Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Chapter 1: In Which We Meet The Box of Doom

So. I'm in Paris.


Which is, you know, kind of fabulous. For the past few days, I've been wandering around the city with Sean and my English in-laws (!) visiting my new city of residence. We've been going to places like the Musee d'Orsay and the Jardin du Luxembourg and the beautiful little side streets around St. Germain-de-Pres, bickering pleasantly about which cafe we should eat in, whether or not to tip the waiter, the accuracy of so-and-so's subjunctive in French, and how best to translate "massif" when it follows "sol." (You wouldn't believe how long this discussion went on in the Jardin des Plantes. Hint: "CLUMP.") But mostly I've been walking around Paris bursting with little exclamations of glee at all the awesomeness that is now my temporary life. "Holy crap!" I've been bleating at the plethora of churches and bookstores and bridges and clothing boutiques. "This shit is BANANAS!"

It turns out that grand displays of civic beauty send me into something akin to moral outrage (probably a hangover from living almost a decade in Salt Lake), so that as the days wear on and ever more amazing sights are revealed to me, this awe has gotten a touch, say, frenetic. "How is this possible?" I keep demanding of Sean, punching his arm while glaring at the perfectly manicured paths of the Tuilleries. "How can people live like this, every day, all day long?" Stomping my foot outside the Louvre, waving my hands in despair outside the little macaron shop filled top to bottom with gold and pastel pink and blue boxes of confections. "I mean, this isn't even a shop anymore, is it?" I wail. "It's insane! It's like the perfect idea of cookie deliciousness housed in one place, beside which all others now are mere corruptions of cookie. It's like Plato's Fucking Cave of Candy in there!"

"Calm down," Sean said. "Buy a box."

"I can't!" I howled. "It's too much for me!"

This is the thing: you can walk for hours in these beautiful parks, along these yellow gravel paths among French children with their unbelievably charming little wooden boats which they will sail in the pristine(ish) waters of 18th century marble fountains. You can find a lovely cafe beside a medieval church and spend all afternoon there for the price of a coffee. You can walk along the Seine, watching the tour boats and bicyclists drift along as clutches of college students giggle past you, taking a break for dinner in a candlelit bistro somewhere on the Ile de la Cite. You can do all these things, and mostly they're free (except for the bistro bit. Who here knows the French for "'This will cost you your first-born"? I do! I do!) and they're all pretty much fantastic, and they all make you want to jump up and down and squeal and grin like a lunatic with joy all the while you are, at the very same time, dying inside just a little.

Why? Because it's almost too much to believe.

Which may be why I came to be in front of a softly glowing Palais du Luxembourg the other day, smacking my forehead as I shouted, "Are you fucking KIDDING ME?"

But before everyone out there reading this in blogville starts throwing rotten fruit at the screen, you should know that--as I write this very entry--it's not all brioche and Edith Piaf for me. For instance, right now I'm taking a little break in Tonbridge, England, to hang with the new hubby's family. Tonbridge may be all things Anti-Paris, if the monotonous lanes of brick row houses, and lumpen overcoats soaked from drizzle and lank-haired girls shrieking at their mates at the one bus stop by the one roundabout by the one Boots are any indication. Culture here seems limited to the (admittedly impressive) list of adult education courses available for Tonbridgians, as evidenced in the catalogue which arrived today in the mail for my in-laws. These courses include lectures on "Angry Angevins," "The Calamitous 14th Century," "Famine, Plague and War" or (my favorite) "The Revolting People of Kent." The Revolting People of Kent seem to like stained glass window workshops and sign language courses as well, if the wide availability of these classes in the catalogue is to be trusted, and so I've been spending the day wandering in the rain here with Sean (who has come down with a head-cold) looking to see if the good people of Tonbridge do a lot of lip-reading near church naves.

They don't.

But the other thing you might want to know, dear reader, about my time in Paris that might just make you feel just the tiniest smidgen better about your own time not living in Paris is this:

My apartment sucks.

It doesn't suck in the ways that most student flats or bedsits suck. It sucks in the way that meth houses suck. It sucks in the way that extreme hoarders' dens suck. It sucks in the way of Arizona trailer parks and work releases and scary lairs of manic depressive sculptors just about to depart in the dead of night for the south of France after they've beaten their girlfriends half into a coma. Someone's ear might have been chewed off here, or maybe the place hosts a European pedophilia ring's annual secret meeting. I wouldn't be surprised by any of this. Because this apartment, my friends, is probably the worst place I have ever rented in my life.

And what makes it so terrible, outside of its tiny cramped bathroom with the bucket-sized and showerless tub you still have to climb onto a plastic stool to get into, its minuscule kitchen with ancient foodstuffs baked onto the hotplate screwed into the wall, its mold smell emanating from every surface, its mirrors fogged over with grease and age, its swaths of grime gritting the corners, its paint cracking off in cottage-cheesy chunks, its chair that looks as if it were found by a dumpster after being abandoned for a month in the rain then dragged back inside and dried out with a hair dryer? What, besides the fact that every other night my upstairs neighbor, "Jacques Brel" as I like to call him now, wakes me up at 2 a.m. screaming French pop songs at his girlfriend? What, besides the fact that said girlfriend also seems to be trying out for a starring role in the world's loudest, longest porn film, so that quickly following Jacque Brel's interminable chansons I am then treated to AN HOUR of sounds I didn't even know the human body could make? What? What, beside these things, could make this apartment so completely, horribly, unremittingly awful?

The notes.

