Christmas in Paris
Posted December 25, 2004on:
Christmas time in the states.
BandyKV and I are only starting to wonder what we will do this year. More organized people have booked airplane tickets and hotels three months or more in advance. Or they know they will be entertaining friends and relatives in the warmth of their oversized homes and wondering if really they should be serving “foie gras” this year… Then my husband drops a bomb, he wants to go to Paris for Christmas…
We are not so lucky. We are both Malagasy immigrants and although my husband has been living more than a decade in the US of A now, compared to my eight plus years, we do not have many close friends. Our parents live on the island of Madagascar, some ten thousand miles and two whole days of flight away. The closest relatives are my three siblings who live in Paris, France. “Oh, lovely Paris !”, “Delicious French cuisine” sigh my American acquaintances when told of my five year stay in France, watching in disbelief as I grimace and pooh-pooh.
The truth is that I have not kept very good memories of my five year stay in the Capital of Lights. I was a cash-strapped and perpetually stressed student in Paris. I was introduced to French cuisine by way of the Lycee’s cafeteria where I once found a rusted nail nested in the lettuce of my “steak salade”. The first two years were hell as I struggled to integrate/assimilate to the unforgiving French culture and turned my poor lips upside down and inside out to get rid of my Malagasy accent as fast as possible. I was successful, at least on the phone: I was passing in a mere month.
I was Madagascar’s best pupil and barely out of my teens when I landed at the Charles de Gaulle International Airport, frightened but ready to conquer Lycee ‘s Sup XXX classroom. Lycee is one of France’s most prestigious lycees, situated in the bastion of Parisian haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy, the XVIe arrondissement. Little did I know.
From Madagascar’s best pupil I became Sup XXX’s blah student, ranked 20th out of 45. It turned out the whole class was composed of people who had been the best student somewhere. Egos were crushed and identities built on shaky intellectual grounds destroyed. Each of us once thought we were the “crème de la crème”. Alas, that belief was soon dismissed as we were daily told and soon convinced that never had the professors seen such dumb students and frankly, we should all consider transferring to the University of Jussieu, which really is an excellent university, but from the limited perspective of the Classes Preparatoires, was seen as a last resort for failed intellectuals. And so in order to prove my professors wrong and rescue my ego, I studied about sixteen hours a day, week-ends included. I missed all cultural or non-cultural entertainments Paris had to offer.
After two years of this regimen, I was ready to give up and rose the white flag: I accepted an offer of admission from a school located in a Parisian suburb, theoretically forty-five minutes from Paris intra-muros.
Ironically, the only subjects I could still pretend to excel at were French and English. My French and English teachers adored me, amazed that a student from faraway Madagascar could speak and write so well these two marvelously rich but complex languages. My French essays were better written than the natives and I spoke a delicate and academic French straight from classic textbooks. I should thank the Radio Television Malagasy for this. The RTM was the only television channel of Madagascar. It broadcast every day from six to nine. While Thursday was the day of the Soviet Union films, we admired German soccer players on Sundays. Their play was so repetitive that even die hard soccer fans like my father and brothers grew tired of it after a while. No wonder, I much preferred Balzac, Hugo and Malraux’s prose to the RTM’s dull shows. Today, my mother tells me she has the choice of six channels that run from six in the morning until late at night. Six channels ! Needless to say, her reading has considerably decreased since.
But I am disgressing. Let me come back to my experience at Lycee, the headquarters of the brainy offspring of Paris’s haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy. French and English were unfortunately secondary subjects.
Mathematics and physics were emphasized and used to rank the students one week after the other. We also had industrial design, but I was so hopeless at this subject – it seemed my vision of the world was entirely of two dimension objects and my ability to imagine motors in three dimensions was limited – that I gave up altogether studying it and contented myself with blissfully attending the classes as a self-proclaimed ignoramus. I was in good company. To this day I still wonder if there was one single soul who understood anything at what the grey curly haired professor was explaining, his two hands mimicking unimaginable objects.
