By John M. Edwards
John M. Edwards thinks the most exotic experience Americans have in Paris these days is ordering macaroons in a Piere Hermé boutique, even though similar macaroons are now available in Sausalito, CA, Asbury Park, NJ, and points in between. But John remembers a time in the 1990s when, between girlfriends and apartments, Paris still rhymed with bewildering encounters and doomed relationships.
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My new apartment in Paris seemed too big for its size: too big even for five people. Plus, it had a rather large potted palm, a sure sign of success in any cosmopolitan city.
I nicknamed the place way down in Montparnasse “The Gatsby Mansion.” The apartment immeuble also had an antique caged elevator that always looked like it was going to get stuck between floors and that smelled of old brass from Skytop. (I’m pretty sure this exact elevator was used recently in a Coen brothers’ film, along with my Servas operative and actress chum Annick Fouqueray.)
There was a man who lived in secret under the floorboards, beneath a trap door. Seriously. We called him The Man Who Lived Beneath the Floorboards. He would appear out of nowhere, rising up from the wooden parquet through the heavy trap door like a purloined Scud Missile from a Jason Bourne thriller.
The Man Who Lived Beneath the Floorboards was a thin guy with a salt-and-pepper five-o’clock shadow. He was a Turkish mime and refugee whom none of us could really talk to, except for Hong Kong native Sarah Dreaper, a gorgeous gal with a wandering eye. Skilled in sign language, Ms. Dreaper made a gesture toward the Turk, who immediately responded on cue.
He grabbed a book from the coffee table and stuck up his arm, as if holding up a flaming Olympic torch. It did not take long for me to decipher his stylized Pictionary ™.
“The Statue of Liberty,” I ventured confidently.
Unfortunately, the Turk was having trouble finding work and paying rent, even with his job at a smoky café as an Orwellian dishwasher.
I admit that back then I had a crush on Ms. Dreaper, a serious painter with dark hair and alabaster skin, who resembled a petite Elizabeth Hurley. I even left some of my unpublished poems on my bed, like little Valentine’s Day greetings or “French Letters” (though that’s also slang for condoms), hoping she might casually come across them and know for a fact that I was absolutely wild about her, even while I was out looking for another place to live—and a new girlfriend.
Irreconcilable differences—the usual.
One of my Gatsby Manse flatmates, a friend of a friend, was away on a long vacation in Estonia, so I was unable to ever meet her, especially when, if she ever came back, she might end up retrieving her bedroom. My live-in girlfriend, selfish Susan Shriek (not her real name), was absolutely unacceptable as a soulmate. While I held on to her, I was also looking for greener pastures.
But my least favorite Gatsby Manse flatmate (the real reason I wanted out), was “Didier,” a dissident socialist financial writer who was not overly fond of either my smoking or fielding phone calls from my TEFL students. A crashing bore who resembled an unfunny Charles Nelson O’Reilly from “The Hollywood Squares,” I made fun of Didier anyway, calling him “ass-wipe” behind his back, much to the amusement of Ms. Dreaper, who was not wild about him either.
At the American Church (also then the HQ of the English language paper “The Paris Voice”) on the Rive Gauche, I pulled off an ad tacked to their then-world-famous notice board (the envy of any expat) for a historic apartment right in the Knights Templar region on the northern end of the Marais.
Wow, the apartment was just minutes away from my favorite square, la Place des Vosges, where Victor Hugo used to live, and just another 10-minute walk from the home of one of the writer/statesman’s most memorable characters: Quasimodo, a.k.a. the Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” It was there that I heard a classic comment from a vacationing American serviceman: “Where be this Quasi-moto dude?!”
I reluctantly moved out of The Gatsby Manse in order to pretend to write poetry in a very small apartment with a sleeping loft and hand-held shower. On the boogie box lent to me by Servas operative Annick Baudet, there often came the stirring power chords of “Hip Kit,” by Les Ritas Mitsoukis, or “Tout le monde y pense” by Francis Cabrel, or “Rêve orange” by Liane Foly, or “Je vais encore dormir tout seul ce soir” by The Elmer Food Beat, or “Bouge de là,” by MC Solar.
After using this new historic Parisian base, on what was then a dangerously exclusive dead-end (Cité Dupetit-Thouars), guarded by Maghrebi leather-jacket merchants, I made a series of trips throughout Europe while acting like a “stringer” rather than an adventurer.
I could have been a real “spider” (spy). Before graduating from Tulane University, where I had studied poetics with Peter Cooley, I had done something quite remarkable really. I had aced an interview and been hired on the spot by the CIA!
The only thing was, I had not formally joined and I had not visited any office at Langley, Virginia. My last words to my silver-haired recruiter were: “I’m going to Australia for a year! I’ll contact you when I get back!”
In the end, I passed on my ancien régime Parisian apartment to the one and only Sarah Dreaper, who now seemed a little bit of a stranger. “I have a new boyfriend now,” she said. “I thought I should tell you. I sense that he is extremely jealous.”
I remembered back to when Ms. Dreaper had turned me on to tea with St. John’s Wort, a curative for depression discovered in Germany, who also said, in front of my doomed American girlfriend, “Isn’t it great when we all live together and get along?”
And wouldn’t you know it? Sarah’s new boyfriend, whom she brought along to check out the pied à terre, a dead-ringer for a Vatican Swiss Guardsman, was none other than Gallic film actor Gerard Depardieu! It had to be him because he looked just like himself. I could tell Ms. Dreaper not only did not fully realize who this muscle-bound beefcake really was, but also she had not even ever seen his Oscar-worthy performance in “Cyrano.”
Nah-ah, it couldn’t be him.
But now, I was not only free from infatuation from my soon-to-be ex-girlfriends, Susan (present) and Sarah (platonic), as well as the wrath of this non-Depardieu boyfriend, but I was also set loose to continent stomp once again as “The Pathfinder.” I couldn’t wait until I bumped into my next contact advising me where to go next. Ah, adventure!
The tip-off came from my British friend and Servas operative, Julie Dawson: “Hi John, would you like to take a trip with me to Holland?”
So there I was going Dutch like the existentialist protagonist of Albert Camus’s “The Fall” to Amsterdam, which is really getting down to brass tacks for real Mayflower descendant like myself. My real hometown of New York City was way too far away to even think about anymore.
© John M. Edwards, 2012
Bio: John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus), with adventures ranging from surviving a shipwreck off the coast of Thailand to getting caught up in a military coup in Fiji. His writing has appeared in Amazon.com, CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Europe Revisited, Grand Tour, Islands, Endless Vacation, Adventure Journey, Condé Nast Traveler, International Living, Literal Latté, Lilliput Review, BootsnAll, Poetry Motel, Hack Writers, Road Junky, Richmond Review, Vagabondish, Xtreme Travel Stories, Go Nomad, World Hum, ForeWord, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review. He has won a NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Award, a TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Award, a Road Junky Hell Trips Award, a Literal Latté Travel Writing Award, a Bradt Independent on Sunday Award, and a Solas Award (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He lives in NYC’s “Hell’s Kitchen.”