I want to take you through my neighborhood, down the street, into my mornings and afternoons where there’s coffee and misspellings, a crowded metro and a Catholic church.
Children and baguettes
Walking home one afternoon, a pint-sized little girl with long blond hair galloped past me with a baguette in hand, the bread taller than she, waving in her hot little hand as she ran. I smiled– the scene was familiar. Kids here, they run with baguettes taller than they are. It’s natural, it seems, but it never loses it’s charm.
Just like the hefty men sitting outside Oh! Byblos, the Lebanese restaurant beside my house. They sit there all day every day, smoking and watching the people pass. They’ve grown to recognize me, and on my way home, they now greet me with giant smiles and “bon soir!” One night they had a huge hookah sitting on the table with three pipes, and I almost plopped down in a seat beside the one with his happy, round face and shared. I feel like this is my community.
Maybe because I named the boulangerie beside my apartment “ma boulangerie,” and I’ve finally been able to tease a smile from the serious French woman who runs it. Or perhaps because I know all the hours at Saint Léon, the Catholic church down the street, and have learned that the fastest way to school includes a shortcut through the park Pablo Casals.
I know which grocery stores in a six block radius sell the best inexpensive wine and chocolate, and I can operate a peseur like a pro. I have walked to Notre Dame, Pere Lachaise, the Latin Quarter, the Eiffel Tower, and the Invalides from my door and can tell you how long each takes– 90 minutes, 120 minutes, 90 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes. When I take a study break at night, I walk up the Champs de Mars and watch the monuments glow. I can’t count the number of times, I’ve lost myself, sitting on the banks of the Seine.
Sometimes I like to disappear to another part of the city, get on the train, and get off where it sounds pretty (I still haven’t stopped at Bonne Nouvelle though I wonder what the good news is). It is how I know where they sell the cheapest postcards, and how I discovered the metro stop for the Moulin Rouge. It’s how I found my favorite cobblestone street, Rue Cler, and the best open-air markets. It is my orientation, or a piece of it.
My orientation includes learning the hard way that everything is closed on Sunday, that coffee comes in shot-sized cups, and that books can be looked at but not borrowed at the public library in Centre Pompidou. Yet, this is the best adjustment of my life. I am in love– with the pigeons that congregate on the heat vents on the sidewalks at night, so when I leave early for class, they’re still huddled gray and fluffy in my path. With the fact that they wash the streets every day, so there are always puddles in the gutters. I love that women ride mopeds but never have helmet hair and that last night a man was playing the flute under Pont Neuf, just to hear the notes echo back to him in the dark under the bridge.
But it’s not all pretty. I still feel the ache in my heartstrings when I arrive at school and the homeless man we call “Albert” is in his sleeping bag on the doorstep across the street like he is every morning. When he isn’t there, I wonder what stoop he slept on that night and if he’ll come back. Inevitably, he does, and I will bring him groceries one day, I am sure. For I hurt with every cardboard sign that reads “Aidez-moi pour manger SVP” help me eat please. And pigeons aren’t the only ones who curl up on the heat vents at night. One morning, I stepped past a human being, a grown man curled over the vent like a child. And even when I get to the train station, where I can buy a ticket to anywhere, the bodies are along the hallways, sleeping in bags and oversized coats.
That sadness helps me remember, I am blessed. I am blessed with laughter when I degenerate into a ludicrous franglais because the language is too tough; or misspell English by adding “e’s” and dropping “k’s.” I am happy because I can finally hear different accents in French and like the way Parisians sound the best. I automatically write the date “day-month-year” now and add commas instead of periods when scrawling down decimals.
I am certain that I will never get tired of the music in the long underground hallways at Concorde, nor weary of museums. As long as the men in green jumpsuits pick up the trash and clean the streets, I will love leaning out my window at 3 A.M and watching the night bus rumble down Rue Linois; as long as there are bikes at every intersection and bookstands on the quai by the Seine, I will want to pick up a baguette on my way home and watch the children skip by, their own skinny loaves in hand.