After I had to relinquish my crown of best student and humbly recognize my brain to be of ordinary intelligence amongst the crème de la crème, I ventured into unknown territories: “la coquetterie”. I was the quintessential geek in high-school and I remember my mother angrily begging me to dress more sexily, to be flirtier, or else …. Or else I would end up alone and dried up like an old mango bone. My mother regularly inundated me with threats of spinsterhood, a curse for a Malagasy woman whose sole role on earth is to conceive, preferably in holy matrimony. Anyway, here I was, eighteen and ready to be flirty and sexy. I guess I was not very good at it either.
I spent long hours in the bathroom with my Senegalese friend trying to put on make-up correctly. Like I was the best student of Madagascar, she was the best student of Dakar. She was tall and very pretty with tiny little braids and ebony skin, contradicting the Malagasy belief, instilled in me since childhood, that only the fair skinned and the straight haired can be beautiful. My cousins and I were always told to stay out of the sun when we were kids. My beautiful friend taught me how to apply mascara, foundation and lipstick. Mascara made my eyes water. She had to reapply it countless times. She also tried to modify my taste in shoes, telling me that I was hopelessly outdated, which I was but refused to acknowledge.
I think she succeeded because ten years later, I am finally wearing the stretch, three inches high heeled, tight boots she bought me. After spending time in the bathroom, we would admire ourselves in the mirror, giggle and exchange heartfelt compliments. We would not tire of telling each other how beautiful we were. Then we’d hit town, sure of ourselves with the make-up, wearing the new clothes we bought at Pimkie’s, the affordable girlie store that would not vandalize our meager purse too much.
However, more often than not, no one would really look at us. It was disheartening after all that time and energy. I guess the French have a unilateral view on beauty, like on civilization. Claudia Schiffer and Estelle Halliday are beautiful : they are tall, leggy and blondes. I am petite and brown-skinned with long straight black hair. And my Senegalese friend was tall, leggy and definitely not blonde. In addition, most French are taught to look down on black people and anyway, it is tough to compete with the sophisticated but understated, impeccably dressed Parisiennes. I am not sure if a beautiful New Yorker would be considered beautiful in Paris, or simply overdressed, having put too much effort into her outfit and showing it. My revenge would come in due time in New York when male heads, white, brown and black, would turn on me and admire the Parisian patina. But I did not know it yet.
On December 15th, my husband and I somehow found ourselves with Delta Airlines – Air France tickets for Paris. I still had to get that holy stamp on my passport: the Schengen visa. I resented having to ask for it, when my Malagasy-bred husband had only to waive his blue American passport to have frontiers open in front of him, like Ali Baba and his Open Sesame formula. Another grudge I hold against the French: the obligation to prove to any policeman, even the most blatantly racist one, my foreigner’s rights to stand on French soil, at anytime, anyplace. How free I had felt on American soil, when for the first time since leaving my birth country I had left my old red leather bound passport in a drawer at home!
Here I was in Georgetown, at 4101 Reservoir Road, ready to enter once again French territory. The guards on duty that welcomed me and pointed me to the Visa bureau were obviously of North-African and Sub-Saharan African origins. Some things never change. France has its own version of multiculturalism, although I doubt it is the result of France’s own will, but rather unexpected secondary effects of colonization. A group of young Asians and some Africans were waiting in a large room. Two sullen employees attended to our needs behind glass doors.
I imagined they were Sciences-Po graduates who had foreseen a more glorious career. I observed as they attempted to speak English with the Asians whose strong accent rendered everything unintelligible. I laughed inwardly as they fended off the anger of a Francophone African woman who had learned aggressiveness and customer service in America. How strange to see this humility coming from French men talking to a formerly colonized African requesting a visa in the vicinity of the French administration. How far we were from the French Embassy of Antananarivo! I doubt the clerks there had attended the prestigious Sciences-Po. Malagasy newspapers regularly publish complaints of rudeness and arrogance from the French civil servants who hold the Malagasy citizens’ fate in their hands, or shall I say in their stamps and vignettes. Derision and humiliating questions are not uncommon.
– “You are very young, Mademoiselle. And unmarried. Do you like French men?”
– “If you want to go to France so much, you should have stayed a colony.”
People line up for three to four hours to answer this kind of questions with the hope of realizing the French dream. And for those who arrive late and risk missing the experience of the often touted French administration cordiality, there is no reason to worry: some shameless but business savvy individuals have turned the lining up into a lucrative occupation, selling their places at 25,000 FMG or $5 each.
