Athens vs. Paris

You may have heard my talk about my friend Jesslyn.  She is one of my world’s most stellar human beings, and that’s saying a lot because my life is full of some pretty darn phenomenal people.  Jesslyn is one of those people who need to put bridesmaids dresses on their budget, right after food and car insurance because — even if, like me, you don’t see her that much — she makes you feel seen and loved.  She gives excellent advice, has a dead-on ear for dialogue, and sings beautifully. Plus she uses phrases like “that girl could go bear hunting with a switch,” which is to say she makes the most of being Southern.

Jesslyn lives in Athens, Georgia.  She owns a house there, and is a productively employed, responsible citizen, who supports her family and does her grandma’s grocery shopping, while also being an awesome friend to countless people, married and unmarried.  She herself is married to a total gem of a fellow, and they have one heck of a cool three year old for a daughter.  Also, she drinks bubbly water by the case, and coolly calls them “cold ones.”

It has recently come to my attention that Jesslyn is madly envious of me being in Paris.  Which I understand.  She says that when she gets sad for no reason, it is because she never got to walk around Paris at night and now she is too old. Which she is not, but that’s not the point.

The thing is, I am really envious of her too.  Yes, I get to walk around Paris for a month, which is really, really great. And back in Seattle I have some really good things, especially people and Squinchy and a weighty amount of autonomy.  I am doing my writing, and I have work I love. But Jesslyn has a husband who pollinates orchids with pencils.  She has a daughter who stands in the cat’s water bowl when she gets too hot.  She owns a house in a town she loves and she gets to see her grandmother at least as often as she wants to.

And when I am sad for no reason, all that is exactly what I feel like I’m missing.



Looking for Water

For any of you who don’t happen to follow the weather in Paris, last weekend was hot.  Hot in my apartment, hot on the street — even the stones of the quay of the river were hot, long after dark.  The water flowed by, cool and untouchable, while I sat on the hot stones until my knees got sticky.

Saturday, I had a plan to avoid the heat. Go shopping! Stores, unlike Bohemian apartments, air condition.  So when it got too hot, I set out.  The problem was, the stores were just little oases in a blazing desert of concrete.  I had to go into many more stores than I even thought about shopping from, and the contrast of indoors and outdoors was terrible.

So Sunday, I had a new plan: find water. Where I come from, if it’s hot, you go swimming.  If it’s almost hot, you go swimming.  If the sun is out and getting wet wouldn’t make your teeth chatter, you also go swimming.  And some people just go swimming.  At this point, it’s Pavlovian.  I feel heat, I think cold, cold water.

Paris has a river.  (The Seine! Well done, gumshoes.) But the only people who I have seen swimming in this river are the Civil Protection guys, who I was told were training for saving people who accidentally fell in.  Supposedly, this happens a lot.  They let you drink wine at river picnics, so what do you know.  Supposedly, if you go in the river, they automatically take you to the hospital, but I’d like to check my sources on that one.

Paris also has a lake, out on the edge of town, in a park called the Bois de Boulogne.  I should take a moment to tell you about this park. I was out there earlier this week, riding my bike around. It has everything.  A hippodrome. An orangerie. A man in a Speedo walking a small dog.  There are miles and miles of trails that wind through real woods, not trees planted in rows surrounded by pale dusty gravel, which is Paris’s usual attitude towards foliage.  These trails are a place I wouldn’t go with anyone I didn’t trust, I was thinking, when out I came to a crossroads.  A man in full drag stood there.  Waiting, but not for me.  Bonjour, he said. Bonjour, I said and kept on riding.

So it seemed like this park might be a place you could find things you were looking for.  And the security guard himself had told me in fluent gesture that there was a lake where I could ride a bike! Row a boat! Do really fast crawl-stroke!  It seemed like the place to look for water.

On Sunday when I went back, I had an accomplice: a verycool British guy in town for the weekend to research his novel.  We metroed out, then walked and walked. The 16th arrondissement was an asphalt desert.  He told me his life story.  We went on and on and on. There was the lake, but no one was swimming. People were boating, picnicking, napping, smoking, but NO ONE WAS SWIMMING. The water was a scuzzy green.  We bought cold drinks. We stuck our feet in.  We considered, and headed back.

Actually, we headed to where we should have gone first: Paris Plage. Of course.  There is no swimming at Paris Plage either, but it was ok. The misting sprinklers made my whole body happy, the kind of happy that makes you realize how unhappy you were before.  Or how much you were just surviving.  Somehow, this beach with no swimming is onto something.  Swimsuits, sand, bocce ball, cold drinks, children, ice cream, sun, mist — it was enough of a beach.  We shut that place down.

