Have you ever been to Paris?
I have. Twice. Everyone there speaks French, and the streets smell like pee.
This is the story of the first time I went to Paris, a young Cheeseburger on his own in the Old World, drinking wine, sucking raw oysters and trying to get lucky.
To enjoy this story appropriately, you should probably put on some romantic accordion music, or an Edith Piaf album or something. At any rate, the multimedia angle is up to you -- I just take care of the typing.
Who's the Frenchest of Them All?
Pierre Elliot Trudeau was the King of Canada for years and years, and by his decrees he reshaped the country with unimpeachable authority from on high. Not only did he declare Martial Law to foil the terrorists of Quebec (oops, the hostage died anyway, 1970) and fight for our very own constitution (ratified and adopted, 1982 -- up yours, England!), but he also saw to it that Anglophone children throughout Canada would suffer to learn French (Official Languages Act, 1969), whether they wanted to or not.
Most of them did not.
This attitude set a tone in French classes throughout the nation -- a tone of reluctant attention, painful participation and generally very poor results. After a decade of such classes most Anglophones were lucky to be able to mangle simple phrases like "le stylo est bleu" and "il fait soleil dehors" -- usually without knowing what they meant.
Comparatively, I wasn't too shabby. I was educated exclusively in French for several years, and had a French-speaking step-father at home. I enjoyed the language, with its florid, wet shapes and simpering smoothness. Also, speaking two languages reinforced to me the lesson that the word is not the thing, but simply a label for an idea -- a kind of semiotic flexibility many unilinguals lack. I felt lucky, knowing French.
My highschool was not French. It was a performing arts school, like in Fame, and English was our tongue. Most of my peers had not been schooled in French beyond the hour a day mandated by King Trudeau.
So, in French class, I kinda of stuck out -- in that I could actually speak some French.
One day my French teacher approached me with an opportunity: a neighbouring highschool -- one with a superior French programme -- was arranging a student exchange with a lycee in Paris. She said she could arrange to have me included. She said my French would improve immeasurably, and I might even be able to shake my step-father's provincial accent in favour of something a little more transatlantic. "Voulez-vous visiter Paris, CheeseburgerBrun?" she asked me.
So I said, "Okay."
Enter the Frog
It was spring when the exchange students were set to come. But not the lush part of spring -- the rainy, muddy part when the trees are still bare and wind smells like winter. It was, in my opinion, a pretty terrible time to visit Canada.
The French arrived by bus. They unloaded into the parking lot of Hog Mills Secondary School, bracing themselves against the chilly evening breeze. They were a pretty bunch, and most of them wore sunglasses despite the twilight. They were shy, too. They waited for someone to step out of the crowd to lead them toward us.
I stood a bit apart from the other Canadians, too. My mom was with me. We didn't know anybody at Hog Mills Secondary School, and they didn't seem terribly interested in meeting us. The Hog Mills students and their parents gibbered amongst themselves excitedly as the cadre of French students drew near and then began to mix. Partners found partners, and a lot of hands were shook. A member of the Hog Mills faculty appeared at my elbow. "Are you CheeseburgerBrown?" she asked.
She stepped aside to reveal a tall, square-jawed boy with a sweep of light brown hair and deep brown eyes. "This is your exchange student, Jean-Pierre."
He shook my hand too firmly. "It is a pleasure to meet you," said Jean-Pierre, his low, throaty voice caramelized in a glaze of Eurocharm. "And you must be Mrs Brown, madame," he added, kissing my mother once on each cheek.
My mother was tickled pink.
I was fourteen years old, and Jean-Pierre was sixteen. His skin was slightly darker than mine. He stood about two heads taller than I did, and was about 1.5 CheeseburgerBrowns wide -- a fit, athletic build, filled out with a layer of muscle. His clothes were stylish in an understated way. Standing beside him, I was a boy and he was a man.
I thought he was charming, and so did my family. His manners were exquisite, I noted as we supped in my mother's diningroom, my step-father uncorking bottle after bottle of full, fruity Bordeaux. Jean-Pierre was asked all of the standard questions about how he liked school, and what he thought he might like to be when he grew up. "En France," he explained, "we 'ave to shoose hour course of study when we are twelf year old, so that we can be streamed into the proper subjects en lycee."
"When you're twelve?" I echoed, incredulous. I thought about the sort of choices I had been making at twelve, and wondered how the youth of France found the life-context to make an informed decision about their destinies. "That's nuts!" I said.
"What is this, the nuts?"
"I mean it's crazy. Twelve-year-old kids haven't got a clue."
My mom asked, "What career did you choose, Jean-Pierre?"
"I shoose the hinternational finance," he said. "What do you study for, CheeseburgerBroon?"
"Oh, I go to art school," I told him.
"You will be an hartist, then?"
"I guess so."
"Pardon my question, but you can make a career of this? You can -- how do I say? -- profit by hartistic working?"
I shrugged. "I hope so."
Jean-Pierre seemed dismayed and confused. He seemed reluctant to ask me directly, so he asked the table instead: "If it is so uncertain, 'ow can this be a course the school provides? Where does it lead, in the university? I want to say: what degree do you get from this course of hart study?"
I said, "I can take anything I want at university. There is no connection between what I study now, and what I might choose to study then."
Jean-Pierre was mystified. "But -- that is absurd!" He seemed at a loss for words. "Does this not reduce your pre-university education to the level of -- how do I say it? -- playtime?"
There was an awkward silence.
"Pretty much," I replied jauntily, shrugging again. "Welcome to Ontario, hombre."
The next morning I pored over a map of the transit system with Jean-Pierre until he felt confident that he could reach Hog Mills Secondary unescorted. "This subway goes to nowhere...it is very hinferior to the metro of Paris," he said.
"Yeah, it sucks," I agreed, turning back to the map. "You'll have to take this eastbound bus from Hog Mills Station, okay?"
"What is this, the sucks?"
"Nevermind." I left him at the bus-stop and proceeded to ride up to my own school for another fun-filled day of farting around on my dismal sculpture project, a teetering, spindly tree-like structure with gouache images painted on each transparent leaf. It was not very structurally sound, and it tended to fall over a lot. (I am not by nature comfortable with sculpting, or for that matter anything that requires physical integrity. I have always loved engineers, perhaps in some part because their talents help to offset my own void of mechanical ability.)
And so the weeks wound by: Jean-Pierre attending classes at Hog Mills while I screwed around in the art wing of Butcher-of-the-Somme Secondary, trying to get my dismal sculpture to stand up long enough to be graded. Sometimes the Hog Mills faculty arranged field-trips for the exchange students, so they would spend the day walking around historical landmarks like Fort York or going to the Royal Ontario Museum. One day they took the French on a hike through the woods to a syrup farm, and showed them how the trees are tapped for sap. Reported Jean-Pierre, "We were hobliged to eat some hiced toffee, and chicken soap."
"Chicken soap?" echoed my mom, giggling.
Jean-Pierre looked stricken. "This is not right?" He mimed spooning something out of a bowl. "This is not soap?"
"Potage?" prompted my step-father, uncorking another bottle of wine. "Do you mean 'soup'?"
"Yes, hof course -- chicken zoop!" laughed Jean-Pierre.
"You are cute as a bug's ear," declared my mother, smiling. "Chicken soap!"
"What is this, the bogzear?" Jean-Pierre wanted to know.
If there wasn't something planned in the evenings Jean-Pierre would hang out with me, in the basement, going over his homework and watching American TV. Myself, I would spend my time drawing simple animations frame by frame, assembling amusing flipbooks with tragicomic themes. "This is what you spend your time doing?" Jean-Pierre asked.
"Sure," I said.
"What about your work from the school?"
"Oh, my school is really easy," I told him. "There isn't much work to do."
"This is...hanimation, this?"
"And you think you can...make a career of this?"
"Maybe," I replied, copying the previous frame onto a fresh sheet of tracing paper.
He blew air between his lips. "Forgive me, but I do not see how this is -- how do I say? -- a serious pursuit."
"Well, the international financiers of this world would be a sadder bunch of pups if they couldn't come home to watch cartoons after a long day, believe you me."
"I do not think serious business people watch cartoons," he said.
"There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," I told him.
"What is this, the Horatio?" Jean-Pierre wanted to know.
And the weeks wore on and at last it was time for Jean-Pierre to go. Everyone enjoyed an evening of bowling and partying together, but no one from Hog Mills thought to invite me. I only found out about it when Jean-Pierre came home, late and tipsy. "You were not informed? Quelle domage!" he said. The next day we drove Jean-Pierre back to Hog Mills Secondary and his waiting bus. Many pairs of exchange students were hugging, or crying.
