shoebox in paris

Thoreau said, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”  

It’s a fair sentiment, though with my budget, I’m more likely to be crowded on a pumpkin.

Using AirBnb, the glorious startup that connects travelers with private homeowners in the perfect meeting of supply and demand, I’ve had the comfort of a cozy, well-priced place to sleep in Strasbourg, Lyon, and the Riviera.

I’ve also found a few pumpkins: simple, private, and deathly uncomfortable.

The most memorable is a studio apartment in Paris.

“Apartment” is generous, “broom closet” somewhere closer to the truth. I think the ad, actually, described the place as A Shoebox in Paris. I respect “Olivier” for the honesty. While poetic, he did not use “shoebox” as a charming diminutive, but as a realistic description of the room’s actual dimensions.

The room was the size of a spacious American bathroom.

But it was Christmastime, and the idea of it all was irresistible. Despite arriving via a seven hour OUI bus from Strasbourg, it felt impossibly glamorous to be spending the week in the City of Lights. Given my history of misadventures, I should have known better, but once again I was starry-eyed. I pictured museums with no lines (and I’d get in free with my carte d’éducation). I dreamt of flawless French classics: buttery steak and perfect crème brûlée. There would be a light snowfall around the Eiffel Tower. 

It was so close: the perfect winter vacation, great escape from Montluçon. But first we had to lug our bags up six flights of stairs.

The task accomplished, the first problem we encountered was where to put our two suitcases. To give an idea of the available space, the bed was such that, should you share it, one person was effectively sleeping in the “kitchen” (a hot plate, a sink), while the other lucky traveler had an excellent view of the bathroom, sleeping nearly inside it as they were.

You had to step on the bed (and over a sleeping roommate), to access the bathroom, actually, which “closed” via a sad little accordion door and which contained a crusty bar of soap and an emphatic note in a rough English translation explaining how exactly to flush the cantankerous toilet.

There was one spot of glamour in the room, a small coffee table that accumulated over the course of our trip articles that advertised an entirely different sort of vacation, the kind that doesn’t involve freezing showers, the kind that might allow a bath towel in place of a washcloth.

The table held bright new novels from the Shakespeare & Co English bookstore, a bottle of pale pink Chanel Mademoiselle, and the creamy pastel boxes and bags from our visits to Ladurée for macarons that, temporarily, made me feel like a queen at Versailles instead of a mouse in a shoebox.

This wobbly balance between glamour and grunge became a theme for the week (and truly, for my whole life in France).

Christmas Eve, we wandered around looking for that perfect little brasserie. An hour and a walk through Montmartre and Pigalle later, we admitted defeat and had Christmas Eve dinner in a Chinese traiteur. We sat in our skirts and tights and heels and ate egg rolls and orange chicken, eight euros a person. The restaurant was empty, save for the family that owned it: the little girl playing by herself, the father watching a ninja movie in the corner. But we ate on fine, pretty plates and drank wine out of heavy glasses, leaving lipstick on the rim.

Then we went to Christmas service at the Notre Dame. Candles, the Christmas story in French. The organ music thundered through the cathedral and I felt stunningly small faced with all this grandeur, all that history, all those people.

Christmas Day we spent at the Pompidou, the quietest I’ve ever seen that place. My Christmas tree this year was a modern art piece: colorful bulbs that lit up suddenly every few minutes.

For Christmas dinner, wanting to avoid Orange Chicken Part II, we googled best Christmas dinners in Paris and booked one, a splurge. We ate at a beautiful place in Montmartre, feasting on oysters and foie gras and a fruit salad with lychees and the recommended wine pairing. The restaurant was full of non-Parisiens. The locals, we assumed, were home with their families.

The trip, like our AirBnb, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It was exhausting. Paris was cold, rainy, and gray, and there were more tourists than ever.

One day we went out of our way to go to a Christmas market near Nation. A far cry from the Christmas market we’d enjoyed in Strasbourg, this one was dripping and pitiful, on its last day. Most booths were closed, and still we got conned into buying expensive cheese. A lady yelled at me about gingerbread. We talked with a chef selling Portuguese custard tarts who disclosed his love for Merle Haggard and started singing “Okie from Muskogee” (definitely the best part of that day).

