Robin Sparks is looking for a country to call home. She is traveling around the world looking for the perfect spot. This month she is in Paris, meeting with old friends and meeting new ones. Join Robin Sparks in each issue of the Escape From America Magazine as she travels around the world in search of a country to call home.
Paris, France I’m at the Web Bar, my Apple Powerbook open atop a granite table. My butt is planted firmly on a green velvet banquet; the hiss of an espresso machine and the steady pounding of a techno beat fill the room. Soft coral light caresses the bottles behind the bar where a very suave, 30-something man pours champagne and red wine for the Euro-hipsters casually posing at the bar.
One of the patrons languishes on his elbow, talking into a cell phone, slowly dragging on a cigarette. A baguette protrudes from the backpack on the stool next to him. A girl enters the bar wearing tight black pants, a black leather jacket, and carrying a helmet.
It’s 6 PM and the energy in the room is starting to shift and expand. The young techies are being replaced by older bohemians. In the next room, tables are filled with men and women sipping coffee, wine, beer, and the admirable "coupe de champagne." The sun streams down through a leaded glass spotlighted stage a man and woman move slowly, acrobatically, in a display of Live Art. Impressionist paintings line the walls. A man with long jet-black hair secured in a ponytail rolls past my table on skates. No one appears to notice. I’m not dressed right – heavy on Cute and too light on Cool in my Sandra Dee cropped pants and baby blue knit sweater. How was I to know that my desperate search for an internet connection would lead me to the Web Bar on the Rue Picardie?
The focal point of the interior is the three-story open courtyard.
Along the walls of the top two stories, and open to the cafe below, narrow ledges contain perhaps 20 computers. The chairs consist of upended wooden crates. Earlier, I sipped a double espresso at computer #8 as I attempted to make an internet connection; computer #8 refused to connect. Jean, a 24 year old global computer geek with dark curly hair, was the tech on call. In response to myn obvious frustration, he appeared at my side. I pantomimed the problem. "I see,"? he said in perfect, non – accented, English. "You’re sure you put in the correct password?"
"You are American?" I ask as if I’d just met someone from a distant planet I vaguely remember from my past. Manu tells me he moved from New York 10 years ago with his parents, against his will. But Paris is home to him now and he’s happy here.
"Jean! Pouvez vous mâaider?" comes the familiar cry and Jean is off to help another computer user.
I answer email for half an hour before returning to the bar to write on my laptop. Two guys enter the room with motorized steel skateboards tucked under their arms. The tinkling of the ever present cell phone provides an acoustical testimony to the high-tech atmosphere.
"Bon Soir Madame," the bartender says as I approach, along with the French version of "What would you like to drink?" I tell him I don’t speak French well, and does he speak English.
"Yes, a leetle," he says. As I start to order my drink of choice in Paris, a Kir Royale, but then have a change of heart."Do you have Tequila?" Yes, they do. Olmeca Tequila. I carry a shot of the cactus juice (which I expect will fire up creative juices) back to my table under the halogen light in the corner…
A young woman in faded blue jeans, a long sleeved t-shirt, and NIKE tennis shoes appears at my table. "Weel you pleese pay now?" Her shift has ended. I pay for my drinks. "Where ees your teeket for rentaul of zee compooteur?" she asks.
Where is that little paper anyway? I rifle through my computer bag and a pile of notes, and under the table, but I find nothing. You weur suepost to geev zee teeket to zee cashier wheen you weur feeneeshed on zee compooteur. Zee clock is steel teeking."
"Oh," I say. "I thought I was logged off automatically and the bill for the computer would be added to my drink . "How menee minoots deed you use zee computeur?" she demands.
"I don’t know, less than an hour. Ask Jean, he will remember."
She disappears in a huff.
I search through the contents of my bag again. Where is the ticket? For the umpteenth time I feel the helplessness that comes from not understanding the langua franca and speaking even less.
What to do? The waitress has vanished and as she said, "Dee clock ees teekeeng."
