Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Why it almost makes me believe in fate

It was a Saturday night four and a half months ago, and I was on a date with a handsome, bearded, and self-proclaimed "mean" photographer, who, in a turn of events surprising only to true naïfs (and your faithful author), would reveal himself to be one of the bigger assholes I've ever bedded. But I didn't know that yet. We were post-movie, pre-bed, halfway between a movie about two lovers and its flimsy reenactment. At this precise moment, we were in the middle of the road, caught in the center of an intersection, about to dash across before the light changed. Everything hung in the balance. I took a deep breath, my foot left the curb, and I braced for the cold air in my face, that quick rush of energy you get when you cross streets in Paris, passing inches away from the steel bodies of cars hungry to eat up the pavement where you were just standing. From the opposite side of the road another couple also took a deep breath, and similarly threw themselves into the road during the last few seconds of flashing, red-handed safety, making a break for the other side. We met in the middle, each dashing in opposite directions, each of us singularly purposeful in our intentions. The intention was not to stop. The goal was to reach the other side and whatever that entailed. But I stopped.

"Hey!" I called out. "Hey!"

His face was completely out of context here in Paris; I was used to seeing him in the linoleum-tiled salle des profs in the rural village where we both taught, over an hour away. But I recognized him all the same. My head spun with the pure chance of it all. What were the odds that I would run into someone from my school here, in Paris, in this exact neighborhood and in the center of this exact street? And that out of all the teachers there, I would run into the one teacher who made my heart skip a beat whenever he walked into the room? Not that I was entirely convinced by the overly dramatic flip-floppings of my heart at this point, mind you; in fact, I wasn't even sure he was my type. But the heart is a stubborn organ. Unlike the lungs, whose ballooning can be paused for whole minutes at a time, or the eyes, which can be forced open until they sting and fill with tears, you just try to tell your heart what to do. Not only that, but it seemed my heart had enlisted the support of my stomach, lungs, and throat in a desperate coup, all of which were reacting in out-and-out panic mode.

All the same, I managed to choke out a strangled hey as he went by, and it was then that I realized I didn't even know his name. "Hey!" I said again.

He turned. "Oh!" he said brightly, recognizing me and skidding to a stop in the middle of the street. "Hi!" Introductions were made all around, or at least as much as is possible when no one knows anybody's name.

"This is...a colleague," I said to my date, who smiled uncomfortably. He hadn't seen this coming. Five seconds earlier he had been on his way back to his apartment with single-minded purpose, and now he was trapped on a too-small strip of concrete in the middle of a busy street in a sudden tête-à-tête with three people he had no intention of ever seeing again. His discomfort was palpable. I, however, was delighted.

"So are you a teacher too?" my still unnamed colleague asked him.

"Er, no..." he replied. "I'm a photographer." I beamed. This couldn't have worked out more perfectly if I had planned it. I tallied up points in my head: Seen out on a Saturday night in Paris - check. With a man - check. Who happens to be a photographer - check check exclamation point. If this didn't ratchet up my level of intrigue vis-à-vis the still unnamed colleague, I didn't know what would.

"That's so funny!" my unnamed colleague exclaimed. "I was just talking about [the rural village where we work]," he said, turning to his date for confirmation. She nodded. "I was just saying how beautiful it is there, don't you think?"

"Oh, erm, yes," I affirmed noncommittally. Apparently one person's remote, desolate hellhole is another person's charming, rural hamlet. Whatever. To each his own.

