Paris In Between — A Novel
Thanks for Taking a look at my Paris In Between. Below are the first three chapters. I hope you like them!
The first thing to understand about Paris is that it isn't a city, she's the world's most beautiful woman.
In folklore Paris is a man sleeping with another man’s wife, and that's true too.
She's a cat who's arrogant because she knows how pretty she is, and he's a painter smashing his canvas on a wooden beam.
And Parisians — Parisians aren’t independent actors, they’re conduits to the great artist’s violent moods.
Right now The Artist is a raincloud searching for a habitant without an umbrella, who happened to be me, so my socks are wet beneath the dinner table in the Sacré Coeur-viewing apartment off Grands Boulevards.
“Tiens,” Pierre refills my glass, topping off his own goblet before setting down the bottle.
“Langueduc 2012,” Francine gleams.
“C’est très bon,” I add foie gras to my bread. “Et le foie gras?”
“Ç’est de Granville.”
My French is good today. I can feel that it’s going to hold up for most of the dinner. A little over five years ago, I lived with the Moineaus for two months, and my French improved tremendously that summer because I wasn’t allowed to speak English at home. Now the Thursday dinner is my twice-monthly French exam, as Pierre and Francine are the only people in my life who will continue in French after the first browlines of non-comprehension appear on my face.
Arthur reaches across the table with his fork, dangling a piece of prosciutto — no doubt from some particularly chosen province — in the air before resting it on his plate. Mathilde, Arthur’s fiancé, reaches for a piece of saucisson with her fingers, depositing it into her mouth without even a courtesy stop on her plate.
“Ça a eté?” Francine asks Arthur about his day, and he talks about a scene in Minions 3 that he’s helping animate. I only half-listen to rest my brain, saving energy for when I’m on display.
Mathilde is now talking about her time in Harry Potter Land or a party at her and Arthur’s friend Henri’s place. Or is it a party at Henri’s where everyone dressed up as a Harry Potter character? That seems more likely because Harry Potter Land isn’t in Paris. I enjoy Mathilde’s French because she uses phrases like “il plut comme vache qui pisse” and “péter une cable” that are on a vocab list I made for myself. She also uses verlan a bit, inverting words, saying things like “ouf” instead of “fou”, which is like saying “wicked” instead of “cool”.
I reach for a scallop dipped in olive oil and add it to a piece of brown bread with salted butter. The butter is from Bretagne, but where’s the bread from? I’ll ask next time attention is on me. For now it’s better to remain off stage.
“T’en veux?” Pierre picks up the scallop dish and scrapes the last blob onto my plate before giving it to Francine, who clears the appetizers, Mathilde sneaking in one last saucisson seche as the wooden board rises.
A circular wooden table inside the kitchen itself feels so bucolic, so authentically French, not to mention the red and white plaid tablecloth that I learned last time comes from Dijon. We have a front row seat to the chef placing plates in the sink, retiring uneaten food to the refrigerator, and removing veal cutlets from the oven. Potatoes are cut in circles, and the green beans are a bit longer than the ones my mom made for our family growing up.
Francine serves me the biggest piece of veal before continuing around the table and ending with herself. Pierre fills my glass even though it’s not empty, and then he does the same for himself. He probably does this to be a good host, but part of me suspects he also does it to not feel like an alcoholic, as Arthur, Mathilde, and Francine have opted for Perrier, so if I weren’t here he’d be the only one drinking. He’s probably just being a good host though, as esotericism isn’t something he runs from.
Right now, for example, as I discover my veal cutlet is closer to purple than red, Pierre is recounting his fascination with tai-chi. I don’t catch the details though because his accent really is difficult to understand. I’m pretty much fluent in French, but he speaks fast and mumbles his words, so picking up on what he’s saying is similar to an ESL student encountering a Scottish accent. Arthur and Mathilde are easier to understand because they enunciate more.
“Benjamin?” Francine says.
“J’ai dit, ça va ton pére?”
I tell the table that my father is doing well, pretending I’ve talked to him recently by saying things I’ve gathered from Facebook, like he’s going to a lot baseball games and eating plenty of lobster. Pierre was my dad’s roommate in grad school 50 years ago, when my dad was at Harvard Business School and Pierre was at MIT. The friendship has strengthened in recent years since my dad has been coming to Paris more.
“Et qu’est-ce que t’as fait depuis la derniere dîner?”
I mention Morocco, and Francine is adamant that I show everyone my pictures after dinner, the same way Arthur showed his pictures of him and Mathilde in Japan last time. I pretend I’m too shy because I’m not sure if my French will hold up, but Francine insists.
