketches of girls doing crew. In preparation for a customized tote bag I painted for a friend who was my Secret Santa recipient.
  • A list of rules for a photo competition that I entered at a public library. Thème ‘la gourmandise.’ All photos were displayed at the library.
  • Ticket stubs for museums, exhibits, and shows. For ballets, operas, plays, and concerts, often offered by friends and acquaintances. Including:
    • A terrible play a date took me to. At least we both thought it was bad.
    • “Cinquante Nuances.” No, I don’t think it portrays a healthy relationship. Yes, it was a heck of a fun night with two girl friends. As long as you don’t romanticize the story or think it is something to aspire to, I say enjoy its ridiculousness guilt-free.
  • The name of a singer and song title noted on the back of a receipt by someone I dated. I enjoyed listening to him play it on his guitar frequently, but I never remembered what it was called, so I had asked him to write it down before I left Paris.
    I never listen to it.
  • Handwritten by me on a scrap of napkin during a brief trip back to the States:
    I don’t know how to swipe my Metro card.
    I don’t know how to order coffee.
    But there was cocoa, cinnamon, brown sugar, white sugar, soy milk, and cream.
    I don’t know how to hug.

No need to reprimand me for keeping these– I threw out all of the above items, enfin. With regards to the last item, I have relearned how to live in the land of choices and to commute in the city of “Please swipe again.”

Night Lights

After my Spanish class last week, I walked through Herald Square on my way home. The temperature was freezing (literally), but I stopped and took in the scene. I crossed the street, then turned to look again and take a picture, then walked a few steps, then stopped one more time before continuing on my way. A passerby would have thought I was a tourist in New York for the first time or a resident New Yorker on her last night before moving to a new city. I’m neither, of course. I can walk here whenever I want, and I do, at least once a week after my class.

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I’ve passed through this touristy area many times, but for some reason the atmosphere of colored lights and city night reminded me of certain evenings near the Opéra Garnier in Paris. Some Monday nights, one or two British girl friends and I would meet at the same café for a slice of quiche or a hot chocolate. I’d walk there from work, when it was almost dusk, and by the time we emerged from our chats, it was nighttime. I’d turn the corner to walk to my bus stop, pass lit up commercial stores and theatres, and there would be the Opéra Garnier. Like Herald Square, it was a normally busy area that cleared out on cold nights but kept its buildings aglow.

I think I just realized why I like Hopper paintings. Or do I feel myself expand in these real life scenes because I like Hopper? Rhetorical questions. Words rarely encompass feelings.

I’m not as head in the clouds as my writing makes me out to be. Not all the time, anyway. If anything, my feet are firmly planted on the ground, looking at what’s around us.

Do you get those moments
in between all the running around and responsibilities and worries
too?

Nirvana

Lunchtime in the park in Manhattan. On the next bench over from me, a man sits and chats with his friend who has rolled up and parked her wheelchair next to him. I’ve seen her in the park before; she has some kind of handwritten sign affixed to her chair. They seem to be regulars who linger in the park without anywhere to rush back to. A girl comes by and greets them. She is a student, perhaps in college. I wonder how they know each other. They talk about her classes a bit. In the course of their conversation, she mentions Nirvana.

Man: Nirvana? Is that a white girl? She won a Grammy, right?
Girl: It’s a band.
Man: It’s a band? It sounds like a girl’s name.
Woman: You’re thinking of Rihanna.

An old man approaches. I scoot over a bit to make room for him. He obviously knows the rest of the group, but they merely tolerate him. He is very drunk and has a small bottle of alcohol with him. His manner is subdued, not raging, though he’s definitely out of it. He tries to talk to me about his travels during his time in the service and his anxiety these days, but he has trouble completing his sentences, so his thoughts taper off as quickly as they begin. However unfinished, his brief mumblings reveal more in a flash than decades of greeting a distant neighbor or colleague in passing.

People in the park.

A Screwball Comedy

What is, My life as a film?

I have been wearing tall black boots almost every day to work. I like them a lot, but I’m tired of wearing the same thing. They’re just the best winter footwear I have that are appropriate for work.

One night this month, I was inspired to dig out my black loafers from my closet. I’d worn them probably once or twice in the past eleven years. Overall I had used them for only one or two years in high school. My little Catholic grammar and high schools required a uniform, and for years I had worn variations of black laced shoes and black loafers. While it was exciting to make the change from laced shoes to loafers in seventh grade, once I went off the college, I never looked back at those loafers.