At this point the still unnamed colleague turned to my date and began describing in great detail each of this town's apparently many charms, and I felt the situation start to slip away from me. All I had wanted was a quick I see you and you see me, so hello, goodbye, and see you on Tuesday, and now, suddenly, lengthy explanations were being entered into. I looked for a break in the conversation to make our exit, but the light had changed again, traffic rushing by on both sides of us, and we would have been stranded awkwardly in the intersection until it turned. And so I waited for the green walking man to illuminate again, but when it did the unnamed colleague was still talking, with no break at all in the conversation. I was reminded of the first time I had really taken notice of him at school. He had been walking through the faculty room, obviously on his way out the door, when someone casually said something like, "So what is this whole banking crisis about, anyway?" Though the question hadn't been posed to him, he stopped, turned on a dime and said, "Well, actually..." And for a solid five minutes he proceeded to list each and every factor leading up to the current state of the world's banks, explaining in clear, concise detail the causes and effects of subprime mortgages, securitization practices, and bank failures. Five solid minutes later, during which time he had never paused or slowed down once, he said, "And that's why we have a banking crisis." Then he turned on his heel and continued on his way as if nothing at all had happened, leaving half a dozen people staring open-mouthed behind him. Who is this fascinating, strange little man? I found myself thinking.

And now he was at it again, not paying the least attention to me, I noted, but continuing to engage in friendly, one-sided chatter with my date, whose eyes he didn't seem to notice had long glazed over. I myself had lost track of the conversation several minutes earlier, and so I had no idea whether he was still touting the rural beauty of the town where we worked, or if he had moved on to other topics of potential interest. I kept watching the walk signal, on the alert for any break in conversation to make our exit when the green man was illuminated, and slumping into resignation every time it turned back to the red hand. As the light cycled through yet another round of traffic, I caught the eye of his companion standing silently by, and we looked at each other and shrugged. Finally, though, he paused for breath, and I took the opportunity to make an escape. We said goodbye and goodnight and continued on in opposite directions, as if nothing at all had happened.

By Tuesday it was looking less and less likely that I would ever hear from the handsome, bearded photographer again, but on the other hand I decided it was almost a worthwhile trade, since in a way it was because of him that I now had an excuse to talk to the oddly intriguing teacher I'd had my eye on. I waited anxiously for the afternoon, and practiced my opening line: It was so funny running into you in Paris the other night! The minutes ticked by slowly, and finally it was 2:00. Like clockwork he entered the salle des profs and smiled at me. He was friendly as usual, but there was no hint of recognition, no indication of our having shared a moment in the middle of a busy Parisian street together only three days prior. He sat down and got to work, buried in textbooks and lesson planning, while I went back to my book, and sighed. For an hour we were the only two people in the room, and we didn't say a word. This wasn't going at all according to plan. Finally, an interminable hour later, he looked up from his book, stretched his arms in the air and let out a stifled yawn. I saw my chance, and jumped on it.

"Tired?" I asked, a bit too eagerly.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "I have so much work to do lately..."

"I know what you mean," I said, though really, my own workload as an English assistant gave me no cause to complain.

"Hey, it was really funny running into you in Paris the other night," he said, as if it had just occurred to him.

I smiled. "I know! I was so surprised to see you there."

"Well I live in the neighborhood," he said. "And you?"

"Oh no, I live in the suburbs."

"You know," he said, a little embarassed, "I don't even know your name."

I smiled again, realizing he was beating me to all of my carefully rehearsed lines. "It's Rachel," I said.

"I'm Hervé," he said, and I laughed a little, because I would never have guessed that in a million years. Hervé! And to think, in my head I had been calling him David all this time.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Four months of Tuesday afternoons, and several excruciating weeks of will-he-won't-he later, and he is at my birthday dinner, and he is meeting my sister, who instantly pronounces him "adorable." "I love him!" she exclaims. And she is not an exclaimer.

"You can't love him!" I protest.

"Ok, well I like him," she says. "And how many times have I said that about someone you've dated?"

"Never," I say.

"Exactly," she says.

I am not convinced by my sister's predictions of living adorably ever after. I am dubious, hesitant. In fact, I am not sure of anything at all anymore. But then, it's hard to picture my future when everything past June is shrouded in a vague, uncertain fog. Try to factor someone else into my nonexistent plans for the future and my brain gets a short circuit. There are just too many variables in play. All the same, he did present me with the most thoughtfully chosen books for my birthday, each marked with a sweetly appropriate inscription. And he does gaze at me adoringly, and hold my hand, and send me regular text messages when we're apart telling me how he can't wait to see me again, to hold me in his arms and kiss me.

