La Rentrée

La Rentrée

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The métro is no longer standing room only. The
windows are no longer cracked open above the baseball caps worn on the
tall Red Sox fans. My head, no longer crammed into a hairy Greek’s
armpit displaying his support for the Olympics on a sweat-drenched
T-shirt. Finally, the tourists have returned to Hamburger Helmut and
Duncan Donuts, while the Parisians return to Paris.

Women,
rich and poor, choose to stand on the métro so that they can show off
their summer tans, painted toenails and designer sandals–open toe, but
acceptable for fall. Some of them are dark from their six-week vacances
in Italy, while the others applied tanning solution that comes in a
spray can and carry fake Italian bags.

I sit in the vacant seats
with no tan or toenails to show off, as I did not visit Turino, or even
Tijuana while I was in LA for four days.

It is the first week
of September, marking the return to Paris—or rentrée—for most Parisians
from their four to six week paid vacations. In France, simply everyone
goes on vacances. “Where are you going for vacances?” “ When are you
leaving for vacances?” Vacances, vacances, vacances.

And those
of us who are not Parisian, but long-term visitors employed by
Americans and merely tolerated by the French, received the typical
American long weekend–unpaid, traveling no farther than London, where
I spent more money on indigestion medication than my actual meals.

I
returned to Paris on Wednesday, via the Euro Star, the high-speed train
that connects London and Paris through the Chunnel. To much
disappointment, my dreams of the larges aquarium in the world were
dashed: one cannot see any fish or other sea life, as the train goes
under the water. Traveling for my first time, coach, I admit I was
nervous, but calmed a bit when I saw that was to have a row of two
seats all to myself. However, rather than sit in his own seat, the tall
dark French man dressed all in black and cowboy boots, chose to pile
his pear-shaped luggage on his seat and sit next to me. “And who are
you supposed to be?” I wondered.

An hour and a half later, I’d
developed a Charlie horse in my right calf from lack of movement. I was
too paranoid to even cross my legs for fear that I would brush my knee
against Dark Vader. I felt a little better for myself when I spotted
the Abercrombie and Fitch model wearing the blue trucker hat across the
aisle. He had settled for a nap, relieved to have four seats all to
himself. That was, until a family of three surrounded him. For the time
I sat paralyzed in my seat, he was involuntarily the fourth member of a
family engrossed in a heated argument in Chinese. It could always be
worse.

And who were the men in the flannel shirts permitted to
wander the train drunk? At least I felt safer next to Vader, who with a
click of a button on the remote control I was certain he had in his
jean pocket, could probably evaporate them in to infinity. As the drunk
men cat-called, I kept my nose buried in my book. I was on the part
where the New York model purchases a $50,000 black pearl necklace at
auction, and is nervous about telling her husband because she thinks he
might be upset with her extravagant purchase–in the last chapter, she
spent $40,000 on clothes in Milan.

The drunk men grew more and
more sloppy, I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep. Yes. Even the
Crazies are returning from vacances. Instead of counting sheep, I
attempted to calculate the percentage of passengers in my car that were
crazy. “One Crazy, two Crazy, three Crazy, four! Five Crazy, six Crazy,
run for the door!” After completing this, I moved onto the entire
train. I was fast asleep when I got to car nine.

I awoke when
Dark Vader stood up to check on what I thought was a mighty sword made
of solid gold encrusted with gems, but turned out to be a long metal
pole with a small yellow flag attached to the top. This is my chance, I
thought. I escaped quickly to the food car, passing a mother and
daughter plotting their route from the train station to their hotel in
Paris while pronouncing “Gare de Lyon” as “Querre da Lion.”

My
right leg was still asleep. I tried pounding it into the floor, but I
still couldn’t feel it. I fell into the lap of the 16-year-old Italian
boy listening to his iPod. I don’t think my father at the age of fifty
had as much hair on his chest as this kid had. But then again, my
father didn’t wear blue lycra shirts with the top four buttons on
strike. I want an iPod. The Italian smelled of apple cider cologne and
winked at me as I regained my balance and continue onwards.

I
transferred my weight to my good foot and supported my right side by
grabbing at the tops of the seats as I pass. This seemed like a good
idea, but when I accidentally tugged on the senior citizen from Idaho’s
hair (on her name tag was “Clarrisee, Idaho, Nice to meet you!”) and
she let out a scream, I thought, what have I done? I let go.

