dimanche, mars 20, 2005

Spring Has Sprung

You know it's spring when:

  • Every other person you see walking down the street in front of the Jardin de Luxembourg has either a bunch of daffodils, a silver bucket full of daffodils, or a daffodil in their buttonhole. In other words, daffodils.

  • The cafes and restaurants finally take down the plastic sidings of the patios and open their doors and windows to the outside, making the whole thing into a terrace.

  • You have a sudden desire to buy an ice cream cone and eat it while humming and lazily strolling down the street.

  • The bakeries and chocolate shops have bell shapes in the window. Did you know that the French custom for Easter is not a bunny who leaves goodies in baskets, but the anthropomorphized (no lie) BELLS OF ROME which fly through the sky and leave chocolates for lucky little non praticing Catholic children? It could be cute, but, um, it's just sort of weird instead.

  • The sky is no longer grey.

  • You go to a discount store and buy pretty things you don't need, like coasters and decorative plates.

  • Some people are actually smiling for no apparent reason.

  • The "Grands Magasins" such as Galeries Lafayette and Bon Marche put up ads announcing the season is here, showing girls on bicycles with lots of unstockinged legs exposed to the wind.

  • The ice skating rink in front of the Hotel de Ville has been dismantled, and is replaced by hundreds of roller skaters and skateboarders.

  • You suddenly feel a desire to open the windows and clean your whole apartment on a Sunday morning when you like neither Sundays, mornings nor cleaning.

Oui! Spring is here!

dimanche, mars 13, 2005

Taxi! Taxi!

I love taxi drivers in Paris - they talk, they explain, they ask questions, they tell you stories, they make you laugh.

This is why I find them so charming - if you engage them, you're in for a pleasant ride. And you are practically guaranteed to learn something you didn't know.

One driver did a whole comic routine imitating a Chinese man trying to speaking French. He had me clutching my stomach and gasping for breath. Had he left it there, it would have been easy to dimiss as an example of French cultural arrogance or racial stereotypes, but instead, he followed his skit with a very well-informed analysis of Chinese versus French culture, complete with concrete examples of Mandarin and Cantonse phrases, their various nuances, and why this affected the way the Chinese man had expressed himself. We talked of the Chinese New Year being the year of the chicken and why sales were slow of chicken figurines in China. It's a Madarin word for prostitute. The French taxi driver, a rather unremarkable looking man in his 40's, spoke Chinese. You have to admire a country whose educational system churns out so many well-rounded educated people, even if they end up being taxi drivers.

One bitterly cold evening, we caught a taxi and gratefully settled into the warmth of the back seat. Curious how cold it might be, Stephane leaned forward to check the display panel : it read 20 degrees celsius (about 80 degrees Farenheit). He turned to the driver, a young African man, and said,

"Are you sure your themometer is working properly?"

The driver looked, and burst out with melodious, resonant, rich laughter. It was of course gauging the temperature inside the taxi, which we all knew. His laughter was so infectious, so alive, almost giggly in its alternance of low and high tones, that we laughed at absolutely everything that was said from that point on until we reached my apartment door, where as he pulled up behind the Jaguar belonging to the restaurant owners next door, I said,

"Right here behind my car will be just fine." More peals of bell-like laughter. He wiped the tears from his eyes. We tipped him generously.

Another time, I got into a taxi driven by a younger North African man, who proclaimed a weakness for customers "spoiled by Mother Nature" (i.e. beautiful), who explained that he had become a taxi driver after losing his job as a computer programmer. He described the exam a driver has to pass in order to be qualified. They must learn over 40 different routes by heart. They must fill out blank maps of the streets of Paris, noting clearly which ones are one-ways, and dead-ends. They are quizzed on the quickest route from, say, Republique to the Marais. He claimed it was the hardest exam he had ever taken, including the baccalaureat.

They don't mind telling you what they think of soccer teams, politics, ethnic groups, or world events. They will tell you about their homes, their left behind villages in Algeria, Senegal, and Portugal. They even give away some secrets of the trade. One driver explained to me how every taxi has a lit up display in its back window indicating when the driver started his rounds and how much time is left on his shift. It starts with the date, then the time their shift started, and the time of the last pick up they can accept.

They have a weakness for young mothers with babies. I have known at least two who broke the rules and either accepted a check when they weren't supposed to, or picked up a young mother as a fare after their shift had ended simply because it would be unacceptable not to help a young mother. Pregnant women in their last month, however, are to be avoided, as they might suddenly go into labor and ruin the taxi's interior. A small enough window between compassionate gallantry and indifferent practicality.

Far from what you would expect, though, they are not hardened to people or emotions. Recently, after a rather emotional parting, I found myself crying in the back seat of a taxi on my way home late on a Wednesday night. The driver did not say a word until he stopped to let me out.

"Pardon me, Mademoiselle," he said hesitantly, "but why are you crying?"

"I just said good-bye to someone I love," I replied.

"It's none of my business," he said with a smile and a wave of his hand, "but don't you worry. It will all work out. Just give it some time, and then it will all be solved with a phone call, you'll see."

I think I even believe him.

samedi, mars 12, 2005

The Ministry of Vagrant Education

Homeless people in Paris are extremely polite. They are also astoundingly well dressed. No tattered clothing, no mismatched shirts and pants, or falling apart shoes. Most of the ones I see don't even stink. This, combined with what I imagine to be a more socialist and generous federal aid program, makes me ever so hesitant to give them money.

The crazy ones, rather than spouting evangelical victive about your imminent arrival in hell, sing songs, recite poetry, or have philosophical conversations with themselves and their imaginary friends. They laugh, they fling their hands in the air, and say, "That's impossible! Don't you see? But don't worry, it happens to everyone!" It's rather festive, and almost as good as a 15 euro ticket to the theatre.

The more lucid ones are unfailingly cordial. There is one woman who sits on a low wall outside the stop I get off at to go to work. At the approach of each and every person who passes by, their heads down against the wind, she sits up straight and sticks out her feet enthusiastically and beams a warm and bubbly, "Bonjour!!" as if she had been waiting all morning to see you rush by on your way to work. She looks well fed, often has a different clean and warm jacket, and doesn't look like she's touched drugs in her life. It makes me wonder - is she really homeless, or just a little lonely?

The ones that board the metro trains have almost identical monologues, as if they'd gotten the appropriate script from the National Vagrancy Ministry. (I made that up, I don't know what Ministry deals with homelessness in France, but I'd bet my eye teeth that the people who work there have surly attitudes and don't give a rat's ass about homeless people).

The National Vagrancy Ministry monologues almost always begin when the homeless person boards the metro at a stop. The door closes, and once the train starts to move, he/she clears their throat and starts a speech that goes something like this:

"Mesdames et Messieurs, please forgive the intrusion as you make your way to your homes or to meet your friends for a social gathering. I shall be brief.

After losing my job (or alternatively, "After being released from the hospital, where my convalescence lasted six months.....") I found myself on the street without means, sustenance or adequately affordable housing. My young son/daughter and I rarely have enough to eat or to survive on. If you could spare some change, or a restaurant ticket (no translation for this concept exists) I should be ever so grateful. I have applied for aid, but it has been eight months and the State has not provided me with a penny. Your generosity this evening will provide me with a place to sleep or a hot meal. Please do pardon the interruption, and I will importune you no further."

By which time, as a foreign passenger, you are open-mouthed at the eloquence (not to mention attire) of the homeless person, who just used the subjunctive, made the past participle of "avoir" agree with the indirect object, and employed about three words you never heard before.

As they pass down the aisle to collect coins, you might at this point feel like giving them a euro or two, but only for being so damn well-educated.