Friday, October 21, 2011

In Which We Learn the Value of 'No'

One of the things about having all this free time to myself is discovering, well, what I would do with a lot of free time to myself. Like, for instance, would I suddenly sleep all day or take up drinking in earnest, would I start making weird little dolls with dried apples for faces and join up with the last living descendants of the Huguenots? Would I take up shoe making? Or would I finally give in and learn to play the banjo, joining the rest of my tin-eared musician neighbors for jam sessions in this apartment building of the damned?

Would I--in other words--become even more of a nutball?

It turns out that what I do when faced with endless amounts of free time is get up around 8:00, write for a few hours, take a long walk through some new city district of choice, go to school, come back home, work out, eat dinner, and read for a few hours before bed. I go to a lot of public lectures (this week, the Stein Conference at the Grand Palais, headlined by Marjorie Perloff and Joan Retallack). I go to a lot of poetry readings. (For those of you in the area, check out Gallery Eof, which hosts a fair number of truly excellent American and French poets, and the Ivy Writers, which doesn't but at least meets at a bar. And if you go to Eof, go eat afterwards at L'Office at 3, Rue de Richer, which is what I did last night after hearing Thalia Field and Charles Bernstein, where--tired and a little worn out from poetry--found in that gustatory dead zone just above Les Halles a sustaining plate of something I now like to call The Chicken That Changed My Life. It's not the cheapest place I've found, but I DID experience spiritual ecstasy over the poulet, so we can't discount that. This is actually one of the other things I do with my endless free time: search for Paris's Holy Grail: that amazing, little-known restaurant in which you can get a delicious and complete formule (entree, plat AND dessert) for under 20 euros. It can be found, my friends, it can be found. But only the truly worthy can pass the test.) If there is a great gallery opening or museum show, I go to that. I go out with friends. I go shopping. And sometimes I go out to a movie.

In other words, I do exactly the same things I did before I left home.

This means one of two things. 1: I had a pretty good life before I left home. Or 2: I totally lack imagination.

I prefer to go with option #1.

Of course, there are notable differences in these activities. For instance, when I read in bed late at night, sometimes this is ALL night. This is something you can do when someone isn't lying next to you with his head wrapped in a sweater to block out the light from your IPad. And when I write, I can spend all day on a poem if I want, and not squeeze in little notes between classes and meetings and students weeping at me in the halls. If I go exercise, the person yelling at me in class is now yelling in French, thus supposedly exercising my translation skills as much as my biceps. Though I actually had a moment the other day when I thought, 'Wow, my French is really getting GOOD,' because instead of having that annoying little lag-time in my brain between the word being spoken and the word being translated, the kind of mental voice-over you do in your head like one of those bad martial arts movies, the words were going STRAIGHT INTO MY CONSCIOUSNESS: something I was slowly becoming aware of, rather like someone realizing that his yapping dog has actually been speaking clear, coherent sentences to him his entire life: "Wait, wait, what are you saying, Fifi? My wife is cheating on me and I'm dangerously over-invested in REITS?" All of this was what I was thinking, happy for two whole minutes until I realized that the barking instructor was actually barking English song lyrics at us in phenomenally bad English.

Another dream dies.

The friends I have here have also been acquired in a different way, too, in that I got them NOT through the patient accrual of meetings over the course of weeks or months, but through the kind of desperate land-grab mentality native to certain 19th Century Minnesota settlers. "Hello! Are you American? Do you want to have dinner?!" is almost exactly what I yelped at the woman sitting next to me at the reading last night, at which she--equally adrift it seems in Paris--yelped back, "I'm a poet! Are you a poet?! You look like a POET! Yes!" For those of you who don't know, no one who is actually a working poet will admit to being a poet in mixed company for fear of seeming pretentious and any future social reprisals regarding discussions of medications and/or requests for writing an epithalamium for someone's wedding. Here, however, strangers go straight for the intimacy jugular. People don't have time: you got to drop the dirt NOW. Which is why I've been lunging across aisles at likely-looking strangers, crumpling sweat-stained slips of paper with my email address on them into various palms across town. I'm a friend whore, people. It's just who I've become.

And it's been working. I've been hanging out with a German-French poet named Christine, who likes going window shopping on Avenue Montaigne as much as I do, and with whom I've been talking about why Lisa Robertson's poetry kicks ass and why Roberto Cavalli is such a shit designer.

