mercredi, décembre 08, 2004
J'ai su demeurer ici
Ma chair se gonfle
Mes mains deviennent le mot soufflé
A même le corps d'instincts
Brûlé mollement sur l'encre
J'écris une lettre
Fragile en son point d'appui
I found out how to remain here
My flesh swells up
My hands become the whispered word
To even the instinctual body
Weakly burned into the ink
I write a letter
Fragile in its fulcrum
mardi, décembre 07, 2004
There, abandoned on the shiny blue plastic, torn away from its companions, were pages 63 to 74 of a collection of poetry.
My body reclining like a blade of grass
Thinks that the day lasts
The law of these effects is infinite
I find myself again in the creases of my eyes
Breaking the illusions
Dissipated in writing
"You know, don't you, these days that go by without anything happening."
Mon corps allongé comme une herbe
Pense que le jour dure
La loi de ces effets est infinie
Je me retrouve dans les plissures de mes yeux
Cassant la figure des illusions
Dissipés en écriture
"Tu sais, toi,
Ces journées qui passe sans que rien n'arrive."
Now by the time you read that three or four times, I just bet your train comes in.
mardi, novembre 16, 2004
It's the Japanese. What led me to this, other than just being incredibly clever, was that there are several formalities that the French must observe upon greeting each other. There are forms of address for those you don't know, for those you do, for those close in age to you whom you don't necessarily know, but who you might as well since you are automatically in the same category, for your boss, for the shopkeeper, etc. This always of course followed by niceties such as how are you, how is your family, did you enjoy your obscure Catholic holiday off, is your digestive system working properly, etc. Most of the formality has to do with the formal or informal 'you' , but some of it concerns whether you shake hands, don't, or kiss each other on the cheek. Then there is what region of France you come from and how many times you kiss on the cheek (two in Paris, three in the South, four in some parts, etc.)
I was aware of this before coming, but of course I make mistakes all the time. I tend to guess wrong with the informal and formal 'you.' I learned at the French Alliance long ago that you should never use the informal for someone you don't know unless they give you permission, but I suppose my problem is that now I am in an age group that borders on automatically being formal, but teeters on the edge of the French equivalent of "whassup" for those a little younger than me. I have made countless twenty somethings feel old by addressing them with "vous" and offended a handful of thirtysomethings by being so presumptious as to say "tu." Some people I can't get used to saying "tu" to once I've been given permission, so I end up switching back and forth, which adds to the already perplexing impression I must give.
This I came prepared for. What I remained unaware of is the apparently very pressing need for French people to acknowledge you first off with a "bonjour" - but ONLY ONCE. If you have said "bonjour" the first time you see or speak to a person, by no circumstances within that same 12 hour period are you to say "bonjour" again without categorically, absolutely, acknowledging that you have already done so by emphatically and loudly saying "RE!" (pronounced 'ruh') - as in, "Hello - AGAIN!" As if saying "hello" the exact same way you said it the first time would completely negate, nay, add injury to, to the first acknowledgement. I have not yet got the hang of this, as I don't quite know how to re-acknowledge someone correctly. I can't bring myself to say the "RE!" because it isn't innate for me that to say "bonjour" a second time would be a problem. I will see someone at the office, for example, say "bonjour," and then get a phone call from them an hour later. I mostly make the mistake of saying "bonjour" again, because this, if you follow me people, is hello, and where I come from, you can say hello til the cows come home. Invariably, there is a slight pause. I know what is coming. A slightly ironic, inner smiling, faintly patronizing, we-all-know-about-this-now-don't-we-dear "RE!"
I think I'll stick with "oui", although it feels a bit too much like, yeah, you, whom I already deigned to address, whaddya want?
dimanche, novembre 14, 2004
So I created a site for mine (see link at right) and have started to rework a piece I started a while back. There is a section for comments, and since I registered my site on the register, any other participant can come and read it, make comments or send encouraging emails.
The other day, I found this comment from a helpful reader. Nan, from California, who won a few little prizes for her erotic writings, sent me this:
I've noticed that there is a difference in the formality of language that you use for your main character's thoughts and for her dialogue. I like the flow of the dialogue and I think you should include more of it in the story. I think that there is too much telling the reader what is happening and not enough showing, so if you have a paragraph giving us the characters' thoughts or emotions, consider using the characters to show us with their dialogue. I also was curious about the main character's sexual response to this man. She sleeps with him, although you cut from the passionate kiss to the morning after. I think you could show us a bit more of their physical relationship, particularly if you are going to have her make comments like "I made love to a baron."
Good luck with this; the story seems to have promise.
Hmm. Um, thanks, Nan. Really.
samedi, novembre 13, 2004
There has been a convention for:
The Singles Life
Out of Print Books
New Construction Houses
Gays and Lesbians
and my two favorites:
lundi, novembre 01, 2004
We talked of life and love and dreams and lessons learned until there wasn't anything else we could conceive of ordering at the cafe, having gone through a Croque Monsieur, caramel and chocolate ice cream, three coffees and two different kinds of water.
He took me to dinner at one of those ultra chic places that have no obvious entrance from the street, ostensibly to attract only those who already know where it is, and to discourage the curious, perhaps undesirable, passerby.
He has a lovely deep voice and smooth long fingers. He is elegant and thoughtful. We have made plans for dinner next week.
I came home and changed the time on my laptop to accommodate Daylight Saving Time. The zone Paris belongs to? Romance Standard Time.
vendredi, octobre 08, 2004
The floor I work on in my company is the executive floor. It's where the CEO is, and all the Vice Presidents. I work for two Vice Presidents, one of Finance and IT, and one of Human Resources. These guys are important people, the company is big and old and respected, and Paris is a nightmare to drive in. So naturally, they have chauffeurs. And naturally, the chauffeurs have a boss. The chef des chauffeurs, as he is called, is a beady eyed, shifty character, with a thick Portuguese accent. When I try to pronounce his name the French way, I inevitably get all tangled up. Do Pereiro is easy enough in Portuguese, but in French, you have to do the French 'r' twice and put the stress on a completely different syllable, and I usually end up choking, coughing, and saying it the Portuguese way. The man thinks I'm weird, I'm sure.
On my second or third day on the job, he came into our office, looked shiftily from his right to his left at the two VPs office doors, and rubbed his hands together, saying, "Y'a pas des jourrrnaux?" I thought this was rather odd, and asked my coworker about it. She explained that he would come around collecting the newspapers that the VPs were too busy to read, and that after awhile, someone got curious why, and followed him. Apparently, he takes the Le Mondes, La Tribunes, and Les Echos and sells them on the street for the regular selling price.
I remember my ex telling me that newspaper stands in the US would never work in Chile because there, if you put a quarter in, and opened up the bin to see all the newspapers right there before you, it would be too tempting, and you would grab them all, knowing you just paid a quarter, and sell them yourself. At the time, I thought this was really funny, because what would you make, a dollar? And who would buy a newspaper from you, knowing you had stolen them? But I was young at the time, and knew less about differences.
So I asked my coworker, my American sense of scruples and outrage at injustice raging forth, why the assistants give the newspapers to the guy, if everyone knows he resells them to pocket the money himself? Especially when they all tell me he is a crappy worker to boot. So we slowly, all of us, begin to tell him, nope, sorry, no newspapers today. And eventually, he stops asking.
But Senhor Do Pereiro is not the only one who sees the merit in a newspaper gotten for free. Apparently, your average person is willing to go to great lengths to get one. I have seen this at least a dozen times. If this is simple avarice at not wanting to pay for a newspaper that one can get for free, I can sort of understand it, but seeing a well dressed businessman in a silk tie digging through the trash can in the metro station is a bizarre sight indeed. One I have seen many times over. If the reason is that this businessman cannot face the prospect of his long RER train ride home without something to read, well, that is sort of endearing. Seeing so many people reading, completely absorbed in their books, newspapers, reports, seeing people walking while reading they are so into it, warms the cockles of my book loving heart.
One day, when I was blindly traipsing behind the crowd of people piling onto the escalator to change from Charles de Gaulle Etoile to the La Defense metro line, from afar, I saw it. Gleamingly, glossily free, it was an abandoned Madame Figaro on the railing. I quickly grabbed it and rolled it up, making as smooth a gesture as I could, as if I had simply prepared my magazine for the ride. It was the current month's edition, had a special feature on accessories, and my fingers turned black from the dust it had collected as it waited to be snatched up, and I greedily read it on the metro car, smushed up against my fellow passengers, absorbed in reading their own similarly procured treasures.
mercredi, octobre 06, 2004
I haven't seen French TV in a very long time, not since I was an exchange student as a teenager. I was really surprised to see that they have almost as many commercial breaks as we do now. Before, I remember it was sort of like a special event, announced beforehand with sexy voices and cool little graphics. Well they still announce it now (Publicite....Publicite...), it just becomes less special when you see it all the time. Their commercials used to be cooler, too.
One thing I cannot get over, despite trying to disprove my theory over and over again, is that French women on TV must wear pink lipstick. Frosty, glossy, hot pink or pale, paired with overly tanned skin and a red shirt, even paired with purple eyeshadow and dyed blonde hair (yes! purple eyeshadow), every single one of them has pink lips. Newscasters, presenters, game show hostesses, every single GUEST, everyone. It is amazing. I don't think this has even much to do with pink being an in color for clothes last year. I think this is some notion that pink lipstick is closest to natural looking. Ehhhhh! Wrong! You know, not everyone can wear pink, especially if you have the tortured complexion of a dorito. Pink with red? Pink with purple eyeshadow? What is this, people? Lithuania? Bring in your professional makeup artists, let's match skin tone and clothing with makeup! You're French, for god's sake, you can do this!
One particularly noticeable difference is that here in headquarters, in the modern business district of La Défense, it seems that most people actually prefer to work with the lights off. Be they secretaries, interns, technicians or vice presidents, they are working in the dark. Some even go so far as to pull the blinds closed as well. I am not sure if this has to do with computer screens and glare, energy efficiency taken to the limit, or simply that everyone's skin looks much better if you forgo the fluorescent bulbs.
Personally, it depresses me and puts me to sleep. My poor coworker has to hear me every day say, "Do you mind if I turn on the lights?" She gives me a look, smiles, and says, "Whatever you want."
mercredi, septembre 15, 2004
I have started the job (exhausting/exhilirating/confounding/challenging), found an apartment (adorable/tiny/overpriced), figured out not to buy supplies at the extremely expensive convenience store around the corner, and correctly identified the woman always standing at the intersection as a professional whore. There is so much more to tell! I do not have internet connection yet, and most likely won't for another three weeks or so until I get settled into my permanent digs, so be patient, readers! I have plenty to divulge!
dimanche, septembre 05, 2004
The temporary apartment is huge, and only four metro stops away from work. I hope the place I find is just as convenient.
After being here for four days, I decided to make a brief inventory of the things in the apartment I am incapable of getting to work:
- The alarm clock (I swear, not an excuse to be late to work, simply that for some inexplicable reason, I can set the time, and the time I want the alarm to go off, but it will ring at a completely different hour)
- The washing machine (yes, I loaded it, put in the soap, turned the dial – one of which is stuck) and nothing happened. I got shocked, though, so I can report that the electrical current is reaching the machine just fine.
- The telephone. Yes, the stupid telephone. At first it didn’t even ring. It appears the “cordless” phone from the 70’s needed to be plugged in for the other one to ring. What the hell ever. So great, now they ring, but I can’t pick up the call. So one thing at a time, I guess.
- The stereo. It looks like all the others I’ve seen, if a bit dated. I put in a CD, hit CD, then play. Nada.
- The clothes hanger upper thingie. As you may or may not know, in France they do not seem to use dryers for their clothes, but even in the best of families, hang them up on wire racks to air dry on the balcony, in the bathroom, in the garden, or wherever you can fit it. It unfolds in more layers than one would think possible. There are apparently two larger parts that hold the whole thing up, and smaller racks that come out from there. I tried and tried, unfolded and flipped over, and most of it came off. The larger parts that were still standing I hung some things on, and the smaller racks that came off I put over the bathtub and hung things on it from there.
