Saturday, November 16, 2013


Late this afternoon I was desperate to get out of the house. So leaving my husband with the two kids bouncing off the walls, I jumped at the occasion to go to the mall.

There, I admitted it.

There just happens to be a mall near our apartment. Like all self-respecting malls, its self-defense system is its parking lot: it is virtually impossible to approach on foot and requires great determination to reach by bus or bicycle. We are exactly five minutes away by car, but on a Saturday afternoon it takes almost another fifteen to find a parking spot. The mall looks exactly like any mall anywhere across America: when I venture beyond my favorite department store, the BHV, or the upscale grocery store, Monoprix, and wander into the rest of the place I feel almost certain I've stepped into Seattle's Northgate shopping center. With two-tiers of clothing stores, a food court, soft innocuous music, it makes me positively dizzy with geographic vertigo.

Tonight I arrived after dark, and cars were still circling both levels of parking garage like famished vultures. This being France, half the occupied spots were technically illegal: there were cars in the crosswalks, others parallel parked along and blocking an entire lane of traffic; there was even a Land Rover perched on a high sidewalk. Naturally I took the first spot I could find, nowhere near my destination. Once I finally made it inside the Monoprix, I found the checkout lines interminable and the aisles of the supermarket almost as difficult to navigate as the parking lot. I had to run in and out to get a cart, jump repeatedly to grab items from a high shelf, wait for an elevator. When I finally slammed my trunk shut on my shopping bags -- noting in passing that a French compact car trunk is completely filled after one grocery shopping trip -- I had a sudden startling realization.

This country makes it hard to spend money.

You have to WANT to be a consumer, and want it bad.

In the US, it's the other way around.

I remember reading somewhere recently an article whose author marveled at encountering someone in a checkout line in Target with one item. One item -- in this particular case, a toilet plunger -- seemed like utopia: how could anyone walk out of Target without their cart full of crap? This, the article maintained, took truly uncommon willpower. We should all strive for the same, and our lives, our houses, and our moral well-being would only be improved as a result, but we should remain realistic: impulse buying is a fact of life.

Drive down any commercial route in the suburban US and you see the neon signs for the big box stores, the grocery superstores, the chain specialty stores, the restaurants and the banks. If you have a passion or a problem, someone somewhere along that road is ready to feed it or fix it. It is easy to pull in -- there are always plenty of parking spots -- pop in, pay, load up the car and get out. I loved it when I was back visiting on my recent trip: I could spend money, and spend it easily, and if I got hungry after all that shopping, there was always some convenient place to stop and eat.

Tonight, fighting with my runaway shopping cart in my French mall parking lot made me think about Costco. I'm not sure I could go to Costco with my little French car, if such things as Costco existed here, which of course they don't. Impulse-buying on a Costco scale wouldn't fit into my apartment. Even buying staples in bulk wouldn't work: I've nowhere to store a three-months' supply of toilet paper.

Some of this is specific to the Paris region, of course, since outside of Paris, people have larger houses, complete with such luxuries as attics, basements and garages. And yes, France's Carrefour Hypermarket is another Walmart wannabe, stocking plenty cheap junk from China designed to create a desire to spend where none existed before. Still, shops are in majority closed on Sunday everywhere in the country, and those which stay open the latest on weeknights still close their doors by eight or nine. That's a full day and six full evenings a week to think about something other than shopping. Imagine that.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Scenes from a notarial office, part I

Notarial Office, Versailles, mid-morning on a gray Monday in June. It was closing day on the apartment. We were four seated around a table big enough to seat fifteen, made of solid, ugly wood and institutional bad taste:  there was my husband and I, dressed overly nicely and cloaked in I-don't-really-belong-here anxiety; the relaxed, slick owner of the real estate agency; and a serious-looking, middle-aged woman behind an imposing pile of folders.

We were waiting for our notary.  Notaries in France handle wills, real estate transactions, and other periodic unpleasantries of life, fulfilling many of the roles of lawyers in the US.  But whereas in the US you can often bypass a lawyer for the sake of simplicity, in France notaries are unavoidable.  They pocket a large percentage of any real estate transaction they handle (although a much larger percentage of what's called the 'notary fee' goes to the state), and they drag out the process to make their added value felt.

The notary, our buyers' notary, finally arrived and sat at the head of the table with a formality that almost made me wonder if he was going to say grace.  He arranged his short stack of papers neatly in front him, then turned to the woman and addressed her gravely.

"I'm so sorry.  I heard the news."

"Yes," she said, and stared down at her files, "It was such a shock."

As they continued to talk, I pieced together that the seller's notary who had handled the preliminary contract back in February had since died of a heart attack.  The woman, another notary from the same étude, was still shaken, and understandably so, since her colleague was stricken unexpectedly while at the office.  It was clear it was a subject she didn't wish to relive or discuss, but both the other notary and the real estate agent (who seemed to know all the details -- small world, real estate in Versailles) appeared oblivious to this.

"He was young, tout de même," said the other notary with affected pathos.  "I mean, he had his little problems, like we all do," he continued with exaggerated delicacy (my husband later explained that the late notary was quite obese), "But still..."

The conversation continued.  My husband and I mimed our concern, but became more and more anxious to move on, as it became increasingly clear the woman was, too.

