Gypsy

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Gypsy
The trouble, of course, is my own doing. When the buying was good, I didn’t buy an apartment in Paris. I wasn’t really thinking about those things, and anyway I may not have had the money—and, come to think of it, the woman who is now another ex-wife would have had half of it. Maybe I escaped more problems that I needed to add to my life, but still and all it’s a pity and a shame. So several times a year Gypsy Joe parks his caravan in the apartments of others for a few weeks, some belonging to generous friends who are glad to help, some being simple capitalist transactions with strangers, and a few hybrid deals. Nothing is perfect, and someone else’s apartment will always do something to annoy or puzzle, but the broken shower head, the crummy cookware, or the lack of a reading light can always be worked around or ignored or finagled with a trip to BHV. And some things are so weird they’re keepers—like the photograph. I remember this one especially, a picture of my landlady, I guessed: who else?  The picture showed her with, obviously, her mother. They had both dyed their hair the same red-brown, wore the same lipstick, and smiled the same broad, look-at-all-my-teeth smile. The younger woman was no more than thirty and had already become her mother. Even better, there’s a picture of her and her four-year-old daughter—same hair, smile, even the lipstick.  It makes you wonder who is who and if time really is a river or an arrow or a joke. But you won’t find anything like this in a hotel. Hotels are out, anyway. They wind up costing too much and giving too little in return. When I’m in Paris I don’t feel a need to bolt out the door first thing in the morning and drag myself back home late, good for nothing except passing out on the hotel bed from utter exhaustion and severe foot pain. Before and after going out, I prefer to be domestic, which for me usually means cooking and writing, the idea being that I’m living here, not visiting. I would stay with friends if they would put me up and if they could put up with me—not a parlay I’d be willing to bet any money on unless I’d found some in the street. Other possibilities don’t work any better. I once tried une chambre d’hôte, the stuffy term the French use when they’re renting out the bedroom of the daughter who up and got married or the son they showed the door. My recollection is that giving this arrangement a try came down to the pathetic excuse people make about what they did on New Year’s Eve and its consequences—it seemed like a good idea at the time. What, I wondered, could be so bad about staying with some people and living more or less en famille with them for a month or so? I was clearly not thinking about my own family and how much effort I had spent—paid through the nose, you might say, and worth every cent—keeping a minimum of half a continent between them and me. And here I am now, within metres of my host and hostess. Actually, less: their bedroom and the one they have given me are next to each other, cuddled up and cozy as a double bed. That was not clear when we made arrangements and came to terms on the phone. But they seem decent and pleasant, a longtime expat American couple who know their way around Paris, have some interests like mine, and are about the same age. No matter that their French is rotten: I’m not coming for a total immersion semester. Thus my chipper mental state when my regular driver drops me off in front of their building, as I tap in le code porte they have already given me, buzz them on the intercom, and ride up in the elevator. They greet me at the open door—where else?—shake hands, ask about the flight, and accept with apparent demurral but with thirst in their eyes the bottle of calvados I scored at the duty-free shop. Then they tap-dance me through the apartment, revealing the coat closet, the toilet, and the shower on the way to my room. It is a nice room, and I tell them. I smile. They smile and say, “Good, glad you like it, and right next to ours.” I try to smile. They give me my own key, show me how to set the clock-radio in case I want to nap—something I don’t do at all well: either I can’t sleep or I crash for ten hours, ruining my already deranged body clock for a week—and leave me to myself. When I wake up to a nasal French news reader two hours later, I find myself alone in the apartment. Not such a bad thing. I figure out their coffee pot, then figure I’ll sit down with them later in the day or first thing next morning and learn what the ground rules are about cooking, overnight visitors, and otherwise sharing our lives—or our square metres and indoor plumbing. I also make a note to buy some decent coffee, pour out what I have brewed, and head to a café for a late breakfast. The rest of the day goes by as first days off the plane always pass—in a dazed feeling somewhere between a moderate hangover and serious constipation, though literally neither. After the chocolate, croissants, and tartine in the café, I make my formal, routine pilgrimage, not to the parvis in front of Notre-Dame or le Jardin du Luxembourg or la Place des Vosges, but to a small ratty square in the Fourteenth where the winos know my name. It always takes the edge off jet lag and makes me feel chez moi. On the way out, I put the screw cap back on…
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