I’m at my friend Darren’s house in Paris, in the 14th arrondissement, looking out over the rooftops, because in Paris in the 70’s they made a law that buildings couldn’t be higher than seven or eight stories, so it’s this weird sensation to look out over an entire city and see a canopy of balconies and terraces that are almost all exactly at the same height. It’s like being in the canopy of a tropical rainforest, only instead of leaves you have chimneys, and instead of branches you have the roofs of entire buildings.
I got in from Dortmund yesterday after a seven hour hell ride in a bus that smelled like humans and cheese and a woman in front of me who wouldn’t stop screaming into her cell phone and a woman to the right of me who wouldn’t stop screaming into her cell phone and a little girl who was playing games on her tablet with the volume turned high and an Italian guy to my right who I thought was my friend but then as soon as we got on the bus he put his head phones in and looked straight ahead.
So much for conversation.
The overweight mom who was screaming into her cellphone had, strangely, brought a two foot high doll with which to entertain her daughter. For most of the ride the doll sat up in the luggage compartment, her little wooden hand rattling against the plastic. Every time it would happen I would bound two rows forward, grab the dolls hand and position it in a way that it wouldn’t rattle. The mom would look at me like, “You’re insane.” I never asked her if I could reposition the dolls hand.
Finally we got into the outskirts of Paris and of course there was an accident so ambulances went racing by us with that familiar European siren which goes, WAAA OHHHH, WAAAA OHHH, WAAAAA OHHHH, and the bus came to a stop and I thought, “Lord in heaven I’m going to be on this bus for the rest of my life. I’m going to die on this bus and that little doll is going to be staring down at my body.” Every five minutes the woman to the right would get a phone call and always answer in the softest, sweetest voice, “Allo?” and then commence screaming. I was trying to figure out what language she was speaking. Was it Russian? No, no. But there was the word “Da.” Turkish? Maybe. Bulgarian? Who knows. Sometimes hearing someone speak in a language you don’t understand is comforting because it’s like white noise, but sometimes it’s just maddening. On the bus it was maddening. Everything was maddening. I made the mistake of looking at the traffic map on Google and saw that all the roads were red, aka there was lots of traffic. But eventually we did make it in to Paris, Bercy. Eventually I did get off that bus. Eventually I did ask in French how to get to the metro and she said, “You have to go all the way around,” because there was some kind of concert going on. Eventually I did make it to the metro, after crossing the Seine. Eventually I did make it to my friend’s house. And eventually we had tea, and went out to get food, and talked to a funny Thai woman, and everything was OK, as it often is in Paris. In Paris everything is usually OK. The French know how to live well.
At dinner, which was a Vietnamese place, Darren and I were momentarily stymied by a door that had a sign that said, “Porte coulissante.”
Must be out of order, I thought. Maybe we have to go around. I tried to push the door in but it didn’t budge, and just on the other side were people dining and having a good time. We looked in and to the side but didn’t see any other way in. Finally someone inside motioned that you had to slide the door and we realized that “coulissante” meant sliding and that became a favorite metaphor for the rest of the night.
“Well, you see, the difference between Germany and France, it’s a porte coulissante,” I imagined saying to a group of French people in French.
“How is it being in France as an American? Well, it’s a porte coulissante.”
“Love, you know. It’s a porte coulissante.”
After dinner we stopped at a grocery store where we met a funny Thai woman. And then we went up to Darren’s apartment, which is on the top floor, and looked out over the rooftops, and that’s when I first noticed the wonder of what it is to look out on a sea of rooftops that are all more or less the same height. It’s like being on the ground floor of a jungle. It’s like being in some Star Wars world where everything is made out of machines. It’s like being on another planet.
It’s a porte coulissante.