"See you in a few weeks," I said, shaking Jean-Pierre's hand.
"Yes, of course," he said, slipping on his sunglasses and joining his peers on the bus. It pulled away, and everyone waved. Myself, I felt relieved -- having a Frenchmen on my back judging my culture (and judging it lacking) day after day had become wearying.
Cute as a bug's ear or not, I had to admit to myself that I was feeling a little daunted at facing an entire country of Jean-Pierres.
The Caves of Stone
"Shit, do you think there are smoke detectors in the washrooms?" asked the skinny kid next to me as he beat an incessant tattoo against his own thigh. "Shit, I gotta smoke," he told me.
"I don't know," I said.
"Shit," he said, standing up and manoeuvring down the narrow aisle toward the washrooms at the back of the plane.
Outside, the sun was rising over the glimmering Atlantic. The drone of the engines filled my world. I was stiff and cramped, sardined into an economy seat for endless hours beside a drumming, fidgeting smoker in withdrawl. "Shit," he said, taking his seat again, the reek of tobacco wafting off of him. "Do you think the stewardess will smell it on me?" he asked.
"Probably not," I said.
Over the course of the past seven hours I had made the acquaintance of a few of the Hog Mills kids, including Smokey. I had also met an affable, slow speaking simpleton called Chunk and a trenchcoat-wearing Christian Slater wannabe obsessed with his own stubble. "European chicks dig stubble, don't they?" he said, rasping his fingers across his cheek.
The kids from Hog Mills were from very rich families, and most of them had been going to school together since kindergarten. They wore clothes with fancy name brands, and when they discussed the brands with one another it sounded to me like they were speaking gibberish. Chunk, Smokey and Slater were shocked to learn that I was a member of their party. "You've got fuckin' balls, man," said Chunk.
"What do you mean?" I asked, furrowing my brow.
"Coming on this exchange without knowing anyone, no friends or anything. I could never do that, man," he explained.
"Me neither," agreed Smokey, drumming on Chunk's seat-back.
I shrugged. "I just started ninth grade at a whole school full of people I don't know. How different is this?" I certainly didn't feel ballsy. I felt uncertain, shy and scared.
We landed at Charles de Gaulle International and shuffled off the jet. We rode the criss-crossing escalators through the glass atria of the terminal, taking in the massive French advertisements that seemed to feature a nude woman no matter the product being proffered. A poster for an all natural yogurt called Bio, for example, featured a close-up of a woman holding a silver spoon dabbed in yogurt between her naked breasts. "Shit!" commented Smokey.
We were loaded into a coach bus and driven into the city. The first thing I noticed was the lack of houses -- apparently, Parisians lived exclusively in apartment buildings. The next thing I noticed was that, aside from the broad, Napoleonic boulevards, the streets seemed to have been laid out by a spaghetti chef. They were narrow and nonsensical, curving one way and then the other, defining an organic maze of jumbled architecture and cars that stood in stark contrast to the stately north-south/east-west avenues of my New World home.
"I feel like someone from a Spacer world visiting Elijah Baley's Earth," I commented.
"Whut?" asked Chunk.
"Asimov reference, pardon me. I'm a nerd," I apologized. "Forget it."
The city sped by in a blur of stone. There were no towers of green reflective glass, or sidewalks of flat concrete; rather, everything was cobblestones and masonry, rock gargoyles and grey-brick walls, dense, cluttered and mad. And everywhere, apartment blocks.
The headlights of most of the cars were sodium yellow. The headlights of the newest models were halogen blue. Like everywhere the brakes were red. The roads were a rainbow of honking, fender-benders and swearing; a melee of compact, dented, boxy, clown-car-sized vehicles with rear wheels half-covered, sporting unfamiliar names like Renault, Citroen and Astra.
The Lycee Victor Hugo was located in the south-west of the city, in a suburb called Boulogne-Billancourt. Though newer than my own 1929 highschool, it looked far more run-down. It was made of cinderblock and metal, painted with flaking sky-blue paint, over-shadowed on all sides by looming buildings. The athletic field was paved, a narrow isthmus running between a massive apartment block and a grocery store. This is where we were collected, and where we found our matching mob of Victor Hugo students. "CheeseburgerBroon!" called Jean-Pierre, waving me over.
He stood beside an almost identical looking boy a head shorter, whom he introduced as his brother Jean-Marc. Next I shook the hand of a squatter, more barrel-chested version of the boys -- their father, Jean-Gaston. Finally, I was kissed on each cheek by Yvonne, the boys' blonde and somewhat tired-looking mother. She lost the look of exhaustion whenever her expressive face smiled, which was frequently, the wrinkles around her eyes squinting into habitual lines of good cheer. "Bienvenue a Paris!" she welcomed me warmly.
Jean-Gaston manoeuvred their dented Peugeot through the cramped streets, his mirrors only millimetres away from the endless rows of parked cars that cluttered either side of every alley and byway. In just a few moments we swooped down into an underground garage, and piled out to the elevator (the door of which had to be pulled open, like the front door of a shop).
Their apartment shocked me.
It was about the size of my livingroom, at home. The boys shared a room scarcely larger than their beds, and their parents' room was the same. The combination kitchenette-laundry stemmed off the side by side washroom and watercloset, and the tiny hollow space at the centre of it all held a small sofa, a stereo and a television. (Later, I would learn how the dining table folded out of the wall when the sofa was pushed out of the way.) Structural pillars took up the remaining free space, giving the entire layout the appearance of a crowded storage-locker. "C'est ca chez nous!" beamed Yvonne (meaning "This is our home!"). She went on to explain how Jean-Marc would sleep on the sofa for the duration of my stay so that I could have a bed.
"Thanks, Jean-Marc," I said.
He shrugged apathetically. "C'est rien," he mumbled (meaning "It's nothing").
That night, Jean-Gaston picked up raw oysters, a few bottles of fine wine and a hot stick of freshly baked baguette. "Ce soir tu mangeras comme un Francais!" he crowed (meaning "Tonight you'll eat like a Frenchman!").
(Let us take it as read from now on that no one in Jean-Pierre's family spoke any English. I'll render their dialogue as English, and you can just imagine it in French. This will not only improve the flow of the text, but will also minimize the exposure I give to the current badly decayed state of my command of the language.)
We supped, after they had reconfigured their salon into a dining area like a pit-crew working a giant Transformer. Jean-Gaston showed me how to squeeze a dash of lemon into each oyster shell before sucking out the meat. It felt a little bit like having someone else's tongue in my mouth, with an aquatic-citrus kick. I swallowed quickly and tried to look impressed. "Delicious," I said.
"Eat up, because you won't get more until next weekend," said Jean-Gaston, mopping up the excess butter and lemon on his plate with a torn hunk of baguette. "I'm the only one who knows how to pick them out right."
"You won't be here for the week?" I asked.
It turned out that in order to maintain this sumptuous apartment Jean-Gaston was obliged to take a job outside of Paris, in a satellite city halfway to Lyons. He commuted there each Monday morning, stayed in an even smaller apartment for the week, and then returned home to his family come Friday night. Yvonne, for her part, worked five days and six nights a week in a Parisian wine bar, which she explained in a lush husky voice as she drew on unfiltered Gitanes with grace, an elbow on the table holding her hair out of her heavy lidded eyes.
"It is expensive, Paris," explained Jean-Pierre.
Come evening Jean-Pierre showed me to the bedroom, where he took the bottom bunk and I took the top. He put on a tape of quiet cello music, and put out the lamp. I fell asleep lying on my side, looking out the window over Boulogne and eastward to the city, the Eiffel Tower clearly visible, glinting in the distance.
It's All Greek to Me
The morning was a flurry of activity. As I blearily approached the breakfast table Jean-Gaston was hurriedly putting on his shoes as Yvonne handed him his briefcase. "Je suis en retard!" he cried, thrashing his way out the door while still negotiating one arm into his overcoat.
Jean-Marc was just leaving the breakfast table, which made room for me to sit down to join Jean-Pierre. "What's for eats?" I asked.
"The usual breakfast, of course," said Jean-Pierre as Yvonne reappeared to place a bowl of steaming hot chocolate in front of each of us. Then she scurried off to the shower.
"You eat hot chocolate for breakfast?"
"Of course. Why not?"
"It just doesn't seem very healthy to start the day with candy."
He shrugged, and sipped at his bowl. I took my shower next. When I turned on the light in the washroom a radio came on, so I listened to an obnoxious French morning show while I rinsed. I was amused to note that they played a Canadian rap song entitled My Definition while I dried (you might remember the song -- it featured samples from the theme of a popular game show from back home called Definition which would later gain widespread exposure as the theme to the Austin Powers movies).