At the US consulate, it took me exactly 27 minutes and $25 to get my visa. And I did not even have to bow down to an overly inquisitive French civil servant.
Three days later, my husband and I were sitting in a half full airplane. The flight was only half full and I guessed that most of the travelers were Americans. I found myself excited at the thought of visiting Paris with my husband for the first time. He had loved the movie “Amelie” and wanted to see the Montmartre neighborhood. How original! I had told him ironically. I was looking forward to go to the Latin Quarter and browse the millions of books that awaited me.
Through the internet, we learned of the existence of a Malagasy grocery store. We intended to pay them a visit and treat ourselves to Three Horses Beer, the unique Malagasy brewery and the ultimate beer according to Malagasy males who swear by it and prefer it to world class beer like Delirium Tremens or Sam Adams. My brother had booked a room in a hotel next to his apartment : clean, quiet and cheap, he had told us. We could not wait to see that gem. The airplane food was delicious and I slept throughout most of the flight like a baby, eager to conquer Paris again, this time as a rich American!
We landed happy and smiling at Charles de Gaulle International Airport. We passed through Customs and Immigration Police like a breeze. It was now time to buy RER tickets for the train ride to Paris. I had not spoken French in ages.
My husband stubbornly refused to speak French to the SNCF employee or any French person for that matter. Despite having been educated from kindergarten to high-school by French Jesuit priests, he now claims he has forgotten all his French and when sufficiently pushed, he enthusiastically sprinkles his French sentences with grammatical errors here and there, while using the thickest Malagasy accent possible and smiling mockingly. That is where he places his wounded pride of former colonisé.
As we lined up in front of the SNCF booth, he told me he intended to pose as an American tourist during his stay and refuse to speak French. I do not have such reserves. I like speaking French. But the unbelievable happened: the SNCF employee spoke to me in English as he tendered me change. We sat on the banquettes of the RER train, marveling at everything: two strangers sat facing us, our knees touching. They did not seem to mind the proximity. Imagine the mayhem that would happen in New York, if they had to sit sweating knee to sweating knee in their overheated subway wagons in the summer.
I had forgotten how metropolitan Paris was. Black faces were surrounding me, talking to and laughing with white faces. So called mixed couples were not rare. To the contrary of New York and the Washington DC metro area where mixed couples are most always composed of a white man and his Asian wife/girlfriend, here, they were often composed of a white man and a black woman. No one around us, black or white, seemed to find this controversial.
A rowdy group of teenagers entered our wagon at Sarcelles. Again I marveled at the rainbow of races: Asian, African, Caucasian. They were a living Benetton ad. And I suddenly remembered my bewilderment during my first 5th avenue Gay Pride parade: the Gay Latino soccer team of Washington Heights, the Lesbian Asian Cheerleaders of Flushing, the Black Bisexual Bikers of Brooklyn, etc…
Here, there seemed to be no need to form groups on a racial basis. As painful as integration had been for me in France, could it be that this model worked better than the American melting-pot model? I had no time to ponder about this more, as we had arrived at Chatelet-Les Halles, where we had to take a corresponding train to our metro station for five days. We had not been above ground in Paris yet, but we were already admiring the Parisian metro stations. Each one of them is beautiful and unique: an object of art. Forget the overcrowded and dirty New York subway stations, where the rats sneer at us humans from the safety of the tracks. Forget the heartless bunkers that pose as stations in Washington DC. The Parisian subway is the most effective and the most beautiful in the world. How oblivious I had been to these things when I had lived here. Paris had been for me, the studious ex-excellent student, a never-ending string of mathematical formulas. This time, I was looking for revenge and resolute in my determination to paint Paris red: the Seine river, the Latin Quarter, the Champs-Elysees, Beaubourg, … Paris, here I come.