Once in a while, when going through my shoes, I would take them out, admire how new they still looked, and decide to keep them for when I needed an extra pair.

That moment finally came recently. I thought they looked pretty smart with my jeans and black turtleneck.

The next morning, I took the bus, then the subway. Halfway through my walk from the station to work, I felt a loosening around my right foot. I looked down, disconcerted.

My shoe had come apart around my foot.

I couldn’t believe it. The edge around the toe of the shoe had partly broken off, and the sole had broken in half. I could see the bottom of my cat socks.

I knew that rubber band in my purse would one day come in handy. I wrapped it around my shoe and gingerly walked to work.

At my desk, I contemplated how to go about the rest of the day. Unfortunately, I had a meeting in about fifteen minutes across the street and had to remedy the situation immediately. It was clear that one rubber band wouldn’t prevent the half-sole from slipping away from my foot.

I started to color a rubber band with a permanent black marker, then quickly abandoned that idea. Did you know that the texture of a rubber band doesn’t lend itself to marker?

I stuck some scotch tape on the bottom of my shoe. It was like dropping a square of toilet paper in a large puddle.

I wrapped about ten rubber bands around the top half of my shoe. That should hold it together for  now.

Now, how to disguise my collapsed footwear?

I looked at the stash of small plastic bags on my bookshelf. A standard white plastic bag would make it too obvious that I was trying to hide a problem. I decided to go in the other direction and selected the bright red plastic bag and tied it around my shoe, knotting it at the bottom. Maybe it was so flashy that people would assume it was a style choice. This was New York, after all.

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My brief foray across the narrow street to my meeting made it clear that there was no way I could walk all day in this shoe, let alone commute home. It was falling apart.

Luckily, I work in a neighborhood with a lot of stores. DSW, the shoe mecca, is under a ten minute walk away if you’re walking at a normal pace. I, however, was walking with a slight limp to avoid creating too much movement of the various separated pieces of my shoe. This did not work at all, and I ended up stopping six or seven times on my walk to readjust the tectonic plates, which were rapidly slipping away from the desperately clinging rubber bands and now tired-looking red plastic bag.

My low point was when the plastic bag blew off, and after quickly considering whether to let it go, I ran to retrieve it and wedged myself between a mailbox and a trash can to retie it under my shoe. It had torn from the walking, and I wasn’t sure if it would make the block and a half to DSW. At this point it wasn’t just to keep up appearances, but to keep the moving parts together.

The employee at DSW looked down at my shoe as I walked towards the clearance section. To her credit, she greeted me normally. I responded brightly.

I scored silver booties for $17.98 after a 70% reduction. I’m not sure it was fair to be so richly rewarded for my foolishness.

I don’t know what the lesson is here. Choose one that suits you: Always keep an extra pair of shoes at work. Shoe glue expires. Things aren’t made the way they used to be. Don’t neglect a pair of shoes for eleven years without expecting a revolt. Always stay within half a mile of a DSW. Shame is real. Leave loafers in school.

Estoy nerviosa

I was a bundle of nerves even before I left work. I wasn’t hungry enough to eat the dinner I had packed, but I gulped a yogurt and a pudding in succession to stave off hunger over the next couple of hours. I get peckish if I don’t eat frequently.

On the subway, I was so nervous. I also realized that this is what I was missing recently. I’m a thrill seeker. Are we all? I don’t feel inclined to go skydiving or try drugs, but once in a while I love that feeling of stepping outside of my comfort zone and doing things that are in no way dangerous but make me feel uncomfortable.

Life is pretty exciting when there’s all that buildup just for a Spanish II class. The drama, the drama.

The reason I had jitters is that the last time I took Spanish was a year and a half ago. I had started from zero, and while I had practiced vocabulary and grammar a bit since then, I had never become comfortable enough to try speaking with people conversationally, and I didn’t know how much I had forgotten. What if I was way behind all of my classmates? A language course is not the type of class where you can sit in the back and blend in if you’re not prepared; the whole point is to be put on the spot and talk.

This is how it goes when you take a class that is held in a New York City high school, or my experience anyway:

– You take the subway, ascend out of the station into the busy night streets surrounded by skyscrapers, and pass a hotel and Duane Reade on the way to the school. You forgot that school entrances have so many doors in a row in order to allow large quantities of students to enter and exit.

– You flash your ID at the three employees in the lobby. Are they all security, or is just one on duty and the others are hanging out? Seems like a lot of people to be present when there’s not a lot of foot traffic in the evening.