After showering it was my turn in the watercloset, a tiny, bare room featuring only a toilet and a pile of comic books. I flipped through an old Asterix et Obelix while I took a crap, and then spent a few minutes trying to figure out how to flush the damn toilet. Then I started wondering where I was supposed to wash my hands.
I exited the watercloset and headed for the washroom, but Jean-Marc was esconced in there taking his turn under the water. "What's the matter?" asked Jean-Pierre.
"I wanted to wash my hands," I told him.
"I just went to the loo."
I shook my head in bewilderment. The French!
We took the lift down together and started the walk to the Lycee Victor Hugo. After today I would be walking by myself, Jean-Pierre explained, because he usually went to school early for some sort of sport commitment. Duly warned, I tried my very best to memorize the twisting course through the labrynthine streets and alleys. "This is a good landmark here," he said, pointing to a glowing green cross hanging from a pharmacy. "Remember to turn left here."
I'm not sure if I've ever told you this before, but I have a terrible sense of direction. I know, I know -- just about everybody claims to have a bad sense of direction -- the same way everyone claims to be absent minded, and everyone claims to be a reasonable driver -- but I really do. I'm a complete fucking retard when it comes to finding my way anywhere. I memorize landmarks in the wrong order, and cities tend to look to me like a uniform jumble of chaotic information that my mind is reluctant to classify and process for the key details. Thus, it was with an increasing feeling of dread that I followed Jean-Pierre's brisk and confident tour to school. I knew I'd be screwed without him.
Jean-Pierre escorted me to his home-form at the lycee, a somewhat dingy sky-blue room with a concrete floor and a rude collection of exclusively right-handed writing desks. The class filled with beautiful children until a harsh buzzer sounded, and then an old man with a shocking amount of nose-hair stood up and began to speak...
Quickly. Thickly. Filled with dialectic turns I could not follow. Within five minutes I wasn't even sure what subject he was talking about. He might as well have been speaking Basque for all I knew.
I looked around and saw the other pupils industriously taking notes. The Hog Mills students were struggling to keep up, but dutifully trying. I tried to twist myself around in the right-handed desk to at least put up the appearance of taking notes with my left hand, but I found myself at a loss for anything to write beyond WHAT THE FUCK IS HE TALKING ABOUT? which I then surreptitiously showed to Smokey.
Smokey shrugged, and pointed to this own paper. It was half-covered in a sloppy drawing of a naked woman with devil's horns and a gun.
This continued for hours.
I was grateful to be released for lunch, and I threaded my way to the school cafeteria along with the Hog Mills kids. The school provided lunch for everyone in the form of a dry sandwich, a bottle of lukewarm water and a container of plain yogurt. I consumed without enthusiasm.
In the afternoon the classroom was darkened to show a movie on video, so I thought things were taking a turn for the better. We were going to watch Citizen Cane, I was told. A fine film, by any account.
Unfortunately, we were only permitted to watch two or three minutes at a time before Professor Nose-Hair would pause the tape, and pontificate at length on the symbolism of the images we'd been presented with. "Rooze-butt," he said. "Again, we come back to the symbol of the flower, and thereby of the woman. Who can interpret this for me in terms of the Jungian Collective Unconscious?"
My eyes glazed over with a film of opaque boredom. I gave up on trying to take notes, or trying to watch the movie, and just thought up a story about robots in my head. (Robots are cool.)
I excused myself to go the washroom, and outside of the class I found Slater, Chunk and Smokey. "Shit!" said Smokey; "this is all way over my head, man."
Chunk agreed. "Is he even speaking French? Jesus!"
"Fuck it," said Slater. "I'm out of here." He started walking away down the grimy-tiled corridor.
"But dude," called Smokey, "they're gonna tell our teacher how we did -- they'll shit on us back home if we cut class. You'll fail French, Slater!"
"I already have my credit," said Slater, not turning around. "I only took French this year so I could go on this trip."
This caused Chunk and Smokey to vibrate in place, like videogame characters stuck between two barriers. They were clearly torn. Slater, their fearless cooler-than-thou leader, had declared Fuck it! yet they were afraid of the consequences.
This is when it dawned on me that nobody would be reporting back to my French teacher. I didn't go to Hog Mills Secondary. My academic performance in France was purely voluntary. For me, there were no consequences. I was free.
"Fuck it indeed," I said, walking after Slater.
Chunk fell into line quickly, and I heard him scurry after me. Smokey vacillitated outside of the classroom for a moment longer, then cursed "Shit!" and ran to catch up as we pushed our way through the heavy metal doors and into the spring sunshine.
Royale with Cheese
We were all feeling peckish after our disappointing school lunch, so I suggested we visit the McDonald's down the block from the lycee that I had passed on my morning walk with Jean-Pierre. Once inside we scanned the familiar yet different menu, noting the availability of such novelties as wedge-cut fries with mayonnaise, McCrepes filled with jam, and tall cups of beer. "There's fucking beer at McDonald's?" gaped Chunk. "I want a beer!"
"Fuck yeah," agreed Slater.
"What's the drinking age here?" Smokey asked me.
"Birth," I replied.
So we all got cheeseburgers and beer. We went up to the counter for many refills, and before the afternoon was out we were sliding off of the rounded plastic chairs, shit-faced and giddy. "Paris rocks!" commented Smokey, lighting another smoke and accidentally putting his elbow in ketchup.
It was a classy affair.
Later, we parted to go our separate ways. Slater and Chunk disappeared into a metro station, and Smokey and I walked a few blocks together before he found his partner's apartment building. Then I continued alone, stumbling a bit drunkenly, weaving between pedestrians on the busy streets, trying to find a landmark that would guide me back to Jean-Pierre's place.
I knew I was in trouble when I hit a major street and counted four or five glowing green crosses hanging out front of different pharmacies. "Aw, crap," I said to myself.
I saw a dirty old man pissing on the sidewalk. People walked around him. His piss trickled between the stones and pooled in the rounded gutter. A few moments after he left, an invisible spigot opened and the gutters were flushed with water. The old man's piss and about a thousand cigarette butts disappeared down the sewer, and the gush of water stopped. Further down the block men in orange jumpsuits were sweeping the roads. Even further along, a man in a rumpled suit was standing in the mouth of an alley, his urine sprinkling out before him in a sparkling arc.
I shuddered to imagine what Paris would look like after even the briefest strike by the street cleaners. I trudged on, reading advertisements and craning my head around like a fool, taking in the city.
I did eventually find my way back, but the sun had set. Yvonne was late for work, because she'd been lolligagging at the apartment worrying over me. Jean-Pierre was less concerned. "Did you forget the way?" he asked somewhat unkindly.
"Yes," I said somewhat sharply.
It was therefore with some trepidation that I set out for school the next day, partly because I wasn't sure I could find it, but mostly because I dreaded the idea of going back to class. But luck was on my side: not only did I get to school, but I ran into a milling crowd of Hog Mills students outside in the courtyard. "We're going to the Louvre!"
And so a bus deposited the group of us all the foot of an obelisk. We crossed a mad street to the foot of great glass pyramid, enwrapped on three sides by the long wings of the world's most famous art museum. "I heard it would take weeks so explore the museum fully," Smokey whispered to me.
"Not for us," I assured him. "Our attention spans are nice and short."
He giggled, and so did two girls standing behind him. We stood in line together to show our student passes, and Smokey introduced us. There was an olive-skinned smiling girl with warm brown eyes and an aqualine nose named Jappy, and her curvier friend called Cheeks. Both girls wore specks of gold, on their fingers or around their wrists or necks or from their ears. They wore fancy poofy sweaters, and Cheeks wore a very short skirt. Both of them giggled a lot. They wanted to know about life at Butcher-of-the-Somme Secondary School, and why I'd come on the trip, and so on.
We failed to find the rest of our tour group from the get go. And when they felt comfortable enough Cheeks and Jappy let Smokey free to find Chunk and Slater, and I found myself touring the Louvre with two chicks. "Wow," said Cheeks, espying a tall headless, armless sculpture of a winged woman. "I wonder what that's called."
"Um," I said quietly. "It's the Victoire de Samothrace, Ancient Greek, artist unknown, commemorating a naval battle...possibly that of Demetrius Somebody at Cyprus. It's over two thousand years old."
"It's beautiful," said Jappy.
"I think so too."
"How did you know that?" asked Cheeks, laughing.
I was kinda surprised, myself. I guess all of those seemingly interminable, repetitive, mind-numbing slide-shows The Wicked Witch of the West subjected us to in majors class actually worked. Art History was sticking to my brain, and it was helping me pick up girls. Who knew?
