Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 4

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On Christmas Day, Jacques started his singing far too early in the morning and announced he was moving on to Amiens. He wrote down a few useful phrases with English translations and the name of a wine he was pretty sure Allison would like -- Dujac.

"All women like this wine. You go straight to bed with them."
"Thanks. Joyeux Noël." I said, reading from the list he had given me.
"Hey! Very good! Happy Christmas. That's right. And this one: Bonne Année. It means 'good New Year.' OK. I have to go. Au revoir. You still look like shit."

...

I lay in bed as long as I could stand, then decided that I should do some sightseeing. I showered and shaved away my sad excuse for a beard. I can't grow a proper beard and the scraggly, multi-colored patched mess that comes instead always leaves me scratching away at my face as if I have fleas. After four days without shaving, my face was itching like a sailor on leave in Guam; it was the itchiest itch in all of itchydom; it registered a 9.6 on the Itchter Scale. After shaving, I splashed cold water on my face until my fingers went numb.

I grabbed a croissant from the breakfast area and headed for the Musée Rodin, Auguste Rodin's hotel-turned-museum dedicated to the greatness that is Auguste Rodin, the artist best known for sculpting Le Penseur ("The Thinker"). I shuffled through the garden of sculptures first, about as quickly as my shivering and sickened body could carry me. The sculptures were beaten and worn. Things were carelessly strewn about and left to dissolve in the elements. "Just put that shit anywhere" seemed to be the garden's theme. I half expected to see a 1984 AMC Pacer on cement blocks, as if the whole thing were just someone's front yard in Clute. What wasn't being ruined by the elements struck me as unimpressive. I wandered through the indoor part of the museum only enough to warm from the cold and drink an overpriced cup of hot chocolate. In my Let's Go! guide I made a note next to the Musée Rodin entry: "This guy is all bollocks."

At the Musée d'Orsay I tried to pretend to be very high brow and lost in thought while staring at a picture of a vagina. Something really amused me about the fact that someone could paint a picture of a vagina and that it would be considered a vagina of such quality that they would put it in one of the great art museums of the world. It was a vagina. I had seen a handful of vaginas in my life, and this looked like most of them. I could think of one or two that, arguably, looked better. But this one had been framed and was now garnering the attention of myself and a squad of chatty Asian tourists. I stared at the vagina for about 15 minutes, wondering if perhaps there was more to it than what I was seeing. I don't think so -- it was a vagina.

Because I was a politics student, I felt obliged to stare also at the Palais Bourbon, home to the Assemblée nationale, or French parliament. The French political system is notoriously complicated and staring at the building where part of it is housed failed to assist in my understanding whatsoever. It is a large building with Roman columns that looks like it could stand to be cleaned. Sometimes things are not nearly so great or inspiring as we would like them to be. I almost immediately wished I had spent more time staring at the vagina.

At the Champ de Mars there was a Ferris wheel, and I started to think about my dad. He loves Ferris wheels -- they are just about the only amusement ride you can get him on. My whole family rode an enormous wheel at the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans. The car was massive, enough room for my family and a young couple who had thought to bring Popeye's fried chicken with them for the ride. My mother was petrified by the height of the wheel and left it to my dad to control my brother and me as we ran around in the car, testing the small metal gate that was supposed to keep us all safely inside. Because, you know, when I think safety, I think Louisiana.

Now, suddenly, staring up at the Champ de Mars Ferris wheel and feeling the cold punch at my ears, I missed my family more than ever before or since. I didn't want to be doing this anymore, living so far away. I felt my face get hot and I wiped away tears. I thought about how much I wanted to be with my family at my grandparents' house in Texas. My grandmother would have the house decorated as she did every Christmas, with garland running up the stairwell, and mistletoe hanging in the front hallway. Lights would run along the outside trim of the house and in each of the windows that faced the street. A few more lights would dangle in the large palmetto and magnolia trees that shade her front yard. And on the door would hang the massive lighted plastic Santa head she has hung there every year for as long as I've been alive, the paint worn now. In the living room she would have set up that old plastic Christmas tree and covered it in dozens of ornaments -- some made for her over the years by us grandchildren, some given to her by students before she retired from teaching, some collected by my grandfather during one of his obsessive trips to garage sales.

My brother and I would be sitting at my grandmother's kitchen counter eating hot pound cake while my dad attempted to watch college football with my grandfather. My dad only watches about two football games a year, and does so with a sense of obligation; he's from small-town Texas, he is supposed to watch football. My mother would be talking and laughing and laughing and talking with my grandmother. And maybe after a while, I would wander into the front room and lie down on the floor and stare at all the presents under the tree, like when I was a kid, and think about what might be in each of the boxes. I would hear the wandering songs of birds chirping outside and feel the warmth of the sun shining through the window. And I would just melt away -- content and relaxed -- listening to the birds and my breathing and the football game in the other room and my mother's laughing.

