Métro, Boulot, Dodo

The French have a phrase “métro, boulot, dodo,” which means “subway, work, sleep.” It’s only been two weeks since I started my internship at the embassy, but I’m already coming to understand this Parisian view of life. Living in Paris has been a dream come true, for the most part, especially during the first couple of days when I had nothing to do but stroll around and admire the natural beauty of the city, but it has come with its own challenges, too.

Having visited Paris several times before, I have photos of most of the touristy places, and not carrying a camera everywhere with me is an oddly liberating sensation. I had wondered what it would be like, being surrounded by tourists all the time, but surprisingly, they don’t annoy me very much.

In fact, I derive a certain amount of pleasure in watching other people, especially my fellow Americans, discover– often for the first time– the place I have come to love. There have even been times when I’ve been able to help them out, and I never get tired of their surprised reactions when they learn that there are, indeed, friendly anglophones in a city of supposed snobs.

During my first couple of days here, I passed the Eiffel Tower several times, strolled through the Jardins des Tuileries in front of the Louvre, and dodged tourists and Parisians alike on the always overcrowded Champs Elysées near the Arc de Triomphe. I’ve also been fortunate to have a couple of Texan friends living in the city for the summer, including a fellow Aggie Catholic, with whom I tasted the infamous Berthillon’s ice cream (made sans preservatives or artificial coloring) on the Île St. Louis, walked along the Seine, and attended mass at Notre Dame Cathedral on Mother’s Day in France.

My work at the embassy got off to a slow start; all of the steps necessary to finalise my security clearances took at least a week to complete, and at the beginning, I was a bit bored.  I’m not sure why Americans talk about 9:00-5:00 office jobs because I work from 9:00-6:00, which irks me particularly since I’m in a country notorious for its 35-hour workweeks. There are two other interns in my office, as well, so there wasn’t a lot of work to go round for us neophytes. However, with the departure of three of the office’s mainstays, coupled with the vacations and displacements of some of the other employees, the work has picked up, and now I find myself fairly occupied the whole time.

I’m sure many of you are dying to know what kind of secret stuff I’m doing behind closed doors. I would never jeopardise my position by writing about classified information, but I can assure you that even though I enjoy a top-secret security clearance, most of my tasks have been rather mundane, and even the hush-hush stuff has been less than titillating, to be sure. For the most part, I have gone to some thinktanks near the embassy to take notes for some of my supervisors, which I am in the process of transcribing. I was allowed to sit in on a meeting of department heads and be introduced to the ambassador, even if it wasn’t exactly face-to-face, and I even had a “fun” assignment on Friday where I played tour guide to the family members of some visiting congressmen. That was actually quite enjoyable since I had a real opportunity to put my knowledge of Paris to work, and I was able to accompany them to a site I hadn’t even visited myself, Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides, a former military hospital cum museum.

I’m pretty fortunate that I like my coworkers, too. Everyone has been very welcoming and helpful at bringing us interns into the fold. One of my supervisors, in particular, is a fellow writer with a book self-published on Amazon, and I have enjoyed getting to know a kindred spirit. He has even inspired me to bring my computer to work to write during our hour-long lunch breaks, which is how he finished his first book and is completing his second.

As much as the job has been varied, the novelty of working at the embassy is starting to wear off, and life as a Parisian is taking a small toll. While Paris doesn’t exactly approach New York City in terms of size or population, living in a world capital is fairly stressful. A lot of Americans have this “Vie en Rose” image of the City of Lights, but they can only see France through the eyes of a vacationer.

Living in the midst of a different culture, even one I know well, is mentally taxing as I juggle between living amongst other Americans for nine hours and returning to my French host family in the evenings. Then there is just the rigor of adjusting to a full-time work schedule in a huge city, where I have to factor in time to get to work via public transportation along with every other suit-clad Parisian and their dogs. Sometimes, I have to wait for two métros to pass before there is enough room to get on the train, and when I make my correspondance at Franklin Roosevelt, we  practically run through the claustrophobia-inducing tunnels; even so, the sound of the myriad vagabond musicians’ renditions of Ave Maria echoing through the corridors every morning makes the gauntlet a bit more bearable. Then it’s nine hours spent in front of a computer in a windowless office (for now, anyway, and every once in a while I get to take the aforementioned field trips into the city) before doing it all over, with only a couple of hours of free time in the evening before waking up at the crack of doom for rounds two through five.