I think back to four and a half months ago, tip-toeing out of a photographer's apartment in the early morning light, pushing on pull doors and standing dazed in the courtyard of his building, looking frantically for the exit, and feeling completely alone. And then I think of the man who makes coffee for me in the morning and has never once let me walk to the metro by myself. The man who, when I can't sleep, responds to my late-night requests for a story with whispered tales of Greek mythology, La Fontaine's fables, and entire Baudelaire poems recited from memory. The man who can skew my sense of time so completely that I can spend an unprecedented 17 hours in bed with him and think nothing of it. And all because four and a half months ago, I was walking west, and he was walking east. And I don't know what the future will bring, or where it will take me, but I am glad that for the moment, at least, we can walk a little while together.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Why it's the day after my birthday and I'll blog if I want to

My sister has been here for the last three days, and we've mostly been eating, sleeping, and posing with chess pieces on our heads in front of famous Parisian landmarks.


It's not actually as easy as it looks.


I won't go into the whole explanation, but you can bet that where there is a pawn, there is a small, Marseillais man named Fred involved.

Otherwise we've been perfecting the art of appearing either insouc
iant or concerned, as the case may warrant.

Insouciant:

Becca recreating an H&M subway ad and managing to capture that evocative feeling of gleeful constipation.

Concerned:

It's the button on top, you have to push the...How many times do I have to tell you? The button on top!!!

Insouciant:
Thinks she's so cute.

Concerned:
Seriously, again? It's the button on top! On top!!!

I'm going to kill you if you don't take the damn picture! I will sell you to the Senegalese string braiders! Don't think I won't!

Insouciant:

Becca thinks if she can convince the Senegalese string braiders that she is borderline insane, they will leave us alone. It doesn't work. We barely escape with our lives. Ok, just kidding. But they are tenacious little buggers.

Tonight is my birthday dinner in Paris where Hervé meets my roommates and my sister meets Hervé, who doesn't speak English, and Fred, who does. Worlds collide. To be continued...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why I want to give the world a great big bunny hug

Yesterday I woke up at 3:30 in the morning in a Holiday Inn Express just outside of Milan, got on a bus in a bone-chillingly cold drizzle, and went to the airport. Nine hours later I was finally lugging my 21 kg monster suitcase up the front steps of my house, and basking in the nearly 70 degrees and sun shining on the suburbs of Paris. It has never felt so good to be home.

The trip was a success, and my group was the most well-mannered and laid-back bunch of kids you've ever seen, except when it came to punctuality, when they turned into time-keeping machines. They were so punctual it was embarrassing. I was always the last one. Before this trip I hadn't really thought too much about the Canadians as a people, but now I can say that, as a race, I find them utterly charming. And the funny words they use! They eat supper and use the washrooms! Instead of knit hats and hoodies they wear toques and bunny hugs! Bunny hugs, people! Any civilization that can coin a term as adorable as bunny hug, and then proceed to use it in everyday conversation and with a completely straight face is ok by me. (Although according to this article it appears it is only a Saskatchewan term).

The trip itself was pretty much a whirlwind of travel and sight-seeing, and in only ten short days we managed to see: Paris, Biarritz, St. Jean de Luz, Lourdes, Carcassonne, the Pont du Gard, les Baux de Provence, Nîmes, Eze and the Fragonard, Avignon, Arles, Nice, Monaco, Genoa, Lido di Camiaore, Cinque Terre, and Milan. We dipped our toes
in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, we saw mountains and olive trees and miles upon miles of vineyards. I led them though the crowded streets of Paris, clipboard held high in the air, and through the crazy bustle of the metro at rush hour, and then felt completely out of my element once we reached the relative calm of the countryside. Being from rural areas themselves, I think they all breathed a collective sigh of relief once we left Paris, but I tend to get twitchy and nervous when I'm cut off from public transportation and wireless internet. Which is why I am oh so very glad to be home again, with my envelope of tip money and a suitcase full of dirty clothes.

