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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 the bottle a sleeping alcolo has left leaning against a sack on the ground—don’t want to spill any, and air is the great enemy of wine, right after heat—and go to look for a lunatic friend who can always be found in his café at this time of day.
My bad luck, he isn’t there, but three streets south, I run into someone else I know who is so glad to see me he insists on having a glass of wine—on him—immediately. One glass is never enough, but given my daze, I stop at about three and concentrate on the peanuts instead. He does not, and I leave him leaning back with his mouth open in his chair. He is a regular, and the barman assures me he’ll wake up in an hour, always does—and by all means he’ll give him my thanks and best wishes. A little more of a stroll, an Italian restaurant that turns out to be quite good, then the walk home, stopping to buy half a kilo of decent coffee on the way. Not home, exactly, but my lodging house or whatever it is.
My hosts are not in. I put the coffee in the kitchen next to the virgin bottle of calvados, go to my bedroom, lie down, and cannot sleep. Or perhaps I think I cannot sleep. Anyway, after a while—and I have no idea how long—I hear my hosts coming in. They are not talking quietly. A little later, so I must have dozed, I hear them closing the door to their bedroom and hear them talking through the closed door or the wall or both. No, I don’t want to hear their conversation, their snoring, or their love-making—whatever is coming next. What I hear is not any of these three possibilities, which is a shame, as it turns out, it really is.
I hear her say Oh, no very loudly—actually, she’s shrieking. Then through the wall, as if there’s no wall there at all, the sound of a man throwing up, barfing up his guts, puking from all the way down to his toenails. Pause is followed by rerun. For the next hour, he heaves, and she, I guess, is banging in and out of the bedroom, bringing mops, buckets, a fire hose. God, I think I’ve stayed in nicer flophouses. Then coughing and heavy breathing, moaning, then quiet. After a while, I sleep.
The next morning, I’m up before five—normal again—showered and packed half an hour later. On my way out, I think of leaving a note next to the empty bottle of calva and the bag of coffee. What would I say? I’d rather hear screwing than barfing? I’ll be on the second bench on the right in the Parc Monceau if you enter by rue Velásquez? Light travels 5,865,696,000,000 miles in a year or 8,994,377,056,000 kilometres in Paris? Fresh out of words, the raggle-taggle gypsy hits the road.
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