It was too cold to stand still for so long at the Champ de Mars. My ears felt like they were bleeding from the cold, my lips and toes and fingers were numb. After determining that the Ferris wheel was not operating and there did not appear to be plans to operate it anytime soon, I took a picture of it and dragged myself across the green to the Eiffel Tower.

I made it to the tower shortly before sunset and paid 12 francs for the privilege of climbing up the steps to the second level. It was high up enough to make me apprehensive, though. From that height, the city looked oddly un-Parisian. Extending out across the smoggy horizon were rows of houses and small buildings, squished together, with old cylindrical chimneys. Here and there I could see a clothesline stretched from a chimney to a wall. It looked like the chimney sweep scene in Mary Poppins.

"I wish Allison were here," I said aloud.

I didn't actually wish that, I just said it because that's the sort of thing a good boyfriend is supposed to say when he's at the Eiffel Tower and staring out over Paris. It wasn't so much that I didn't want her to be there, though, as much as it was that I didn't want to be there. The sky was heavy gray with tints of orange and brown. It was a miserable sunset. The wind ripped through me like a wire saw. I took a few pictures -- one of myself extending my purplish frost-nipped middle finger toward the whole of France -- and hurried back down the stairs as a cold sleeting mist descended on the city. At the foot of the tower I bought a bag of roasted chestnuts from a street vendor and put them in my anorak's front pocket to warm my hands.

...

Christmas in Paris was about as lonely and unfriendly as you can imagine. There were only a handful of lighted displays throughout the city. A few shops had scribbled "Joyeux Noël" on a piece of paper or cardboard and hung it on the door. That the shops had closed early was really the only way you could tell it was Christmas Day. Thinking about my family had led to thoughts of Allison and in my loneliness I wanted to buy a porno magazine. I couldn't find an open newsstand, so I settled instead for a pain au chocolat. I'm a simple man that I can swap pornography for pastry. I took it back to the hostel and ate it with hot chocolate while sitting in the lobby and flipping through a copy of the International Herald Tribune. The articles seemed longer than I had the patience to read, and I decided instead to go up to my room and sleep.

A few hours later, I went back out into the miserably cold and dark Paris night to find dinner. I found my choices to be pretty limited: Burger King or a crepe from a street vendor. I had to point and make animal noises to communicate what I wanted put inside the crepe -- ham, eggs, cheese -- and tried to make up for it by stuttering "merci beaucoup" a few thousand times. It was worth the embarrassment. The heat from the crepe warmed my hands and face as I hovered over it. I leaned against a wall to avoid the sleet that was now falling heavier. The crepe was delicious. The cheese was perfectly melted, the eggs and ham fresh, and my stomach felt warm and full from the meal.

I looked up and saw a teenage boy staring at me.

"Américain?"

He said it the same way you might say, "ass cancer?"

"Oui," I said, my mouth full of food.
"I hate Americans. You think you are so fucking great. You think you are better? France made you. Fuck you. You are shit fuck. I hate you. You wish you were France. Stupid shit fuck!"

I chewed my food and looked at him. He was wearing Nike shoes, an Adidas track suit, and a Cleveland Indians baseball cap. Happy at the taunting he had given me, he strutted away, turned with a sense of flair and gave me one final evil look as he walked into the Burger King.

...

When I had finished eating, I decided to call my family. The hostel didn't have phones, but there were proper phone booths just across the street -- cold, but at least sheltered from the weather. Inevitably I ran into trouble. My MCI calling card refused to cooperate with the French pay phones. I couldn't even get hold of an operator. After dialing the number at least a dozen times, I gave up and tried calling my credit card company, hoping they could somehow connect me. They could indeed place a call for me, the operator said, if I was willing to pay far too much money for it.

"It's Christmas," I said.
"I know," the operator said. "And I'm working."
"OK."
And she put me through.

My dad answered the phone.

"Hey," he said in that voice of his that makes you feel like you've accomplished something great simply by figuring out how to call him. "How's France?"
"Very French. And cold. And wet. And I'm sick," I said.
"Gosh. Is Allison sick, too?"
"No. Uhm. No. She's fine."
"Are you two having a good time?"
"Uh, yeah. Pretty good. What are you doing?"
"Oh, just watching football with your granddad."
"Who's winning?"
"I don't know."
"Who's playing?"
"I don't know."  

As my Winnie the Pooh watch clicked past midnight, Christmas Day concluded with my family singing "Here Comes Santa Claus" to me as I shook from cold in a phone booth 5,074 miles away. When I hung up, I cried so hard my lungs hurt.

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