I swear I am not as stupid as all this makes me sound.
Oh, and I can’t find the mailbox either.
mercredi, septembre 01, 2004
I cannot believe how much money I just lost by being sleepy and stupid and wanting to get euros easily. I went to the first exchange booth and changed $280 dollars into euros. Do you know how many euros you get for $280 when you use a rip-off exchange booth at the airport? €198, that’s how many. That’s after a €10 commission and a shitty exchange rate of $1.33 to the euro. That’s what you get when you pay for convenience.
I didn’t realize how traveling with a cat would attract so much attention. In line in the airport in Atlanta, every child’s animal radar went off whenever we got within 5 feet. "Look, Mom, a kitty cat!" "Maman, t’as vu le chat?" "Mira, un gatito!"
I don’t recommend that shy people travel with pets, because everyone will talk to you. Even on the plane, people stopped by and cooed at us. This must be what pregnant women go through.
The lady at the Delta check-in scared the hell out of me when she said that they weren’t taking cats on board. She thought I was going to London, or at least going through London to Paris. Luckily, I kept my cool, smiled, and patiently explained that I had reconfirmed his reservation (isn’t that cute? - he had his own reservation) and that we were flying direct from Atlanta to Paris. She ended up being super nice and gave my mom a security pass to go through to the boarding gate with me when she discovered that I had three carry-ons: Max, my laptop, and my purse. She told my mom to take one of them and say it was hers, and if anyone gave us any trouble, to tell the security agents that one of my carry-ons had paid full price, and that everyone else was taking on bags for free. Yeah!
At the security area, as my mom was struggling to get my laptop out of its case and put it in the bins, and I was taking off my shoes and jacket, I went to the security agent and pointed to Max on my back saying, "I have a cat here, what do I need to do?"
"You are going to have to take the cat out of the bag and walk through the screening area with him. The bag needs to go on the belt." said the agent, looking straight ahead and not at me.
"That gives a whole new meaning to the expression, ‘Let the cat out of the bag,'" I said bemusedly. This elicited a smile. From an eye contact-adverse security agent at the Atlanta airport, no less. Not bad for a start, Max.
Once through the screening gate, I was putting Max back in his bag, trying to simultaneously put back on my shoes, and the security guy standing there said, "That’s a big cat! He looks like he is getting too big for that bag!"
"Well," I said, "I’m getting too big for these pants, but we make do!"
"You said it, not me," he replied, laughing.
Max did great through the whole thing, airport, flight, and everything else, as long as he didn’t see me and I didn’t talk to him or poke at him through his bag. That’s hard to resist doing, though. I can’t help but catch his eye and coo at him, "You’re such a good boy, Max! I’m so proud of you! You are doing so good, boy!" Poke, poke, poke.
Much to my delight, Max’s passport worked like a charm. Once off the plane, I was in the line where you have to show your passport, and I wasn’t sure if this would be my only chance to see the reaction of a dour immigration official to a cat's passport, so I took my chances. I almost didn’t do it, the guy behind the window looked like he had no sense of humor at all. But I decided to go for it, slipping Max’s small laminated passport into mine. The official looked at the immigration card I filled out on the plane, and took my passport without looking at me. I saw Max’s fall out onto the desk. I panicked. What if he doesn’t think it’s funny? What if he doesn’t give it back to me? The official picked it up, perplexed at the small size and the obviously cheap lamination job. He opened it, and his face shiftedup on his skull as his eyebrows raised up in a classically Gallic gesture. He smiled. I stood there grinning widely. "Eh, Thierry!" he said, holding up the passport to the window for the agent next to him, "Look at this! It’s a passport for a cat!" He looked back to me, shaking his head and smiling as he handed both passports back. Score #1 for Max and Penelope in Paris.
After the passport control, it was on to Baggage Claim. A monk in full Franciscan garb approached me and said in British accented French, "Oh, vous avez un chat, c’est génial!" An older distinguished couple approached me, asking about the bag. I have to admit, it’s the coolest bag ever. It’s black and red and is three fourths mesh, so I can see him, he can see me, and he can breathe better. It has wheels like a suitcase, and straps to convert to a backpack. I swear, Global Pet Products should pay me for endorsing their product. A nice lady just asked me about it here in the Vins et Compagnie because she will be traveling with her 10 pound cat to the US soon and she only has the old heavy plastic containers with the uncomfortable handle. I showed her the name on the bag, demonstrated its features, and recommended she do a Google search on the company name. I am due some promotional fees here, people.
After Baggage Claim, it was customs, which consisted of two agents loitering vaguely in the area under the sign and acknowledging no one. I hesitated, ready to pull out all of Max’s paperwork, passport included, and show how I had done all the right things. The two agents sighed, looking thoroughly bored. I passed by them, and they didn’t stop me. No one asked me for a single piece of paper showing he had his rabies vaccination, his nicely embossed and notarized health certificate from the USDA, no one asked for his microchip number. Poor Max, after all that we went through and he doesn’t even get harassed by the authorities like everyone else.
samedi, août 07, 2004
Finally, I will have the chance to be a part of the city I have admired and loved from afar for so long. Its streets and alleys, rivers and parks, cafes and shops will become part of my landscape.
I will find and create my own Paris.
I have not yet absorbed what an enormous change this will be to my life. Shopping will have to be done every other day, as my refrigerator will no doubt be miniscule and the goods I buy will have to be light and small enough to carry. I must scope out a funky rolly cart. I once saw one on the Rue de Rivoli that was reversible : pink on one side and orange on the other. It was definitely cute. No plaid old lady carts for me, thank you. God I hate plaid.
I will ride the metro, walk or take a taxi to everywhere I need to be. Will I become a real Parisienne and scowl the whole way? Or will I dance in my seat to the sounds of the Gypsy musicians, give them a whole euro as a tip, and have them tip their hats to me as they get off and watch the train pull away? Will I huff angrily at stonewalling bureaucrats and make guttural sounds of exasperation and disbelief when I don't get my way? Or will I smile and make conversation with the taxi drivers and fruit sellers?
Aside from the very practical details of a good job, a nice work colleague, and temporary housing in the 16th arrondissement, I have no idea what actually awaits me in Paris.
Isn't that the beauty of it, after all?
jeudi, juillet 29, 2004
Over the years, I had often flipped through the course offerings in the catalog of Adult Continuing Education classes at the University near me and paused thoughtfully at the Creative Writing option, before quickly dimissing it at the memory of torturous days spent listening to someone destroy the beauty of nocturnes by reducing them to patterns.
The day I saw the course was being offered at the remote University annex not five minutes away from the factory where I work in the countryside, I decided it was a sign that I should finally bury my misgivings and make the leap.
I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the instructor was a funny warm woman with an infectious passion for writing. She was incredibly encouraging to me, and flattered me greatly by asking me to be a part of her writing group outside of class.
She was the one who finally broke the spell of inaction for me. Like most everyone else, I had written in an assignment that I had always dreamed of writing a novel, but had been afraid to. She picked one sentence from each of our compositions, and told us to use it as the first line of our next assigment. She picked a sentence out of mine that had described a short story I had written a decade before in college. I sighed when I saw it, thinking I had already done what I was capable of doing with that story, but eventually resigned myself it must be the thing that wanted to be written. When she handed me back my composition two weeks later, she said, "Quit worrying, you've started your novel."
That was all it took. So simple. Someone I considered an "authority" in writing to tell me that what I had written was worthy of a novel.
Thanks to her encouragement and my boring weekend job as a receptionist, I wrote 18 pages of my first novel. I saved it on a hard disk.
As I was packing the other day, I found the disk and decided that since my laptop had no hard disk drive (old fashioned little ol' me) I should print it out and retype it later onto a CD. The disk was damaged and unreadable. All I have now of my original 18 pages is 7 or 8 of a very first draft that I had thankfully printed out at some point for class.
Well, it's a start. We'll see where I go from there.
dimanche, juillet 25, 2004
See, what gets me every time is the possibilites. What if it rains? What if I have to walk a lot? What if it turns suddenly cold? What if some terribly handsome guy I meet on the way just happens to invite me to an incredibly chic place for dinner? I have to be prepared for this, have just the right thing on hand, be ready at the last minute. That's what travel is for me: surrendering to the moment. Okay, that's what life is to me, but stay with me here.
Actually, nevermind. I just needed to get that out.
mardi, juillet 20, 2004
I must also share what has to be one of my favorite text messages of all times:
Me to the other friend who was there that night, after we had both gone home exhausted, she to a date with a much younger man:
"All is well-had talk-discovered real issue: what is meaning of life? Possible remedy: Sartre. How was boy?"
To Anonymous, I've ordered a copy of Viktor Frankl's book, but just might read it myself before passing it on. You have piqued my curiosity: do I know you?
On another note, Max, my mom and I made a foray to my favorite cafe, he in his swank new backpack/carrying case/car seat/bed. Seriously one of the best presents ever. Besides Max himself, of course. I sat him in a chair at our table, and he meowed a bit, but eventually settled down and engaged in some intense people watching. Like owner, like cat. He was quite a hit with the Bulgarian waitresses, I must say. I was so proud.
There is some serious potential for cafe haunting together when Paris finally happens. Dour Parisian waiters, you have no idea what is in store for you....
mardi, juillet 13, 2004
Why didn't he love me?
If he didn't love me, who ever will?
I am wasting my good years and eventually I'll be old and ugly and then no one will want me at all.
These are feelings that plague us all, but most especially her. She had been tossing them around so much and so often during recent months that quite honestly, I was beginning to get sick of it. I didn't fault her for feeling them, but for constantly talking about them and not seeming to process them. It was just a tape playing the same cut over and over again. I was sadly beginning to question if I could actually be a good friend to her.
You see, there are two things I really have no patience for : repetition and gross insecurity. Combine the two, and I will quickly wish you well and make my exit.
So it was with these thoughts of having a little chat with her that I went to her place on Sunday, only to have her break down in wracking sobs when the last group of people had gone, leaving me and another friend to try to piece her back together. I certainly wasn't going to say anything about what I had been feeling after that.
Eventually, she calmed down enough to zero in what was really bothering her. Her essential quandry was this: what does life, and what we do in it, matter if we must die in the end?
Obsess over the same guy and not make headway - boring!
Have an existential crisis and question the meaning of life - now that's my kind of woman!
I was at first so surprised that I had no idea what to say. She reveled in my loss of words and promised to record the date as the only time Penelope had been rendered speechless. Then I tried some yin-yang approach and argued that if the end of life mattered to her, therefore life itself must. She wasn't buying.
I asked if the only reason life had no value to her was that it was destined to come to an end, would life have value for her if we were immortal? She laughed and said she wasn't sure, but it was a damn good question.
What do you think, boys and girls? Does death negate life? Since, in fact, we are all going to die, does what we do or who we are or what we live matter? Now there's a question I'd like to see in a poll on a webpage sidebar!
lundi, juillet 05, 2004
I met him at a cocktail party, one of those soirees you get invited to and go because you'd always wanted to see the inside of houses in that area. We had seen each other many times since, mostly at parties, where he would be sure to bestow a compliment on me in passing, like a priest flicking holy water on his way down the aisle.
One evening he invited me over to dinner at his house, and we sat talking on his impeccably white Le Corbusier sofa under the Liechstenstein. At some point in the conversation, he had exclaimed,
"You are so surprising! You don't have any of the same preoccupations of other rich women I know."
I burst out laughing and asked what had ever given him the idea that I was rich. I silently mused at how little he knew me.
Months later, he invited me and some friends to his house for a late dinner of pasta, a special dish he wanted to prepare for us to continue the impromptu spirit of the evening. I was meeting the rest of the group at his place, and on my way there, he called to ask if I would pick up an onion for the special dish.