Overall we spent too much time in the dystopian underworld that is the metro, and we ran out of money and had to eat lentils for a month afterwards.

In pictures it is lovely, all pale sunsets and gold lights, but really it was cold and cramped and a little lonely in the way that Christmas without your family can be.

I know this, remember this, and still I am nostalgic. How was it that not so long ago I rented a terrible, memorable little shoebox in Paris with my best friend? Where are the croissant crumbs and freezing fingers, or, on fortunate nights, the oysters and champagne? Where are the endless espressos and afternoons free to wander?

Christmas in Paris was like the room’s promoted “Eiffel Tower view”: both sound a little more glamorous in the telling.

But we did have our shoebox view. It was there, if we stood on the bed to see out the high window. If it wasn’t obscured by the January clouds.

The trip, the view: awkward and uncomfortable and lovely still. There it was, if we were lucky: the top of the tower, sparkling brilliantly into the night.

 

how to speak to Santa Claus in French

We’ve survived a bleak November, and Montluçon is getting its Christmas makeover. bienvenue

Music plays and lights sparkle into the night. The festivities are a little haphazard: instead of one cohesive carnival, there are attractions scattered around the city. Bumper cars at the foot of the chateau, some food stands across the street. A five minute walk brings you to the main attraction: the little marché de Nöel in front of the Hôtel de Ville.

France loves its Christmas markets. Typically, they last all throughout December, and are set up like a little Christmas village. You stroll around and eat, drink, shop, and play games or go on rides.

I was pleased to find that Montluçon does one too. It’s small but quite charming, with little booths that look like elf-sized log cabins forming the perimeter of the space. At these booths you can buy wool scarves, fine chocolates, sausages, fondue cheese… There’s a tiny skating rink with a big Christmas tree in the middle, an oyster bar, and, my favorite, several stands selling cups of vin chaud, steaming hot and ladled out of huge silver pots.

Vin chaud, or hot mulled wine, is a magical drink, tasting more like Christmas than anything I’ve ever tried. It’s made with red wine, wintery spices, and something to make it sweet, such as honey.

My favorite café here does it best. The flavor is perfection and they give you a little spoon to capture the grosseille berries and orange slices at the bottom of the glass. The café is in the medieval part of town (a circular area near the Cher river). It’s called Les 12 Apôtres (the 12 Apostles) and is right next to a medieval church and across from a used bookstore selling ancient Tintin comic books. montlucon-dusk-moto

du-vin-chaudLast night we went to the marché to have a glass of vin chaud for Mary’s birthday.

The wine wasn’t as good as my dear 12 Apôtres, but the atmosphere was festive, and who did we see but Santa Claus.

It was definitely him, Père Noël, but his shoulders were stooped, his steps slow. He trudged around the festivities in a slow circle. Even from behind, he looked decidedly unjolly. And disconcertingly thin.

Still, we wanted a picture. I didn’t want to catch up until I had my approach. Typically, Santa does the work: well what would you like for Christmas? But I had a feeling that French Santa, probably unaccustomed to the demands of American consumerism, would stare at me blankly after my bonsoir. What do you want and why are you bothering me? No twinkle in his insouciant French eye.

We walked slowly behind him, waiting for the right moment. “This looks creepy. We have to stop doing this,” Mary said as I took a picture of him with my camera.

“Fine, let’s just go.” As we sped up, something came to me. “Wait! Do you tutoie Santa Claus?” Tu versus vous (informal vs formal form of address) is often ambiguous even for the French. There are some clear rules: you always use vous with strangers (unless, say, someone runs off with your purse), you never use it with children or animals (inquire after a cat’s well-being with comment allez-vous and look at the smirks you’ll get). Usually I do okay, not without my share of accidental tu‘s and hasty corrections, but this was one of those situations they don’t teach you in school. Does politesse entail using the formal form of address with Santa Claus, a Christmas character in a velvet suit?

Probably. 

We got our pictures, and as expected, he was not exactly full of cheer. No Joyeux Nöel, even. He did, however, leave us with a mumbled à bientôt (see you soon).mary-et-pere-noel

I won’t get my hopes up. While my list would include perfume, Chanel nail polish, travel money, a food processor, and a nice pillow, French Santa would probably just tell me to appreciate what I already have; eat more salad.

