Thursday, June 08, 2006

Only in Paris…

I have been wondering how I can follow a blog silence of more than a month. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t done anything of interest… in the last couple of months, I’ve seen a new-born calf on my relatives’ farm in Cornwall, I’ve entertained a visitor on the Isle of Wight, I’ve bought a bike, I’ve cycled to the Louvre, I’ve entertained many couchsurfers, I’ve stood up in front of a bunch of French students in and English class and told them about where I come from, and I’ve had lunch with the Director of the School. No, I’ve certainly been busy enough. Nor is it the case that I haven’t had time. Yes, of course, as the final few weeks of my degree close in, I have at times become more than a little worried about my academic commitments, but it’s not like it’s impossible to find half an hour to write a few thoughts down. It’s more the case that the longer you leave something, the more difficult it becomes, and the more pressure you feel to make it really good.
Sometimes I reflect that it won’t be the amazing places I’ve been to or the exciting things I’ve done that will provide me with fond memories about my last eight months. And whilst my amazing group of friends, and the antics we get up to (vegetarian cooking, British comedy – good job it isn’t the other way round! – afternoon tea (or sometimes coffee), panini in the park) will be what has made my time in Paris very special, it will be the bizarre things that prompt the response, “This could only happen in Paris!” that will make me chuckle for years to come. Many of them have been a part and parcel of trying to integrate within a bureaucratic organisation in a foreign language and culture, such as trying to do the laundry in my residence on a Bank Holiday (apparently the washing machines need a day off too). Sometimes it’s a question of the local culture shining through the pervasive McDonaldsisation that seems to be a ubiquitous illness of the Western world these days, like hearing an accordionist playing from behind an open window on a warm summer’s day. Delightful when it’s not being done for the tourists’ benefit. Other times, however, the occurrence is just plain odd, like the time my brother Alex and I saw a lady bring a small dog into a bar, carrying it in a type of rucksack she was carrying on her front. I think it was the way the little dog was peeking out the top…
It is certainly the last category into which yesterday's “Only in Paris” incident fell. Yesterday afternoon, Dan (my English friend) and I were planning a short holiday to Geneva and Lyon on the TGV after our project is handed in. He was sitting on my bed, whilst I was at the desk checking train prices on the Internet, when a woman came in through the open door. Dan was initially a little surprised (seeing her before me), but assumed she was a friend of mine. Wondering why he’d stopped talking (and also sensing that “there’s someone behind me” feeling), I turned round to see this woman of indeterminate age shuffling towards me. I think perhaps it was the fact that she was shuffling made me think that she was wearing slippers (although I cannot be certain of this), and was therefore a resident. My brain was momentarily utterly confused: for about a second, I thought I knew her, simply because the deep-rooted subconscious, based on experience, tells me that only people I know walk into my room unannounced and uninvited. After about a second’s uncomfortable silence, I realised two things: firstly, that she was a complete and utter stranger; and secondly, that she smelt.
The first thing I thought to say to her was “Salut” (perhaps I still thought I knew her, using the informal greeting), closely followed by “Bonjour?”. Then she mumbled, “Métro Chevaleret”. The dialogue went something like this:
Me: “Pardon?”
Her: [mumbled] “Métro Chevaleret?”
Me: “Je ne comprends pas”.
Me: [whispered, to Dan] “What’s she talking about?”
Dan: “Oh, she’s looking for the Métro station… Chevaleret”
Me: “Oh, let me see…” [turn to Métro map on wall, looking for Chevaleret]
At this point I think, “Oh my God, what have I done? I’ve turned my back to her! This weird woman’s in my room, two feet behind me, and she’s going to stab me in the back!” My heart rate had doubled. So I just say the name of the two closest Metro stops, hoping she’ll take the bait. It was only when I was giving the directions to Glacière station that I realised how absurd the whole transaction was. “Well, first you have to get the lift to the ground floor, leave the building then turn right…” What was she doing, looking for a Métro station on the eighth floor of a student residence? I think it highly probable that she was mentally ill, on drugs or both. Only in Paris…