Today a patron at the library where I work used the term “la vie de boheme” to describe a book we had both read, “How Should a Person Be?”, by Canadian author Sheila Heti. The expression brings back to me my younger years in Paris, as well as the eponymous 1992 film directed by Aki Kaurismaki, one of my favorite film makers. (I just looked up the film on imdb.com, and I found one of my other favorite titles, “I Hired a Contract Killer”, 1990, also directed by Kaurismaki, starring French actor Jean-Pierre Leaud.)
There is a romantic vision package which includes being an artist, seeking truth, living in poverty or near-poverty – something like being a secluded monk in rough sackcloth or a hermit in the desert, perhaps perched on a pole, as an anachorite. Living in Paris, a city stereotyped as the nexus of luxury living, on a shoe-string budget, is not terribly romantic in the sense of pink satin ribbons, champagne, or fois gras. Long walks alone at 2 am because sleeping in a room with a sloped ceiling making it even less than the 8 square meters that it purportedly measures, not having a phone, often not having easy access to a toilet or shower, washing clothes by hand…these are all part of la vie de boheme. For a short while, I also lived in a squat with a friend who made his own solar shower before that was fashionable, and in which every single thing in the house and courtyard was retrieved from trash bins, dumpsters, or recycled.
During my first years in Paris, after my arrival in September, 1986, I made two attempts to live with French families in order to improve my French and learn about French culture. Let’s say I struck out after two attempts, so I decided to strike out on my own from then on. The first “family” was an older French woman, Mme Chosidow, who lived off the Champs-Elysees in a nice apartment transformed into something short of hideous. The attractive dining room and salon were shut off and never used, except on the rare occasions when her doctor son might deign to visit her. She confined herself into a small bedroom facing a blind light well, surrounded by clouds of smoke emitted from chains of Philip Morris Ultra-Light cigarettes and a demented black cat, Cleo (short for Cleopatre). Cleo had unfortunately survived a fall from the fifth floor, and my previous appreciation for felines was suddenly compromised. The cat had a habit of biting ankles and hanging from walls and ceilings covered with burlap fabric, slipping into rooms with the permission of warped doors that did not close.
This included the wc, through the radiator pipes of which you could hear entire intimate conversations from another family and another apartment somewhere in the building. The bathroom, including the tub, as well as the narrow central corridor, were painted a hideous burgundy enamel with pink accents, and the kitchen and wc were painted a dark navy high gloss enamel. My hair was down past my rear-end long, ultra-thick, curly, and hard to comb, and Mme Chosidow was intolerant of stray hairs, lettuce, and visitors, particularly boys. She also rarely left the premises, preferring to cough and watch television on a small black and white monitor in her bedroom, sending me to the tabac to purchase those demonic “Philip Morris Ultra-Light” cigarettes for her. I hated to go, as I had no idea how to pronounce that brand name in English with a French accent. Of course, the tobacconist clerks could not resist having me repeat the name multiple times, pretending they did not understand what I wanted.
I also remember the trash collection truck coming at 4 or 5 am, the workers singing operatic arias as they lifted the bright green plastic bins onto the hydraulic lifts on the truck, banging the lids shut as they redeposited the receptacles onto the sidewalk.
My French vocabulary increased after my purchase of an FM radio, and words I did not yet understand crept into my dreams. I was pursued by creepy French men in the streets, and I did not yet know how to ward them off. Living at Mme Chosidow’s apartment was tolerable because my fellow room renter, Erin, just happened to be a student at the same school I was. She was from California, had pet rats back home, made weird faces at strangers in the street. We went to the movies together and had lots of fun. Erin’s low self esteem and oversized Doc Martens caused her to trip and fall frequently. Her company and complexes influenced me, and soon, I too was tripping over my own feet.
After a few months, I decided to move, and I snuck in a male friend and fellow art student to help me move out my two duffles containing all my worldly goods.
My next domicile was with a family with a grown son, Antoine, who was at least 30. We had to share a bathroom, but he rarely used it, so it was mostly mine. The previous American tenant had apparently made more use of the kitchen cooking than this family found acceptable, and as time went on, I felt uncomfortable being around these people. They never invited me to join them at meals, and often I went hungry because I was afraid to prepare any food. I tried to be discreet and courteous, but all this afforded me was an umbrella thrown down the trash chute and a bill for the maid cleaning my room when I never requested that she come in. There, I did read Balzac’s “Le Pere Goriot” en version originale, as well as books by Marcel Pagnol, such as “La Gloire de mon pere”. The apartment was a modern structure resembling a hotel in the fifteenth arrondissement, near the Tour Eiffel, and not far from my school, near metro Dupleix and La Motte-Piquet Grenelle. The layout was strange – a long corridor of closed doors. I remember seeing a man in bikini briefs vacuuming his curtains in another high-rise from my bedroom window.