We made all of the usual tourist stops, like Mona Lisa's plexiglass prison and the eternal agony of Medusa's castaways, and we saw the mother of all armless babes and Napoleon's looted treasures of Araby, and on and on. We had ice cream in the commissary, too.
Since we'd lost the group we also missed the bus back to Victor Hugo. Cheeks was worried, but Jappy was cool. She said, "I took the metro to school today. I bet we can figure out how to get back home."
When we got down to the platform we were surrounded by giant, curving posters of naked women arching over our heads. The girls didn't know where to look, so Cheeks tried looking toward the end of the tunnel. She gasped. "Is that guy peeing?" she whispered.
I glanced over, and nodded. "Public peeing is all the rage here."
Cheeks took to staring at her shoes. Jappy rolled her eyes and giggled. She shuffled over to a grimy map on the wall, and frowned. "This morning I took the yellow line..." she said.
"There are six yellow lines," I said dully. "Or have I gone colour blind?"
"Do we want terminus Boulogne Pont de St Cloud or terminus Pont de Sevres?"
"Um," I said helpfully. I didn't see any glowing green crosses on the map, so I was pretty much without a clue.
"The school's in Boulogne," Cheeks pointed out. "So let's go to that cloud one."
"Boulogne-Billancourt," corrected Jappy.
"There's a Billancourt station here, on the other line," I said. "Pont de Sevres."
"I can't remember," confessed Jappy with a sigh.
We chose wrong, but it was no tragedy. By the end of the long, double-back ride I still wasn't sure which one of the girls was the one that liked me and which one was there for strategic support, but I did know that I was being pursued for a round of flirtation.
Because I was in Paris, I figured either one would provide a fun game of love as the appropriate backdrop for my trip. Because I was an adolescent boy, I hoped it was the one with the biggest boobs (Cheeks).
I was late again, so Yvonne was late again, too. "CheeseburgerBrown, you must stop doing this to me! I was so worried -- a little boy alone in Paris! My heart -- kaput!" she said, hugging me and giving me a kiss on each cheek as she blindly squinched out her smoke in the ashtray behind her. "Goodbye Jean-Pierre, Jean-Marc -- be good!" she called, pulling on her jacket and running down the stairs, lighting up another Gitane and yelling for a taxi, hellbent on getting to the wine-bar on time.
As we lay in bed listening to taped cello music Jean-Pierre asked whether I'd gotten myself lost again. "Yes," I said, my heavy eyes watching the Eiffel Tower shimmer in the evening haze. "On the metro," I yawned.
"It is a wonder you are still alive," commented Jean-Pierre from the high bunk.
"Goodnight, Jean-Pierre," I said.
I did end up sitting through more classes at the Lycee Victor Hugo, mostly because I was able to amuse myself chatting quietly with Cheeks and Jappy. The week passed quickly this way, and soon it was Friday. Jean-Pierre and I were picked up after school by Papa Jean-Gaston in his chortling Peugeot. "Let's get some oysters!" he beamed. "Get in."
At supper he announced that we would be seeing a football game tonight. "Le Foot is the greatest sport, full of life!" Jean-Gaston explained as he ripped off a rough roll of baguette and started chewing on it. "You must experience the real pulse of Europe, CheeseburgerBrun."
So I said, "Okay."
"Tell me, what do you notice first about Paris? What is different from your Canada?" Jean-Gaston asked me.
I sucked back an oyster. "Well, I have been noticing that there are hardly any ethnic minorities around."
"Hardly any?" echoed Jean-Gaston. "There are too many!" He laughed broadly, and so did everyone else.
"There are just a lot more in Canada. When I look into a crowd in this city, I know I'm not at home because all the faces are white."
"You have a big problem with immigrants in Canada, hey?" said Jean-Gaston, nodding sympathetically.
I shrugged. "I don't really think of them as 'immigrants' to tell the whole truth. Half of them have been in Canada longer than my family has."
"Ha!" said Jean-Gaston. "In Paris, we are being swamped by blacks and browns and yellows and Jews. They take every job, and they commit many of the crimes. It's a real problem for us."
"I see," I said.
After supper we drove to the stade. We shuffled through the line for ticket-holders, and quickly found our seats. We had come just in time, for we didn't have to wait long until the game began. Jean-Gaston bought Jean-Pierre and I a cup of beer each and then settled himself back into his seat with satisfaction. "This is going to be good!" he grinned. "Paris versus Nancy."
Behind the Nancy goal sat a contingent of skinheads, bleacher row upon row bristling and surging with violent energy, faces and sometimes chests painted with the colours of Paris. The skinheads cheered in the opening kick with a surprisingly well choreographed collective scream of "En-n-ncule les!" ("Ass-s-s fuck 'em!").
As the game progressed the skinheads continued to take profanity to new and exciting levels, commenting en masse to every pass, kick, butt and miss. When Paris threatened to score on Nancy, the punks set off fireworks over the goaltender's head, scaring the bejesus out of him and distracting him. The ball shot into the net, and the crowd roared in victory (except for a small cadre of skinheads from Nancy on the other side of the stadium, who screeched dirty words).
After a while these antics became tedious in repetition, so I prepared to zone out and imagine something fun in my head, which is what I do whenever I'm presented with external stimuli that doesn't interest me. Spectator sports seldom interest me. I had only a glancing familiarity with the rules of soccer half-remembered from pee-wee leagues back home, so following the ins and outs of why they stopped playing every few minutes was beyond me, anyway.
But Jean-Gaston quickly grew concerned. "You must cheer, CheeseburgerBrun," he whispered urgently. "Otherwise they will think you're from Nancy, and..." he trailed off, scanning the crowd warily. "We don't want any trouble."
"Yay!" I cried.
When the referee raised a flag against the home team the skinheads stood up and screamed, "Rape your mother!" a few times in a row. Jean-Gaston and Jean-Pierre didn't join in, so I felt safe in remaining silent also. "Eat shit cookies!" yelled the skinheads, which made the crowd chortle.
"Ha! Stupid referee!" chuckled Jean-Gaston.
A couple of times security guards charged into the crowd of skinheads when they exceeded themselves, like when someone started throwing empty liquor bottles down onto the field. You often couldn't see the security guards themselves, from our vantage point, but you could always discern their position by the rippling wave of agitation and violence that surrounded them. Then, attention would focus on the game as another kick was lined up. "Ass-s-s fuck 'em!" sang the skinhead choir.
"It's a close game. We should leave before the end, before the crowd gets unruly," Jean-Gaston said to Jean-Pierre and I when there were just a few minutes of play left. We cheered and waved for Paris as we sidled out along the bleacher, and disappeared into the concrete maze of stairwells and corridors.
We passed a man taking a piss in the corner, who waved in a friendly way.
While we were walking to the car we heard the stadium erupt into a round of deafening cheers, followed by the flash and pop of Roman candles from the skinheads. "We won!" beamed Jean-Gaston.
"Hurrah!" I said, just in case we were being observed.
During the drive home Jean-Gaston and Jean-Pierre bickered briefly in quick, slangy French. What could be so divisive about a road through a park, I wondered? Jean-Pierre seemed embarrassed, and rolled his eyes. "We're going to take a short-cut," he told me.
"Yes yes, indeed," whistled Jean-Gaston, chuckling to himself as he guided the careening Peugeot down a cobblestone alley and through a set of narrow gates. Suddenly, the city dropped away and we were surrounded by trees and gardened bush.
Quaint lamps lined the narrow road as it curved among the woods. "You like the park? These are the Woods of Boulogne."
My home city of Toronto was criss-crossed by parks more gorgeous and natural than this one, but I'm a fan of greenery of any sort so I wasn't being disingenuous when I said, "It's very nice."
Jean-Gaston chortled, and Jean-Pierre sighed. We rounded the next bend, which had no streetlamps, and Jean-Gaston slowed the Peugeot to a crawl. Our yellow French headlamps began picking out spectres in the darkness, briefly melting away the shadows at the sides of the road. The road was lined with people. "What are all these people..." I began and trailed off, gaping.
One of the people was wearing a trenchcoat, which she opened to show me her massive silicone breasts and, framed by a nest of red pubic hair, her semi-erect uncircumsised cock. She caught my eye as the car slid by, falling into shadow beside my window which she startled me by knocking on. "Jesus!" I said. "What was that?"