I almost dethroned Paris from its most beautiful subway system in the world when we dropped off the train. Something strongly reminiscent of ammoniac and pee attacked our sensitive Americanized nostrils in the halls. There were no electrical stairs, so poor Hubby had to carry our luggage up the stairs, while I dragged our Target bought oversized bag. A nice old lady held the door open for him and his luggage, and he in turn held it for me. When we surfaced from the underground, we saw the Mairie, its Christmas tree, and the streets happily decorated with multicolor lights. We proceeded to the hotel. There was an open air market in front of the hotel. Mussels, lobsters, fresh fish. Foie gras, pates, Strawberries, mangoes, Agen plums, even Malagasy litchis! And bounties of French pastries : palmiers (they are called elephant ears in America), croissants, chocolate filled bread, almond breads, etc… all those things that seem so rare in the States.
Croissants in the States have degenerated to limp tasteless and three times too big unrecognizable dough. Someone ought to tell the Americans that big does not always mean good. Our mouths started overproducing saliva at the sight of all this. Impatiently dragging our luggage, we finally found the hotel. It indicated no stars which we should have taken as a warning. We pushed the door and found ourselves in a small courtyard. On our right, a door was open. It led to a dark and cramped office. A tall and relaxed brown haired young man sat behind a desk in company of a huge black dog which immediately started barking at our sight. We were calmly told that our room was not ready yet, as the guests had not yet left. Hubby’s jaw hung open.
The relaxed young man asked us to come back in an hour. The room would be clean. Could we in the meantime leave our luggage in his office, we asked. We could. We stepped out of the hotel, laughing and headed straight to a small bakery. Two palmiers, two croissants, two chocolate filled bread. What a relief to eat a reasonably sized and delicious croissant. Someone ought to tell the French that the best may come in big packages too. We took a walk around the neighborhood, spotting the Franprix, the Pharmacy and the Chinese take-out.
Their sweet and sour pork came with the inevitable pineapple and peppers, but the pork was not breaded, deep-fried and did not disappear under a red bizarre sauce. Frankly I prefer the French Chinese style sweet and sour pork. We congratulated ourselves, we had come at the right time, Christmas, with French food at its best. After feasting our eyes on all this food, we walked back to the hotel, starting to feel the fatigue and looking forward to a good shower and a short nap.
The relaxed young man and his hyper excited dog were there. The room was not ready yet. Could we please come back in thirty minutes.
– Do you have another room ? asked a fed up Hubby.
The young man looked at a wrinkled notebook with incomprehensible hand-written notes.
– Yes, but this one has a private shower.
– You mean the room we booked does not have a shower?
– How much more is a room with a shower?
He turned his eyes upward, concentrating.
– Five euros.
Fortunately, as newly minted rich American tourists, we could afford the five euros. Two seconds later, we were in possession of the key of room 45 and heading towards the back of the courtyard. One flight up dragging those lead heavy luggage. Two Spanish or Portuguese men were working in the hallway, painting the walls pink, ignoring us when we passed by. The carpet was tired and dirty and needed replacement. There was a door suspiciously looking like a toilet door next to room 45. I crossed my fingers and braced for the worst. Hubby opened the door. We looked at each other and laughed. On a dirty carpet, there was a full size bed, a chair and table our local Salvation Army would disdainfully decline, a sink with its rusted broken mirror and the tiniest shower I have ever seen with the dirtiest shower tray.
The incongruous presence of a bidet cheered me up. I doubt my brother has even seen the interior of this hotel or he would not have recommended it to us. Or if he has been, he has not been offered room 45. The one with private shower, next to the shared toilet.I sat on the bed and removed my shoes. Hubby said he wanted to take a shower but would he fit in? He did. The shower could only accommodate one person at a time. So while he showered, singing, I removed the red blanket from the bed. It had a small round blood stain in one corner. The sheets were not new but they looked clean. It did not seem too bad after all, we were in Paris and could not afford the Ritz. I decided to have a good time. Or so I thought…
We were awakened at three in the morning by the toilet door opening and closing, intimate sounds of someone’s bladder and intestines emptying. A woman called Bamako, Dakar or was it Nouakchott from the public phone of the hallway. Her conversation was not a peaceful one. We suffered two days of listening to the whole floor’s bladder and intestines’ sounds before calling it quits. We moved to a hotel near the Halles. OK, it cost us $150 a night, the bed was small and the shower minuscule (how I missed bland Holiday Inns, their King beds and oversized towels) but at least we could have a better Parisian experience.