I met my first boyfriend in Paris in a laverie automatique (laundromat) on rue Violette. La rue Violette was close to my school, and at the time there was a bakery there that made fabulous sandwiches. I will never forget their pain bagnat, a huge floury round roll, filled with eggs, tuna, potatoes, tomatoes, salad, and home-made mayonnaise. My mouth still waters remembering those sandwiches, eaten over twenty years ago. Thierry was a lot older than me, and he was certainly an eccentric – an artist without the training or awareness of just how different he was. He lived by his own standards, and sometimes these could be a little devious. Nonetheless, he was very lovable. He had a three legged dog, Laika, named after the first Soviet dog in space, whose custody he shared with an ex-girlfriend who lived in Bagneux, a suburb of Paris. Thierry aspired to not have to work, having spent most of his life on and off as a waiter for banquets, as a professional chauffeur, or on Norwegian cruise ships. I remember him telling me that the toilets were much higher on those cruise ships, since the Scandinavians are statistically taller on average than the French.
At one point, Thierry drove Jacques Chirac, former president of France, when he was mayor of Paris. He told me that Chirac flirted with him at the time. Thierry wanted to go to Africa and live off the Assedic (unemployment). I don’t think he ever did, but you never know! Something of a drifter and a hypochondriac, he had an eight grade education, yet was more cultivated than most. He had learned English on his own, and had studied a variety of subjects, and was also a fairly accomplished cook. His mother had hidden from him until he was thirty that the father who raised him was not his true biological father. This man was always somewhat cruel to him, always preferring his older brother. Once he found out the truth, this made more sense. In fact, his mother had been raped by her employer then forced to keep the child born of this act a secret. Thierry was a sensitive man, and I don’t think he ever recovered from his past. Still, he had a great capacity for joy and for creativity, despite his existential angst. We traveled together around France in his old beat up Dyane, a dinged up cream colored deux-chevaux turned truck, basically a tin can on four wheels. Before the Dyane, he drove a red Lada Skoda. We drove all around France, even slept in the back of the truck, with Laika on guard. Thanks to Thierry, I discovered most of the Parisian grande banlieue (suburbs) and a lot of the provinces.
We spent about four years together, and when I moved out from the apartment in the 15th arrondissement, I found a little room in the 5th, near Notre Dame, in the rue de Pontoise. The rent was 1000 francs per month, and the room measured 8 square meters. It was tiny, ugly, and brown, the walls covered with crinkled HLM style wallpaper, a bare bulb on a wire hanging dangerously close to a shower made out of a sink placed on the floor. The real sink was as tiny as the receptacle you spit into at the dentist’s office. I had a one element hot plate. The room was filled with a narrow single bed and an armoire, with a tiny corridor in between. The floor was covered with mouse brown carpet. The crowning glory of the room was the view. The window, a square of glass and steel that lifted outwards from its slanted frame, locking with a metal arm onto the sill. From there I could stick my head out and gaze at the Seine, with a close view of the flying buttresses, chancel and gardens at the rear of the cathedral. That metal arm was also useful for hanging grocery bags containing butter or other perishables, depending on the weather. My room was perched at the very top of a luxury building, the cage-like elevator ending at the fifth floor, the stairs narrowing as the floors rose in altitude. A strange latrine like fountain garnished a corner, and an unpleasantly fragrant collective wc for the entire floor was not far away. This was my first but far from last experience with a Turkish toilet. My neighbors on the sixth floor were students or elderly individuals who were probably somehow disinherited or disenfranchised by society. Downstairs, my landlady had a sumptuous apartment whose entrance foyer seemed endless, carpeted in pale blue, with a grand piano in the wispy distance. I never saw more than the entrance hall, and my landlady was stingy. I tried to get her to fix the exposed wires on the light fixture next to the pseudo-shower, but she never did. Since the room was so small and I didn’t have a phone, I often spent my evenings at school and my nights walking through the streets of Paris. There were times I felt very lonely, but walking was therapeutic. Occasionally, Thierry would drive me through the streets of Paris in his black Mercedes, and I would sit in the back seat, pretending to be someone other than a poor art student…
Those were just a very few of my memories of my “vie de boheme”, my younger days in Paris…