But
she wouldn’t stop screaming. Naturally. I had taken her hair with me. I
was practically at the passage leading to the food car when I noticed
the copper-colored hair extension in my right hand. “So sorry…so
terribly–just so sorry..” I mumbled my apologies over and over as I
hobbled back to her seat and handed her the extension. The last time I
held a clump of hair this big–not attached to a head, was when I
“accidentally” ripped the hamster-like fur ball from the Supermodel’s
head in that Hot Yoga class. But this woman shouldn’t have been wearing
it in the first place. It isn’t as if she’s bald. It was just one of
those clip-on ponytail things that girls with short hair wear to
cocktail parties. Myke’s mom wore one to the celebratory dinner after
our college graduation. In the middle of dessert Mike announced, “Isn’t
my mom’s fake hair fabulous!”

The menu in the food car is
somewhat limited. Well, considering that I found out recently that I am
gluten, soy and lactose intolerant. This basically means that I can eat
vegetables, rice and fruit. I could eat meat, but I’m a vegetarian. I
choose an apple, which costs me 1.50 pounds or three dollars. I pass on
the black drip coffee because I can’t afford it.

As I’m biting
into my Golden Delicious, the hairy Italian teenager slinks in as
though he’s entering a disco. He’s slung on one of those fluorescent
should-have-died-in-the-80s backpacks that are so popular in Italy and
Spain. His is fluorescent green and has a picture of the Incredible
Hulk on the back. The Hulk certainly is built. More built than François
with his French twig arms, that’s for sure.

The Italian does not
order anything but leans against a table, turns to me and stares. He
seems to be trying to raise his eyebrows but only the left one is
moving. I look away and he makes a clicking sound in his mouth. Now,
I’m confused….did I just get propositioned by a 16 year old?

Why did I have to ask the question? He starts rubbing up against the edge of the table.

“You go to toilette… with me?”

“What?”

“You…” He motions his head towards the bathroom door, then he winks. “You? Me?”

I’m speechless. And I can’t feel my leg.

I
don’t go to bathrooms on trains with 16 year-olds. Especially ones that
carry the backpack. In fact, I don’t go to the bathroom on trains at
all. When I was ten years old, my Grandma Guenther took me on my first
train ride from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park. The train was
about to take off and so I went to the bathroom. As I unzipped my jeans
and leaned back to crouch over the toilet seat, being careful not to
touch it as my Mommy had taught me, the train pulled out of the station
and I fell into the toilet. I used the “Do Not Pull” Emergency exit bar
to pull myself out. I have not used a bathroom on a train or any other
moving vehicle since that day.

I dismiss the horny teenager and
return to my seat. But Vader is asleep and no amount of “Pardons” or
“Excusez-mois” seems to wake him. I find refuge by my suitcase between
cars, where an Indian woman is changing the poopey diapers on her baby
girl. Spectacular.

I awoke the next morning, safe in Paris, to
sunshine for the first time in days. I threw a pair of ripped,
now-too-big jeans on (at least there was some advantage to avoiding the
food in London) and walked to the métro.

They were all there. My
old friends. The twin valet parkers; the chef with the long blond hair
who was always illegally parking his convertible Porsche in front of my
building; the owner of the corner mini-mart whose son tried to kiss me
one night while I was buying a bottle of Evian; everyone cheerful and
happy to be back from vacances. Well, at least until it starts to rain.

In
the station I was blinded by scarves, cardigans and newly purchased
designer bags. The pastel linens and open-toe sandals have been
replaced by tailored black pinstripe suits and open-toe heels
specifically designed for the months of September/October (when the sun
still shines but women must abide by the fall fashion laws). There were
black leather boots, brown leather boots, snakeskin red boots; some to
the ankle, others meeting a short skirt above the knee, but all
perfectly polished.

I looked
around, in awe of Parisian women and their immaculate sense of style
and determination to be in fashion at all times. It seemed even the
gypsies bowing before me covered their heads in chic fall scarves,
newly pressed. Only in Paris, I thought….Even the homeless had returned
from vacances with painted toe nails and a bronze tan glow.

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