Tuesday, December 13, 2011

An Incipient Au Revoir

There are certain times when you want to kill Parisians. Say, like Wednesday. Or anytime you have to go to the Monoprix between 5 and 7:30.

Really, just anytime Parisians are on their best Parisian behavior. Which seems to include being as politely but snottily indifferent as possible to those engaged in the basic human plight of co-existing in a city as overwhelming as this one. These are the times you might like to do some physical damage to someone, something that might involve a pantless Monoprix clerk bent over a desk, say, with a thick French-English dictionary and a day-old baguette at your disposal.

But you don't, because by the time you would have finished trying to express this particular revenge fantasy to the offending person in French, his eyes would have rolled back in his head as he dropped off into a bad French syntax-induced coma.

Before I left Paris, I admit it: I was getting overwhelmed. So much human traffic in and out of the metro, so much crowding and jostling on the streets, so much shouting and swearing and whining loudly on cell phones, so many cigarettes nearly catching one's coat on fire, so many people bleeding from the scalp outside the McDonald's. (I have no idea why; all I can say is that a day that passes without an ambulance dropping by it seems like a minor miracle. Random attacks by roving gangs of gourmands?) So many polite ways of being snide, so many ways to make "Thank you" sound like a pretty little dagger shoved under the ribs. 

In short, it was time to get out of town.

Perhaps I should admit that living in Paris was not, actually, my first idea. I had previously planned on spending these months in Berlin, based on the recommendations of several friends who had already visited there, and of course on Cabaret, which I watched over and over (along with The Goodbye Girl) with my mother when I was 12.

But alas, Berlin was not to be. Weirdly, considering how cheap Berlin is, I couldn't find an apartment as cheap as the one I found (online) in Paris.

And we all know how that turned out.

At first, my impressions of Berlin (shown in photos below) made me acutely regret my decision. Look at all this space! Look at all this modernist architecture! Even the train stations are pretty!

And there were Christmas markets everywhere! I love a Christmas market!

I loved the museums, the neighborhoods, the enormous portion sizes. Who knew how much you could achieve with head-sized schnitzel! Who could have guessed how many sausages a single ethnicity could consume! 

On top of this, Berlin was filled with art! There was such interesting graffiti! 

And then, of course, there was this:

Even the rail system--as discombobulating as if first seemed--was so sweet, as it never seemed to require you to ACTUALLY PURCHASE A TICKET! Also, you could ALWAYS find a seat! Compare this to Paris, where half the time your ride is standing up, and with surprising regularity you'll find some young, lithe, teenage punk slithering up behind you in the turnstile so he can sneak in on your ticket (a sassy, "D'accord, madame? S'il vous plait?" thrown in for good measure, accompanied by the wild batting of eyes) while ALSO copping a feel. Berlin, in contrast, is full of personal space! No one gropes you! No one tries to talk to you on the subways! The men you speak to don't seem to think that any conversation over 5 minutes is an obvious prelude to the possibility of sex! No one plays the electronic version of La Bamba for money! No one begs for money to help support a mini-farm of three miniature lop-eared rabbits and two chickens! (When you see a homeless person with three chickens, two rabbits and a "Money, please, I'm hungry" sign, it's hard not to suggest that her problem might have a quick--though, yes, sadly temporary--solution.) No one smokes in Berlin or, if they do, there's so much room between you and the smoker in question, it's as if the cigarette itself doesn't even exist! There's no traffic! You can cross the street practically blind-folded! 

Really, is it so bad to love a city based solely on the fact no one else seems to be living in it?

I loved the art as well: fresh and contemporary, inside museums that were fantastically devoid of human life. You could walk right up to major works of art without a thousand and one crazed tourists, all wearing the same backwards-facing baseball cap and Broncos down jacket, pushing in front of you, photographing everything so wildly you leave the building in a haze of sunspots. 

Vienna was the same.

Again, charming Christmas markets! Empty pathways! Capacious restaurants! Gluhwein flowing in the streets!

But after over a week of traveling around these two cities, I began to suspect something was, well, missing.

While Berlin was fabulous, and Vienna was almost MORE charming, even, than Berlin as its architecture seemed eerily Paris-like (All the best of Paris with none of the downsides! I thought to myself), I started to feel, um, a little bored. In both cities.

I know: this is how disgustingly spoiled I've become. BORED? Bored in BERLIN AND VIENNA? What the hell was wrong with me?

Perhaps, I thought, it was the fact I couldn't speak German. Or perhaps it was because I was so transient: I had no reason to get more "comfortable" or even excited by the city at hand. 

But the more I kept wandering around, I felt that the beautiful architecture, the fancy shops, the amazong graffiti and art and all the very lovely restaurants were kind of, um, dead.

Even the fancy Korean-fusion restaurant, Kim-Hock, I managed to stumble into at Vienna's Nauchsmarket ("This is one of the best chefs in all of Austria," the elegant woman beside me at the long communal table told me, nodding sagely, her 2-carat diamond ring sparkling on her finger. "This is one of our very important restaurants.") wasn't very good. (I think the Korean-Austrian chef might have been a little too Austrian in her spice habits now to make the Korean dishes really fly.) Had I been corrupted by Paris? Was I just numbed from all the traveling?

After a few days, I felt like I was just going through the motions. Getting up, going to museums, walking around town, photographing things, getting a headache from too much gluhwein, eating various large parts of flattened cow.

Had travel ruined me?