Then the real estate agent joined in.

"But he died onstage!" he boomed.  The woman looked at him confused.

"He died onstage!" he repeated loudly. "In the heat of the action!  He died onstage, just like Molière!"

"No, no," the woman protested quietly, "He died at the office."

She paused.

"Or actually at the hospital. The ambulance came for him, and then..."

"Don't look at each other," I thought to myself, as my husband and I were both caught in a tense silence that could have finished in either explosive laughter or a primal screen.

"But he died onstage!" the real estate agent continued after the woman finished her sad story.  He was making reference to Molière's famous apocryphal finale, with a misplaced humor and bad taste astounding even for a guy in sales.  He repeated it again, and my husband and I finally laughed politely, almost soundlessly, because it was clear that unless we acknowledged the joke he wasn't planning to stop.

And with that, the notary at the head of the table picked up his stack of papers, tapped them even against the ugly polished wood, cleared his throat, and began.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013


Back from a lunchtime run today, I sat in the break room and thumbed through Facebook on my phone, distractedly eating away at my data limit, when I read this:

Interesting quote from a Lars Gustafsson novel, articulated by a character who spent his life wandering the globe, remembering the small town in Sweden he was from - "And my mediocre shadow walks there, among the others. The shadow of the one who stayed at home. Or the shadow who remained. . . . There's just one thing that irritates me about that shadow. It's that it feels more real than I do". Well put.

This was posted by a friend from Bothell, Washington, currently living in New York City by way of Phoenix, London, and L.A.  He's a regular blog reader, too -- so apologies, J, if I've lost track of the geography. Now, there's assuredly an intellectual laziness (or worse) implied in drawing grand conclusions about ones life from ones Facebook feed. Still, I can't deny that it said exactly what I've never been able to find the words say.

I've been crossing shadows elsewhere on Facebook: the astrology-minded friend reposting articles on the dark changing of the seasons, the autumnal equinox and the moon in Scorpio or something like that. Veils being lifted, worlds drawing close.  I don't ever click through.  My worlds drew closer, briefly, when Europe switched back from Daylight Savings Time a week before the US.  Suddenly there were only five hours difference between Central European and Eastern Daylight Time.  The Sunday after the change I flew back from a week on the East Coast, where I'd been first in Delaware to visit with an old friend (Astrology friend, as a matter of fact), then on to DC for a college friend's wedding.  My shuttle driver in Paris blamed the time change when he was late to pick me up at Charles de Gaulle Airport.  I waited for him for twenty minutes on the sidewalk on a Monday morning at 7 o'clock, under the concrete awning at the departure level of Terminal 1, with lights too bright and a sky too gray to tell if it was night or day.

Arrival at the departure level.  Jetlagged.  Terminal 1 at Charles de Gaulle, which doesn't make any sense even on the best of days.

I was headed more or less straight to work, and was worried I wouldn't be able to speak French after a week immersed in English and a paltry three hours sleep on the plane.  That fear was rapidly tested when the shuttle driver, a second-generation North African, picked up our conversation where it had mercifully been left off a week before on my way to the airport.  In short: America was the promised land.  France was broken in every possible way.  I was a fool to have left.

One hour on the way there.  One and a half hours on the way back: there was morning traffic.

"If you permit me, Madame [Parisienne], you may end up moving back.  You never know.  You just may move back."

And I nodded and agreed with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, on the way there because I was counting on him to pick me up on the way back, and on the way back because I was too tired to do otherwise.

It was full October daylight by the time we arrived in Versailles, and my street was covered with soggy leaves and downed branches from a windstorm that had hit during a night which for me had never existed.  I briefly saw the kids, who jumped into my arms then scampered back to their Legos, then I showered and drove to work.  At the coffee machine with my colleagues, I laboriously found my words, immersed as I'd been in English for a week.

I suspect now that it wasn't the English immersion that got me but rather an immersion in a life that is no longer mine.  During my stay I spoke and thought American, I lived in an American house with American schedules and American rituals.  When I was introduced to someone, I said "Hi" and "Really?" and "Oh yeah, I know!" just the way I knew I was supposed to, even if the timing felt off, just a bit (perhaps discernible only to myself).

I like to tell people in France that I was born French but I was just born in the wrong place.  When I say this I'm thumbing my nose at my country of birth, a place where I feel I never quite fit in.  If I don't fit in in France, I have an excuse now, after all -- and in many ways I do fit in better, naturally, but that's a whole other discussion.

And yet.

And yet.

There's that damn shadow.

I'm at a point in my life where I see possibilities narrowing and a future becoming concrete and constrained.  There's also the veil and Scorpio and all that; the knowledge of the finite. Welcome to nearly forty, eh?  The what-ifs become all that more poignant because I know I don't have time to go back and do it over differently, even if I wanted to, which I don't given I feel that without ever having to search I ended up in the best of all possible worlds.   But (to stretch the metaphor of a Facebook post much farther than reasonable) the shadows get longer late in the day, do they not?

There was a windstorm in Seattle last week. My dad told me about it over the phone. All the leaves dropped off the trees in the space of one night.  I thought about the leaves on the ground in Versailles the morning I came back... and it was almost like I was there.