samedi, janvier 28, 2006

Reflections On A Water Cave

This is Part One of a series where the author recalls memorable events from his first few months living in Paris.

I've referred to the "Water Cave" a few times in these pages--but I never did post a proper entry explaining it. We were living in the apartment on Rue St. Sulpice (I am now inclined to believe any anteceding "rue" should be capitalized), the one owned by the French lady named Dominique. We had reserved the place over the Internet months before, while we were still in the ‘States, and therefore were deprived of any on-site inspection. Our first time through the door came after depositing a few thousand dollars with the rental agency.

Of course, our first worry was the condition of the one bathroom we’d be using for the next 70 days. Would it be clean, functional? You can’t really imagine a bad bathroom until you begin imagining a bad foreign bathroom, and even though France would presumably, on a per capita, strictly statistical incidence, provide much better facilities than a Bulgaria, say, or Khazikstan, or Somalia, it still represents the mildewed tip of that waddling middle-earth called Europe, where small people live in old buildings that were designed long before the arrival of indoor plumbing, never mind the arrival of Bed, Bath and Beyond. It’s not that the bathrooms are disgusting, though they can be that, too; they’re just off-putting, all with greater or lesser degrees of fecal force. People say you are really getting in tune with a culture when you begin to dream in the language. I say it’s when you stop feeling uneasy in their lavatories. And yet, we willingly signed on to the Water Cave.

Dominique showed us what looked like it had been a closet, or a footman's nook or something, and called it the bathroom. She wedged into the little room, the one with the toilet, and explained how everything functioned while Dear Wife and I listened and looked in from beyond the door. Then she sidled out, and we sidled in, one at a time, and took a look.

You can see the airplane-sized sink. I liked the slim-line look of it, but it was impossible to brush your teeth or wash your face over the basin without pressing the side of your face against the mirror. Otherwise all foaming and spillage went onto you or the floor.

But the real problem was the shower. It was just an elevated basin, with a low rim keeping the water from cascading across the floor into the foyer area (where the aged rafia rugging was already decomposed in an ominous semicircle beyond the bathroom door). No shower door or curtain. Just a small tile arch between the shower nook and the toilet cranny. We asked Dominique about this lack of any device to contain the inevitable water spray, but she explained that the water nozzle was hand held, and therefore easily controlled. I made a show of stepping into the shower and attempting to imagine the mechanics of a good cleaning. There was no attachment for mounting or fixing the shower-head in one operational position, so it would either be balanced on the water knobs, held in your hand, or flopped on the shower floor. Presumably while on. It sounded OK the way she was describing it, but wold obviously demand a little extra care. I didn’t want to seem too pampered, too American, as if I was expecting a full length marble tub and jacuzzi jets, so I didn’t make a fuss. Everything was clean, and looked recently installed (recent in a relative way, like when your building was built in the 18th Century); so we agreed we’d just have to control our stream. A good bathroom policy, n’est pas?

Well, it was totally unworkable.

Ah, we predictably concluded, this is why French people have such a reputation for rarely bathing: their showers suck. Of course the water went everywhere--all over the mirror, the tile floor below the mirror, the floor in the toilet cranny, and the rafia rug in the foyer. A strong waft of mildew was stirred everytime water dampened that rug, and in its disintegration, the plywood floor beneath was becoming more and more prominent. All this creeped us out, as if our shower water, dousing the rest of the room, was somehow mingling with the residue of hidden human waste, and cross-infecting the whole place. I feared these activated pockets of urine (and dirt and mildew) were becoming atomized and spread throughout the greater apartment, well beyond the visible arc of dampness. Very disturbing image, all of our bathroom detrius becoming a “weaponized” aerosol used against us. And all because of poor domestic engineering.

We couldn’t install a shower curtain because of the space and because all of the walls were impractically angled. Instead we learned to control our stream. We would turn on the water, splash up a particular body part, turn off the water, rebalance the showerhead on the knob/tap structure, then soap up the body part we’d dampened, grab the showerhead and turn the water back on for a rinse, and repeat steps for next body part needing a scrub. Once finished, find the sponge wedged between the wall and the pipe under the micro sink, mop up the tile floor outside the shower basin, lay down a small handtowel we'd designated a bathmat, step onto that and take second sponge out from beneath sink (also wedged between pipe and wall), lean down and mop up rest of bathroom floor. Rinse sponges thoroughly in micro-sink, wring out, wedge back into respective under-sink perches.

This routine had two advantages--well, three, really, because it #1 kept my showers short, #2 kept the bathroom very clean, and #3 became a ritual of zen-like exactitude. By the end of our time there, I had become very comfortable with this imposed rhythm, and I was actually sad to leave it. The Rue Bonaparte apartment, or Bonapartment, as we call it, our next home, came endowed with a nice big tub with a competently installed showerhead. Bittersweet....

Drawbacks to the Water Cave, however, (beyond the obvious), were potent. #1 it could be damn chilly, standing there with no water on to warm you, draughty winds through the flat snatching at yer naked, shivering, scrubbing figure--and the heat wouldn’t be turned on until our last two weeks. #2 though we learned to control the water flow so it didn’t contact the rafia and plywood disaster beyond the door threshold, stepping out into the shambolic foyer was always unnerving. #3 the drain soon became obstinately clogged, despite our scant shower-time, and the water backed up until it was threatening to spill over the modest lip of the shower base. This sucked. We searched the shelves of first Le Champion, then the Monoprix for an effective French Draino, with very marginal results. We made the pilgrimage to the BHV department store, which is a bit like Sears was when years ago it was simultaneously functioning as a Home Depot, a Best Buy and an upscale(ish) department store; we searched their basement for a suitably strong chemical clog-buster. What we found was a controlled substance, with a dummy model on the shelf, to be brought to a counter where some expert took the placebo into the “back room” and returned with the real thing. This stuff worked, which is probably why they make it so difficult to buy--a populace unencumbered with drain troubles might get restive... Within three weeks we were riding the Metro back to the BHV for another dose. The thing got clogged that quickly. And who likes to bathe with their feet submerged in standing run-off?