It is spring here in Paris now, officially and earnestly spring. I left it for a week and a half and everything changed. I took this picture from my bedroom window before I left:

And I took this one just now:

And granted, one was taken at sunset and one was taken at noon, but still, oh what a difference a couple of weeks can make. Oh, and in case you were wondering, I'm still at Casa di Patrice, Fred, and Rachel. I haven't moved! I figured, I have until the end of the month here, so why compound the stress of a long trip with the stress of moving? So in short, I'm home again, I have an envelope full of enough money to pay my rent for the next two or three months, it's spring in Paris, my sister is coming to visit me in a few days, and I'm going to see Hervé tonight. And far be it from a glass-half-empty person like myself to say, but at the moment, at least, life is good.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why you won't believe me but it's true

Little boxes on the hillside
Les Baux de Provence, France

I swear this is not a painting or a scale model of any kind; I actually took this picture with my camera and my own two hands.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Why I'm a sucker for free travel

Don't be alarmed if you don't hear much from me for the next couple weeks, Internet. It's not that I've tumbled into the Seine or fallen victim to a croissant-induced coma, it's just that starting on Friday, the next ten days of my life look like this:

Mmm, triangular

Once again I will be playing the role of fearless leader to a group of 19 high school students on an Official French (and also a little Italian) Tour. You may remember that I did something similar last summer, and considering how it all went down, you may perhaps be wondering, am I in fact crazy? Trust me, I'm wondering the same thing. However, there is a key difference this time around, and that difference is chaperones. Seven of them, to be exact, ranging in age from 34 to (a hopefully spritely) 78. This time the students can sneak out and smoke, drink, and have all the pre-marital sex they want, and I am responsible for exactly none of it. Although, the group will be made up of students and teachers from two very different high schools, and I've already received a special request from a teacher from one school indicating that the students were interested in going to a "discothèque" one night. This was followed by an e-mail from a teacher from the other school asking if there would be time in the schedule for the students to attend mass, or at least to visit a church for a little silent prayer time. I'm kind of interested to see how this all goes down. Ten to one the Catholic kids are the hardest partiers of them all.

I'll try to at least post some pictures along the way, but for now I leave you with gros bisous, Internet. Pray for me.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Why I like Paris in the springtime

I've never been the kind of girl to say X number of weeks/months/years after her break-up, "Gosh, I thought I would have found someone by now." I may have harbored secret hopes that the next guy would materialize sooner rather than later, but to assume that I would find myself once again in a relationship within a time frame of my choosing, well...I knew better than to tempt the dating gods like that. It is only when you're single that you realize that, contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as the "relationship type." If you notice, all the people describing themselves as such are already in relationships, thus leaving all us single people to believe that the reason we aren't in a relationship must be because we aren't the "relationship type." It's circular logic, cause and effect each futilely chasing the other's tail, and yet it's a disturbingly common argument. It's like rich people believing that poor people must want to be poor. Admittedly, after four and a half years of two nearly back-to-back relationships, I was as big an offender as any smug, coupled-up twenty-something. Yes, this is me, I thought to myself, then. I am the relationship type. This is me at my best: sending love notes, cooking French toast on weekends, laboring over homemade scrapbooks for Valentine's Day, scrubbing someone else's toilet, sharing soft whispers in the middle of the night. But once the house of cards fell, with it went my very identity. How could I be the relationship type without a relationship? What could I focus my energies on when there was no longer someone else's life to tend to, to try to make better in some way? Now I was just a grad student. Now I was just a 27-year-old.