Jean-Pierre called them les putes-pedes (roughly "the homo-whores"). Jean-Gaston found the homo-whores hilarious, and was now guffawing openly as we lit up line after line of half-naked transsexuals, caught fleetingly in our yellow beams. In the darkness it seemed as if it was not us that were moving but they, twin parades of sexual vandalism feeding in stately rows from the blackness ahead to the blackness behind...
Around the next bend were authentic women, which Jean-Gaston found less hilarious. He rolled down his window, and invited us to do the same. "Lovely evening ladies, isn't it?" he called sweetly, letting the car drift along at a comfortable walking pace. A brunette in a transparent nightie walked alongside for a bit, chatting with him.
"Hello," said a voice by my ear. I turned to see a voluptuous but somewhat plastic-looking blonde leaning into my window, her breasts falling out of her immodest blue camisole. "Aren't you cute?" she said with cigarette breath.
"I'm an exchange student," I said stupidly.
"Where are you from?" asked the plastic hooker.
"Canada," I reported.
"Well, at least you speak French over there," she said cryptically, slowing down and letting us pull ahead of her. I looked at her out the back window and she flashed her snatch at me, crimson in the light of the Peugeot's brakes.
"Next weekend we'll have even more fun!" promised Jean-Gaston as we drove out the other side of the park, negotiating through the sparse traffic toward home.
"Yay!" I said, because it seemed that something was expected of me.
Virgins of Elysium
The next week a day was set aside by our Victor Hugo hosts for what they called independent walking tours as a break from class, so I arranged to hook up with Cheeks and Jappy. "We want to go to Printemps -- it's one of the oldest department stores in the world!" they told me giddily.
Unfortunately, the charming nineteenth-century architecture did little to enhance the dull experience of wandering around a store, regardless of its history. And, while it was entertaining to watch Cheeks' ass wobble playfully as she sauntered, it wasn't sufficient to keep me entertained for more than an hour or so. Luckily, almost everything at Printemps was out of the girls' price range so they too became bored. "Look, if we're just going to window-shop we might as well go where the real fancy stuff is," I suggested. "Let's hit the Champs Elysee."
The Champs Elysee is a broad, tree-lined boulevard that runs up to Napoleon's notably large Arc de Triomphe on Chaillot Hill, at the centre of a great star of radiating avenues. The shops along the boulevard are spectacular in their excess, featuring baubles of fashion, perfume and bling priced for morons. Also, a sight Jean-Pierre had enthusiastically encouraged me to visit: the Virgin Megastore emporium of music.
Jappy agreed to come, but Cheeks declined in favour of attaching herself to a different cadre of students. (Like a hard-nosed detective, I brilliantly figured out which one of the girls was interested in me.) We took the metro and talked about fripperies. She told me she liked the way the dark blue framed the grey in my eyes. I probably said her brown eyes were nice, too, but I honestly can't remember.
She had perfect little teeth. She told me her father was an orthodontist.
And so walked along the Champs Elysee holding hands, the blue sky criss-crossed by quick sliding clouds, the trees in spring bloom, the crowd unhurried and smiling. Myself, I had never in particular entertained romantic notions about holding hands with a pretty girl in springtime in Paris, but I was quick enough on the uptake to realize the specialness of the moment when it came along. I froze the moment in my mind, so that I have it now to share with you.
Under the Arc de Triomphe I kissed her, mad traffic swirling around us.
That's when we noticed how the Arc de Triomphe lined up perfectly with the Cour Carree mini-arch outside of the Louvre, just barely visible in the distance toward the centre of the city. It was Jappy that remarked on it first, and noted how the obelisk at Place de Concorde was a point on the joining line. We turned around and saw that both arches and the obelisk were also aligned precisely with the rigid lines of La Defense, a pocket of modernity in the north-west housing the financial district.
We were standing in the centre of a star under a giant arch that formed a part of a visual corridor miles long. "I guess Chaillot Hill is a magic place," I said.
"Maybe primitive people thought it was holy because of how far you could see. Maybe it's always been special," said Jappy.
"Man," I said profoundly. "Europe is so old."
We went to the Virgin Megastore, too, but I failed to see why Jean-Pierre had thought I would be very impressed. Though at that time the notion of Big Box Retail had barely begun to penetrate into Canada, I was familiar enough with the idea of North American scale. So it was a record store the size of a department store -- so what? Why, according to Jean-Pierre, were such monstrosities gross in my country, but a marvel when in France?
Jappy enjoyed the store, though, so I was still grateful for the tip. We listened to music at a little lecturn, which allowed us to press our faces together as we shared a set of headphones.
I bought a few CDs too, even though I didn't have a CD player. (My dad did, in his studio, so I figured I could listen to them in there.) When I got home Jean-Pierre was very interested to see what I had bought, so I showed him. I had picked up a Deutsche Grammophon digitally remastered version of the 1963 recording of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (the old analogue mix of which I had on cassette tape), and a double disc set of the complete score from the first Star Wars movie. "You waste your money on this?" Jean-Pierre asked disdainfully, holding the fat jewelcase at arm's length. "This is a very stupid movie."
"This isn't a movie, it's a soundtrack."
"It is the soundtrack to a stupid movie."
"When you're listening to the music, you can think up any movie you like."
Jean-Pierre shrugged. "It is simple garbage."
"It is certainly not simple garbage. John Williams composes rockin' music, score after score, that helps storytellers -- even clumsy ones -- suck the audience in."
"It is like cartoon music. Music for children. Bang bang boom!"
"It may be bombastic, but so is Beethoven."
"My point exactly," sniffed Jean-Pierre. "Typically German."
I grunted irritably, shoving the CDs away into my bag. "Alright, I'll be sure to remember that for future reference: John Williams is too German for French sensibilities."
"You North Americans have no culture whatsoever," Jean-Pierre told me imperiously, changing into his pajamas and sliding into the lower bunk. "You are fed pop garbage, and that is what you grow to like, like pigs eating slop."
"And you French -- well..." I yawned, and stretched. "Well, let us leave it at that." I climbed up to my bunk and settled in.
"Leave it at what?" snapped Jean-Pierre.
"You're just so damn French, that's all. Goodnight, Jean-Pierre."
He snorted. "What is that supposed to mean, 'so French'?"
His lullaby cello music played. I think was something by Bartok. It rained that night, so the Eiffel Tower was lost to my view. "Goodnight, Jean-Pierre," I said again.
Living the Michelin Guide
While waiting in line for the elevator to descend from the lower observation deck of the Eiffel Tower, Smokey realized that he'd lost his headphones. "I have to go back and find them!" he whined.
Slater shrugged, a cigarette dangling out his mouth. He was wearing his dark trenchcoat, despite the heat of the bright spring day. "They're just headphones, man."
"You don't understand -- they were Sony," cried Smokey. "Shit!" he added, pulling out of the queue and disappearing.
"What an idiot," commented Chunk, wiping the sweat off the back of his neck with the edge of his T-shirt. He paused, and frowned. "Where's my necklace?"
I looked to Jappy, who did a quick inventory of her sparklies, but found nothing amiss. Cheeks started to cry. "My hipsack is gone!" she blubbered. "And I kept everything in it."
I groaned inwardly. People are such retards.
Yes, and we climbed the steps at Sacre Coeur and wandered around Montmartre Cemetery to see the headstones of luminaries such as Hector Berlioz and Jim Morrison. Vendors swarmed on the cobblestone streets outside. Watercolourists sold repetitive washes of familiar scenes. I bought a French-style frankfurter from a street vendor; he cored a baguette with a special instrument, and inserted therein a thin, snappy-skinned weiner doused in Dijon mustard. Not bad.
Yes, and we tromped through the famous train-station cum gallery, the Musee d'Orsay, and the palace and gardens at Versailles and Notre Dame and the Pantheon and about a dozen other sites of great heritage or grandeur or opulence. We took a bus to the beach at Normandy and stared at war memorials. We drove to Vimy Ridge where so many Canadians had died. I took a thousand photographs I would never look at again, clumsy clones of postcards. Yvonne made me a packed lunch, which I enjoyed.
And in between we were expected to attend classes at the lycee. During these times I usually explored the city alone. One day I decided to go to Yvonne's wine-bar, to thank her for the delicious lunch.
The place was woody and intimate, relatively empty in the shady afternoon. She saw me before I saw her. "CheeseburgerBrun!" Yvonne called out. I hadn't recognised her amid the small cluster of staff chatting behind the bar: under the dim tavern lights she looked twenty years younger.
She announced her coffee break and joined me at a small table near the back, carrying two squat stemmed glasses of red wine. She lit the table's candle and then lit an unfiltered Gitane. "Aren't you supposed to be in school?" she asked.
"Maybe," I admitted. "But maybe I'm on a field-trip."