Mathilde rescues me from the spotlight by remarking on how good the potatoes are, so Francine assures that both the potatoes and the beans are from Alsace, and the meat is from Aubrac. Arthur had apparently tried Kobe beef in Japan, and there’s a discussion about how the cows in Japan are raised differently from the ones in France, but now they’re speaking too fast for me to follow.
Soon enough, the Aubrac beef is finished, and the empty plates are passed to Francine, who sets them in the sink before removing an apple crumble from the oven. The apples are from Provence, and, to my delight, one of the shortbread cookies that I brought over is placed next to each person’s ice cream scoop.
“How do you like Marseilles?” the brown-haired guy asks me.
“I don’t like it. Paris is much better.”
Both of them nod grimly — acknowledging that I did not fall into the American trap of saying everything is amazing. Neither of them is here by choice. The tall guy was visiting his girlfriend but lives in Toulouse, and the brown-haired guy is visiting family after recently quitting his job at the Shangri-La in the 16ème to travel through South America for 15 months.
“Wow, that’s incredible!” the tall guy exclaims.
“You’re just learning this? You guys don’t know each other?”
“No, we met just now because we both offered to carry an old lady’s luggage down the stairs when everybody was evacuated from the platform.”
I tell them I’m living in Paris as a freelance computer programmer because it will invite the fewest questions. There’s a distance that we’re maintaining, not even asking each other’s names.
“Did either of you see the attack?”
They both shake their heads, and we all agree how eerie it is that it happened while we were at the station, that if it had happened 30 seconds later, it could’ve been our particles in the unlucky collision.
“Three of my friends were in the Bataclan Club,” the guy with brown hair says.
“What do they say about it?”
“They feel both lucky and unlucky — lucky to have been unharmed, unlucky to have seen so much blood.”
“I was at the French embassy in Washington D.C. the night of the Nice attack,” I take out my phone and show them the interview the local news station did with me where I’m smiling broadly like an idiot saying it’s a shame the attack in Nice happened because the party at the embassy was so awesome. The two guys laugh at my discordant upbeatness.
The guy with brown hair likes to tell stories, especially of his time at the Shangri-La. One time Jay Z and Beyoncé stayed there, and he led them through the trash room to the back exit to avoid paparazzi. “It was so ironic,” he says, “that I have a picture in my mind of two of the world’s most glamorous people in a trash room.”
Another time, a wealthy Arab man reserved the $40k-a-night penthouse for five nights and requested feasts be prepared for each night with the highest quality foie gras and caviar, his tab reaching $500,000, which he paid in advance. And then he never showed up.
“What happened to the food?”
“We threw it away. The staff wasn’t allowed to bring it home.”
“What a shame,” the tall guy shakes his head.
“I have a question,” I look at the brown-haired guy because he seems to know things. “What are some cool cafes, bars, libraries, and general places to hang out in Paris? I know they exist, but I haven’t found them.”
“Yes, it’s very unlikely to chance upon a cool place. You have to hear about them.”
I open the Notes app and pass him my phone. “Can you write down some spots?”
“Sure,” he thinks out loud. “There’s Bibliotéque Mazarine, which is better than Saint Geneviève because there’s never a line. L’Hibou is a cool restaurant in the 6ème near Odéon. Another cool restaurant near République is Mauri7. And the Marais is best for cafés. There’s a famous store called Merci that has a good café attached to it.”
He continues suggesting places, and I’m etching the names to memory. If everything happens for a reason, perhaps I’m here at this station right now for tips on reaching Layer 3 in Parisian life, where Layer 1 is the ooh-Eiffel-Tower tourist, Layer 2 is the one-year expat who speaks the language a bit and has some sense for the neighborhoods, and Layer 3 is someone who can really strum it.
To reach this point, I’ll have to improve at the language, make more friends, and develop a roster of cafés with easy atmospheres and good WiFi, like I had in DC. Bibliotèque Mazarine, L’Hibou, and Merci — I’ll try those places this week.
The sidewalk’s post-rain gloss frames yellow leaves, so I carefully avoid disrupting their harmony.
At Place de L’Alma I continue past Avenue George V around the circle to the bridge. In October the sun sets behind the Eiffel Tower, and tonight’s is a pink one, so I take out my phone and wait for a tourist boat to move out of the frame before capturing the scene and adding it to my Instagram story.
Phone down, I glimpse a pretty woman with outwardly turned feet capturing the same scene.
“Are you a dancer?”
“How did you know?” she lowers her phone.
“Only ballerinas have such immaculate posture.”
