Life to the finish

I am down to my last weekend in Paris, my last two weeks at work, my last nights with my loves here. I leave Paris Sunday morning, December 20th, but my last weekend in Paris was this past weekend, since I am going to the Christmas fair in Strasbourg next weekend. Too soon, I will be on a train to Geneva then a plane to New York. So I must profiter bien from my final days here.

The last weekend:

I had grand plans. Then the Paris rain swept in like it always does, and the French people went on strike like they always do (all National museums like the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Centre Pompidou were closed), so Saturday morning I stayed under my duvet watching the water fall and cutting up brochures for a scrapbook. When it stopped, I hopped off to the Latin Quarter and the 6th to hit up my favorite bookstores. Along the quai in front of Notre Dame, a tourist stopped me. Excuse me, where is Notre Dame? I looked at them for a long second. Not because I didn’t understand their broken French, but because Notre Dame was looming over the quai, just across the bridge. We were practically in its shadow. “C’est juste là.” I pointed. “Là?” The tourist asked, looking at the cathedral quizzically. “Oui,” and I hopped on the RER C to meet Rachel and Roberto at the Eiffel Tower. With a dead battery in my cell phone, and ¾ of the population of the world manifesting in long lines under the monument, the situation was hopeless. I waited on the grass on the Champs de Mars, circled the park, checked at the carousel, circled again. Around an hour later, they found me under the tower and ran to me, as Rachel later described it, like I was their long lost love child from a war torn country. Happily united, we caught the métro to la défense and the Christmas markets where men with big guns stood around menacingly as little girls danced to John Denver carols, and we drank hot mulled wine at the top of stairs where you can look over the white peaks of the Marché de Noël tents and see down the entire Champs d’Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe. With the gray sky falling, the colored lights glow.

Our next stop, then, was the Arc de Triomphe. We wanted to climb it, since we never had before, but the French decided to have a French military ceremony there, like they frequently do, so we decided on fondue instead and found ourselves standing in the narrow streets outside a fondue restaurant in the 6th at 9P.M, trying to get Roberto to seduce the Italian-speaking waiter into giving us a table. After at least 40 minutes of flirty eye-contact and joyful conversation (the kind you have when you are hungry and waiting to eat fondue), we got a tiny corner table on the street, a carafe d’eau, and a basket of baguette. A big pot of melted cheese later, our consumation punctuated by the happy waiter replenishing our bread basket and speaking to us in French, Italian, and English as he complimented our artistry (we had gone macaroni grill on the paper table cloth), we made our way to Chez Georges.

The wine bar still manned by the same gray-bearded barman as always, I ordered verres de vin for my friends and started to talk my way out of a drunk Frenchman’s buying me a drink. The bartender, observing the conversation we were having and seeing that I was refusing, began to yell at the man, saying, I know you’re mother and that was not well done. As he continued to berate the sullen, drunk, young man, I escaped to our wooden table, and we laughed as he continued to scold him for a good while more. Rachel commented, “His problem is not that the guy hit on you, it’s that he didn’t hit on you well.” Then I caught the last métro home, and let the rain keep me under my covers late into the morning. Finally, I spent my last Sunday in Paris in a coffee shop writing a paper, and the city tried to convince the clouds to clear so I could walk my favorite walk home from the 5th along the Seine. The evening ended up being agreeable, and I did walk the two hours back, talking to a Frenchman who invited me to get coffee under the Eiffel Tower, but I skipped home to my host mother instead for a dinner of champignon something and chocolate dessert.

The second to last week:

I have a plan to do something in Paris every day after work. The Christmas markets at Bercy. Climb the Arc de Triomphe. Visit the Mosque of Paris. Wander. Find churches.

But first I have to address the work I do.

I love explaining to the French girls at lunchtime what Soldier Boy means when he says, Kiss me through the phone. “Ca veut dire, fais-moi un bisous au téléphone.”

And denying that I stole the lawyer’s coffee cup for my own tea. “C’est Sarah qui l’a prise.”

Then taking Thérèse’s phone calls and giving advice to women in impossible situations of violence. “Oui, madame, je comprends, c’est dur.”

Suddenly, the language is easy, and I know what to say. I get confused sometimes when I have to speak English and can no longer find the right words. To me, now, only French sounds beautiful, and only French expresses what I want to express. I don’t want to lose that, and I wish it was the only language people spoke so I could go to the U.S and people could continue to understand me there too.

Then there are the women I work with. I never knew how common forced marriages are until now. And I have begun to see some of the worst of the cases of beatings. I sit in those interviews, and I want to give voice to those women’s stories. I want to say, “Keep speaking, what you are saying matters. It’s powerful.” I have seen more strength and been moved so much by the work and women. And the people who help them. The brother crying silently during his sister’s interview, pained by her pain. Thérèse always saying the right thing. An intern rocking a baby to sleep in the lobby as a mother visits the lawyer.

I wrote this poem after a particularly hard interview with a young single mother. Ages and other identifying features have been changed.

It’s the blue eyes first
then the smile–

11 months, male,
with a birthday in May

energy
in his mother’s arms–

24, female,
with the streets in December–

I want him to see her
like she is now

clutching him
holding back

I want him to see her strong,
how she stood alone in our lobby

with a stroller and yogurt,
then rocked him to sleep in the afternoon

if he doesn’t grow up knowing
the yellow waiting room floor

or her red-rimmed eyes
I hope he know she carried him

from Stains to Paris
saying, “sit still

the hands are quiet
I will build you a home.”

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