Yvonne smiled. "It wouldn't be right to waste your entire vacation inside of a classroom, anyhow."
"That's the way I see it," I said, sipping the delicious wine. "How are things going here?"
"Slow, but I don't mind because I'm too tired -- I'm kaput," she sighed, propping her head up with one elbow on the table, her free hand miming a flailing suicide from a height, hitting the table in time to "kaput." She shook her head and dragged on her cigarette, brightening and changing the subject in one quick flick. "How are you enjoying our Paris?"
"It's wonderful," I told her. What else could be said? Besideswhich, I was having a good time.
We chattered for a bit. She was easy to laugh and gave me long looks with her smokey eyes. I knew her affection for me was strictly maternal, but I couldn't help but fall in love with her just a little bit.
I watched her for a spell when her break was done. She smiled and twinkled at the customers, making banter and tossing her dirty blonde hair. She knew which vineyard and year went with which regular, and where they preferred to sit. Her black blouse was unbuttoned further than it was when she left from or arrived to the family apartment. The old men at the bar laughed, and Yvonne giggled in a low, breathy way.
I finished my wine and left, an image of Paris burned in my mind and smelling on my clothes.
Dwarves of the Country
When Jean-Gaston returned to his family on Friday night he announced we'd be spending Saturday night at his brother's house in the country. "It must be understood that Paris is not France," explained Jean-Gaston. "So we shall take you to experience the charms of the country!"
"Is your uncle nice?" I asked Jean-Pierre as I got ready for bed that night.
"No, he's an idiot," said Jean-Pierre from his cramped desk.
Jean-Pierre snapped off his study lamp and stood up, yawning. I was lying on the top bunk, cracking open my book. "What are you reading?" he asked. "It's Plato?"
"Yeah," I said, handing him the book. "The Republic."
He didn't take the book. He just stared down at it. "Yes, I've read it of course," he sniffed. "You like this book?"
"You find it interesting?"
He snorted. "With all due respect, I do not think you can possibly understand it."
I blinked. "Pardon?"
"You do not have enough intelligence to understand this book, I think."
I furrowed my brow, and shook my head. "How, may I ask, could that be construed as anything but disrespectful?" I asked slowly.
"It is simply my opinion."
I nodded. "Well, let me just say thank you very much for the privilege of hearing it, you tactless brat. You are a glorious testament to the truth at the core of stereotypes."
"What do you mean?" he snapped, pulling on his pajamas. "What stereotypes?"
"That the French are conceited and rude."
He chuckled. "I think you are just being defensive because you are stung by the truth of what I have said," he claimed, climbing into bed.
Then it was my turn to chuckle. "You entertain whatever notion floats your boat, Jean-Pierre," I said. "Goodnight."
"Do you know what your problem is?" he asked into the dark. "You have no sense of humour whatsoever."
We didn't talk much on the drive out of the city the next day. Jean-Marc read comic books and listened to his own music through earphones. Jean-Pierre stared out the window between the front seats, sighing or groaning occasionally at something his parents said. I watched Paris slide away as the sun set, the roads becoming rivers of yellow and red, punctuated intermittently by blue. I don't even know if we went west or north or east or south but it was a few hours later and totally dark by the time we stopped. "I'm sorry we're late!" Jean-Gaston called as we piled out.
Inside the country cottage I was introduced to Jean-Gaston's brother, Jean-Guillaume, and his wife Jeanne. "A pleasure to meet you," I said. Yvonne asked after their son, Jean-Antoine, who was away at school.
We weren't long into the wine before we were ushered to table to consume a sumptuous meal that underscored the excellent and deserved reputation French cuisine enjoys -- exotic crepes, carrot soup, escargots, chicken cordon bleu and beefsteak, chocolate mousse and banana flambee...
I belched, embarrassing myself, but the company laughed. More wine was uncorked and poured as we lounged around the table, full and fat and lazy. Jean-Guillaume and Jeanne were asking me question after question, seemingly fascinated with my impressions of France and my descriptions of life back in Canada. Jean-Pierre tried to interrupt with his own observations about Canada, but he was largely ignored at the boisterous table, which I saw ruffled his feathers. He was sullen and quiet for a long time while we all drank more wine and began to laugh louder. Even Jean-Marc showed signs of life.
"Do you find it easy to find your thoughts in French?" asked Jeanne, pouring wine for everyone. "Myself, I have never learned another language -- I find it impossible!"
"French is fundamentally a much more expressive language than is English," Jean-Pierre opined. "For each thing that can be said in English only a single way, there are multiple ways of expressing it in French."
"Do you agree with this, CheeseburgerBrun?" asked Yvonne.
"With all due respect to Jean-Pierre's observations, I do not," I said. "I think that this is an illusion caused by familiarity with one's mother tongue, nothing more. From my point of view it seems French is less nimble than English."
"But that is simply false," countered Jean-Pierre. "French is the most expressive language in the world. It is infinitely more subtle than English."
"It may indeed seem that way," I repeated, "but the facts don't bear you out. To compare the languages, English has a far wider and richer lexicon than French does, including the famous triple vocabulary of core verbs with roots in Latin, Greek and Gothic. There are simply more words, and more kinds of words in English, with more of what linguists call 'word-building capacity' for continued growth and flexibility." I sipped my wine. "French is a beautiful language, and I have no doubt that there is no sentiment that an English poet could express that a French one could not. But, if we're to get into a pissing contest about it, my language is bigger than yours."
Everyone laughed, except Jean-Pierre who scowled and insisted on remaining serious. "I do not think you are qualified to pass this judgement, because you are not a true speaker of proper French."
"I admit," admitted Jean-Guillaume, "I cannot always understand your French, CheeseburgerBrun. Some of your expressions are from Quebec, no?"
I nodded. "I'm contending with the combined influences of School French, Prairie French and just plain ignorance. I'm sorry to mangle your tongue."
"I think you speak very well," said Yvonne, charitably.
"That's nice of you to say, even if you're just being polite. Still, all of you must admit that my French has improved since I've been here, hasn't it?"
This was, in truth, a rhetorical question. Even the worst of the Hog Mills students had improved markedly in their French skills by being immersed in the language and culture. But the French did not agree that I had improved at all: Jean-Marc, Jean-Pierre and Jean-Gaston all answered "No!" simultaneously and then burst out laughing.
I admit I felt a little chagrined at their lack of encouragement.
With a patronizing smile and a weary shake of his head Jean-Pierre touched my shoulder. "No matter what you are saying, CheeseburgerBrun, it is still always clear that you are not a French speaker. No matter what you are saying, you always have an accent."
"Are you serious? Is that your benchmark? Having a discernable accent?" Jean-Pierre nodded. I continued: "Are you under the impression that you speak English without an accent, Jean-Pierre?"
He blinked. "Well, of course. I do very well in English."
Now it was my turn to laugh. It was not a mocking laugh, or a derisive one -- it was a relief to realize the moronic point of view from which the French saw second language acquisition. And the idea that Jean-Pierre spoke without an accent...that was just too rich! "Are you kidding me?" I asked, wiping a tear from my eye.
Jean-Pierre looked distressed. "You think I speak with an accent?" he asked, furrowing his brow. "You think English people know that I am French?"
I laughed even harder, holding my cramping side. "Jean-Pierre, you sound like the fake-European guy from the hairspray commercials! You sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger before the voice coaching!"
"Why...why have you never told me this before?" he asked quietly.
I calmed down, giving his shoulder a squeeze. "Don't look so tragic! I never mentioned it before because you are doing very well with your English. You certainly do speak English better than I speak French, no doubt about it. The thing is, in English -- especially in mixed populations like Canada -- there is no shame in speaking with an accent. I didn't criticise your accent because speaking with an accent is normal. You're fucking French, man. How could you avoid it?"
"So...I do not pronounce the words correctly?" he asked, again in his quiet, hurt voice.
"Listen," I said, "you know what a nain is, right?"
"Like a midget?" put in Jean-Marc, speaking for the first time. There was a spark in his brown eyes for once, and I began to suspect that he was relishing the opportunity to take his older brother down a peg.
"Close enough. In English, we call a nain a 'dwarf'." I paused for a moment to let the word sink in. "Now, let's all try it together: dwarf."
The company looked at one another. Bravely, Yvonne made the first attempt: "Doff?"
"Dwarf," I repeated patiently.
"Drouff," essayed Jean-Marc.
"Dwarf," I said again.
"Traah-rf," drawled Jean-Gaston with a look of concentration his face.
