and the luxury of being settled has arrived.
my apartment is box-shaped with visible wooden beams on the ceiling. the floor is terra cotta and the bathroom is inappropriately large given the whopping 20 square meters the entire place boasts. my windows look onto a courtyard that enables me to creepily spy on my neighbors (and perhaps make optimistic judges about their looks, given that i, once again, never wear my glasses).
tunis is forever ago. paris crushed the whole séjour. it’s strange to think that when you’re somewhere all you can do is be there. this isn’t another endorsement for a bilocation app (really, though i did hear that two guys named Jon Woo and David Goldenstein just dropped out of stanford to start working on it. facebook offered to buy it but they were like naaah, in 5 years we’re gonna get like 4 gazillion bitcoins for this shit!). what i mean is that i think i’m realizing that one of life’s biggest challenges is allowing yourself to embrace a moment while keeping in mind that it will most certainly pass. it’s a delicate balancing act because time is deceptive in its linearity.
and so it passed. there are no more mosquitoes and the streets only occasionally have trash on them (but certainly make up for it in dog shit). there is something strangely comforting about the permanent possibility of leaving, almost as much as the possibility of staying.
i sit at cafés alone and nobody looks at me twice, i order pastis as i write about the rise of salafism in tunisia and munch on salty peanuts that inevitably give me a stomach ache. and here i am, on rue saint sauveur in the 2ème arrondissement, sandwiched in between la super bobo rue montorgueil, which is currently fully adorned in christmas decorations, and the far less boboisé prostitute-lined rue saint dénis. it’s just another beautiful reflection of paris’ density that crams a million things into a tiny little space. rue saint dénis meets a big arch which turns into faubourg saint dénis, full of turkish soup places and my frequently-referenced muslim boucheries that provide me with deliciously greasy five euro roasted chickens. i’m no longer confused and don’t accidentally say “salem” when i enter, though when they talk amongst themselves in tunisian arabic i understand every fifth word (okay, every seventh) and feel inexplicably at ease. it’s peculiar how my tunisian experience, however mixed, left me with a slight smile. when i look back it seems so very far away, and also somewhat strange. strange that i just one day decided to plop down in a tiny country in north africa and live there for three months in a very small colonial-era apartment in the center of town. though i suppose some people do that for their whole lives. non merci.
i’m 15 minutes from the canal saint martin, which these days is barren of apéro-ers lining its quais, but is lovely nonetheless. winter hasn’t fully hit yet but it’s getting there, the air is brisk and a little chilly but i think that i’m still residually warm from tunis. last week i did a mini-internship/training at France24, an international news channel. it was my first window into what life might be like if i lived here as a real person as opposed to as a student. i finally got a glimpse at the “métro-boulot-dodo” (metro-work-sleep) drill that parisians whine about but that i have so conveniently avoided by prolonging my studies (recently i’ve been dabbling with the idea of a phd…perhaps). i’ve also, for the duration of my parisian séjour, somehow successfully avoided taking the métro, by some combination of finding centrally-located apartments and being borderline psychotic in my affinity for walking immense distances. but everyday last week i had to go to issy-val-de-seine, a long journey down the line 8 to balard, the end of the metro line. once the train stops, everyone exits the station in a great exodus towards the tram which offers a tour through paris’ neglected industrial suburbs.
the métro is bizarre. i sit or stand in a corner staring at a bunch of strangers squooshed together in a moving box. everyone looks up or down or sideways, picking at their fingernails or reading a book or sliding their finger up and down their smartphone screens, doing anything they can possibly do to avoid the accidental eye-contact with a stranger. if you catch someone looking at you, you should be scared. something could be wrong. you could be in danger. it’s like one gigantic elevator, that, depending on your destination, lasts 1,000 floors.
what’s strangest about the métro is that, as much as nobody wants to, passengers are inevitably obligated to interact with one another just in order to fit on the train. as soon as you board you’re forced into silent subtle communications that require people to momentarily abandon their proud individualism. that’s what it feels like. a cesspool of individualism. still, you might have to switch places with someone in order to accommodate the older lady boarding the train, or you might have to silently indicate to someone that if they don’t give you a bit of space to grab onto the railing, you will certainly fall down into the crowds of people, plummeting to an unfortunate injury or at least an unpleasant embarrassment.
but what’s even more curious about the parisian aversion to the métro is that the majority of its characteristics resemble those of parisian bars: overheated, overcrowded, unappetizing odors, creepy men. sometimes i even prefer the metro, because at least it’s socially acceptable to listen to my own music in headphones instead of the frequently unfortunate choice of the bartender. the critical difference is that in bars you can pay 5 euros for a pint of beer which will remove your inhibitions just enough to prompt you to pay 5 more for another, and then suddenly it becomes not only acceptable to make eye contact with people but also to strike up a conversation about something nonsensical, with the ultimate goal of perhaps getting lucky. the extent to which context influences what we let ourselves do is quite incredible. a friend once told me that she regularly sees attractive men in the métro but is at a loss regarding how she might approach them. we came up with a list of pickup lines, ranging from blatantly telling a guy that “sérieusement mec, t’es le plus beau dans le métro, certainement sur la ligne 4″ (seriously dude, you’re the hottest guy on the metro, certainly on the line 4) to a more subtle “t’as pas ton ticket de métro? tu veux passer avec moi?” (you don’t have a metro ticket? do you want to pass with me?). we had some other ideas about lingering in front of the vending machine while waiting for train and offering to share a kinder bueno candy bar (“parce que j’ai faim, mais pas aussi faim que ça”), but we figured that offering to share food with a complete stranger might come off as a little bit creepy, or at least overbearing. *note: we have yet to test any of these.
jokes aside, it’s an interesting anthropological exercise, as life’s activities tend to be (i’m glad that i spent precious tuition money taking anthropology classes in college when i have since realized that all i needed to do was go outside). sometimes at the end of the day i laugh because our daily gestures are in fact hilarious. i tend to notice this more when i’m in big crowded cities, because everyone’s ridiculousness clashes and merges, melding into one steaming stew of bizarre. the other day i was meeting a friend at the porte saint dénis (the gate i discussed above) and while i waited i noticed an old crazy lady (there is no shortage of them in paris) standing in the middle of a big crowd of pigeons, ranting and screaming about how “les gens s’en foutent des animaux,” about how nobody cares about the animals, les pauvres pigeons. a server at the café en face stood casually looking on, half engaged in his work but participating in her save-the-pigeons soliloquy, interspersing responses between drags of his cigarette. “c’est vrai,” he consoled her. their conversation trailed on for several minutes, his facial expression revealing that he, too, found the whole exchange to be completely absurd, but also normal. his contributions were in complete resignation to the fact that the moment, however ridiculous, was just part of the scene, just another detail on the intersection of faubourg saint dénis and boulevard de bonne-nouvelle. ”moi non plus je sais pas quoi faire,” he added, showing his solidarity for the crazy lady’s disappointment upon realizing that she could do nothing to help feed the pigeons. he exhaled smoke. “moi non plus.”
my phone rang, interrupting the mini-pièce-de-théatre that was casually unfolding below the porte saint dénis. i was to meet my friend up the block and abandon the scene. farewell crazy lady, i’m so terribly sorry that the pigeons will go hungry and that nobody cares to help. i admit that i too am part of the problem.
as i walked up the street i looked back, wondering how long la folle du faubourg saint dénis would stand immersed in a swarm of pigeons, holding approximately seven different bags, contemplating human selfishness in the face of the parisian pigeon population’s tumultuous plight.