While there have already been a few times where I have asked myself why I decided to go through all this hassle of moving to another country not just once, but a second time, and while I have been a little bit homesick, I have been saying to my French friends, “Je m’habitue” (I’m getting used to it). And when I really think about it, I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.

I definitely appreciate the weekends more, now. In school, I usually spent my free time completing papers or attending to other commitments, but the one silver lining of an office job is that I can leave it all behind on Friday. This weekend was especially nice because I took the train to Caen to visit my host family from two years ago. On the way out, the sun was shining and the sky was clear, a welcome change after the constant grey rain we’ve been having in Paris, and I was shocked to find myself embracing the idea of retiring to the quiet countryside fifty years down the line. I couldn’t help but better understand why the French don’t like living in Paris, and the Parisians themselves take every opportunity they can to flee their concrete jungle for their native terroirs (family origins).

I spent a lovely weekend celebrating my host family’s housewarming in conjunction with their 25th wedding anniversary. The whole extended family (whom I met on the very same day I met my host family in Caen) was there, and I was really touched at having a familial atmosphere to come back to, especially in my old haunt. As much as I want to see the rest of the country, Normandy will always hold a special place in my heart as my first “home” in France, and I don’t care what reputation it has as a cold, rainy, pastoral region with little excitement; walking around the tiny town of Ouistreham, along the beach with a sprightly wind blowing off the Channel, and through the quaint neighborhoods of typically Norman architecture was an idyllic way to pass a Sunday. Paris is beautiful, there is no question about it; but the French realise that foreigners think only of Paris when they think of France, and I hasten to add that there is a lot of beauty to be found elsewhere, as well.

Now, I’m on the overcrowded train back to Paris, where I’ll catch the evening mass (probably one of the few times my family in Texas will have actually gone to church before I have, even with the time difference) before gearing up for a week of God-knows-what. At least the job hasn’t been predictable yet, and I have a feeling that as my colleagues get to know us interns better, we may get to do even more interesting tasks.

I’ll be visiting some Aggie Catholics in Rome for an ordination mass next weekend, and as much as travel disasters make great stories, for my sake, I’m hoping for an uneventful dash down south via RyanAir.

Bref, as the French say, “ça arrive.” Little by little, I’m readjusting to life à la française, and I’m sure I’ll have more exciting news in the not so distant future.

À bientôt !

Une Petite Leçon d’Humilité

Claque.

That’s the sound in French for closing a door. Or being seized with panic before kicking yourself for being an idiot.

I stood there, in front of the apartment, dumbfounded before frantically searching my pockets. I managed to extract my phone and about seventy centimes before shaking the door gently. My phone glowed cheerily back up at me in the darkening hallway. 20:15.

Merde.

Unbelieving, I searched my pockets again, hoping the keys would materialize and this would be just a false alarm. No such luck. I stuffed my plastic bag back into my pocket and sat down on the stairs next to the door. It will be ok, I reassured myself, They just left for dinner at a friend’s house in the neighborhood, so they’ll be back in a couple hours.

Then, an idea.

A little less than a minute later, I’m knocking on the door of the guardienne, an adorable older lady from Portugal who only comes up to my waist and whose apartment sits just off the entry hall to the building. Her equally adorable dog comes out to see who the visitor is, and I relate my sad story to my little audience of two: I don’t mean to bother you, but I was going to the grocery store when I realised I didn’t have much money in my wallet, so I went upstairs and took some from my desk, but apparently I set my key down, and now I’m locked out of the apartment. Do you happen to have a spare one?