I approach the bartender — time to kiss some French butt. The French are predictably responsive to polite groveling. "I am so sorry," I purr to the Euro bartender, "but I seem to have lost my ticket. I did not understand your system." The waitress appears at his side and ignoring me, speaks to him in French. He turns to me and says, "Madame, Whut ees dee prowblaim?" I begin to explain how I sat at THEIR computer for almost an hour, but that when it wouldn’t connect, so Jean had to plug my laptop into their connection, and that somewhere in all of that, the ticket was lost.
"Will you PLEASE, PLEASE speak more slowly?" the girl says with exasperation. I lock eyes with her and ask in a soft, but firm voice, "At what point exactly did you stop understanding me?" She sighs and speaks rapidly in French to the bartender before stalking off. The bartender smiles and says gently, "Madame, zat weel be 74 francs…" ($10.50 — a bargain even with the bitchy waitress.)
The place is filling now with an interesting crowd. People are buzzing around, moving into the main room. The techno music has changed to jazz and the volume has been turned up a notch.
Tres interessant, and here I sit pecking away.
A blonde man leans over my table and begins speaking to me in French. I take off my glasses, look him in the eye, and say, "Je ne parle pas beaucoup Francais. Parle vous Anglais?" "Un petite peu,"? he says. Then in halting English, "There ees un fete, an event beginning soon."? "I see. I should leave?" "Yes, I sink so. Eet weel be tres difficile for you to work." "What is the event?" I ask. "A program of literatura," he says. "Ah, tres bien," I say. "I will finish." My battery is running low anyway, so I wrap it up.
I call Adrian Leeds on my cell: "You gotta get over here," I say. "This place is hopping and there’s some kind of literary event… " but she’s on her way out to meet friends for dinner. "Hey, Robin, you HAVE to come with me to the Gay Pride Parade tomorrow. It’s a happening you simply cannot miss." We agree on a time to meet. She adds, "You’re going home to get this story out tonight right?" "Right," I say. "See you tomorrow." "A bien tot."
I exit the Web Bar and head for the Metro Republique, the computer under my arm and camera bag over my shoulder.
I realize that I’m hungry for some- thing I’d forgotten existed–creative, passionate people. Oh well, the Web Bar still will be there next week. I hope.
Early June, 2000
I had sprouted wings as planned and taken flight. After almost twenty years of mommy-hood and life as a DW (doctor’s wife), I was suddenly faced with the freedom to live the second half of my life in the style and location of my choice.
I’d dreamed of life in a foreign country for years. "Where?" was the cental question.
Expats. They’d been there and done that.
So, in the hope of finding a place to call my own, I began traveling to countries around the globe and meeting some of the American expatriates who live in them.
Paris, the Grande Dame of American expatriatism, was to be my base as I traveled throughout Western Europe for the next seven weeks to check out and report on the heartbeat of the Americans who call Western Europe home.
However just before I left the United States, life threw me an unexpected curve. You know how you go to the doctor to have a pain diagnosed, and suddenly the pain is gone? Or you take your car to the shop to find the source of an annoying rattle, and the minute the mechanic puts his head under the hood, it stops? And starts up again the minute you drive away? Well… I moved to San Francisco six weeks ago, and suddenly, with the exploratory trip just days away, my itch to find a new country had dissipated.
Over the past six weeks I had wakened every morning to Chinese doing Tai Chi outside my bedroom window, to the sun rising over the Bay Bridge, and to the sight of freighters moving into the Pacific headed for foreign lands. I had the whole of Baghdad-by-the-Bay beyond my living-room window. I was overwhelmed. Daily. A walk two blocks from my apartment put me in Chinatown, surrounding me with chattering Chinese filling their market baskets with fresh produce.
A three-block walk in another direction put me in North Beach, with access to freshly-made ravioli from Molinari’s Deli, freshly-roasted coffee beans from Trieste Caffe, and the melodic Italian accents of those who owned the businesses in that neighborhood. A walk in another direction, and I’d find myself in downtown San Francisco, where the heady optimism of a city in the midst of its second gold rush was palpable. San Francisco’s multi-layered colors, its creative spirit, its literary heart, its geographic beauty, and its mild climate gave me a new bench mark in the search for "my" place. San Francisco would be hard to beat.