La Vie Boheme

Goodbye, bourgeoise, hello Bohemian. I have a new home in Paris.  For the rest of August, I’m subletting an apartment on the edge of the 10th and 3rd arrondissement, not far from this arch:

Which is, just like it looks like, just sort of sitting there in the middle of an intersection.  No more courtyards with symmetrically pruned trees.

No more gold bathtub.
To get to my new place, you walk down a street full of people — old men drinking coffee, hungover hipsters drinking coffee, black guys leaning on things, Lebanese guys leaning on things, a woman with a shawl begging, a man with a dog begging, children, adults, Halal butchers — until you come to a green door.
There are many green doors, so take the right one. The door leads to an alley.  The alley leads to a door.  That door leads to a flight of steps.  This flight of steps has no loyalty to any particular plane; each step has its own slant.  They feel like an Escher drawing.  But if you climb them, you do go up.  You pass many doors — more doors than there could be floors, but each one seems to have its own landing.  Pick the right door. Go in.
Inside, there is art all over the walls, and a blue ladder to an attic bed.  Blue in the paintings and the ladder and the couch, and big windows through which comes other peoples’ music and conversation and cigarette smoke.  It is noisy, but not from cars.  The kitchen is a cabinet with the sink and two burners on top and a dish cupboard and fridge inside.  Brilliant! The oven, which looks like a microwave, is on its side with a bunch of pots stacked on top.  To bake something, turn it over, put it on a board, plug it in. If you want food, go down the block to one of the fruit stores, or one of the supermarkets, or one of the butchers on the block.
So that is where I am right now, writing without any pants.  It’s too hot today to write in pants.  Or maybe I just don’t feel like wearing any.  I can do that kind of thing in this kind of apartment.
Last night, I went down the street to hang out with a bunch of ex-pat writers.  Everything I thought about Paris is true.  There we were, six flights up in an apartment about the size of two queen size beds, with about two bottles of wine per capita.  Someone always had a cigarette going, right inside the apartment! This isn’t America! We were talking about Identity. Right, but if identity is inherently constructed, can one ever say it’s not false?…. Sure, there is such a thing objectively as the self, but that’s not identity. According to Buddhist thought…. Then after some more wine, we deconstructed the sex tips from Cosmo and various men’s magazines, and explored the innuendo in the word “backyard.”  Can you put any word after “backyard” and not have it sound like a euphemism? It seemed not.  What about “backyard sex?” Still a euphemism for anal sex.  Unless it literally meant sex out in your backyard….
All this before midnight.  What happened later you’ll have to invent, because I left with Cinderella.

I Guess I’m Happier than Kathleen Dean Moore

Kathleen Dean Moore is one of my favorite nature writers.  For a long time this was hinging completely on the one essay I had read by her: “Refrigerator Fungus.”  The essay was just that good.  Then I stumbled on an entire book she wrote and decided to bring it to Paris, just in case I needed a dose of Pacific Northwest nature in the City of Lights and Pavement.  I started reading it today, down at the Paris Plages.

I should tell you about the Paris Plages.  Maybe you have been to Paris, and you know that the walkway along the Seine usually looks like this:

Well, right now, it looks like this.  That’s right, they’ve carted in a bunch of nice, fine sand,  beach umbrellas, striped beach cushions, a pirate ship playground, a bunch of ice cream-and-beer stands, toilets, and some palm trees.  And the place is packed.  Music, naked children, picnickers, dogs, sunbathers — it has everything you could want in a beach except for swimming.  Some people I know think it is cheesy and artificial, but you know what? Civilization is artificial.  I mean, everything about Paris was made, so why not make something awesome like a beach?

Anyways, so there I am on the beach in the middle of Paris, reading Kathleen Dean Moore’s Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, while scoping out the scene through my rockstar shades.  And the book is awesome, even if it does feel like writing that must be called nature writing, meaning it feels like it’s part of one long circular conversation around an isolated campfire by a group of people who all know what each other are going to say, which is basically this: lots of sharp, particular description of the natural world, some deep human ruminations, and too many sloppy, vaguely Mary Oliveresque phrases.  Like “The Solace of Nature,” for example.  And don’t get me wrong, I love Mary Oliver and nature and ruminations on humanity, but I studied this shit for a long, long time, and like the Delmore Brothers, sometimes it seems to be on repeat.

But back to the book: sometime after the one where she imagines what it would be like if we could understand air through our brains like snakes can (hint: it would be awesome), she has this lovely essay about a year when she wrote down every time she was really, really happy, and put the slips of paper in a basket to examine later for life-data.  Which is a really cool idea, and the slips she shares in the essay are beautiful.  I want to try it.  But the thing is, I think I might be happier than Kathleen Dean Moore.