Now I am just a 29-year-old. Now I am just a ship without a rudder, drifting aimlessly through life. Not that this is all bad; there is pleasure to be had in wandering. There is a freedom in having no responsibilities or obligations, and a certain small satisfaction in living far removed from the rat race of business and competition and what the world defines as success. All the same, there is a part of me that craves the security of a regular paycheck, of health insurance, of living in the same place for more than six months at a time. Of someone to come home to, of planning for the future.

At one time I had this. All of this, and a 401k. Picture frames and area rugs ordered over the internet and delivered in cardboard boxes to my front door. Vacations planned months in advance, weekend trips to the beach, birthday dinners. When you're in it, it's easy to think you deserve it, somehow, that's it's your due. You're a good person, after all. But only when it's finally over do you realize how tenuous all of it really is. When it ended, with nowhere else to direct my energies (because to actually spend time caring for myself reeked of new age-y garbage), I threw myself headlong into the world of online dating. At first the goal was less to find someone to replace the man who had until recently been the love of my life (the very thought of which actually made me a bit nauseous), and more to distract myself from the searing pain of the newly opened hole in my heart. But still, at first I wasn't without hope. Things had fallen into place for me before, and perhaps they still would again. But then one dead-end date turned into five, then ten, then thirty, and then I stopped keeping count. Whereas being in a relationship meant that someone thought I was smart, pretty, and fun to be around, it didn't take long for the voices in my head to tell me that the fact I was still single all these months and years later must necessarily mean that I am dull, ugly, and undeserving of love. Pretty and ugly, fun and boring, are subjective terms, however, and for every person who laughs uproariously at your dumb jokes, there will likely be someone else who thinks you're as dull as beans. And that's ok. The trick is, I think, to find the people who find you charming and beautiful and brilliant and surround yourself with them. Deserving of love, however, is something else altogether, and I can't decide what I think about it. Are some of us more deserving of love than others? Or is love a basic human right, like food and shelter and education and free speech? As long as we're not Hitler, aren't we all deserving of love? And if this is the case, then why do I, and so many others, spend so much of our time thinking that because we're single, it means that we don't deserve to be loved?

Two years of singledom later, and there's one thing I have finally figured out about myself, and about love: being in a relationship has nothing to do with deserving love, or not. After all, there are millions of plain as toast, happily coupled women, and then there are women with Pantene hair and perfect bone structure who sit at home on Friday nights. There are shrill harpies and sadistic
über bitches who wear down the spirits of the poor men they suckered into marrying them, day by slow day, and then there are single women who spend their weekends volunteering in soup kitchens and sending money to orphans in Africa. Being in a relationship has nothing to do with being pretty or plain, or hilarious or dull as beans, and it has nothing to do with being the "relationship type." Instead, it's all about timing, and stupid, dumb luck.

I've been in exactly two relationships in my life, and they both started in May. I only recently realized this, but it seems to perhaps be significant, especially in the light of recent events. My relationship with these men didn't start in October, when the leaves start falling off the trees, and they didn't start in January when people pass each other indifferently in the street, everyone wrapped snugly in their own protective shells. These relationships, both of them, started in May, when the sun comes out and people unfurl like flowers, and everywhere there is the promise of new beginnings. They started in spring. And now, as I find myself once again at the beginning of an unknown something with a new someone, I think about this. We met in October, and spent the fall and winter talking and getting to know each other, each week becoming a little braver, bit by bit. Constant discussion of movies eventually turned into a shyly mumbled invitation. But nothing actually happened until now, until spring. And while it all seems like such a shame, in a way, to have waited this long when who knows how much longer I will be here, and when I will have to go back home (I do know, and it's July), I also know that it couldn't have happened any other way. All of which is to say, of course, that yes, he kissed me, or I kissed him, or most likely we both kissed each other at exactly the same time, which really is the best way, after all. (There may have even been Doritos involved. Not that it's any of your business. Nosies!)

I've always liked spring. To me it's always meant my birthday, Spring Break, and summer right around the corner. And while I may have spent the last two years battling self-doubt and slowly losing all hope, at the moment anything seems possible, in Paris in the spring.