Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Life in the Hood

Way back at the start of this year I stopped in a small English language bookshop and was talking about the economic state of things with the owner. The dollar was losing ground almost daily against the Euro.
Matters were not helped by the dismal failure of my carefully laid plans to network with editor friends and line up some assignments. Within weeks of my arriving in Paris they had all been fired, leaving me without a net or a network. Never mind that their careers were dead in the water.

Americans living in Paris were going through sticker shock, the bookstore man was telling me. “I know an older American woman who says she can no longer afford to stay in Paris – and she has been here almost 20 years," he sighed. "I’m afraid we’re in for a bumpy ride.” And this was in January of 2007. How prescient was he?

“Where are you living?” he asked.

“In the seventh,” I said.

His eyes widened. “That’s the most expensive neighborhood in Paris.”

"So I am discovering," I shrugged.

I thought of the cheeky window displays [see above] with their cheeky prices. Shoe boutiques selling women’s
chasseures for 500 Euros, men’s riding boots in another for 1800 euros, restaurants with wallet-draining formules. Visitors came. One Sunday morning we had four coffees at a cafe. I'll get this, said my magnanimous friend. L'addition was 45 euros. My friend squealed, "For four coffees!!!"

Across the street from where we live is a restaurant with valet parking where, I had read, George Clooney was seen dining. Every evening a convoy of black, tinted-glass Mercedes glided up. Out waddled some plump men and their expense account colleagues, or well-dressed wives, or other women of a certain age. The uniformed valet, who I first thought was some sort of cop because his outfit was so elaborate, would slip behind the wheel and drive the car backwards up our side street to park it. The annoying whine of cars going too fast in reverse became part of the evening sounds outside our apartment. I prayed for someone to come equally fast going forward from the other direction. So far no luck.

During the day I would see thin, stone-faced women brush by carrying shopping bags from
Marché which was around the corner, on the rue du Bac where Jean Seberg, the lovely, doomed star of Breathless, once lived or tiny little shopping bags from other nearby boutiques.

Down the street from the aforementioned BM was a glacier that sold ping-pong ball sized, one-scoop cones of ice cream for the price of a heart transplant. Around another corner from us was Barthélémy, the most famous cheese shop in town where the clerks dressed like pharmacists, or surgeons, in starched snow-white lab coats.

The reason I was in the bookshop was to buy a French-English dictionary. It was for a French course we had enrolled in. There are not many bargains in Paris but one was the city’s adult education classes, particularly the
French language courses for foreigners taught at the local schools. For 80 euros non-French strangers could attend a semester’s worth of lessons in French grammar taught by certified French teacher. We filled out the application and sent it off. An acceptance letter rocketed back two days later. We were thrilled. The school we were going to was in the 1st Arrondissment. On a street called l’Arbre-Sec. Classes were two nights a week, in two hour sessions each.

We were told by French neighbors who looked up the history of the rue that the “dry tree” in the street name was a euphemism for the gallows. “They used to hang people there,” Monsieur G. our upstairs neighbor read from his encyclopedic history of Paris streets. I hoped it wasn’t an omen.

French fact: The arrondissements of Paris are arranged in a spiral pattern like the whorls of a chambered nautilus, with the first at the center of the city and the higher numbers progressively moving out towards the edge.