This is what I have so far today:

When the old woman with the word search sat on my bench in the park with the fountain of roses and talked to me, and kept talking to me even though I’m pretty sure it was clear I didn’t understand too much of what she was saying, and I wrote so much and the sprinkler made the air smell like water.

When I got a great email from someone I like, (Hi Nate), and every time I reread the email today.

When I thought about reading something I wrote at this lit thing in Paris.

When I felt the pure exultation of pedaling a bike through Paris.  (This was, I should say, mixed with big chunks of terror.)

When I was people watching on the Plages, and being a rockstar in my sunglasses.

When I was window shopping in all the schmancy boutiques and French underwear stores in the stone streets as the sun was going down and everyone seemed to be out being happy.

When I was caramelizing onions and rolling out pastry dough with a wine bottle for a quiche (still baking) and new, free music was playing by the Dust Busters, who are a really cool little old-time group, and the light in the apartment was golden.

No offense, KDM, but that’s like a month of happy in your essay. And I haven’t even eaten my quiche. Maybe I’m not being as selective. Maybe today’s results are skewed by sunshine and emails and Paris itself. Maybe the happiness two people feel is incomparable.  I guess what I’m saying is that I would need a big Happy Basket.  I bet, too, if we did Sad Baskets I’d need a big one of those, as well.  I cried, for instance, reading things on your happy slips….

Thank God for rockstar shades.

The Carrots in Paris

So, I’m in Paris, France. I am cat sitting for my friend Palash at the moment (he is in Svalbard, which is a real place it turns out) and listening to the Delmore Brothers, who are good though I think they just play the same song over and over with different words.  It’s a good song, though, and if they didn’t do it for me I might put it on repeat. I am also eating a carrot.  I bought it at a vegetable store today, along with some haricots verts and some teeny-tiny mirabella plums.  “Belle belle mirabella,” said the cashier cherubically. I thought I was going to cook up those green beans in some schmancy home cooking, but instead I ate an apricot tart at a sidewalk cafe that was way out of my league.  The tart was AMAZING — flaky crust and raw, tart apricots covered with a sweet glaze and some nice whipped cream — and it came with free second hand smoke from at least five hip-looking people.

But now it is dark and I’m back in the apartment eating that carrot.  The Delmore Bro’s have not strayed. My feet keep reminding me I decided to walk all the way down the Seine to the Eiffel tower today.  I have some photos, but I forgot my camera-computer-connecter-cord and the replacement I bought turns out not to have the right nubs at the end after all.  So you’ll have to imagine it yourself.  Hint: I, too, have bangs, Jesslyn Shields.

And in case you were wondering, the carrot was pretty good.

Craigslist Professional

The hunt is over. The line is signed. I have a house. I no longer have to live on craigslist like an amateur stalker, watching, watching, never quite making my move. I have a house. And it’s quite a house! A magic garden, red framed window nook, claw foot tub, covered porch, hammock, fruit trees, good fences, good neighbors, good housemate, good neighborhood, good life.

I no longer share a room in my parents’ house with Napoleon Boneyparts

But back to craigslist. Over the last fifteen months, I have become somewhat of a craigslist pro. This is not to say I’ve started selling my used tampons on craigslist or anything, but I know some things about that place. For instance:

1. Anytime you want, you can live at the Civetta. I do not want to live at the Civetta.

2. If the place looks killer darling and it’s way too cheap, it’s probably a scam.

3. If the landlords’ email is mostly about USAID and the work it does in Africa, it is definitely a scam.

4. An open house on Saturday between 2 and 4 means show up at 1:55.

5. Almost everything is negotiable — price, lease length, pets — if landlords like you they will help make it work.  On the other hand, anything can be a deal breaker.

6. If the ad does not say which neighborhood the house is in, it is either almost in Shoreline, in Rainier Beach, or is owned by a very old lady.

7. Squinchy and therefore I do not want to live in an apartment, even a very cute apartment. I like trees, and he likes the squirrels that live in them.

8. Garden apartment is often a nice way of saying subterranean. Charming mid-century means sad bricks.  New townhouses smell like chemical cocktails.  The good places do not title their ads with all caps and stars.

9. People who place craigslist ads have a poor sense of geography. Or they are under the false impression that people who are looking specifically in the Seattle section of the Seattle area list want to live in Renton, Kent, Lacey, Port Townsand, Sultan, or Spokane.  Guess what, guys? I specified Seattle because I specifically want to live in Seattle.  Although sometimes the Whidbey Island cottage ads do suck me in.  The Tukwila apartments do not, even when they’re written in all caps.

10. In the end, the best thing is still real human beings.  After 15 months of lurking on c’list, we found our house when my housemate Cara was housesitting in the neighborhood we wanted to live in and happened to talk a neighbor whose friend was showing a house….

And now we’ve got a home.