June 15, 2000
I’m on a Swiss Air jet headed to Zurich where I will change planes and depart for Paris. I write a little and then sleep for six hours. I’m drinking my first morning cup of coffee when Charles, the businessman sitting next to me, says in reference to an idyllic
beach scene on the airplane’s movie screen, "I can’t decide if life in a remote place like that would be paradisiacal or tortuous." He adds, "Running away seems to have, in my opinion, very little merit. It’s a statement that one no longer desires to contribute to society." Just one more opinion to add to the mix.
We punch through the cloud cover over Zurich and begin to descend over emerald-green, rolling hills. Charles lives in Basil, Switzerland. "Cold there isn’t it?" I ask, wondering suddenly why Switzerland isn’t on my shopping list of possible countries. "No," he answers. "The climate is mild." "But the taxes are high right?" I ask. "No, we’re taxed at 20% and Switzerland is the 15th largest country and number 8 in the Gross National Product."
I look at the toy villages laid out in neat patterns below, with perfect-peaked houses surrounded by acres of green. Charles says Switzerland has strict building laws regarding building height, that any building over 30 years old cannot be torn down.
We hit the runway hard. In Switzerland it’s 5 PM. In California it is 9 AM. I’ve just wakened from one night’s sleep, and another night is beginning.
6:40 PM, Zurich
I sit in another Swiss Air jet waiting for the plane to leave for Paris. The passengers around me are different on this flight — they stare unabashedly at each other and at me. And I know they must be French, because they are (and I know this sounds trite) so good-looking. And the language… Oh, la, la.
Across an empty seat, a man who looks about 30 with skin the shade of Kalamata olives unwraps a candy bar. He leans over and says, "Madame, would you like a chocolate?" "No thank you," I reply, and return to reading Hemingway’s "A Movable Feast."
7:35 PM, above Paris
We descend through gray clouds, and Paris emerges gray. Shadowless, colorless, damp, sad like I remember. A lump forms in my stomach. Memories of Bernard. Love lost.
8:50 PM. Charles DeGaulle Airport
Whew. Major hurdles behind me. Customs. Luggage intact. A last minute conversation with Laurent, the man who offered me a chocolate, as we pull our bags through the terminal. He offers to drive me to my apartment in the St. Germain section of downtown Paris. He lives 20 miles outside of the city. "You are very kind," I say, "but it is too far out of your way." "I do not mind," he says, "but it is up to you." "I will think about it," I say. ($40 saved on cab fare is a temptation.) "But it would be so much trouble for you." Lauren nods, shakes my hand, bows slightly, and says, "Then, it was very pleasant to meet you. Bon journee," and he rolls his suitcase out the airport door.
10:50 PM that evening
I’m seated at a round formica table on a wicker chair under a rose-colored awning at Le Buci Cafe in the St -Germain-de-Pres. Patrons sit at tables outside bathed in pink light sipping pink kirs and speaking rapidly in the soft nasal intonations that are uniquely French. I call my friend Evan in California, and leave a message on his voice mail at work: "I’m sitting at the Buci Cafe. This is amazing!" And I ramble on, describing the scene at that very moment . He tells me the next day that he played the message for everyone in his office.
A week has passed since that first evening in Paris. I’ve met a number of the Americans who live here and am becoming close friends with several of them. I look forward to telling you their stories.
I’ve gone through the excitement phase that being in a new place stirs up. I’ve been incredibly frustrated at the sheer length of time, money, and mistakes it takes to accomplish the simplest of tasks in an unfamiliar culture where I don’t speak the language, and the difficulties of not having a working telephone or an internet connection. I’ve been anxious about neglecting responsibilities back home, and I’ve had middle-of-the-night uncertainty about why I am here. But I’ve returned, I think , to my normal optimistic self. I’m comfortable enough at last in Paris, to plan a trip to another country tomorrow, and to not know where I might go from there.