I smiled. I had just discovered the best game that can be had with six tipsy French while keeping your clothes on. As I watched they all squinted and worked their mouths and spat out one bungled, mangled, hilarious attempt after another until the room sounded like a chorus of bullfrogs with speech impediments. "Dwarf," I repeated.
"Twaawrve!" tried Jean-Guillaume.
"Drawff," his wife chimed in.
"Close!" I said, nodding encouragingly. "Dwarf."
Jean-Pierre sighed imperiously. "It is not even a very difficult word," he said, leaning back from the table and shaking his head. "Tworf," he pronounced with confidence.
I chuckled appreciatively. "That was a very good effort, Jean-Pierre!" I grinned. "Never the less, I regret to inform you that I can still detect your French accent. The word is: dwarf."
"That's exactly what I said," maintained Jean-Pierre sullenly.
But conversation turned to other things -- shoes and ships and sealing wax, cabbages and kings; why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings. They discussed the immigration problem (especially the "dirty Moroccans") and the question of the European Union (the general opinion of which was negative, on account of how such a body would doubtlessly impinge upon French sovereignty). Jean-Guillaume told me a long and meandering joke about Jesus Christ healing the handicapped until he comes upon a Belgian -- at which point the Saviour shrugs and says, "I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do for you." Jean-Gaston almost pissed himself he was laughing so hard. "Ha! Fucking Belgians!" he cried between guffaws.
I had a great time. My sides hurt from laughing. We sipped dessert liqueur at sunrise.
The Last Hurrah
Yes, and before we were to go home a party for all of the students was arranged, a mirror of the party in Toronto I hadn't been invited to. As reportedly happened before, the first part of the evening took place in a bowling alley, surrounded by smiling faculty drinking non-alcoholic punch. Later, the student body was to reconvene at the apartment of a friend of Jean-Pierre's named Josephine, who had curly blonde hair and a little white dog she was cruel to.
Jean-Pierre and I arrived among the first, part of an early sortie charged with helping to prepare the apartment before everyone else followed. Josephine flaunted around in a tiny silk bathrobe, her cleavage flashing tantalisingly as she rushed around telling people what to do, her hair still wet from the shower. She was in a bit of a tizzy. When she stumbled over her little poodle she cursed a blue streak and kicked the poor thing viciously aside, her robe falling open and presenting to those assembled an unfettered glimpse at her small breasts, high navel and neat auburn bush.
Ridiculously large speakers were wheeled in and hooked up, blaring My Definition into the night. People arrived in groups of four, six or eight and began drinking without hesitation. The French boys challenged one another to chugging contests, wherein they would stand beside one another on the balcony, stab the bottom of their Heineken beer cans with a knife, and then guzzle without interruption until somebody's can was dry.
"Ah, Jappy my dear, I was wondering when you'd come," I said suavely, my tongue loosened by the efforts of German brewmeisters. "Let me get you a drink."
We stood on the balcony and chatted while people stabbed beer cans around us, the froth and foamy spittle running down onto the sidewalk below, much to the annoyance of the passersby. "Hey!" they shouted. The drinkers laughed.
Jappy was wearing a plunging white V-neck sweater that showcased her demure breastbone and moderate but well-shaped bosom. She wore a fine necklace bearing a golden pentacle, and I asked about it. "Oh, that's just my Star of David," she said.
"Who's David?" I asked.
She laughed as if I were making a joke, but then noted my confusion and explained, "It's a Jewish thing. Haven't you ever known any Jews before?"
I shrugged. "My friend K. is Jewish, but I don't think he wears much in the way of jewellery. I think some kids at my new school might be Jewish, but I'm not really sure. How are you supposed to be able to tell?"
"Wow," she whistled. "Everyone I know is a Jew."
I shrugged and smiled. "Except me."
"Right," she said, and then again more thoughtfully, "...Right."
"What is it?" I asked.
"I don't think my dad's going to like you," said Jappy sadly.
"What? Because of my religion?" I joked, raising my brow.
"Right," she confirmed seriously.
I wasn't quite sure what to say. Didn't I live in Canada? Didn't I live in place that frowned on such prejudice? Was she not even ashamed of her father's bigotry?
"It's because of the Holocaust," she said by way of explanation, but I didn't feel that this shed much light on the matter.
"The Holocaust? You mean like in World War II?" I was genuinely confused.
"Of course," she replied, a bit sharply. "What other Holocaust is there?"
"History is full of holocausts," I said distantly, chewing my lip.
"Not for Jews," she said; "when we say 'The Holocaust' there's only one we're ever talking about."
"Oh." I paused. "Um. So what does the Holocaust have to do with dating?"
"I'm going to the washroom," she announced suddenly, leaving the balcony without another word. I went to follow her, but I was blocked by a geyser of beer as somebody stabbed a can that had been dropped. When the fountain died I slipped inside, but Jappy was not in the long queue for the loo.
In my meandering search for her I came across a small group including Smokey, Chunk and Slater sitting in a corner smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. Slater was "hiding" because, in a mismanaged and complicated effort to shave and yet somehow maintain his stubble, he had ended up patchily shorn and uniformly rashed, the skin of his beard pink and spotchy. "Shit," said Smokey sympathetically. "That looks like it hurts."
"Naw," drawled Slater; "it doesn't hurt so much as suck." He raised his brow and spread his arms haplessly. "Ain't I beautiful, ladies?"
I was introduced to their respective exchange students, a husky gentleman of Chinese extraction who was really into something called House music (paired with Smokey), a slouching and forgettable nerd (belonging to Chunk), and a giggling, curly-haired brunette with startling green eyes (through some sort of inexplicable "clerical error" partnered with a boy, Slater). "You don't look bat at all, Slah-ter," lied Curly Suzette encouragingly.
We had a few drinks together before I resumed my search for Jappy, though by now I was a bit unsteady in my walk. I ran into Jean-Pierre's bitchy and flashy friend Josephine, who was frantically looking for her little white dog. She held on to my shoulders and begged for any sign, her cow eyes wide and glistening with tears. "I cannot find her anywhere! Oh my God, I'm a monster!" she said, moving on in a dramatic and drunken surge before I'd had a chance to answer her.
I was blind-sided by Cheeks in the salon. "CheeseburgerBrown, you asshole!"
That being one of the epithets to which I respond, I turned around as she charged me. She gripped me by the shoulders the same way Josephine had a moment before. "Jappy is outside in the hall crying because of you!"
"In the hall, eh?" I said, starting to pull away -- but Cheeks yanked me back.
"How could you have been so insensitive?"
"I didn't mean to be insensitive about anything," I told her quickly. "I was just asking about things I don't know about. Anything stupid I've said is purely by mistake." I scratched my head. "Uh, on account of being stupid."
I was trying to be cute, but Cheeks didn't smile. Instead she surprised me by pulling me in closer and trying to kiss me. "Kiss me," she said breathily, just in case the situation was unclear. Then she pressed her face into mine again.
I stepped back, pushing her arms away from mine. "What the fuck was that?" I wanted to know.
"It was a test," Cheeks told me seriously. "I wanted to know if you were good enough to be with my best friend."
"Are you insane?" I asked her.
Things were mercifully more straight forward with Jappy, who was loitering by a fire exit and trying to look cheerful when she saw me emerge from the apartment. "I'm sorry," she said, hugging me. "I just ran away because I was upset."
"That's okay. You don't have to be sorry."
She explained that she was only allowed to date Jewish boys, so we wouldn't be able to see each other when we got back home. That didn't really break up me inside or anything, but I tried to look sheepish. Maybe I said, "It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all," but I hope I didn't, because that would've been really cheesy. At any rate, we ended up necking.
"We'll always have les Bateaux Mouches on the Senne," she said softly, leaning against me leaning against the fire-door. Girls can be that cheesy and get away with it. It's different.
"That was a great day," I agreed, smelling her hair. "I'll always remember."
That's how Jean-Pierre found me, bursting out the apartment and snorting. "I've been looking all over for you. It's time to go -- we have to get up early tomorrow," he said brusquely. "Hurry up."
"It's my last night in Paris. This is supposed to be a city of romance. What the fuck is your problem?"
"It's time to go."
"I'll take the metro. Go without me."
"You'll lose yourself," he sneered.
The apartment door opened again and Josephine appeared, teeth bared in anger. She let fly a terrible barrage of aggressive profanity, her fists balled at her sides, her chest heaving. "Get out of here, Jean-Pierre!" she commanded. "I hate you!"
The door slammed again. Jappy and I looked quietly at Jean-Pierre, who remained stoic. "What happened?" asked Jappy.
Jean-Pierre snapped his head around to stare at her. "It is nothing. She'll get over it. She is always like this when she is drunk."
"She's upset over nothing?" I asked.