"It must be a white onion," he insisted, "the mushrooms would not be able to stand up to the yellow ones."
I was mildly annoyed since I was almost there, but most especially because he had changed his mind about where and what to eat several times over the course of the evening before finally settling on cooking at home. Just as I as I had parked my car and was about to run in to the store, my friend Oksana called. A stunning East European with long straight black hair as thick as her accent, she was calling to see if I was already there. I mentioned I was about to go in to the store to buy an onion.
"He asked me to buy an onion, too," she said. "But I am going to be late, so if he needs it for the dish..."
"Did yours have to be white?" I asked sarcastically.
"Don't you think it's strange he asked us both to buy an onion?" I said.
"I think we need to talk," she said.
When I arrived, I proffered him the onion at the door as I kissed his cheeks on either side in greeting.
"Oh, you needn't have," he said, taking the bag from me absent mindedly and gesturing towards the kitchen with it, "Julia brought one earlier."
Biting my tongue to not say something impertinent, I went inside to find the other members of the group gathered in the spacious steel appliance-filled kitchen, most of them standing around awkwardly in their socks in expectation. Julia, a very young Asian who was in town visiting, had a slightly dreamy smile on her face that couldn't help looking ever so slightly triumphant. Apparently her shockingly yellow onion had already been chosen to be part of the special dish. I watched with detached amusement as he stiffly dashed around the kitchen, wiping every surface and rearranging things on the countertops to be perfectly lined up.
Up to that point, I had thought him cultured and sophisticated, but as he continued to obsess without ever offering those of us who had arrived post-onion a drink or a seat, I thought to myself that I may have been brought up with modest means, but I certainly was taught how to receive guests.
Finally, I broke the stalemate by offering to open the bottle of wine I had brought and serve it to the group. This meant looking in the drawers for the wine opener, something I sensed I shouldn't do without asking which one.
He nudged me out of the way and opened the drawer behind me, which was at least three feet in length and held the most organized, entensive collection of flatware I had ever seen.
"Now that's a bigger drawer than I expected it to be," I mused. The girl next to me laughed.
He turned to me and looked at me askance, "Why is it that you say things in a way that make me think it's not what you mean?" he said.
I had no idea what to say. I had really only expressed surprise at the size of the drawer. What could he possibly think I could have meant? Did he think it was a comment on his height? Surely not on the size of his member in proportion? In that moment I realized to my utter astonishment that I unsettled him.
To be continued...
lundi, juin 28, 2004
There are many gems that made me laugh out loud (much to the detriment of the eardrums of the people next to me), but one of my favorite scenes is the hilarious sight of an ice cream truck Michael Moore convinces to help him circle the capital and read over its loudspeaker the text of the Patriot Act to the senators who voted for it without ever reading its contents. One of its best attributes is the choice and placement of the music in the film. It is utterly perfect.
Go see it. If nothing else, it is a moving piece of cinema. You will tear up, laugh out loud, hide your eyes behind your hands, and shake your head in shame.
And that, boys and girls, is the power of good movie making.
jeudi, juin 24, 2004
Well wonder of wonders, after staying up way too late talking to a customer with a stogie and cognac in hand (me, not him) I spent the night in Madison, GA and got way too little sleep and dragged my feet through the next day, so that upon finally making it home after miraculously not killing myself on the drive, I totally overslept this morning.
This could help explain the horribly mimatched tones of gray green and gray that I threw together while cursing and rushing out of the house.
See, there is this really weird phenomenon that happens to me in the morning. I used to think it was unique to my old apartment in Decatur where pimples seemed to disappear, mismatched socks looked the same color, and all cat hair was completely camouflaged. Until I would get out of my car in the parking lot at work and look down at the one gray and one black sock, and the two uncomplimentary tones of black clothes completely covered in masses of caramel colored Max hair. This would happen on a regular basis when I lived in Decatur. I used to just think my studio had this Vermeer like light that made everything look ok. The light was half the reason I chose it in the first place.
But I suppose it has nothing to do with place, because this morning I was rushing in to my office and looked down at the gray green jacket I had so horribly paired with a gray shirt and gray green pants, and suddenly my whole day was shot before it even began. I don't know if I am uniquely narcissistic or just kind of loopy, but if I don't like what I'm wearing, it can ruin my whole day. Seriously. So my day was kind of mismatched and gray, and I interpreted an email in the most negative way possible so I could feel even grayer.
And then later in the evening a friend said loudly in the middle of a French restaurant, "You don't look fat!" when I hadn't even mentioned it. She's a dear, but she's the type to ask you about your yeast infection in a crowded cafe next to a table of guys you were eyeing.
So blah. Is it that I am so much of a noztna ptiza that I can't function correctly in the morning enough to pick out something flattering?
Is is that I am really tired of living out of two suitcases after six months?
What the hell am I going to do with all my stuff when I finally find a home?
I hope they have Goodwill in France.
samedi, juin 19, 2004
So what am I putting off right now? Hmmm, let's see:
- Balancing my checkbook? Yep. Booooring!
- Getting dressed? Who says I can't hang out in a towel all day?
- Cleaning up my room? Yuck. Even though I can't find anything in here. A thought occurs to me to adopt the sexy Frenchman's philosophy and apply 5S to my room, but then a moment later, um, nevermind.
- Writing on my Baroness story? How about total laziness/fear of failure/general angst?
And the most annoying thing I am putting off.....
- Going out to the mall (egads! Yikes! Oh, the horror of it!) to buy cognac glasses for an event for work on Monday night.
The only motivating factor is the prospect of seeing the sexy Frenchman holding the cognac glass that I bought JUST FOR HIM in his beautiful hands and bringing it slowly to his lips....
lundi, juin 14, 2004
The story of Reynaldo Arenas, a Cuban dissident author who was thrown in prison not only for his writing but also for his homosexuality, is a hard one to watch, especially since it is a true story and the man's death is just as tragic as his life. But when I saw that he managed to write a novel in prison using pencil stubs he earned by writing his fellow prisoner's love letters, I thought, now if that man can write a novel in those conditions, surely my lazy ass can churn something out from the comfort of my bedroom.
samedi, mai 29, 2004
If at all possible, do try to avoid going to an exclusive, tasting menu only restaurant where reservations must be made three months in advance, in the the full throes of a head cold. You will not be able to taste a thing, and this will make you feel a million times worse. Take the starter, a green pea mousse with a cream topping served in a delicate glass and tiny spoon, which you are advised to plunge into all layers to get the full array of flavors. It will taste like, and please pardon the image here, nasal congestion. The lovely pale champagne, whose bubbles will barely penetrate your stuffed head, will taste like, yes, slightly bitter head congestion. You will cry out with delight when the crab and lobster millefeuille with paper thin slices of avocado manage to awaken your dulled tastebuds, but you will curse Willie the janitor who infected you when you cannot perceive the slightest flavor of the mysterious white wine chosen for you by the arrestingly handsome waiter, which you still, in your stubborness insist is Viognier, despite not being able to taste much more than, you guessed it, nasal congestion. It will be a bittersweet experience, sort of like going to an opera in Vienna and not being able to hear a note. But you promise yourself to try again, and take your vitamins religiously for weeks leading up to the day of the hard won reservation. And this time you'll split the bill.
Is there any way to truly thank someone who has helped you beyond what you ever imagined possible? How do you thank a guardian angel? Is it enough to simply try to deserve them? Chocolates from the Rue de Rennes seem not quite up to the task...
Mint juleps are indeed a pain to make in Paris, especially if you insist on using a stainless steel contraption that will only crush a total of 5 ice cubes at a time, which will then immediately melt upon contact with straight Kentucky bourbon. But if your suggestion of a dishtowel and a hammer have fallen on deaf ears attached to an Austrian head determined to use a German engineered stainless steel contraption, you must conjure up your Southern gentility and smile it away. You will then, days later, amusedly watch a thoroughly Parisian bartender in the most Parisian of cafe bars whip up a perfectly delightful mint julep in the space of three seconds, complete with mint spring, and chuckle to yourself at how you, and others, can complicate things unnecessarily.
While Paris may indeed truly deserve its reputation for coldness and indifference, I find it a magical place, where possibilities abound and people never cease to surprise me. Sometimes, it is a simple gesture, like a coffee on the house, or the metro train door opened for me as I struggle with my shopping bags by a young Arab teenager with shyly smiling almond eyes. This is, after all, the city of my guardian angel, of the sweet and warm Isabelle, of Laurent, Nicolas and many others who are sure to touch me and enrich my life, but who I cannot possibly yet imagine.
jeudi, mai 27, 2004
What I gathered from this trip:
The funny raunchy girl working in the chocolate shop on the Rue de Rennes is my kinda gal, and if I get to go back, I will look her up. We could definitely hang.
Pointy high heeled sandals look really good in black and bubblegum pink, but they really suck for walking to the park and back.
The cafe/restaurant near headquarters has the most overpriced watery coffee in all of France, but damn that little spin your spoon and flirt with the guy next to you ad for colored contact lenses that is encased in the cafe tables is a clever little idea. Not that I need any encouraging to be outrageously flirtatious. Especially in France.
Out of the three (count them, THREE, including the one I just got this trip) job offers I have gotten from Paris headquarters, I have never actually had an interview. It's always been more like let me tell you about this job to see if you are interested. I could get used to this. Now if only the French Labor Department adopts this attitude, things will be just peachy.
For some inexplicable reason, most French weddings I have ever attended have played "YMCA" and "I Will Survive" during the reception. There is a part of me that remembers these songs from birthday parties at roller skating rinks full of boys in headbands and girls in leg warmers scarfing down neopolitan ice cream bars, and I can explain it away by concentrating on the nostalgic for the seventies party-like atmosphere, but most of me associates this with flamingly gay festivities. If they had started playing "It's Raining Men" I think I would have really lost it.
Why is it that I can wear the same makeup, clothes and shoes in Atlanta, but in Paris I feel glamorous and beautiful? Now who ever heard of a better argument for moving than that?
More later, kids.
mercredi, mai 12, 2004
No, not for good - yet. It's time for a little indulgence, a little shoulder rubbing at company headquarters, and a wedding in the South.
My guardian angel in headquarters wants to discuss some "possibilities" and some "ideas". Have I mentioned lately that I love this man? He called to ask me to come a day earlier to meet someone else with whom he has been discussing me.
"Come see me 30 minutes before we are supposed to meet with him, and I'll tell you what to say and what not to say," he told me. I laughed, saying that was just the sort of thing a guardian angel is for. "But," he advised, "don't laugh like that."
Don't laugh like that? Oh, no, does he realize how much that will make me want to laugh now? Plus, the mystery man I am supposed to meet is named Portebeouf. How will I make it through those first few minutes without thinking:
"A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Wearsbeef."
"How generous of you to give me some of your time, Mr. Carrymeat."
or better yet,
"Mr. Schlepsteak, charmed I'm sure."
Must find way to simultaneously turn humor brain off while leaving brilliant, charming, dedicated and utterly employable brain on full steam.
Good thing this meeting is planned for Monday afternoon. Gives me all the time afterwards for either celebrating my stunning success at winning over Señor Schlepsteak, or drowning my sorrows in much wine at the hopelessness of it all. Ahem.
I am bringing a bottle of bourbon and a mint julep recipe from Kentucky Derby country with me. If need be, I can break into it early. I'm planning to whip up some frosty ones to thank the fellow Georgia Peach transplant who tried to help me with my visa troubles. I hope I can find enough ice in the city of Paris to make the suckers. If not, what the hell, we'll drink it straight.