My apartment is covered with little handwritten notes. These notes were left for me, and for years of previous renters as suggested by the fading inks and cracking tape, by a landlord hell-bent on saving us all from our own stupidity, and from the inherent electrical evils of Paris itself. The notes warn of wiring disasters, sudden gas explosions, slippery surfaces, clogged plumbing, lost keys. "DO NOT TOUCH THIS OUTLET WITHOUT WEARING SHOES!" screams one note. "TAKE YOUR KEYS!!!" shrieks another. "NO HAIR! NO HAIR! NO GELS DOWN DRAIN!" wails a third by the bathroom sink. There is a space heater that comes practically gift-wrapped in warnings of catastrophe, such as "THIS SPACE HEATER CANNOT BE LEFT UNATTENDED: IT WILL CATCH FIRE! IT TIPS! IF YOU SMELL BURNING TURN IT OFF! DON'T RUN HEATER FOR MORE THAN 5 MINUTES! DON'T KICK IT! DON'T ROCK IT! DON'T LOOK AT IT SIDEWAYS!" Every light fixture, every appliance, every doorway and cabinet comes with a note. There are warnings literally taped to other warnings, along with business cards for various local electricians and plumbers. "FLUSH WITH CHEAP VINEGAR OR HARD WATER WILL CLOG!" cries one such missive by the toilet, along with a dog-eared card for a man named Jean-Paul. "DO NOT SET THIS WATER HEATER ON HIGH! TURN DOWN! TURN DOWN!" is the note taped by the tub, which--if I follow its other directions precisely--means that a hot shower will last at most 40 seconds before the water turns to ice, something that may be fine in late summer but which will be agony come December.

If the notes aren't enough, there is also a handbook left by the landlord for my further edification. "Almost all apartment fires in Paris are caused by space heaters," the handbook intones. "And almost all space heater fires are fatal."

"It's not so bad," Sean soothes. "The location is good. The rent is cheap. It doesn't look so much like the photos on the internet, sure, but maybe you could just, well, buy the place some fucking violets or something."

But violets won't cover up the real problem, I insist, which is that my apartment continually declares itself a site of Potential Disaster, making me too jumpy to touch anything (which may be fine; you couldn't pay me enough to sit in that chair), and far too aware of the jerry-rigged electrical wiring looped from water heater to light fixture to toaster oven. In short, living in this apartment is like living in a moldering shoebox filled with someone else's anxieties--my own little Box of Doom, as Sean now calls it--which makes me wonder what it's going to be like if (when?) the charm of Paris wears off and I'm here on my own, mid-winter, trying to, you know, like WRITE something.

Will I be able to survive this apartment?

This may sound precious, but I worry a little about living alone, far away from the one I love most (yes, that would be Sean) amidst all this mold and neurosis. I pride myself on being the most mentally stable poet I know--a low bar to set, we must admit-- one who is also probably healthier than 1/3 of all American (but not English) fiction writers. Let me be clear: I'm not unhinged or anything. In terms of mental security, I'm better than most musicians, worse than a lot of painters. I'm on par with photographers, and way above average for a sculptor. That said, I have--to put it euphemistically--certain dark spots inside me. Compared with artists and writers overall, I'm pretty stable, I'm Doris fucking Day, but compared with normal people--people, that is, who do not spend their lives crafting something no one else ever wants to read or look at without a pressing financial reason attached to it-- I'm a bit of a mess.

This is why I am a manic exerciser, why I try and get 8 hours of sleep a night, why I have gone into and out of talk therapy, have tried the drugs, have ditched the drugs, have tried the meditation, why I spend so much time repeating in my head, 'What would a normal person do or say right now?' and consciously use that answer as my guide in every conversation. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to shape myself into someone chipper and upbeat and positive because all this is something I am, by nature, not. I also believe it is something that can help alleviate, if not entirely tame, what the mental health profession defines as my "high-functioning depression." (Aside: I was kind of proud of that diagnosis. At least I'm above average in something.) I know that these habits can occasionally make me sound naive, falsely so as well, and it is absolutely exhausting to keep up with them (sometimes I go home and just collapse from all the effort), but if it is between being myself as a functioning, even happy person and being myself as a slovenly mess (what I was through patches of the past 15 years) then I will take the occasional naivete, the relentless one-liners.

I will work, goddammit, on being happy.

And now there's this apartment, a.k.a., my own rent-literalized Box of Doom. What, I have sometimes feared in the past, my mind itself might look like without the excruciatingly conscious care-taking of it that I provide. And are these notes the kind of writing I might do if left mentally unshepherded? Will I too turn into a series of cracked walls plastered with reams of aging notes? Will I become part and parcel of this greasy, nausea-inducing scenery?

Thankfully, mercifully, there is still Paris. Paris, just outside my door, wafting past my caulk-flaking window. Paris just outside the reach of Jacque Brel's bedsprings and lungs. Paris just outside the mold stains. Paris with all its glittery lights, its espresso cups, its parks and chestnut trees.

So. Here's Chipper's newest survival strategy.

I'm going to go out early every day and stay out late each night. I'm going to write with the windows open. I'm going to haunt Lanvin. I'm going to eat my face off. I'm going to find some head phones.

And then, my friends, I'm going to go out and buy myself some fucking violets.

P.S. I know I'm missing accent marks all over the place. Am trying to figure this feature out on the iPad keyboard. Also, there are pictures I want to post but don't have the transfer cable with me and I have a deadline to meet with this blog. (Don't want to keep my two fans waiting, you know, ha bloody ha.) Will post pics soon. In the meantime, just imagine really pretty stuff in the suitable text places. And ugly stuff everywhere else.

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