I’ll have to count on American Santa, if he can find me here. We don’t even have a fireplace.hotel-de-ville

bowling with the homies

My first week in Montluçon, I received a letter inviting me to the next meeting of a Club Anglais. An English club in Montluçon! Surely I’d meet some friends there, young worldly types who had spent time in England or the States…

The letter explained that the club meets the first and third Friday of every month. We showed up early, me and a few of the other English teachers, and had a drink outside of the aptly-chosen London Bar.

We didn’t know quite who we were looking for, and a bit later, a lady with an English accent came out from the bar. “Excuse me,” she said, “sorry to bother you, but are you perhaps here for the Club Anglais?”

We followed her inside. The bar was dark and cozy with people packed in around little wooden tables, drinking tea or beer as they saw fit. English greetings and French cheek kisses existed in cheerful symbiosis.

It was a high-spirited, lively group…and everybody in the room was over fifty. Oh.

We were warmly welcomed and offered drinks. I didn’t know which language to use. Some in the room spoke only French, like the lady who sat across from me–but I was misled by her cup of tea and P.D. James novel. Others were French but proficient in English, and still others were English but have lived in France for decades. I didn’t want to assume, which is how I found myself overly-enunciating: “yes, I am American. I am from the state of Missouri,” to Roger, who was actually English (and probably wondered if I was indeed speaking my first language).

Everyone was friendly and kind. At first I had trouble thinking of conversation topics, but my new Anglophone friends were eager to ask about my teaching job. And then I realized that this was exactly the place to ask some of the questions I’d had, like where was the best place to buy produce. You can bet they had opinions.

One man took a liking to Mary (well, so did the whole table) and made her plans for the next Saturday, non-negotiable in his view: she was to go to the St. Pierre market, early, and watch the vendors set up their wares. This, while enjoying a glass of white wine and a plate of oysters. At ten in the morning.

I believe he was explaining to her the history of Montluçon over the last two-hundred years when I dragged her away so we could go to dinner.

We’ve since joined the French septuagenarians several times. My expectations for nightlife contained a lot more electronic dance music and a lot less English breakfast tea, but this will almost certainly lead to better stories.

Friday night we joined the club for a soirée : bowling and dinner. Over thirty members showed up for a bit of friendly competition.

We saw transformations worthy of a good sports movie. Jean-Luc, one of the older members, who shuffled laboriously to take his turns and always lofted the bowling ball, had a sympathetic competitor take pity and help him adjust his technique. He then went, in a thrilling upset, from constant gutter balls to a series of strikes. The crowd went wild.

I talked with the president of the club, an English guy who told me Club Anglais has been a thriving social club for 45 years. Some of the members are even traveling to Greece together this year.

The afore mentioned Roger and his French wife Françoise drove us to dinner, where everyone regrouped in the back room. As I looked for a place to put my coat, a jolly Englishman who reminded me of Scrooge’s boss, Fezziwig, from A Christmas Carol, told me: “I always try to leave with a better coat then the one I came with! That’s the secret.” It was this man, later in the evening, who I saw engage in a sort of subtle food fight, flinging pieces of bread across the room with a spoon as a catapult. Though it seemed he was aiming for one particular woman, whole rows of people had to duck to avoid getting beaned in the head with a bit of baguette. In fairness I think his friend started the battle.

Dinner was over three hours long, and frankly, unimpressive. Still, it was fun to talk to the people around me, in particular to a Finnish woman who speaks something like five languages. 10:30 pm came and went, the room alive with noise (and breadcrumbs), and we had just finished our main course. I started to feel a bit feverish, overtired, and am still wondering if some of it really happened.

think a drunk guy from the local gendarmerie school ran in the room and sang a song to one of the women at my table. I think everyone around Mary and I started comparing tattoos, and we were the only two without any. The English man sitting across from me explained the subtle tattoo on his wrist. Interested, the French man next to him asked if he had any more, and, probably relieved to contribute to the conversation since most of the party was speaking French at that point, he pulled the hem of his shirt up to his neck, exposing a huge tattoo that covered his chest and stomach. Definitely not something I ever expected to see while eating crème brûlée.

Then again, I also didn’t expect to be the new youngest member of a cross-cultural social club in rural France.