So, also on the agenda for fun and excitement is catching up with some old friends, meeting and making new ones, and some serious culinary excursions. Such as the place where they serve you whatever they feel like concocting, and it's up to you to guess the ingredients. This is going to be fun.
jeudi, avril 29, 2004
Caprice - a whim, an impulse
Touareg - a nomadic, Berber speaking peoples found in the Sahara
Impala - a reddish African antelope known for its leaping ability
Pontiac - Native American Ottowa leader who lead a revolt against the British in the Great Lakes region in the 18th century
Mercury - the Roman god of travel, commerce, and interestingly, theivery
Cherokee - a Native Amercan peoples originally inhabiting the Southern Appalachian region, from the Carolinas and Tennessee to Georgia
Lumbago - a painful condition in the lower back, resulting from muscle strain or a slipped disk
All but one of them is also the name of a model of car, from the luxury GM Caprice, to the rugged, tough Jeep Cherokee.
Can you guess which one sent me over the edge the other morning on my way to work as I read it on the back of the vehicle in front of me and exclaimed out loud,
"Oh Jesus Christ, they're naming cars that now?!?"
This stayed in the back of my consciousness, simmering. Where do we come up with this stuff? That the etymological associations evoke noble and strong peoples and animals is understandable, after all, cars are a reflection of the way we see ourselves. But how many of us actually understand the image behind the name?
The Roman god of travel is pretty clever for a car name, but I bet the ad exec who came up with that zinger didn't know he was also the god of theivery. Caprice, a pretty, frivolous thing you would buy just because you can, dammit, and because you look so good in it. Cherokee, tough enough to survive genocide and displacement for thousands of miles.
One day a French friend complained of severe back pain, saying he had a "lumbago." I had never heard the word, and, fascinated but completely insensitive to his discomfort, I declared it sounded like the name of a car. I could even picture the classified ad:
"Black 1999 Lumbago, 5 speed, good condition, 45k miles, $6,000 - all service records available!"
Yes, you are right, it is the Volkswagen Touareg that got me all riled up. To take the name of a nomadic people in the Sahara, otherwise known as the "Blue Men" for their brilliant blue dyed robes, and put it on the back of a sports utility vehicle was too much for me.
Perhaps because at the beginning of my foray into the world of chatting online, I was contacted by a gentle soul, a member of that group, who wanted to express to me, an American, his sorrow about the tragedy of the World Trade Center attacks. We talked of our common belief that we are all woven from the same cloth of humanity. We consoled each other that at least the age of the internet had made it possible for us to reach out to each other across deserts and oceans.
He taught me a Touareg proverb :
"Eloignez vos tentes, et rapprochez vos coeurs."
"Spread out your tents, and bring your hearts closer together."
When I think Touareg, I think of that man and his simple but powerful gesture.
Here's hoping his spirit, and his people's, get more mileage than the car.
vendredi, avril 23, 2004
It is not about politics, or gun control, or even the Columbine shooting.
It is about the American psyche.
It asks many more questions than it answers, but deftly accomplishes its simple aim to get people thinking and talking and asking questions. It is not always easy to watch, but like most good art, it does not leave you indifferent.
I watched it twice in one night, and for the first time ever, explored every single DVD feature.
I commend the writer and filmmaker for his courage, his integrity, and his heart in making this film.
Put it on the top of your Netflix list; go down to the video store and rent it; buy it online.
Don't miss it.
lundi, avril 12, 2004
samedi, avril 03, 2004
I noticed the big blue and white Moroccan ashtrays on the bar, the boldly patterned banquette and the deep blue walls. They had definitely done wonders in the space, which had been formerly decorated with - no lie - fish nets with star fish stuck in them. When it was a seafood restaurant, in case you didn't get the hint. I went to the bathroom and marveled at the thoroughly modern chrome and smoky glass sink, and reveled in the thyme scented hand lotion. Definitely a good choice, I thought.
I installed myself at the bar and ordered a glass of wine. The owner, who had greeted me at the door, had exclaimed over my Chinese "take-out" bag (actually a purse) and smiled at me as I sat back down. He seemed to want to talk, so I complimented him on the renovations and decor, and asked how long it had been open, how business was doing. He came over to give me his card, and I noticed his name looked Moroccan. I introduced myself, shaking his hand.
"Penelope, nice to meet you," I said.
"Benela?" he asked.
"Menela," he said, more assuredly.
"Non, non, Penelope, comme la femme d'Ulysse," I corrected him in French, figuring what the hell, it's going to go much faster that way.
"Ah," he exclaimed, relieved, "Penela."
"Non, non, vous savez, elle etait la femme d'Ulysse, Penelope," I said, sure it would click then.
"Jamais entendu parler d'Ulisse." Never heard of Ulysses. Then again, why would he have, if he was a lifelong restauranteur?
We talked a bit more, about what I did, how I learned French, etc. He looked at his watch and kept an eye on the cars passing outside.
"It's too bad, I'm just waiting for a taxi; I'm going to a Moroccan restaurant to celebrate a friend's birthday." He looked at me almost wistfully, as if wishing his friend had been born another day. "You're welcome to come," he added quickly.
"Oh, I know the Medina," I said. I knew the owner gave me the creeps, how he always fixed me with an intense gaze, as if willing me his. I had stopped going there because of it.
"There will even be a French belly dancer, we've asked for her especially."
"Carole? She's my really good friend," I said, laughing.
"Then you must come."
"I don't know if I will," an image of the dark and brooding owner pulling me by the hand up to dance suddenly flashed through my head. "Whose birthday is it?"
"A friend of mine, Mehdi."
"I know Mehdi! International lawyer, Algerian?"
"You know him? Then you really have to come."
"I don't know, he didn't invite me, I wouldn't want him to feel strange if I just showed up at his party like that."
"Oh, it won't be a problem," he said, "everyone is bringing their wives or girlfriends. And the guys are always teasing me that I never have one, so I could show up with you and really give them a shock!"
"Yes, Medhi would be surprised," I replied, thinking about how we met and the strange nature of our friendship.
"C'mon, it's April 1st!" I laughed, turned to him and gave him a high five. That was all the convincing I needed. It appealed to my mischevious side.
Driving in my car to the restaurant, and in between complimenting me on my looks and my French, he told me about all his houses around the world and how he had become a restaurant owner by accident. When we stopped at a busy intersection, he pointed to an advertisement board at a bus stop on the corner.
"See over there? What do you think if I put an ad there for my restaurant?"
"It's perfect," I said, "it would catch exactly the public you're looking for. Like me, I haven't heard anything about your place and I go out all the time. I am on several event mailing lists and I read all the restaurant reviews I can. You need to advertise more."
"I pay some guy thousands of dollars a month to do publicity for me, and you haven't heard of my restaurant!" he shook his head disgustedly. "Such reviews I have gotten, I have been written up in both the local magazines, the local papers, I have been on TV, and still I don't have the customers I want. I am paying for everyone else's mistakes."
It was true, the space his restaurant was in had turned over often since the original one, and none had been as successful.
We got to the Medina, and he grumbled as I insisted on parking in a legal spot, "I don't think I have ever parked so far away from the Medina before."
"The exercise will be good for you," I replied. We were less than a block away.
We walked inside, and I drew in my breath, hoping not to see the owner first thing, but we luckily were greeted by a young waiter, and much Arabic ensued. He led us inside, and as I turned to the people already seated, I noticed the woman directly to my right, the former director for the French American Chamber of Commerce. I couldn't of course remember her name. Of course she knew mine. There are times when it is a real disadvantage to have a memorable name, you end up feeling like a schmuck for blanking on everyone else's. Next to her was Mehdi, who thankfully acted geniunely glad to see me, and suitably amused I had shown up with his friend. He introduced me to his girlfriend, whom I had already been warned looked like a plastic surgery poster girl. Indeed, her ghostly pale face peeking out from her thin straight hair looked as if it had only recently settled into its present stiffly smiling shape, like a newly cooled candle. I willed myself not to look at her breasts. I was afraid to see what color or shape they might turn out to be.
Blissfully, there was a patch of people I didn't know and most likely wouldn't talk to all night. There was no one in that group who might be trying to reconcile a former impression of me. I turned to find a cushion to sit on, and right there in front of me was the very founder of the French American Chamber of Commerce and the President of the Atlanta Toulouse Sister Society, who had brought a tour group through the plant where I worked not a month before. The poor man had tried to reach my boss for almost a year before finally succeeding. I had won a bet with him for a chicken sandwich that the tour group would not be made up of "local business leaders" but of bored Buckhead housewives who vacationed in Provence. I had to admire the man for his persistence, though, and his French was flawless. I still hadn't cashed in on the chicken sandwich. But here I was, with a complete stranger, ready to have a good time, close friends with the French electrical engineering PhD belly dancer and being scoped out by the restaurant owner, pretty sure I would have a fair share of wine and end up belly dancing myself, and pretty much resigned to tarnishing my professional image for the foreseeable future. The owner came over, grabbed both my hands and gathered me into his very tall grip. I pulled away just in time to avoid being felt up.
"Just how many people do you know? Who are you?" my 'boyfriend' asked. "I think you know more people here than I do!" I laughed and sat down on a banquette next to an older gentleman with big wide hands that squeezed mine firmly in greeting. He turned out to be the franchising area manager for some restaurant chain, and I sensed he was expecting me to be impressed. I decided it was not the moment to tell him my opinion about chains. I had not spared Mehdi, who years before, when I had tired of hearing him brag about which countries he had traveled to, setting up franchising rights for a cinnamon roll store -Cairo, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur- had been subject to me questioning,
"Doesn't it bother you at all to be such an integral part of the death of culture worldwide? I mean, I dunno about you, but I certainly don't want a fucking cinnamon bun when I'm in Beijing!"
But despite contributing to the downfall of local merchants from North Carolina to Florida, he turned out to be a great conversationalist. Later on, a distinguished older gentleman came in, and sat in between us. He had on a beautifully tailored suit and wire rimmed round glasses, and had travelled in the Sahara in his youth, telling us stories of hitching rides with reporters from LIFE magazine in their Jeeps. I found him charming and wanted to hear more of what he had to say, but my 'boyfriend', who at this point had drunk more than a bottle of wine by himself, kept rudely interrupting him and calling him "Pappy". I scowled at him and said I'd rather talk to a gentleman anyday.
The meal was served, Carole came out, and the owner pulled me up to dance. It was more than I could control, so there I was, right in front of the FACC founder, shimmying up a storm, thinking just what am I doing to my image in the French business community? At least he seemed to be enjoying it. At a certain point, you can't control being yourself, and at that moment, that was me. It reminded me of when my ex and I had invited a couple out to eat at the other, bigger, showier Moroccan restaurant in town. There, you had to eat with your hands and take off your shoes and sit on the floor. This was a bit much for the mild-mannered midwestern couple we had invited, and I offhandedly noted their discomfort, but soon was so mesmerized by the belly dancer that I hardly remembered they were there. The girl worked with my ex in the biochemistry lab of a pharmaceutical company, and this was her first time meeting me. I don't know how she had imagined me, but later he told me that when I began to wail in the middle eastern fashion and the dancer pulled me out on the floor with her, that she had turned to him and said, with a hint of disbelief,
"So, this is your wife..."
to be continued
samedi, mars 27, 2004
Send it all back to Atlanta : $4,000
Be rid of that troublesome American forever : Priceless
Apparently, according to the Insulation Branch, I should "understand" - as in, "Vous comprendrez, on est oblige de vous renvoyer vos affaires." I am not sure what conclusion I am supposed to jump to here, or why it is the only obvious choice. I'm only an administrative assistant, after all, but if it were up to me to decide whether to spend $4,000 or $110 a month, I know what I would do, if only in the interest of logic and saving my company some dough. But this is not about money, now is it, people? It is about erasing traces of a failure. It is about not being reminded of uncomfortable things such as a girl who upturned her life at your insistence only to be turned away at the last minute. A girl who is deeply disappointed that her dream did not happen.