– Your class is on the fifth floor, and you ascend via escalators. For some reason this is really novel to you. You take escalators in subway and bus stations and department stores, but you’re not sure you ever have in a grammar or high school.

– The escalators between the first and second floors are broken, so you walk up them. There are two. You can’t imagine going to class up and down multiple sets of escalators every day.

– Finally on the fifth floor, you go to the women’s room, still very nervous. This class is non-credit and nothing is on the line, but there it is.

– You walk in the classroom, two minutes early. Some desks are grouped; some are on their own and facing the front. People that have already arrived have taken seats near the front that are on the side. Those are the seats you would have taken. There are many seats in the middle and back of the room and still a few near the front that are part of the grouped seats. You take the empty seat that is front and center. Seems logical for someone who is afraid of being put on the spot.

– Class begins. The profesora has everyone introduce themselves—she says you should all know each other’s names—and the reason why they want to learn Spanish. Several people want to travel to Cuba. Two girls are occupational therapists who work with Spanish-speaking patients. A couple of men have significant others who are Spanish-speaking. You say that you want to learn Spanish in order to speak with Spanish-speakers.

– For the next activity, students group into two or three and ask each other questions to get to know each other. Entonces, you each introduce your partners to the rest of the class.

– Then the profesora informs the class that the facilities workers in the hallway want you to move to another classroom because there is a mouse in this one. Lest you forget, this is a school in New York City. You wonder how often this usually happens. Is it a regular occurrence, or did a ráton just want to audit the class?

After all that, it turns out that I am ahead of most of my classmates. I only took one school year of Spanish in Paris, but my impression at that time that we were moving very fast was correct. Perhaps it was partly because Spanish taught to French-speakers can be done at a quick pace given the similarities in grammar and vocabulary, and partly because my teacher was just very good. Whatever the reason, I’m going to be just fine, and I’m definitely going to be much more relaxed before the second class. I’m kind of going to miss those butterflies, though.

Oh Snap

Today I had lunch with a colleague who graduated from college last spring. When our appetizers arrived, she asked, “Should we wait till the entrees come to snap everything together or start eating now?”

I didn’t hear exactly what she had said and thought she was asking if we should snack on the appetizers or wait to eat everything together. Whatever the actual question, I knew my answer was that I wanted to start eating; hadn’t we both just said we were hungry?

A moment later, I realized she had actually been asking if we should wait so that we could take a picture of all our food to post on Snapchat, the app that’s all the rage among teens and early twenty-somethings.

This could have made me feel the significance of the seven years between us, but truth be told, I know that even if I were her age, I would never have considered waiting to eat my spring rolls. I do take photos of my food sometimes, but as it comes and not to show my friends. I can think of a few reasons I wouldn’t have started eating immediately (if my food had arrived and hers hadn’t, if she was in the restroom while they came, if one of our orders was wrong), and none of them include an app.

I acted as if her question was normal, but I was really thinking, “Are you serious??” I still wonder if there’s a possibility she was half-joking. Hot spring rolls! Hunger! No one except us cares what we’re eating!

Even when I was that age and up on all the trends, I didn’t feel inclined to follow them. The difference is that now I can use my age as an excuse!

On the Go

New York City is truly the city of convenience. Case in point: I came across this postal truck selling stamps:

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Perfect, I thought. I wanted to get the new Wonder Woman stamps and a sheet of ten cents stamps.

They did have Wonder Woman and an array of other new designs—not all post offices are so well-stocked—but unfortunately, no small denomination stamps. I would have had to go to the nearest post office. I was on my way to Grand Central Station and deemed that I did not have time to stop in and see if there was a line to buy stamps.

The nearest post office was right behind me; the truck was parked outside it.

At first I was amazed by this new food truck-esque vehicle, but upon further reflection I see why they set up a truck.

Sometimes I don’t know if having more at our fingertips makes us more or less efficient.

Rough and Tumble

Last night I was at a dinner, and the (French) woman next to me asked me, “Vous allez regarder le match avec nous après?”

I was puzzled. “Le… match?”

She became flustered. “Je veux dire, le débat!”

I can understand her mistake.

Note if you don’t speak French: ‘Match’ usually refers to a sports game. She was asking if I was going to watch the game with them after dinner. Now, I am not a sports fan, so it is entirely conceivable that I wouldn’t have known about a big game last night. However, she was actually thinking of the presidental debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.