“Oh,” she laughs. “Yes, I’m with the Montreal Ballet. We’re performing down the street over there.”
“At Theatre Champs-Elysées?”
“How did you know?”
“I live on that street.”
“No, I’m American, but I live here.”
Her company is performing for three more days in Paris and then for a week in London, and I’d go see the show but I’m leaving tomorrow for Tel Aviv.
“What are you up to tonight?”
“I don’t know. We just finished rehearsal, and I left as quickly as possible to avoid the other dancers. I figured I should probably take a picture of the Eiffel Tower.”
“Are you up for a glass of wine? There’s a place I like nearby.”
“Sure,” she smiles.
I’d been planning to go to Café George V because it’s the only place in the neighborhood with a decent dinner for under 20 euros, but for an occasion like this there’s a better spot. We traverse Place de L’Alma’s circle back to Avenue Montaigne, taking the opposite side of the street from Theatre Champs-Elysées so she won’t cross paths with any co-workers, passing my apartment, reaching rue Francois I and settling into chairs on L’Avenue’s triangle-shaped terrace.
“What is this place?” she asks. “Everyone here is so stylish.”
“It’s famous. Models and actresses like to come here.”
“The waitresses all look like models.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t be allowed in without a ballet dancer as an escort.”
“Seriously, I tried to come once in the summer and they wouldn’t seat me because I was alone and wearing shorts.”
The waitress comes over, a North African woman in a form-fitting dress the same shade as her skin. “Deux verres de Champagne et un gâteau moelleux, s’il vous plaît. Et une carafe d’eau aussi.”
“Bonne,” she snaps away our menus and struts inside.
“Did you say something to upset her?” Victoria laughs.
“No, French servers don’t rely on tips, so they treat you like they have better things to do.”
“That’s somewhat refreshing, actually,” she laughs, and I laugh too.
The waitress comes back out, setting down our two Champagne glasses and placing the chocolate cake between us before zipping away to where she no longer has to smell us.
“What should we toast to?” Victoria picks up her glass.
“To your show coming up.”
“We need to add something for you.”
“My birthday is tomorrow.”
“Happy birthday!” she clinks my glass.
“Thanks,” I take a sip, “I’ll be 29.”
“Two years older than me. I’m 27.”
“I would’ve guessed 23.”
“Most of the dancers in our group are younger than 23.”
“If you’re still dancing at 27 you must be a prima.”
“Wow, that’s the pinnacle of your craft.”
“Yes, all downhill from here,” she gestures with her hand.
She asks what brought me to Paris, and I tell her it’s the easiest place for me to be. I have a free place to stay while taking classes in interface design and editing a novel.
“You don’t often hear of people living abroad because it’s easy,” she says. “Especially a place like Paris, where everyone’s dream is to live here for a year but most people never figure out how to do it.”
“Yeah, and I have a French passport, totally randomly, so I don’t even need a visa.”
“Do people hate you for being so lucky?”
“You’re the lucky one. You get to be a professional artist. That’s my aspiration, and you’re already there.”
“Yeah, I have to remind myself of that sometimes,” she sighs, going on to explain that she’s as much an athlete as an artist. The real artists are the choreographers who tell the dancers what to do, creating the scenes that differentiate one performance of Swan Lake from another. As a dancer, it’s about executing technique, and there’s art in that, but it’s mostly built into muscle memory.
“And how did you end up in Canada?”
“I was born in Russia, but my mom moved to Montreal when I was two and I’ve lived there my whole life.”
“Do you like it there?” I cut the gâteau, chocolate oozing from the center.
“I could see myself in Paris or somewhere less cold, but I don’t want to leave my mom alone, and Montreal is where all of my professional contacts are if I want to switch over to choreography at some point.”
“Have some cake,” I say, hoping it’s not against her diet.
She heaps a big chunk onto her spoon. “Mmmm. The French really are the best at dessert.”
We continue on the gâteau, and when it’s time for the check, it takes fifteen minutes for the waitress to stop not seeing us. I pay, and we exit the terrace, standing on the corner of avenue Montaigne and rue Françoise I.
“I live over there,” I point across the street.
“My hotel is up there,” she nods in the other direction.
I consider asking if she wants to come over, but her hip angle suggest that it’s better not to.
“Well, it was nice meeting you.”
“You too. Happy birthday and send pictures from Tel Aviv.”
“Thanks. Good luck in the shows and enjoy your time in Europe.”
We hug, and she begins up rue François I, turning around after three steps and adding, “And if you’re back in DC over the holidays, let me know. I might be on an exchange with the Georgetown Ballet for a year starting in November.”