It makes people uncomfortable, this dream thing. Especially French people who do not know me. Like Jerome. (Real friends, of course, are unfailingly supportive.) Does Jerome have a dream? Has he tried to achieve it? How many of these random people, in chat rooms or at a restaurant, have reacted negatively to this dream of mine? How many times have I heard:
"Life is difficult in Paris" (~25 times)
"Life is expensive in Paris" (~100 times)
"It rains all the time in Paris" (~55 times)
"People are cold and unfriendly in Paris" (~27 times)
I am a very determined gal. Rain, I can handle. I have a very funky raincoat. Unfriendly people? A cinch. Expensive? Not compared to Atlanta. Difficult? Since when is life not difficult? Visa refusal? I'll wait for a different job offer. One that isn't an assistant level. One where they need an American blonde who speaks 5 languages and can relate to rural Southern blacks as well as blue collar French technicians.
Nevertheless, this blind insistence at sending my stuff back makes me think the management position in 2005 is no longer open to me. Because otherwise, why make that decision? Then again, it could mean nothing at all, except that it is normale, vous comprendrez to send the person's shit back when the visa gets refused.
I'm sick of trying to interpret something I don't understand. I've decided to look at it like this : my visa got refused for this job offer. I cannot go now. I must wait for a better job opportunity. My stuff is being sent back and will be in a warehouse in Atlanta instead of Paris. I am saving money by not paying rent and living with my mom. I am writing a story, and it's going well. My time will come.
Il faut laisser le temps au temps.
Damn, that man is sexy.
samedi, mars 20, 2004
vendredi, mars 19, 2004
So I dutifully sent in the quote, provided by the helpful but slightly bewildered moving company salesman, amounting to around $4000. I thought for once I would try to be French and subtle (implicit culture) rather than blunt and American (explicit culture), so I snuck in the amount they would have to pay per month to keep my things in the warehouse where they currently are hanging out in comfort and style, to the tune of a mere $110/ month. I would prefer the things just stay there, they've made it that far, give them a break. Plus, I find it ridiculous to spend money on sending things back and forth unnecessarily. They could keep my stuff in the warehouse in Paris for 72 months for the same amount of money it would cost them to ship it to Atlanta and back to Paris again.
So yesterday, I received a gut splittingly funny reply from poor prematurely-balding Jérôme, who was aghast at the amount it cost, considering what he thought it cost to send my things to Paris in the first place: a mere $425 for two boxes weighing 200 lbs each. "I must admit" he wrote, "I am a bit surprised that it is so much more expensive to send things to the US. The inital quote was for $425, could there really be that much of a difference in the other direction?"
See, back in the day when I thought I would be moving to Paris in January, back when we all thought my visa request would just sail through, back when I thought my things would arrive on a boat waaaay after I did, I asked dear departed Fabienne if Insulation would be willing to pay for me to ship myself some essential items such as pots and pans, dishes, sheets, towels, and kitty litter, timed to arrive the same day as Max and me, to make the unfurnished apartment liveable until my things arrived from the States. So I had given her a quote of sending two boxes at 200 lbs each for a total of $425. So this is what Jérôme was going on. Because of course he has no idea where the invoice is from the actual move that took place. Because of course it hasn't been paid. Because of course Fabienne used it for discarding her gum instead of giving it to Accounting?
People, I ask you, even if you had no idea what kind of unit of measurement a pound was, don't you think maybe LOGICALLY you could figure out that $425 is a little on the CHEAP side for shipping the ENTIRE CONTENTS OF ONE'S APARTMENT ACROSS THE FUCKING ATLANTIC?!? Do you think you could fit the contents of YOUR life in two boxes?!? Fer Chrissake, people, USE YOUR PREMATURELY BALDING HEAD!!! So no freakin' WONDER they were so anxious to offload my stuff - $425! Pas mal!
Jesus I hope those people have to move overseas someday, just so they have to deal with all the details, just so they KNOW.
samedi, mars 13, 2004
I had a four-hour layover from Rio for my flight back to the US, and instead of waiting in the gate area, I went to the main atrium and installed myself at a café table on the second floor, opened my Brazilian fashion magazine to practice my Portuguese reading skills, and ordered a caipirinha. The café tables were set along a railing and facing the main walkway in front of various shops and other establishments. It was here I first saw him walking, slowly, without a destination in mind, a man killing time. He was thin and quite tall, and held his head a little up in the air as he surveyed to his left and right in passing.
I had noticed him when he walked by the first time, how he only vaguely looked at the shop windows, and when I had taken him in, I turned back to my magazine, wondering if he had a spectacular looking Brazilian wife who was on her way from somewhere to meet him. When I looked up again a good ten minutes later, he was coming from the opposite direction, walking just as aimlessly and slowly. I wasn't sure if he had looked in my direction or if he had even seen me. I turned back to my reading again, thinking he might instead be waiting to board a plane, as I was. The third time around, I thought to myself, "Poor man. If only he knew that he could strike up a conversation with me and the time would pass so much quicker and more pleasantly for both of us." I told myself that if he came around a fourth time, I would get his attention and invite him to sit and have a drink with me. I busied myself with the items on the table, rearranging the stand up drink menu (caiprinha, cairpiroska, cafezinho, chope, suco de abacaxi, suco de maracuja) and the position of the salt and pepper shakers. I fiddled with napkins. I turned the pages of my magazine. When I looked up, there he was again, this time heading toward me, away from his former path and toward my table. I caught his eye and smiled. He smiled, bent forward in a slight bow and said in German-accented English,
"I told myself if you were still here when I came by the fourth time, I would come and talk to you," I laughed and said I had said the same thing to myself, that I would have invited him for a drink if he had come by again. He asked if he could sit down, and did.
We quickly established that neither of us was Brazilian - I thought he was a Brazilian businessman - he was Austrian - and he thought I was a Brazilian TV star - much, of course, to my delight.
“Nope,” I said, laughing, “I’m an American assistant.”
“You are so luminous,” he said, his eyes scanning my face,”It was your light that I saw from far away.” For those who don’t know, mistake a woman for a TV star and call her luminous, and the battle is half won.
He asked me, being an American, what my experience had been of September 11th. It was January, so very little time had gone by. I didn't mind the question as much as I thought I might, and answered that it was personal for me in a way that I didn't quite know what to do with. I hadn't lost anyone, but it made me keenly aware of the people in my life who were important to me, and I tried to contact them all to tell them so. The first person I had thought of, when it seemed that the world itself was dissolving, was the man I still loved, despite everything. I had desperately wanted to hear his voice, to know that he was alright, and I had hoped that the very nature of what was happening would jolt him out of the rigid state he had created and coveted, protecting himself from his emotions for me. He was unchanged, and still afraid of what seemed to me to be, on that horrible day, totally insignificant. Of all days, of all moments, I thought this one would be the one where he would let go and give in to love. It had crushed me that he hadn’t. I also felt very strange and petty and selfish, crying for my lost love story, and at the same time, I had cried for the thousands of people who cried for their dying, dead, missing husbands, lovers, children and parents. As I shared my reaction, tears came to his eyes. I was impressed at his sensitivity and closeness to his emotions. It takes a lot for a man to be comfortable enough to tear up in front of a woman he does not know who is sharing something personal. I thought his tears showed he understood me.
In the end, I said that my country's reaction to the event had disappointed me.
"We always overdo it," I grumbled, citing the forced patriotism, the ubiquitous flags, the maudlin appropriation of others' grief. "We could go for poignancy, but instead - and I don't know if this means the same thing in German as it does in Yiddish - but instead, we go for schmaltz."
He burst out laughing. Reaching in his briefcase he handed me his business card and said, "You must keep in touch. That is the first time I have laughed like that in many months." I looked at the card. It was white and simply decorated with a crest-like logo at the top, and his name, "Guenter Fhr. von F..." with the contact numbers below. I remember thinking it sounded like a noble name, but I had no idea what the "Fhr" stood for - I thought is was a middle name or some kind of diploma title. The German speakers, I vaguely recalled, were big on titles, with different ones for different academic degrees. For all I knew, it meant he was a dentist.
I asked him what had brought him to Brazil.
"It was the last place my wife and I were happy, when she was healthy enough to enjoy herself. She died last year of cancer," he answered, smiling sadly, "I came to see how it felt without her. To see if I could recapture some of it. But it wasn't the same, and I couldn't stay. I am now returning to Germany." As he told me how, when they had discovered she had little time left to live, they had decided to travel the world, he sometimes stopping every hour to carry her to the bathroom, it was I who had tears in my eyes. She had made him promise not to pity her, and she did not share her pain or thoughts of death. They had sworn they would only share happy times, and he carried her and her IVs, her myriad pills, from port to port.
"I do not think I did enough to save her," he said, looking down.
I don't know what made me do it. In an instant, I grabbed his hands across the table, and looking him in the eyes I said,
"She was very lucky to be loved by someone like you, who took her to see the world she would be leaving instead of fussing over how it might hasten her end. You loved and respected her deeply. She would be proud of you, now, for being here, trying, out in the world, when you could be crumpled up in a little ball on the floor, hiding from life in grief and loss. You honor your love for her much more by going on." I felt it was what she would have said to him if she could have spoken.
"Thank you," he said, simply.
By the time we both had to leave to catch our flights, we had talked for hours. We were standing, with the table in between us, neither of us really wanting to go.
"Well," I said, smoothing my shirt and gathering my things, "I'm so glad you came over. Look how nicely we've spent the time."
"I hope to hear from you soon," he said, taking my hand. For a moment, I thought he might kiss it.
I went to catch my flight. I was in such a daze that I missed my gate completely.
We had arranged to meet in Atlanta. I had no idea what he might want to do, and didn't really know what to expect from the visit. We had talked a lot on the phone, mostly about his deceased wife. He was going through some sort of legal battle with her family, over her belongings they wanted back, most especially a red dress.
"She looked fantastic in it," he remembered, "she wore it to the village festival her last spring. I have half a mind to send it to you, and tell the family I don't know what happened to it." I was strangely touched. I tried to picture what it might look like, and if it would fit me. I imagined a long formal gown, sleeveless but with a dramatic choker that would fasten elegantly in the back, emphasizing the shoulders. Tight fitting at the hips, and flaring at the ankles, touching the floor. I alternately envisioned a short sleeved summery affair, filmy, loose and asymmetrically ruffled about the hem. But the more I thought of it, and what I might actually do with it if he indeed sent it, the prospect of ever wearing a dead woman's dress was a little macabre. Especially since it made me feel a little odd, as if he wanted me to become her. More than a few friends of mine thought it downright creepy when I told them.
On the day of an important turn in the trial, he was apprehensive, and I sent him a text message on his phone to encourage him.
"Be strong. Remember how much you loved her. No court can take that away." He called me later to tell me it was 'perfect' and that he had read it aloud to the court. I was flattered, and glad I might have helped sway opinion in his favor. I felt for him, for the loss of the woman he loved. I wanted to help him heal and forget. Because I wanted to do the same.
To prepare for his visit, I made a booklet, complete with labeled sections of the things to do in and around Atlanta. There was a tab for "Restaurants" "Nightlife" "Day Trips" and "Exhibitions." I thought he might like to be the one to choose what we did. I wanted him to enjoy himself, take a break, and escape his memories.
A few days before he was to arrive, he mentioned our parting in the Sao Paulo airport.
"Do you remember," he asked, "when we said good-bye, and I kissed you?" I remembered a light, platonic peck on the lips. Faint, quick and dry, spontaneous, yet hesitant.
"Yes," I said, a little nervous that he might ask if I had liked it.
"That is the first time I have kissed anyone but my wife in ten years." I was stunned. I hadn't even really considered it a kiss. I suddenly felt an enormous responsibility to be careful with this man's feelings. My adventurous side was appeased by the chance encounter in the airport, the strong emotional connection with a stranger, and my sentimental romantic side was intrigued by what that might mean. Perhaps it was fate? I was relieved, excited and nervous that this might be more than a fling. That this might be terribly important to him, that he might have hung his hopes of finding love again on my door. That perhaps I might find it too. I wanted to know more of him, understand his story, the way he thought about things. Something about his sorrow, his love for his lost wife, touched me, and I wanted him to feel he could share it with me whenever he wanted to. I wanted him to know I understood what it felt like, in my own way, to be haunted by love.