He coughed, and looked down at his shoes for a moment. "No. She is angry because I told her I had mistaken her missing dog for a slipper, and that I had put my foot up her ass and she had died."
A still moment.
I cracked up. Jean-Pierre cracked up too. By power of infection, Jappy found herself giggling as well. "Jean-Pierre, I think I finally get your sense of humour," I said, trying to catch my breath.
"That is unlikely, because you are too stupid," Jean-Pierre assured me earnestly, and then we both cracked up again.
I shook my head, still laughing as I kissed Jappy goodbye. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"I don't get it!" she whispered to me.
"Well, it lacks the zing of British comedy but I'll admit there are charms to French sarcasm and derision," I said, kissing her again. "Til tomorrow!"
On the way home in a bouncing taxi Jean-Pierre admitted that I wasn't "too bad for a Canadian." It was moment a great sentimentality, and I knew I had to reciprocate somehow.
So I said, "I like you despite your being so French."
"All is balanced in the huniverse, then," he said in English, and then burped and fell asleep against the window.
Yvonne was crying the next morning as she packed a snack for me to take aboard my flight. But she started laughing when she saw my tongue, which had been stained black because I'd chugged directly from the bottle of Pepto-Bismol before going to bed in order to quiet my guts. "You look like a daemon!" she giggled.
"Drink will do that to a boy," I said.
Jean-Marc shook my hand distractedly before we left, and then Jean-Gaston, Jean-Pierre and Yvonne drove with me down to Victor Hugo. The day was overcast but bright, in a shadowless, diffuse way -- there had been a morning rain, so everything was reflective and sparkling. When we piled out of the Peugeot Jean-Gaston pressed a paper bag into my hands, containing two bottles of fine Bordeaux wine. "To share with your family," he said, eyes down. He shook my hand quickly and then retook his position in the car.
"He does not like good-byes," explained Yvonne, her eyes welling up again. She handed me the lunchbag and then hugged me. She kissed me once on either cheek and made me promise that I would call them when I was next in France. Then she hid behind a lock of her dirty blonde hair.
"I promise," I said. And I would.
"Dreerf!" she called as she got into the car.
Jean-Pierre shook my hand firmly. "You are an huncultured swine," he said, grinning.
"And you are a snotty prick," I said for my part, smiling as well. I hoisted my bag on my shoulder and started walking toward the crowd of Hog Mills students feeding onto the bus.
"What is this, the prick?" asked Jean-Pierre.
I turned around and pointed to my wang as I walked away backwards, and Jean-Pierre laughed.
At the bus I stowed my luggage in the hold and then lined up be counted and boarded. "Oh, that's sweet -- you're wearing sunglasses so that no one can see you cry!" said one of the Hog Mills teachers as she took my name.
"Uh, yeah. Sure," I said. Sentimental idiot!
I sat next to Jappy as the city slid away. We held hands. Cheeks, nursing a mean hangover, was stationed near the washroom at the rear looking a little bit green. She had to hold on to Jappy dramatically as we checked our bags and shuffled through airport security. By the time we were boarded on the jet she had pressed Jappy into full-time service as her nurse by way of whining and simpering about how dreadful she felt. "I'm all stuffed up...I think I'm getting a cold, too," she moaned, eliciting syrupy looks and noises of sympathy from Jappy.
As we taxied away from the terminal I saw a baggage attendant taking a piss into a small drain on the tarmac. "Good-bye, France," I said.
Since Jappy was sitting with Cheeks I found myself sitting with Smokey again. "I really want a smoke already," he confessed to me shortly after we'd taken off, drumming his hands on the arm of his chair.
"Hang in there, champ," I said.
Somewhere over Quebec we became embroiled in a vicious pocket of foul weather. The plane bucked and lurched, quivering in the wind as the screech of the engines ebbed and rose as the pilot fought to keep us on course. "Due to the poor conditions we will have to make a very rapid descent into Toronto," said the co-pilot over the intercom. "We may experience some very heavy turbulence, and for this we'd like to apologize."
"Shit!" said Smokey, looking concerned.
"How bad could it be?" I said, shrugging.
In an effort to provide an action-packed climax to my trip, the storm became an angry monster, snapping and biting after our poor jetplane as it veered to skirt the most lightning-laden clouds to find a clear path to the ground. People trying to go to the washroom were thrown off their feet, tumbling into the aisles or across someone's lap. Our chairs shook as the plane banked savagely. The overhead compartments burst open first on one side and then the other, raining carryon baggage onto our heads.
"Okay folks," announced the co-pilot; "we're about to begin our descent."
Descent? It was a dive. The plane pitched violently forward and we plunged into the clouds in a tight corkscrew, the screech of the engines filling the cabin. Somebody started yelling, "My ear! My ear!" and then screaming. It was Cheeks, and the stewardesses rushed to her side. A trickle of blood had run down from her left ear and her face was scrunched up in a pinion of misery.
Everyone's ears were popping painfully as we rapidly lost altitude, but Cheeks' left eardrum had actually ruptured, due in part to her congested airways. Jappy hugged her as she squirmed and groaned.
Because we had lifted off from French soil the plane enjoyed French law until it touched down again in Canada, so many of the underage students had spent the flight drinking. So, naturally enough, the next phase of the flight was the vomiting. The sound of it was all around us. I tried to concentrate on the view outside of the window: a dark, wooly greyness illuminated in streaky, speeding bands by our landing lights or the flash of lightning.
"Shit!" said Smokey, gripping the arms of his chair. "Shit, shit, shit!"
And then we were down, and the plane was quiet. We were a fairly miserable bunch as we trudged down the gangway. "I want to smoke, but I think it'll make me throw up," said Smokey wearily. He expressed his sympathies for Slater, who had chundered all over his cool trenchcoat. Chunk was pale and sweaty, and very quiet. "We all just almost died," he whispered, which I thought was a little melodramatic. (It was just a really bumpy ride -- it's not like there was anything wrong with the plane.)
Medical nightengales from the airport tended to Cheeks while Jappy stood by her side. Thus, we could not say good-bye properly, but she gave me a long look from across the terminal and we waved sadly at one another.
Later, our bus drove through the torrential rain to Hog Mills Secondary where a cavalcade of parents huddled in their parked cars, listening to the weather reports and worrying. Because my siblings and I were calendrically slated to live at my father's house that week, it was my dad and my step-mother that picked me up in their big, potato-shaped minivan. They waited for me to find them, because they didn't want to get wet.
Once home I uncorked one of the bottles of wine Jean-Gaston had given me and we three enjoyed it together. It was one of those wines that was so wonderful that even people who didn't know jack shit about wine could appreciate without pretending.
I told them this story, the one I've just told you. I sat on the kitchen counter and explained the whole yarn, from pipes to chimneys (that's where we are now). Normally my step-mother wouldn't let me sit on the counter, but rules are pliable when absence and a smooth Bordeaux are figured in. My dad, who had never in his life travelled beyond North America, was tipsily taken with the idea that I had been somehow (from his point of view) transformed into a much more sophisticated, cosmopolitan human being overnight simply by visiting France. Suddenly, the fact that I had been able to speak French all these years made some sense.
I had seen things he had never seen, and because I was his son he transmuted his envy to pride.
As Paris is not France, Jean-Pierre is not the French. He was just one particular French boy, at one particular stage of teenagehood. It should be understood that his father Jean-Gaston was not everyman, either. They're not symbols, they're just people.
And I would see them all again, when I joined my friend the Black Serb on his quest to be reunited with his long estranged father, a taxicab driver living in Paris. But that is another story and shall be told another time.
I even saw Jappy again. When her date to attend a friend's fancy-ass Sweet Sixteen gala party fell through she called me up and asked me to fill in. My dad bought me a suit. It was my first suit. The party was held at a local hotel. It was a massive, ridiculously opulent affair where people were snotty to me on account of my ethnicity. It was a novel experience in many ways, that night was.
And now it seems like it was a million years ago. France seems as unreal to me as EuroDisneyland. I've forgotten more than I remember, and much of what I do remember is highly suspect. I mix my two trips together, and end up wondering whether at such-and-such a notable locale I was holding Jappy's hand or joking around with the Black Serb. It blurs, it congeals, it sets in strange shapes...
One thing I am sure of is this, however: French people can't pronounce the word dwarf to save their bloody lives. You never know when something like that may come in handy, so remember it well.
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||IF YOU HAVE ENJOYED READING THIS STORY, PLEASE CONSIDER LEAVING A SMALL TIP. A PAYPAL ACCOUNT IS NOT REQUIRED. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. YOURS TRULY, C. BROWN.