I've also been hanging out with two of the most cheerful young American PhD students I've ever met (maybe they didn't get the memo that grad students are supposed to be miserable?), Katherine and Kelly, who have very kindly taken me under their wing and introduced me around town. They recently took me to a party where all the men were so young I told Katherine and Kelly I felt like the RA for a dorm. They were so young that even Katherine and Kelly--themselves both under 30--were dismayed by their presence at the party. So imagine how uncomfortable I felt when the lights dimmed for dancing and one of the youngest men there, a guy so pale-faced and doughy-featured that he reminded me, literally, of a fetus, came up to dance with me and ask what my name was, what I was doing in Paris, what I thought about the French, and then inquire how old I was.

Now, I never in my life EVER thought I would be the type of woman to lie about my age. But imagine for a moment, dear reader, that you are a 40 year -old woman at a party where you discover (to your horror) that nearly every attendee is under the age of 25. Imagine that you have left your ENTIRE LIFE at home for the year, including the beloved husband you pine for each and every day, and that what had previously seemed might be a marvelous international adventure has now--in the dark, harsh non-light of the party, where three guys are drunkenly hanging out a window and smoking and screaming in French, and where someone is yelling "I love these retro songs!" in your ear when a song comes on that was popular in the late 90's, and where just an hour before this you'd been standing at a metro stop in Belleville waiting for your friends and not one but THREE geriatric men--one with an actual cane--tried to cruise you as a prostitute--made your travels suddenly seem like one long midlife crisis. Imagine a young man with the features of a fetus wrinkling--trying to wrinkle--his non-brow at you as he asks this question. And now, dear reader, try and imagine telling him the truth.

"Oh," I said, wildly trying to calculate what I could reasonably get away with considering the dim lights, "You know. I just turned 30."

I'll wait while you finish wiping down the coffee you've sprayed all over your computer screen.

Let me say, it was REALLY dark in there.

Yes, you are replying, but surely it wasn't CAVE-LIKE.

Regardless, it seemed to placate the Fetus. Probably because to him, as it is to anyone in their early 20's, 30 is ancient. In any case, he quickly began treating me like the maternal figure that 30 would obviously make me, by trying out an antiquated cha cha-cum-square dance style dance for my benefit. You know, the dances of my youth. "I am having so many problems at my work," he sighed in French while turning me on the floor. "My boss thinks I don't speak good English. What should I do? What will I do with my life?"

This was, in fact, akin to the very question I'd just been asking myself. My boots were now sticking to the floor and I was beginning to feel the effects of tinnitus in my left ear from all that retro music. "I really have to leave," I told the Fetus, mid-spin. The Fetus frowned and insisted on giving me his number. "You are a good listener! And I want to practice my English!" he told me in French, as I patted him on the shoulder and left.
And of course, finally, school is different too. I am not the professor, but the student, and it turns out I LOVE being the student. I love being the passive receptacle of other people's knowledge. I love homework and short assignments and someone else preparing all the activities. I've even thought about taking advantage of all those free classes I'm supposed to get as a professor and taking French when I get back home. Because even though this French teacher at Etoile is GREAT, I feel like this class might be progressing a tad too slow.

And why is that, you ask?

It's because of Rose.

Rose is one of my class' tiny nuns. To her credit, she is one of the sweetest-natured people you'll ever meet. She's kind and lovely, always radiating good health and love for humanity. She's from Bangladesh, clearly not a country that has deep ties to the Romance languages, a fact which is not giving her an edge in class. But she's ever cheerful, ever solicitous, and probably the smallest of all the tiny nuns. Rose is as adorable as a baby owl.

And, unfortunately, she is also as dumb as a sack of hammers.

There are many phrases that our French teacher repeats in class, but her #1 phrase has to be: "Oh, Rose, NO!" This phrase comes up after every exercise, every practiced verbal exchange, every student reading. Rose can never seem to understand what she's being asked, and always manages to burble out a question about the one thing the teacher has JUST explained. The other day, we were supposed to respond to the teacher's French questions in the negative, and then give a short explanation (in French and in the past tense) about why we didn't want to do or eat or try or think such and such.

"Rose, do you want a cup of coffee?" the teacher asked.

Rose blinked. "Yes, please," she said.

"Rose, no. Please answer in the negative."

"No, I would really like a cup of coffee."

"Oh, Rose, NO!"

We went around class and tried Rose again. "Rose," the teacher asked, sighing. "Do you want to go to Normandy this weekend?"

Rose brightened. "Yes, please!"

"Rose, NO!"

Rose wrinkled her brow. The teacher looked at me. "Paisley," she began. "Do you want to call your husband?"

I looked at Rose, for the first time understanding that our teacher might have a secret sadistic streak. Rose, unwilling victim to the lost cup of coffee and now a vanished but much longed-for trip to Normandy, blinked balefully back.

"No," I muttered. "I already talked to him last night."