I was determined to play close attention to any clues he might give me. Distance I would interpret as conflicted feelings and the need to go slow. I would give him room to be however he wanted to be. I would adapt, and take his lead.
"My home and my heart are open to you," I wrote him, "Come, and be welcome."
I had carefully prepared. My studio apartment was cleaner than it had been in months, a bottle of Veuve Clicquot was chilling in the fridge. I had even bothered to paint my toenails.
I picked him up at the airport, and he greeted me with a peck on the cheek while grasping my hands. In the car, he was quiet, and I tried to fill the silence with light chatter.
"How was your flight?" I chirped.
He didn't respond for some moments, and from the corner of my eye, I could see a sort of pained expression on his face.
"I need a moment to arrive," he said. I took the hint and dispensed with the small talk.
On the way to my apartment, I pointed out the buildings of interest in the skyline and other attractions I thought he would want to know about, carefully phrasing things so they required no input from him, letting him “arrive” and absorb. Who knew what things he had been through with her family, who knew what memories haunted him at that moment?
When we got to my apartment, I hung up his coat and put his small suitcase in the closet, motioning for him to sit on the tiny sofa and make himself comfortable.
“We could go have a drink somewhere,” I suggested, “or I have some champagne here if you would prefer.”
“Champagne,” he said. I brought the bottle out from the kitchen. “I see you have good taste,” he commented. I smiled and served him. We sat together and sipped the champagne, and I watched him for clues. He seemed to be relaxing and getting more comfortable. When we had both started our second glass, he leaned over, took me in his arms, and kissed me passionately. This was a signal I could read loud and clear.
The next morning, as we lay in bed, his arms wrapped around me from behind, I felt so at ease, as if slipping into a comfortable pair of jeans that had been worn so much they fit only me. Here we are, I thought, two wounded souls, finding solace in each other’s arms. It felt so good to be held by a man, a man who felt things deeply, his head buried in my neck. It was a lovely cool and sunny day. I suggested several options for breakfast. We decided to walk to the square to one of my favorite cafes, a bohemian affair that served cappuccinos and lattes in big hand painted cups, with a nice patio that gave out onto the sidewalk. The covered portion had a gas fireplace that was lit. We snagged the two rocking chairs in front of it. I suggested bagels for a touch of local flavor, not sure if they existed in Austria and Germany - were there enough Jews left to want them? He loved them, having never heard of them, and ordered a second helping. When we had finished eating, and were nursing our second cups of latte, I pulled out the book I had made for him and handed it to him.
“I thought you could look it over, and decide what you wanted to do. You are my guest, so you choose, and we’ll do it.”
“That color looks very good on you,” he said, appraising my rust and black outfit. I was glad he liked it, and made mental note to wear it again. He began to page through the booklet. “This is perfect,” he said, tapping it. He seemed very pleased that I had gone to the effort of putting it together, and liked that it was up to him to decide. I had the feeling he liked the organization of it, and approved of it in a way a manager might approve of a well-put together presentation from his secretary. I understood from this that he was a man who was used to having things done just so, organized and ready for him to make the final decision. He seemed like a man who knew what he wanted, and who had always gotten it. “How far away is the BMW plant? I would like to see it.” I had included it because I remembered he had worked on some projects with them. It was about three hours away by car. We decided to leave immediately, and dine in Athens on the way back, in a restaurant that had gotten rave reviews for its frothy cauliflower soup, urging Atlanta readers that it was worth the 70 mile drive. I packed the car with plenty of CDs and put him in charge of them and the map. My collection of music ranged from Khaled to Mozart. I like music that transports me.
He amused himself by playing a few songs from one, before changing to another, going through the entire collection until he found one he wanted to hear all the way through. He seemed intrigued by the eclectic selection, and would cock his head to the side listening to rai or fados for what I gathered was the first time. I translated lyrics when I could. I began to call him “DJ Guenter” and teased him periodically with, “Alright ya’all, check it out! DJ Guenter’s in da house!” putting an imaginary microphone to my lips and pointing the fingers of my other hand down to a beat. I could tell the reference was lost on him. I didn’t think he was a man who had seen too many hip-hop videos.
The BMW plant was closed for tours, so we explored the visitor’s center, watched a documentary film on how the cars were assembled in the factory, and had some good German beers in the café. I watched him as he drank, fascinated that his whole face changed when he tilted the glass back to sip from it, his lips pursed almost prettily. Sitting in the atrium, a beam of sunlight across his face, I told him he was handsome.
At dinner, he reached across the table and took my hands in his, saying,
“It would make me very happy if you took the dress,” His eyes bored into mine. He said he would send it to me when he got back. I thanked him, sensing the dress meant a myriad of things for him. Did he expect me to wear it he next time I saw him? I wondered if I looked like her, but didn’t dare ask. Or was it a convenient way to get back at her family? I asked her name. Regina, with a hard g. I felt funny saying it, as if it might bring her back to life to speak it, like speaking the name of a dead pharaoh and awakening his long quiet ka.
He told me about his house in the country, a “castle” he called it. I wasn’t sure if he knew the right word in English. His English was understandable, but very Germanic, peppered with the declarative and absolutes.
The next morning, he murmured in my ear that he wanted a “real American breakfast.” I took him to a diner, and he ordered a stack of pancakes with a sickly sweet strawberry sauce and whipped cream, sausage and two eggs on the side. For some reason, watching him eat it amused me greatly. It seemed so incongruous, the way he cut into it with a knife and fork and ate it slowly, bite by bite, his back perfectly straight.
We went to an antique shop next door, and I noted the pieces he liked best were large and imposing and very expensive. “This would look wonderful in my castle,” he said, pointing out the largest armoire I had ever seen in my life. A mere $8,000. I slowly opened the door to peer inside.
“Max and I could live very comfortably in here,” I said, my voice echoing from inside, “it’s about the size of my studio.”
He nearly bought me a 1920's cup and saucer set, perfectly art déco in gold and black and white. He pointed out necklaces he thought would look nice on me. I didn’t like any of them, but wished I had; he seemed to want to see me them on me.
“I want to see pictures of you as a child,” he declared, as I was admiring a fiery red glass bead choker he hadn’t noticed.
“Oh, well, we would have to go to my mother’s house for that,” I said, straightening up from the display case. “But we’re right nearby.”
On the way there in the car, we got stuck in traffic. He started talking about titles, and asked whether in English we had different titles for different academic degrees. I explained we called people with PhD’s “doctor” but that was it. He said that in German, they had titles for everything, from lawyers to teachers.
“What is your title?” I asked, remembering he had said something about a Master's in engineering.
“It’s on my card,” he said, smiling.
“No, it’s not,” I said, “I’ve looked at it a million times.”
“Yes, it is,” he insisted. He seemed amused I didn’t know already.
“Okay, but I’m driving and can’t get it out to look, so tell me,” I said.
He turned to look at me squarely. “I'm a baron.”
My mouth dropped open at the cars in front of me. I slowly turned to him, “You’re a fucking baron?!?” I said, laughing.
I made love to a baron, I thought. I have a baron in my car. I took a baron to a diner to eat sugary strawberry pancakes.
"So that wasn't your logo on the top of your card, but your family fucking crest?!?" I laughed all the way to my mother's house.
When we got there, I wondered if it might look shabby to him. I winced at a half full coffee cup sitting on the counter in the kitchen as we entered. I wondered if my mother would kill me later when she found out I had taken a baron to her house without warning her first.
We went through photographs of my childhood, and I was exceedingly grateful that they were organized and that my father had been such a good photographer. He seemed to be looking for something in them, searching for a clue. What was he trying to find? How often my father appeared in the photos and what that might mean about my way of relating to men? If my mother dressed me well? If I was a real blonde? At least he appeared to approve of what he saw.
As we were leaving, he said, "I want to eat in the best restaurant in Atlanta. Tonight.”
I mentioned the two or three I thought deserved the title, and as I guessed, he picked Seeger’s, the eponymous restaurant of a German born chef, Guenter Seeger, who had once been the star of the local Ritz-Carlton.
Lord help me not make an ass of myself, I thought, suddenly self-conscious. I am liable to commit some unforgivable fancy restaurant faux pas, and all my Southern Belle breeding will be for naught.
We called and had to take an early seating, as it was last minute. We were led upstairs, and the restaurant was nearly empty. The waitress hovered stiffly over us, as if wanting us to make her the center of the experience, ask her opinion, be awed by her knowledge of food and wine. She kept coming over to see if we needed any help. We were both mildly annoyed. I was surprised that he did not know many of the terms on the menu, and surmised that haute cuisine in Austria and Germany must be less influenced by French cuisine than in the US. Could it be more Italian? Or Hungarian? Or was it simply a test of my own knowledge? I explained timbale, coulis, brandade, pave and tartare, keeping a wary eye on the waitress, who was watching and listening intently, seemingly miffed at being left out. He asked for the wine list, and painstakingly read every selection in the near 30 page book. The waitress looked like she might burst out of her vest and apron to keep from making a suggestion, her hands planted flat against the wall behind her, as if ready to pounce. He finally signaled her over with a movement of his head, and ordered a German red wine. I was curious to try it. Not able to stop herself, she commended him on his choice, and while opening the bottle tried to engage him in conversation by asking if he had picked it because it was "home." He made no sign of having heard the question, tasted the wine, and dismissed her with a nod. I couldn’t help smiling. I raised my oversized glass for a toast, but he looked sternly at me to signal that this was not done. I wondered why not, but took the hint. Faux pas number one, apparently.
The food was delicious, and I savored each morsel, exclaiming at the different flavors and presentations. He seemed amused I was so involved in tasting every little thing, but seemed to catch my enthusiasm, and joined me in trying bites from my plate and his. I felt certain this was out of character. At one point, he said something that made me laugh, and the sound echoed around the nearly empty room. Faux pas number two, I wondered?
"I want you to meet my neighbor in the country, the countess," he said, "she laughs just like you."
"I'd like to meet a countess with a raucous laugh," I said, picturing a small and thin older woman in a tailored wool suit. For some reason I imagined her looking like a cross between my childhood piano teacher and my former landlady in France, with thin bony hands and the scent of bergamot floating about her.
"But I think," he said, his eyes scanning me slowly and smiling, "you are almost more aristocratic than she is." At that, I had to laugh even more. He looked very proud of himself to have discovered the likes of me.
The next day, I made breakfast and cappuccinos at my place, pointedly using my cups and saucers from Germany with its matching little gold spoons. Neither of us was in a hurry to leave the apartment. He announced he would like to take a bath. I brought him fresh towels and soap, and left him to bathe. In the next room, I put on a CD of Puccini arias. It fit my mood, and as the first wistful strains of “O Mio Babino Caro” floated around the apartment, I went to check on him. Peering around the door frame, I found him submerged in the bath, moving almost imperceptibly to the now plaintive notes. With his head back and his eyes closed, the sun pouring through the blinds and making glittering stripes across the water, a smile of such contentedness spread across his face. He must have felt me standing there watching him because he raised his head up and caught my eyes from across the room and steadily held my gaze until the last note.
A couple of days later, he went back to Munich, and I told a few people about the visit and my discovery of his lineage. Somehow, it got around to the girl at work whom I had replaced and whom I vaguely suspected of being intimidated by me. I heard footsteps coming down the hall towards my office, and she stopped in the doorway.
"I hate you," she said.
I looked up from my computer.
"Good morning," I replied.
She looked a little chastened. "Only you would meet a baron in an airport," she said by way of explanation.
I laughed. "I talk to strangers," I said, shrugging.
I made plans to visit him in Munich, and he wanted me to meet his mother and sister in Austria, whom he had apparently talked to about me. I pictured a formal afternoon tea, where he might be grilled about "settling down."
"My sister says I should have children with you," he said, not revealing much more about the conversation.
"Did she say how many we are supposed to have?" I asked sardonically. Did people actually have these conversations where things like this were decided so strategically?