Bad thing #4 was that we were not always in the proper frame of mind for the demanding zen bathing ritual, or Water Cave Passage. Sometimes we just weren’t up to it, man, and dammit if we didn’t skip a day or two of showering. Some days it was just too harrowing, esp. in that first month--well, in the second, too--when we were trying to raise our consciousness to the level of Water Cave acceptance.

Sometimes we failed.

vendredi, janvier 27, 2006

Minus Two

Dear Wife checked the weather in Paris this morning, the first time she has done so all month. The low is currently being reported as minus 2.

She shouted this at me through the sliding glass door as I was walking out to the beach. It was 72 or so here, sunny.

"MINUS TWO!" she shouts through the sliding glass door. I acknowledge her, my face starts to go numb, and I stagger out onto the beach, my steps slowing as my state of shock keeps deepening.

"Minus TWO?"

That is so much colder than when we left. It was in the high 30's when the cab picked us up for the airport nearly a month ago. Now it's below zero?!?

I was unhappy knowing I should be forced to buy even more new clothes, the sort necessary to deal with that kind of cold. I hadn't bought a heavy overcoat while we were in Paris, it just seemed too expensive and too specialized, and besides, I couldn't find one I really liked. But now I'd need some kind of artic outerwear--heavy duty long underwear, too.

I'd stopped repeating, "Minus two?" out loud, over and over, but was still mutely agonizing over this news when Dear Wife came out to explain to me that the temperature was minus 2 degrees Centigrade, not fahrenheit. I'd never before been so thankful for the world of Celsius. Minus 2 C is just the high twenties or so (28.4, to be exact, thank you Versatile Unit Converter widget). High 20's we can handle.

mardi, janvier 24, 2006

"The day that you understand that what belongs to someone else does not belong to you, things will go better between yourself and society."

Pronouncement by French court when sentencing the dude that took a crack at Duchamp's famed urinal with a hammer.

lundi, janvier 23, 2006

I'm Just Going To Pretend...

...pretend I am still in Paris, and that I've been reliably posting a new entry every day for the past 3 weeks.

EUROCHINO, (EURO and not PARIS or FRANCOCHINO or something, because Dear Wife's continued research will be moving us to other European locations), was created to be a sort of online travelogue for friends and family. Sounds boring, does it? It is boring, apparently, because all of our immediate family convened for this post-holiday holiday, (a holiday that Dear Wife and I are still enjoying--a vacation from our vacation, we like to call it), and we learned they'd all barely glanced at EUROCHINO, the gift I thought I'd been giving them for Xmas. Back in good ol' 2005 (how long ago it seems already!), I'd been hesitating over every entry, knowing my mom might be reading it--or my father-in-law. Well, now I know better.

This news frees me up considerably.

I am no expert on blogs, or blogging, and anymore I can hardly stand to log onto one because I'm sure it'll be better than mine--and if not better, than certainly more popular. In this thickly settled blogosphere, a humbling experience is just a click away. There was a period of time not so long ago when the number of blogs and bloggers seemed roughly approximate to the size of an intelligible world, a place where you might not know everyone, but everyone seemed knowable: there were those two guys that did the animation blog, there was the girl in Paris, that guy in the Mountain Goats that did a tour diary, the nanny in New York, etc.... it all had the amiable scale of a 19th Century mid-sized city: an unexpectedly reassuring resurrection of this nostalgic notion of "a city," as opposed to a "community," (community implying homogeneity, i.e., "the animation community," or "The Bedouin community," whereas the city is that big blanket stitching together lots of little communities--that makes sense, right?). In the by-gone days of a comprehensible blogoscape (say, June 2004), there could be found a few self-directed voices representing many broadly definable communities: the fields of endeavor and expertise were vast, but the bloggers all shared a mixture of exhibitionism, a little embarassment ("I am not a geek"), some self-consciousness, and most of all, lots of enthusiasm for their subject. Frequently the subject they were so engaged by turned out to be their own life.

Now it feels different. And it feels different because of the scale. The scale is dizzying, the ambitions of every participant noticeably grander.

It makes me feel like a castaway Charelton Heston.

Which makes me wonder about the average above-average blogger--you know, the one who's got a readership of 1,000 and an expert entry nearly every day. The ones that have that sassy insouciance down pat. I know how back-breaking it has been crafting my meager output, so I imagine this fat wave of wow sites comes from a new breed of über-fecund authors. They must all share a very particular psychological/spiritual make-up, one unlike mine. Maybe it's a new sort of make-up, a new breed born of our digital age.

Sounds terrible when I put it like that, doesn’t it? But I think it’s true.

"Damn you! Damn you all to hell!"

mercredi, janvier 04, 2006


The EUROCHINO staff is currently being detained on a small, tropical island, location undisclosed (a sort of GITMO for writers). The interrogations (mostly about Paris) have been amiable so far, though there have been disconcerting misinterpetations of my writing at EUROCHINO.

We may be held here for sometime.

In the meantime, now that Internet service has been established here (good behavior), I will continue writing about Paris, using my extensive notes and sources to continue bringing you color and commentary on the City of Lights.