The teacher turned to Rose and smiled. "You understand?" she asked.

Rose nodded. "I say 'no' when I want something," she stuttered.

"Oh, Rose, NO!"

And so it goes. Rose also--and I hate to say it of a nun--cheats a little on the quizzes. "What is number 5?" she will hiss at me in class, which is always really awkward, because--though you may not want to help the average cheater do better on a French test, you do sort of feel for someone has voluntarily given up sex for her entire life. (All in the spirit of "You say 'no' when you really want something," perhaps.) At 4'2", Rose has already been given the genetic short stick. Hell, Rose IS the genetic short stick. But still it feels weird helping a nun cheat.

Of course, this class is full of odd nun behavior. Two of the nuns like to beat each other before class, in a game I don't really understand but have started calling "That Doesn't Hurt!" when they play it. One short Nepalese nun smacks the short Filipina nun on the arm. The short Filipina nun yelps in pain then punches the short Nepalese nun in the shoulder. The short Nepalese nun gives a little howl, then punches the short Filipina nun on the thigh. And on and on. There's a lot of giggling when this happens, so no one stops it, but essentially every day I get to watch two small nuns beat the shit out of each other during French.

But the biggest difference, the hardest difference, of my life here versus my life back home, is the lack of Sean and my dogs. Rose got it right--wittingly or no. Here I am, every day, implicitly saying "no" to my life with Sean, when all I really want to be doing is keeping him up late at night while I read on my I-Pad. The first couple of weeks have been hardest, with me bursting into tears at strange moments of the day, like when I see married couples laughing together at restaurants, and practically throwing myself onto dog owners whose pets are, like mine, Chows. This city is FULL of Chow Chows, which at first seemed odd, then very appropriate, as Chows require endless grooming, are adorable from far away but vicious up close, generally stand-offish, incredibly stubborn, but sweet and protective with their family members.

Essentially, they're French.

It's funny, my ongoing misery, because one of the things I was also the tiniest bit afraid of about all this free time was that it would prove to be so addictive I'd never want to go back. At the beginning of my time here, I read a very interesting memoir called Hiroshima in the Morning, about a woman who gets a grant to live in Hiroshima for 6 months to interview the bomb survivors for her novel. The book is about disappearing mothers as well, as her mother has been diagnosed with Altzheimer's, and the author herself has left behind not only her husband but two small children. And, it turns out, she learns that she never really wants to go back.

Within 6 months, the woman decides to divorce her husband, relinquish custody of her children, move out of her NY apartment, and into her own place down the block. Essentially--like me--she totally, utterly, completely revises her life.

This book scared the shit out of me.

And then it didn't. Because the longer I'm away, the clearer I am about all the reasons I am coming back, all the reasons I should frankly have never left. The very fact I am trying to rearrange my life into some semblance of what I left is, I think, telling. I know it's unseemly to complain about an award like this, but the fact is, it's been hard. Much harder than I'd imagined. This award, though designed--in the abstract--for anyone, really isn't for anyone. It's actually kind of an unfair award, because if you have a commitment to family or work, you can't apply for or accept it. In hindsight, I'm learning that perhaps I shouldn't have accepted it. Not only has my decision made me (at times) extremely upset, it's made Sean unhappy and has burdened my parents with my dogs. It's also put out a lot of my coworkers and even my students as well. The only people who might actually be benefitting from this award are my dogs, who now get bacon every Sunday. And finally, it's not fair to the people who could have gotten this award who WOULDN'T be sitting and crying on the steps of the Pantheon. Those are the people who should be here. People like the Fetus, perhaps. People whose lives are, as yet, terrifically unruffled.

But mine has already been ruffled. And now, if I'm honest, I'd like to go home.

This is sissy talk, I know. I need a nun to come in and start hitting me. Maybe Rose. Rose seems like she could pack a punch. She'll just never hit where you tell her to.

"Here?" she'll ask, smacking me in the groin.

Oh, Rose. NO!

1 comment:

  1. Naturally, i'm afraid of Chow-chows ( must be some atavistic trait, the kind commonly found in four pound dogs -- the ones that prefer the palanquin to the leash). My second greatest fear, oddly enough, is of Carmelite nuns. i have no special antipathy toward the smallest within the order, but i am willing to learn.

    The French have a legendary talent for cossetting animals of my stature (think of Marie Antoinette and her bevy of beauteous toy Spaniels). A soup├žon of specialized attention is not in their genetic makeup: they go full out. Native speakers of Esperanto (of which there are none), in contrast, would seem to me to be so cold and unaware of the gossamer charm of pure frivolity.

    p.s. your description of Rose as an adorable baby owl made my day.