"She knows that I want children very much," he said, "and she says you are the right age."
I vaguely felt like a race horse or a pure bred show dog. "How much influence does she have over you?" I asked.
"Not too much," he assured me, laughing. I amazed myself by actually picturing being the mother of his children. What on earth are the children of a baron called? I wondered.
For days leading up to the trip, I frantically searched the internet for etiquette tips on how to address a baroness. As far as I could figure, I was about to meet two of them. Your Ladyship? Does one curtsy, or is a handshake acceptable? I found a French site on modern noble families, and emailed my questions. I received an amused reply from a certain Madame Blanche de Kersaint, saying, "Nobility no longer has any importance, my dear!" I suspected it was a subject she rather attached quite a lot of importance to, having started the site to track the marriages and births of the modern vestiges of the French aristocracy.
I bought some German language CDs, determined to address his mother and sister in their native tongue. Listening to them in the car, I couldn't help myself from sticking my chest out and straightening my back as I exaggeratedly repeated phrases like "Das ist ein huntewetter!" Normally a pretty good mimic, there were many sentences I could not even begin to repeat or remember in time. I couldn't distinguish the words from each other, and as soon as I said them, I forgot what they meant. Oh no, I thought, I'm going to want to say 'Nice to meet you' and ask them the price of a double room with a shower instead.
The formal way of saying "Nice to meet you" ended up being breathtakingly long, and to this day, I can only remember the last part, ending in something like "Sie kennen zu lerhnen." All that repetition for a little end of a phrase. I can remember phrases in Czech I learned 14 years ago better. Perhaps because at the time, it was so novel that I was in Prague right after the Velvet Revolution, or perhaps because I was ready to weep with gratitude at the end of a long hot day wandering the streets when the phrase, "Two glasses of white wine please" actually produced the said items. (Dva bile vino prosim vas.)
Guenter had told me he lived and worked in Munich, and had talked a lot about his "castle" in the country, and how he would most often fly his plane there and back. He had flown several trips back and forth from Munich since our first meeting, and I had always been a bit anxious until I heard from him again that the flight had turned out fine and he was safely back on the ground. I arrived at the commercial airport a bit disappointed he had not been able to pick me up in his plane - I would have liked to have watched him at the controls.
When he drove up in his candy yellow Renault 5, I began to realize how different this trip would be from what I had imagined. Blanche de Kersaint might prove to be right after all.
I threw my things in the back seat, and peered into the front of the car. I had never seen an interior so basic, so little between the road and the people inside as the sheet of metal that made up the hood. When I got in, I didn't shut the door correctly, but couldn't find the handle to open it again. The car was so primitive, so rudimentary in its fittings, that I assumed the inside handle had fallen off and not been replaced. There was even a hole where it should have been. Rather than point this out, I rolled down the window to open the door from the outside, and when he saw me, he laughed and pointed to the hole on the inside of the door.
"That's how you open it," he said, smiling.
"But there's nothing there but a hole," I said.
"Stick your hand in it," he coached.
I was dubious, but stuck my hand in the hole. Lo and behold, I felt a latch, that when squeezed, opened the door. There isn't even a handle, and there isn't supposed to be, I thought.
We drove into town, the noise of the engine, the rattling of the metal and the vibration of the wind almost too much to bear, he gesturing with his hands to make himself understood over the din, his ears protected with plugs. He explained before we started that his long road trips in the car (when he could not take his plane because of bad weather) had began to affect his hearing and his doctor suggested he wear them.
Shortly, we came upon a huge walled-in complex, and he pointed across the street to indicate where his office was. I looked at the wall on the opposite side. With a chill down my spine, I realized what it was: the Dachau concentration camp.
"You actually work across the street from the concentration camp?" I asked incredulously. How could one walk in front of it every day, walk out of the office facing it? I made him pull over. I couldn't simply drive by it, and nod, "Oh, ok, that's Dachau on the left." I had to go inside. I had told him of my Jewish ancestry (my grandfather's family had emigrated from Russia) and I remembered my father telling me when I was a little girl that if I had been alive back then, Hitler would have killed me. It only took one Jewish grandparent to seal your fate.
I told Guenter he didn't have to go with me, but that I had to go inside. We skipped the visitor's center at the entrance. He came with me as far as the reconstructed barracks, but waited for me outside as I went in. The signs and photograph captions were only in German, and I was mildly relieved not to understand the words. The bunks were made of wood and I wandered past them in a daze, only barely looking at the black and white images on the walls, afraid of what I would see. It all led to a small tiled room I realized was a gas chamber. I stared at the drain in the middle of the floor. It was all so spartan and simple. That was what struck me the most, how innocuous it all seemed. How non-threatening. Stripped of the victims and the surrounding barracks, it vaguely reminded me of a Red Cross camp I had attended as a child, when I had been forced to gather around the leader's bunk bed to listen to the kids share stories of how prayer had changed their lives. I had tried to get out of it politely, saying I preferred to read my Nancy Drew mystery, but it was made clear to me that it was not an option. Bunk beds had always made me uncomfortable, making me feel packed in, forced into proximity with people I could not relate to and who could not relate to me. They were always in dark places in the country, far away from my parents; they evoked scratchy wool blankets and forced exile disguised as character building.
I suddenly understood, standing in the dark barracks and unable to move, people slowly shuffling past me, how it might have been possible to walk past this place every day, open your windows across the street, go about your daily business, without noticing what was going on inside the walls. How I could have easily been one of those people who saw but did not choose to see. I stepped out into the sunshine and found him sitting on a bench. How odd that they had installed benches outside. Was it for those who could not bear to go inside and were waiting on those who could not bear not to? He thankfully did not speak or ask me any questions. Back in the car, I said how odd it was that for my first trip to Germany, the first thing I saw was a concentration camp. I fervently hoped the sightseeing would improve from there.
We decided to drive straight through to Coburg, where his castle in the country was, and spend the night there before going on to Austria the next day. I was excited to see it, and a little apprehensive, as this was where he had lived with Regina and her daughter. He would drive to Munich on Mondays and spend the week there, returning back to the country on Fridays to spend the weekend with them. He explained that most of the furniture had gone to her family or had been moved to his place in Munich. I pictured a half empty castle, its walls still vibrating with the memory of her.
We drove for a few hours, not talking as it was impossible over the noise, and finally arrived in Coburg. He suggested we get a bite to eat in town before going to the castle, which was outside of town. I was beginning to understand that when he said "Munich" he did not mean "Munich", so "Coburg" did not mean "Coburg." The town was picturesque and well preserved, with winding cobblestone streets and a pretty little square with a large statue of Prince Albert who, he explained, married Queen Victoria, linking the two royal houses, though this would later be hushed over after the two World Wars. I was surprised at the vibrant colors of the buildings, not expecting the warm yellows and rusts, having imagined more blues and grays.
We found a modern little restaurant called, much to our amusement, "Brazil", and settled in to eat. I was very frustrated not being able to understand what was being said to me, and having to rely on him to translate and order for me. I silently cursed myself for not having enrolled in German classes at the Goethe Institut back home before coming. I hate not being able to communicate. The waitress, a pretty but unsmiling young girl, looked at me harshly, her eyes scanning me once over and looking away in dismissal. She leaned provocatively over to take his order, making sure he could see straight down her shirt. When she walked away, I leaned over to him and breathily asked what Freiherr von F... desired, squeezing my breasts together.
We drove for about an hour outside of town, and were deep in the countryside when he announced we had arrived at his castle. We went down a long tree-lined drive, and wound around until it appeared into view. It was smaller than I had thought it would be, and even in the dark, I could tell it was painted the same lemon yellow as so many other buildings I had seen in the region. There was a gravel parking lot in what looked like a courtyard in the middle, the structure making a u shape around it, prettily framed by a high lemon yellow archway atop thick square columns. It looked rather new, not stone and ivy covered as I had expected.
"Do you have company?" I asked. He looked momentarily confused. I motioned to the other cars parked in the courtyard.
"No, they live here. They are my neighbors." I looked around. There were three rows of big windows running along the building, so I surmised there were three floors, and as I looked closer, I began to understand that the castle had been divided up into apartments. There looked to be ten in all. I smiled to myself. Coburg is not Coburg and a castle is an apartment in the country. He grabbed our bags out of the car and proceeded down some steps to one of the two side entrances. Inside, it was badly lit and smelled very strongly of wet dog. There was a ground floor apartment door to the left, but he bounded up the unstained wooden stairs to the second floor. I looked down, and in the dim light, realized I was standing on a patch of astroturf. Astroturf in the entrance to a castle? How could they, I thought. I followed behind him, and he opened the door. Immediately to the right was the bathroom, a big bulky square tub taking up most of the space, and the sound of dripping water echoing from inside. Straight ahead was a closed bedroom door. There was no entry hall to speak of, but a small space off of which branched two more rooms and the kitchen. The ceilings were high, the floor parquet, and the windows in the rooms reached from mid wall to the ceiling. I put down my bag, not sure if I should go ahead without him. There was a distinct feeling of emptiness, of loneliness and isolation, and it made me suddenly cold.
"Let me show you the place," he said with obvious pride and fondness. He led me through the kitchen, with a cheap looking table and three chairs in the middle, to what had obviously been the living room. Stripped of most of the furniture, it seemed small and sad, a long dead plant in the corner by the large curtainless windows. I tried to fill it with furniture in my head, imagine it as it must have been with Regina and her daughter to give it life. There were a few pictures still left on the wall, one of which looked like a strange type of photograph of him.
"This is my hologram," he said, straightening himself up in front of it and smiling, his hands on his hips. "I spent a lot of money on it; they are very rare." I looked at it, remembering a hologram of a human skull on the front of a National Geographic that, as a child, I had spent hours turning this way and that, the rainbow colors at odds with the solemnity of the skull's frozen grin. He was much younger in the picture, his eyes open alertly, his smile one of fascination and novelty, as if congratulating himself for having had the idea to have it done. Why would someone want such a thing? I wondered. I slowly walked around it, watching his face appear to come out of the frame and into the room. I looked at it hard, knowing it would be the last time, knowing that the next time I passed it, I would avoid its slightly manic gaze.
He showed me the rest of the apartment, the two now empty bedrooms, and talked of how happy he had been here with his wife and her daughter. I wondered where the daughter was now, and why she was not with him, but assumed she was with his wife's parents. If they were in court over a red dress, they surely had gone to court for custody of their daughter's girl.
I went to take a bath, and soaking in the tub, I thought of Regina and what her life must have been like, living in this apartment carved from a castle, hidden away in the countryside, waiting for him to come home on the weekends. I pictured her in the red dress, looking sadly out the window. She had been a teacher, I knew, in a local school. Did the children miss her, think of her, know she had died? Did shopkeepers in town, forgetting she was gone, still ask after her, and wince at their gaffe while holding the box of pastries or wrapped meat over the counter to him, the package immobile in the air like the question, until one of them looked away?
When I emerged from the bathroom, I found him standing in the hallway, a painting in his hands of yellows, reds and greens in the form of a woman.
“This is my wife,” he said, holding it up.
“Oh, someone painted that of her?” I asked, toweling my hair dry and tilting my head to get a better look.
“No,” he said, “this is her.” And then I saw it - the impression of her body, like a technicolor shroud. She had painted her hips and thighs and legs yellow, accenting her nipples in red and her pubis in green, and pressed the canvas up against her dripping form. Her body was slim and curved in all the right places. The pure defiance in the face of death by leaving a mark of herself, the body she knew she would one day abandon, the sheer will to be alive again each time he looked at it and remembered a caress or the taste of her nipples in his mouth, sent a shiver down my neck.
