Return to Paris, Part One: Arrival

My first stop after leaving the UK is Paris. I haven’t been to Paris since the 80’s when I was a young student traveling first around France, on breaks from studying at the Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier, then around Europe in the aftermath of my tenure there. What is ironic is that at the tender age of 18, alone and in possession of very little disposable income, though I was robbed and almost raped on two separate occasions while visiting Paris, I continued to think of this large, impersonal city as nothing but vibrant, exciting and attractive. It personified, for me anyway, everything that made France unique and alluring: it was a culinary, cultural, linguistic, artistic and historical island that I found mesmerizing. Yet all these years later, as often as I’ve wanted to return, I’ve felt intimidated by the idea of going to Paris on my own. Thus it wasn’t until my aunt Alice, a former French teacher and frequent visitor to France, and Paris in particular, suggested meeting here that I seriously considered coming back. She first broached the idea five years ago, but circumstances contrived to prevent it from happening until now. We’ve never been particularly close, but I’ve always loved her and felt comfortable in her company. So it was with a sense of dormant anticipation that I emailed her over the summer and asked if she still wanted to do it, and it was gratitude I felt when she replied, Yes. It is a cautious though willing heart with which I now approach this at once stranger and friend, Paris.

I take a night bus from London, arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport early in the morning in order to meet Alice when her flight lands about 11:30. I don’t remember the airport being this big and quickly realize it probably wasn’t when I was here last. Still I have plenty of time to find the closest, and as it turns out, only place I can wait for her without having a boarding pass myself. I drink a cup of coffee, then another, before edging closer to stand there, alongside other anxious family members or friends as well as taxi and Uber drivers (holding iPads as often as poster board printed with the names of their incoming fares) until I begin to wonder if I could have missed her, or perhaps misunderstood where we agreed to meet. Hoards of people are gathered in the large waiting area as hoards more bustle through the massive, one way doors from Baggage Claim and meld into the crowd. At last I see her, walking slowly and looking tentatively around her, as if she too is wondering if we got our signals crossed. I wave to get her attention, anxious to reassure her, and push forward between bodies tightly packed together until I’m standing in front of her. We embrace, both of us relieved, exhausted. We follow the signs to the taxi stand where we are greeted almost immediately by a driver waiting for a fare. We give him the address of our Airbnb apartment in the 16th arrondissement, and within half an hour we are there. I follow the directions of our hostess, who emailed me yesterday to say she’d be unable to meet us personally at the apartment, and find the key, then we are in. 

It’s a two bedroom apartment in an old, six story building, two units on each floor. It has the air of a grand old dame, wearing the family jewels she has managed to hold on to throughout her lifetime as well as a bit too much powder and rouge, applied hastily and in dim light. The ceilings are high, the floors polished wood but coming unglued in places, the walls accented with scrolled woodwork in corners and above the fireplace and baseboards. The color scheme throughout is white and gold, regal and cool, the few bright or warm touches coming from the framed prints of classic French paintings on the walls. A faux marble bust of a Grecian goddess adorns the mantle while the fireplace below it is crammed full of white battery operated candles of varying size. We have been given strict instructions, among other things, not to “burn” the candles (Does she mean turn on? Could she actually think anyone would be stupid enough to try and light a plastic, wickless candle?) – they are “for decoration only”, as are the barrage of ornamental pillows piled atop our beds. Our other instructions include removing our shoes while in the apartment, not taking anything from the apartment (even the umbrella that appears to have been left out for us to use?), and telling anyone from the building we run into, if they inquire, that we are “friends” of the owner, who mysteriously refers to herself alternately as Sarah and Jennifer in the emails and texts I’ve received from her. 

Two chandeliers hang from the ceilings of the adjoining living and dining rooms, each with half its lights burned out. I wonder if this is on purpose, given the abundance of natural light streaming in from the double French doors looking out on to the street, until I find that two of the three lights in the bathroom are burned out, and conclude it’s more a case of thought-less than -full design. There is a dishwasher in the kitchen but its contents are dirty and stained, and the washer/dryer contains the pillow cases and towels, still slightly damp, that should have been on our beds or laid out for us (Only after a text from our hostess the next day, in response to our inquiry, do we locate these.) Though the listing claimed to offer breakfast among its amenities, there is none to be found. The fridge is empty except for a can of Red Bull and a jar of mustard, while the food cupboard is crammed full of miscellaneous items such as half eaten bags of pasta, cans of vegetables, packets of soup, candy and boxes of tea. All stuff, it would appear, that the previous occupant(s) have left behind, or that Sarah-Jennifer herself makes use of when staying here. The drawers are likewise packed with what look like personal possessions interspersed with what could also be guest amenities: plastic wrap, foil, and coffee pods for the machine on the counter. The other cupboards are laden with service for 20 in the form of wine glasses and outsize china, sharing space with delicate crystal and gold rimmed antique porcelain dishes that I’m afraid to touch, much less use. In the bathroom the medicine cabinet is brimming with someone’s partly used toiletries while the shower contains three bottles of half empty body wash and shampoo, and a big pink netting sponge hanging from the spigot. The trash can hasn’t been emptied. 

I am puzzled by the contrast between the stark formal living area, with its carefully arranged furniture and copies of Architecture Digest or the like on the coffee table, and the kitchen and bathroom with their casual, personal footprints. I feel like I’m sitting in a hotel lobby while I’m in the one, but eavesdropping uninvited in a stranger’s personal space, not sure what I’m meant to hear or see, in the other. Both my aunt and I find it slightly discomfiting, as if our stay here was last minute rather than reserved weeks in advance; as if we are displacing the owner, who is doing us a favor by letting us stay, rather than paying the exorbitant sum of money we did (or rather Alice did. Knowing how strapped I am financially, she generously picked up the bulk of our lodging costs) for the privilege of residing in this nice neighborhood in Paris for a week. Ultimately, we both make a sort of peace with our lodging situation, with its contradictions and somewhat shady nature, and vow we will not let it interfere with our enjoyment of this adventure together, our first and perhaps our last, so long in coming. 

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