I found my answer in the teary reception I reserved for this little guy:

A space invader! 

MON FRÉRE! I felt like throwing my arms around it. After all those invaders found on my walks throughout Paris, all those little cheerful faces secretly adhered to the sides of buildings, just out of sight, on the corners of bridges or tucked away on a jutting alcove. How had he gotten to Vienna? Was it the same group of artists from Paris? Different ones? Did it matter? I felt like how you might feel when you run into the guy from your neighborhood grocery--the one you would never, ever talk to at home--standing in a cocktail line at the same deserted bar in Fiji. Suddenly, you are best friends. You are SOULMATES. You are now with the person who most understands, and appreciates you, in your whole life. 

And he just happens to be made out of dozens of tiny, grimy little mosaics.

Anyway, this is when I realized that what I was missing was, in fact, all the pressing, crowding, sneezing, puking, pushing, smoking, yelling and bleeding. I was missing Paris. I was missing, gasp, Parisians.

I mean, who else was going to be that mean to me?

Upon my arrival home, I immediately got trapped in a subway car packed slaughterhouse-full of end-of-work commuters. Someone with an accordion wormed his way in and began his soul-grinding snippet of La Bamba. I got off to fall in with a crowd of screaming teenagers. Some 20 year-old, seeing my rolling luggage, took the opportunity to press tight against my back in the turnstile ("Oh, mademoiselle," batting eyes, squeezing waist, "s'il vous plait, ça marche?"). Outside my metro stop, the homeless woman greeted me in cheeerful Romany, one less chicken nestled on her mattress. The Monoprix clerk wouldn't meet my eyes as she swiped my card, snarled, told me I was in the "caisse livraison" line, and if I "didn't want something delivered, madame, then why are you standing in front of me?" I got home to find the mold stench in the apartment had grown to near-overpowering dimensions. The screw holding the showerhead clipped to the shower fell off. The heater died. A shower of sparks ignited when I plugged in Ling Ling. At French class the next day, the tiny nuns gave a cheer at my return and Rose practically threw herself into my arms. "Please," she gasped in English, thrusting a sheaf of eraser-grimed homework at me. "Please, please explain to me what I have been learning!" Walking home, a crowd nearly shoved me into a puddle,  someone ashed on my shoes, a couple got into a high-pitched "we are not screaming at each other yet but 
BY GOD we are close!" fight uncomfortably close beside me.  The owner of the gym yelled at me to bring a towel. The two biggest gay guys wouldn't share the handweights. I went home sweaty, towel-less, exhausted, the sounds of an ambulance wailing past me towards the McDonald's. 

I was utterly, utterly happy.

My God, I love this city. How am I ever going to leave it in a month?


  1. I know exactly what you mean. When I went to Hungary from Istanbul the summer I lived there, I was stunned by how clean everything was, everywhere. It was that way in Budapest, and in Esztergom, and especially in Szentendre, where it finally got to be too much. When I got back to Istanbul, I wanted to kiss every grimy inch of Sirkeci Station.

  2. It's like some kind of Stockholm Syndrome for Grime. Though it's always helped by the fact that Paris has some of the most spectacular scenery too. Probably like Istanbul: it's the swing between the two poles that becomes so breath-taking. Can't wait to see it! Give me recs!

  3. You're staying at a boutique hotel in Sultanahmet, right? You have to do the big, obvious things—Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace. Also the Grand Cistern. Aside from that area, be sure to see the Suleymaniye and the exquisite little Rustem Pasha mosque. When you go to the Grand Bazaar, don't miss the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. You might want to go to Dolmabace for a comparison after having seen Topkapi. The Kariye Museum has the most beautiful Byzantine mosaics.

    I don't know if there are any Ottoman house museums in Istanbul, but if so, go to one; old Ottoman houses are wonderful. You can also take a little sailing trip to one of the villages at the Black Sea end of the Bosphorus and eat at a fish restaurant, or to Buyuk Ada in the Marmara, which is very charming.

    Be sure to eat at a fish restaurant, and also at a restaurant that serves mezze.

    And go to Urart. It's a jewelry atelier. If it's as it was, you make an appointment, and you dress. You must go.

    Oh! And also, of course, to at least one or two rug shops!

  4. I wonder if you didn't have time to find the lively grungy parts of Berlin (or what passes for grungy in Germany). On MayDay 2009 a friend met me at Schönefeld airport; the taxi wouldn't drive us closer than a mile from his place in Prenzlauer Berg because of ongoing riots. And it is the location of Folsom Europe. (Don't think I told you that I ran into a Seattle U student from 16 years ago at SF Folsom this year. I'm in something of a "code" get-up and I hear "professor! professor!" behind me -- my friends scatter, only to laugh heartily later. He's in "civilian" clothes, along with a man and woman from the elementary school where they all teach. We have this shallow where-are-you-now, gosh-I-barely-passed-college-algebra chat with the sound of flogging from the Bound Jocks booth behind us. A bit awkward.)

  5. Yes, but did your mother then show up to insist you all get your pictures taken in the "tops and bottoms" booth that included a life-size wooden stand-up of two men having anal intercourse, their faces cut out so passersby can jut their heads through? And did your mother then take the "top" position in this photo? And did she then ask a man wearing only a cock ring to take her picture? My mother loved the Folsom Street fair.

    As for the grimy parts of Berlin, I saw the "new" hip places south of PB, and they were kind of grimy, but evidently not grimy enough to make me homesick. I loved Berlin overall, however: such a great place!