The dog stares up at me, clearly nonplussed, but fortunately, his mistress is more sympathetic to my plight. Unfortunately, she does not have an extra key to the apartment, but perhaps she has my host family’s number. She rifles through some papers and pulls out something– alas, it is an old number or the one to their landline. In my head, I’m banging my head against the wall; Madame Julienne just gave me her cell phone number the other day, but it is written in my notebook next to the keys in question upstairs, not in my American iPhone in my pocket.

That’s ok, I say, giving the dog a little pat, more to reassure myself than him, as she lets me back into the stairwell. I’ll just wait.

A short elevator ride later, and I’m sitting morosely on the stair once more. If there is a silver lining to this situation, it is that I took my iPhone with me and not my French cell phone. Both are equally useless as far as making telephone calls goes, but at least I can access the wifi from within the apartment and amuse myself online. Facebook informs me rather bluntly that none of my friends are online to chat. The clock at the top of the screen flickers momentarily: 20:45.

Trying to stave off the wave of loneliness and disappointment that threatens to overwhelm me, I rest my forehead on my arm across my knees as I begin to pray. A short time later, the door across the hall opens and the neighboring lady steps out, trash bag in hand. She and I are mere acquaintances, but I can’t help but smile at the irony of the situation: considering our first meeting was here in this same spot only a week earlier, when I was also locked out of the apartment upon my arrival in Paris since my host family was out at the time, we seem to be developing an unusual relationship.

I quickly explain my foolishness to her, and she kindly asks if there is anything she can offer me. I insist that I’m fine, but my mouth is feeling a bit dry in my anxiousness, so I take her up on her offer and ask for a glass of water. She invites me in and offers me a banana to go with it, and soon, I have joined her and her husband in their living room, where we watch a series of television shows about the love-hate relationship between England and France.

Fortunately, I find the shows interesting, and I soon find myself immersed in the constant stream of French emanating from the television, occasionally offering my own commentary to reply to that of my newfound neighbors.

Hours pass, and still no sign of my host family returning. It is a Saturday night, after all, and my hostess speculates that it could be any hour of the morning before they get back. Eventually, we all begin to grow drowsy, but the silvery chiming of the clock on the mantle each hour ensures that we stay somewhat awake. I begin to grow increasingly uncomfortable as we approach midnight and my rescuer has to retire for the evening. Her husband, however, continues to work on his sudoku while I watch a sports wrapup for the second time in a row, and the clock ticks toward midnight.

Finally, mercifully, roundabouts 1:15 AM, I hear the elevator grind to life in the corridor outside. A moment later, I’m stepping out of the neighbors’ apartment to the horrified looks on my host family’s faces. Monsieur, my couch partner, has closed the door behind me, likely off to a well-deserved night’s sleep, and I explain in the most self-effacing way possible the curious story of my evening with Frank and Ethel.

It is hard to tell what their reaction, exactly, is. As we step into our own apartment, they explain to me that le rapport between the neighbors is not so good, that people here are not so nice, and that they’re afraid they might complain to the guardian about hosting students who get locked out of apartments. I explain to them that I had considered checking to see about staying with my American friend who happens to also live in the 16th arrondissement, but that I thought it would be better to stay in the building so I wouldn’t miss them when they returned. Monsieur informs me that in fact, the neighbors across the way are probably the last people I should go to and that it would actually probably be better to go downstairs to the bars in the neighborhood.

Talk about stepping right into the merde. But hindsight is 20/20 and this would have all been very bon à savoir, oh, I don’t know… five hours ago.

No words– French or English– can convey my embarrassment and profound sense of apology for such a stupid mistake (although in my head, I feel slightly miffed for becoming inadvertently embroiled in a local feud, not to mention the fact that in America, we use doorknobs to open unlocked doors, not keys for turning the latch…). We all wish each other an awkward bonne nuit before heading off to our respective bedrooms.

Oh the joys of being a foreigner abroad.

As I pull the blankets over myself to ward off the chills of shame and anxiety I feel, I can only be grateful that I speak French as well as I do or this already regrettable situation would have been about ten times more difficult. And before I let my weary eyes close, I resolve to leave a note of gratitude outside the neighbors’ door tomorrow morning, chalking the whole affair up as an unexpected lesson in French apartment culture and the virtue of humility.