I See France

Raskolnikov the Handyman 

It turns out that the young man who looks as if he walked out of the pages of Crime and Punishment, and who for some unfathomable reason possesses the only key to our new home, is not American but Canadian. Even better: He claims that he doesn’t like Americans, which makes him as good as French. As he opens the door, I ask him if, in the three years he says he’s lived here, he’s come to know any of the French people in our building. He finds the question amusing. “I prefer to keep to myself,” he explains. “And so do they.” Clearly, we are the last thing he needs in his life: a bunch of eager Americans trying to shoehorn information out of him about how to invent a life in Paris.

In any case, our new neighbor–Raskolnikov, I’ll call him–is a reluctant source. His long awkward silences are punctuated only by unsettling smiles and chilling anecdotes. We ask him if he knows where the nearest market is; he responds by asking us if we know why there is so much calcium in the Parisian water. We say we didn’t realize there was calcium in the Parisian water. He explains that it comes from the bones of the people Napoleon dug up from the cemeteries and reburied under the city. We laugh. He smiles in his strange, unsettling way, and insists he is being serious. If we want to stay in Paris, we must be prepared to drink old French bones.

In flat tones, Raskolnikov quickly explains to my wife the perils of our new home. The old woman next door who leaves on her gas burners, and who will one day, he insists, blow us all to bits, is just the start of it. There is also the French handyman who does the work on our side of the building. “French handyman” strikes my American ears as oxymoronically as “American intellectual” probably strikes French ones. But they do exist; ours is named M. Gautier. A few months ago M. Gautier installed new lights in Raskolnikov’s room. Not long after he’d finished, Raskolnikov began to receive electrical shocks while taking his bath. M. Gautier had grounded the wires into the tub.

Raskolnikov now pulls his hand from his pea coat. It is one giant black bruise. A heater installed by M. Gautier had exploded a few nights earlier and fired a bolt like a bullet across the room and into Raskolnikov’s hand. “I won’t let Gautier into my place again,” says Raskolnikov. “If I were you, I wouldn’t either. He’ll kill you.”

When Raskolnikov leaves, Tabitha wrinkles her nose and says, “I don’t like it when I don’t know whether people are joking.”

Discomfort. Disorientation. Anomie. Whatever you call it, that is the sensation offered to us by Paris these first few weeks. Clearly, we don’t belong here. We prove it many times each day. Our simplest activities somehow become pitched battles against an entire culture. Walking the streets, for instance. Parisian sidewalks are obstacle courses of dog shit. To make the game of avoiding the dog shit really interesting, the locals turn it into a competitive sport. They come at you in packs and refuse to yield ground, even when they clearly lack the right of way. If you want to get anywhere on foot you have to at once leap over the dog shit and burst heroically through oncoming hordes of French people. Red Rover, Red Rover, send Henri-Antoine right over!

Here we have next to no ability to determine what is normal and what is noteworthy. Take the famous storms. They struck three days after we arrived, without warning, at least to us. Around 2 in the morning, our house began to shake. The windows rattled madly. When I got out of bed to have a look outside, I found a scene from the early part of The Wizard of Oz: plastic garden chairs swirling in the air, huge planting pots crashing over, medium-size trees bent nearly in two. I went back to bed, assuming that it must be just a typical Parisian winter night. The next morning, we awakened to find huge trees in the street, shattered glass on the sidewalks, and cafe awnings ripped in two. We stepped over all of it without giving it much thought. Oh, that French weather! C’est fou! It was not until we found a row of old men peering through the bars of the Luxembourg Gardens, mourning the death of their favorite old trees, that we realized something was afoot. The highest winds in recorded history had swept through Paris, and for us it was just another night. Such is the curiously disoriented mentality of the newcomer. It’s childhood all over again.

To my wife, Paris is a problem to be solved. She’s always been one of those people who believe firmly in reading the instructions before assembly. For the past two months, she’s been poring over one or the other of our nine books on how to get along with the French, from which she passes on to me the occasional tip. For a while, I dismissed these with an almost Gallic aloofness. Finally, she became so insistent that I picked up one of the books. French or Foe, it was called. Sure enough, it was filled with advice: Don’t smile randomly. Avoid being likable. When a French person says “Everyone likes him,” what he really means is “He’s a failure.” If you must cross your legs, do it carefully, as a woman does who is wearing a short skirt, not sloppily, like a golfer at the 19th hole. Never bring wine or flowers to a French dinner party. If you do bring flowers, make sure they are not yellow flowers, as a yellow flower is the signal from a French guest to a French hostess that her husband is cheating on her. (Subtle!) Above all, never use the toilet when you are out to dinner. You might think that by now every Frenchman understands that foreigners pee when they need to and will not think them barbarians for doing so. Not so, apparently.

On and on it went. The general drift of the advice was that, with one exception, if you wanted to get what you wanted in France, you must exchange your American warmth and directness for a cool and aloof manner. The exception was if you wanted to have sex. They do that here, too, apparently. A long section of the book was devoted to the sexually charged nature of French public life. The author explains that you can’t walk down the streets of Paris without stirring up vital juices all around you. For instance, all polite Frenchmen give the women they approve of what the author calls “The Look.” The author describes The Look thusly: “The Look from a stranger, maybe passing her on the street or in a car, of an unmistakable intensity that lets her know that for that man, she’s got it.”

I put down the book and tell Tabitha about The Look. It probably won’t come naturally to an American male, but, in an attempt to enter into the spirit of French daily life, I will cultivate a Look of my own. “I will practice The Look on old French ladies who are happy to have any old look at all,” I say, “and then, as I get the hang of it, move gradually into the big leagues.”

This irritates her immensely. “Out of that whole book,” she says, “all you came away with is The Look?”