He had made a makeshift bed on the floor of the living room, and as we settled into sleep, cradling me in his arms from behind, he murmured into the back of my neck, asking me what I thought of the apartment. I didn't know what to say. My silence was punctured intermittently by the sound of dripping water from the bathroom. I didn't like anything about the place except the windows, precisely because they led away from this empty, isolated and unremarkable apartment he had called his castle. I had visions of standing endlessly at them, tugging at the uncomfortable red dress, waiting for the chance to slip away. I imagined myself there, far away from even the small town of Coburg, not speaking the language, and alone with the imprint of a woman I had never known. I couldn't wait to get out of there.
"I could never live here," I said, feeling bold, "I'm a city girl."
The next morning, we took the bright yellow Renault 5 on the autobahn to Vienna. I was excited about seeing it, and had grand plans to lounge in rococco cafes and watch passersby. He was tired, so I drove the yellow beast, as I began to affectionately call it, as fast as I could make it go, marveling at the gear shift that came out from the steering wheel, and smiling at the people who stared at us as they whizzed by in their BMWs, Audis and Mercedes. Several people honked and waved, charmed at seeing a car that reminded them of their youth spent hitchhiking across Europe, or their first love, a bohemian artist who slept on the floor in front of an unfinished canvas, hoping the images in his dreams would somehow leap up onto it.
Somewhere between Germany and Austria, we stopped at an outdoor café on the grounds of a castle, high atop a hill and overlooking the valley, and ordered two beers named after his family, served in glasses with the same family crest as the one on his card. Sitting in the sun under the parasol, squinting from the reflection of the white tablecloth, his hand on top of mine, I watched a fly lazily buzz about and land on his arm. It was at that moment when he told me the date when he would marry again - February 3rd of the following year. I asked if this meant he knew who his future bride would be, and he said he did not, but knew it would be that date. I quickly calculated that if I were a candidate in the running, which I assumed I was, we would have known each other a little over a year. I wondered who else was being considered, and if they had been offered the red dress. I wondered if he would even propose to the chosen one, or simply assume it was a foregone conclusion.
We reached Vienna in the middle of the afternoon, and soon saw signs pointing towards Schönbrunn. I said I would very much like to see it, so we parked the Schönbrunn Yellow Beast and headed to the castle to take the tour. It was unlike any other one I had seen, its long lemon yellow shape so imposing. We seemed to have a tendency to tour things in an odd order, so we started with the carriage house. Walking along the amazingly overly decorated structures, peering inside them and trying to imagine gathering all those skirts into such a small space, I was struck by how some of the gilded and intricately carved ones looked almost gaudy, like the cheap overly done decorations of a Chinese restaurant. I said this to Guenter, and he looked at me strangely. Perhaps he had never been in a Chinese restaurant, I thought. Walking from the carriage house to the main castle, he had his arm about my waist, and mentioned that he thought I had lost weight since the last time he had seen me in Atlanta. I said I hadn’t consciously tried to do so, but that is was possible I had.
“You should lose more,” he said, patting my waist. I drew away from him and said I thought I looked just fine. It was one of the rare times in which I actually felt that way, and I was determined to enjoy it. I decided to ignore the comment and put it down to German’s propensity to sound demanding.
We went inside the main castle and opted for the recorded guided tour. I was embarrassed to have to ask for the English version. We followed along, shuffling with the crowds from room to room, and I struggled to work my headset right, often skipping ahead too far or going back to the beginning. When we arrived at a particularly beautiful portrait of the Empress Elizabeth, or Sissi, as she is affectionately known in Austria, he caught my eye when the narrator talked of her slim figure, which she obsessively preoccupied herself with, often eating only broth to preserve her figure of a mere 90 pounds. I raised my eyebrows at him from across the room, and stuck out my tongue.
Later that day, at the Hotel Sacher, I flipped through the menu pages and burst out laughing at the claim that Empress Sissi herself was fond of Sacher tortes from the hotel and regularly had them sent to Schönbrunn. “She didn’t eat them, she weighed 90 pounds!” I exclaimed.
“She must have had a happy life, living in luxury and being so adored by Emperor Franz Josef,” he said dreamily.
“Are you kidding?” I said, taking a sip of my “gas lamp lighters” coffee, a sweet concoction with a kick of cognac. “She ate fucking broth all her life!” I shook my head in disbelief, remembering the impression I had gotten of her as a pretty little object in a lemon yellow prison, fighting with her mother-in-law and adored but misunderstood by her husband. “She was miserable,” I said, though I didn’t know anything about her previous to the tour, which had only cemented my feeling that had I been her, I would have been very unhappy indeed.
We went from there to check into our hotel, located in a Turkish section of town, a nice older hotel with large mirrors and a chandelier in the room. I flopped on the bed, exhausted and ready to relax.
“Would you like to go to the opera tonight?” he asked from the bathroom.
“Oh, yeah!” I said. I had seen pictures of the Staatsoper and had thought how nice it would be to go there with him. But it was already early evening, and I wasn’t sure if we had time.
“I’ll go ask the concierge to get us some tickets,” he said, and went downstairs.
I took a shower, lingering under the hot water, willing myself to wake up. Hot water always made me sleepy, but cold water went against my principles. He came back up and announced that we had gotten tickets, but that I needed to be ready in 15 minutes. I couldn’t remember getting ready for anything that quickly, not even when I was late for work, but I rushed out of the bathroom, upended my suitcase on the bed, and dumped the contents of my jewelry case, sifting through it for the necklace and earrings I wanted. I chose a black velvet bolero jacket with white satin cuffs and black pants, and my sexy black high heeled sandals I had bought for pennies in Brazil. I applied my makeup in a flash, and was glad I had chosen to go with the smoky-eyed look, as a steady patient hand was not at my disposal at the moment. Twelve minutes later, my hair still wet, I was ready. He looked me over approvingly. We went arm in arm downstairs and jumped into a waiting taxi. On the way there, I fanned my fingers through my hair, trying to simultaneously style and dry it, while also attempting to get a glimpse of the city whizzing by.
We got out a block down from the Staatsoper, an imposing structure lit up on the outside, and I straightened up and tried to look relaxed as we walked through the huge entrance doors. I felt glad to have my arm laced through his, as he seemed very much to belong to this old world of large ornate buildings and maroon carpet covered stairs. He spoke to an usher, who pointed up to the last floor. We climbed up four flights, and once at the top, a little out of breath, he led me to our seats. Since we had last minute tickets, we were relegated to the cheap ticket section, where young art and music students sat crouched on the stairs scribbling in notebooks. The ceiling was very low, as we were basically right under it, and I was immediately uncomfortably hot. The opera was unknown to me, but the composer I knew. I was impressed that each seat was outfitted with a small digital screen that could be angled up however the audience member wished, and that there were many languages to choose from for the subtitles. I looked around at the predominately red and gold decor, and marveled at how the even the exit signs blended in and looked elegant. The opera began, and it was immediately apparent to me that the opera singers were far superior to any I had ever had the chance to see. I wondered if they were well known in Austria or Europe, or if they were merely average local talent. At the intermission, he asked if I wanted to get a drink, and I was glad to get a respite from the stuffy air and cramped quarters. We headed down to the first level ballroom, where drinks were served in real glasses. (No plastic cups here, thank you very much. It always managed to make me feel totally desperate, like I absolutely had to have a drink, so much so that I was willing to wait in a long line to pay way too much money for a really crappy wine. In a plastic cup.) I ordered a “sekt” a sparkling wine with orange juice - a mimosa - I realized with amusement. We sat at one of the small tables, covered in tablecloths with little lamps on top, and I craned my neck to look out the enormous windows, open to the spring air and the buzzing of the city at night.
When intermission was over, he led me to much better seats in the main gallery, and I tried not to meet anyone’s eyes lest they know we were taking someone else’s seats. It is one of the ways in which I am very American - I don’t cut in line and it never occurs to me to take a seat I haven’t paid for. But I had to admit, the view of the stage was fabulous, and it was worth any wayward glances we might have gotten. He stared straight ahead, his head held high, as if he owned the place. I doubted anyone would second guess him.
I had thought that with my blonde hair and blue eyes, I would blend into the background in Germany and Austria, but I did catch people looking at me as if wondering where I had appeared from. I asked him about it once when we were in some small town in Germany on our way to Austria.
“Look around you,” he said. I did, and took in the young couples, the families, the older people walking by. They looked not much different than me, I thought. “Do you look like anyone here?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. He fingered my purple boa, and nudged my blue sunglasses playfully back up my nose.
“You look like a moooofie stah!” he said, laughing, and taking me in his arms.
We walked out of the Staatsoper arm in arm and crossed the street to a lit up sausage stand.
“You have to try some of this,” he said. I was starving. It was more than a mere sausage stand. It was a fully functioning kitchen with every space used for displaying sausages, drinks and candy. I looked at the different cans, smiling at the yellow one (yellow again, I thought, there has got to be a reason behind all this yellow). It had a cartoon alpine boy and girl on it. He pointed to it, and said he grew up drinking it. I made him order me one with the sausage he liked best. We stood there, leaning up against the makeshift counter, eating off of paper plates in our opera best, the streetlights shining on his chiseled face. I nuzzled into him, and he wrapped his arm around me, feeding me bits of his sausage, and explaining the differences between all of them. He wiped a smudge of mustard off my nose and kissed me, to the amusement of the Turkish and Armenian men around us.
We flagged down a taxi and returned to the hotel. I had barely removed my earrings and necklace before he picked me up and carried me to the bed. We made love slowly and tenderly underneath the crystal chandelier.
In the morning, I dragged him to the newly opened Leopold Museum, featuring mainly Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. I was slightly disturbed at how much he liked the dark, angry unsettling paintings of Schiele. His nudes I thought were fabulous, but the others looked to me like the product of a very troubled soul. Perhaps there was some echo of death in them that attracted him.
We went from there to another section of town, in search of some of the more historic cafes. Walking through the city, my arm laced through his, as if we were descending the stairs of a royal palace, the immense, stately, ornate buildings so imposing and curlicued and, well, imperial, made me feel like a princess surveying her grounds. We stopped under a centuries old archway held up by columns in the shape of men like those I had admired in Prague, to listen to a quartet play Mozart sonatas.
On the way to the most bohemian and intimate of the cafes, I spotted a little girl on a bicycle, her dress caught in the rear chain, her mother admonishing her angrily. I pulled him over and whispered for him to help her. He bent down and patiently worked the material free from the chain. When he stood back up and patted the girl on her head, she gazed up at him as if he were an apparition of a savior prince, arrived at the very moment she had wished with all her might for help. The mother gushed words of thanks, her frustration completely dissipated, her eyes going from me to him and back again. She seemed to be trying to figure out who we were and where we had appeared from. I felt her gaze follow us in wonder as we walked away. “You are that little girl’s hero now,” I said, squeezing his arm. He smiled and chuckled to himself.
When we had ordered our coffees in the café, he began to tell me again how he was ready to get married again and have children of his own. I set down my cup and listened. As he talked of wanting to hold his own child in his arms, I thought how easy it would be to let myself be molded, to give in to his every whim, to let go totally. To surrender to a man, completely, one who knew without a doubt what he wanted, was determined to get it, and was not shy of speaking it, had a certain delicious feel of letting go, like slipping off a sock under the sheets in the middle of the night.
The next day we drove towards Graz, and ate a cozy dinner in a country inn restaurant. I could tell he enjoyed ordering for me, and was proud of the wine from his region of the country. I genuinely enjoyed it, but was most charmed by his careful attention to me, in making sure I understood what everything was and where it came from. He draped his arm protectively around me, and would occasionally look around us, as if to check that everyone understood I was there with him. We were meeting his mother, sister and brother in law the following day at a wine garden. We were apparently very close to where he grew up, and where I assumed his family still lived, near Graz, although by this time I had understood that Munich was not Munich, a castle was not a castle and Graz was not Graz. I was very nervous, but didn’t say so to Gunther. I vaguely felt as if I were being tested to see if I was good enough to carry on the von F.. line, but wasn’t sure who was testing me more, his family or he himself. I was determined to take Blanche de Kersaint’s advice and “be myself.”
to be continued...