5.2: Paris Partie Deux
Philippe & Pierre. A Paris Loathe Story.
The fact is, I should have known.
From the moment I stepped off the train in St-Lazar and straight into a hustle-and-bustle that was nothing like the quaint and carefree Paris I’d been preparing for, I should have known.
Maybe it was the intoxicating promise of famous wines and fresh croissants, or the sight of beautifully dressed, beautiful people rushing about the city center, talking quickly and effortlessly in a language that included none of the phrases I’d been practicing, which were comprised almost entirely of different variations of “I am sorry, I speak little French, do you speak English?” I’d even practiced them with an accent, but quickly scrapped that idea when I realized I might be sending mixed messages. “You don’t speak Franchhhe, you say, and yet you ‘ave a convincingly Franche accahhnnt,” I’d imagined a man in a tophat saying, twirling one end of his mustache while eying me suspiciously through a monocle.
I should have known when I came upon the Arc de Triomphe wrapped in the world’s largest tarp. While so many tourists stared in glorious wonder at what was billed as an art installation, all I could think of were the poor bastards who would have to fold that thing up once this terrible idea came to an end.
“They won’t be Frenchmen, that’s for sure,” my famous author friend Jeff Hull said (Pale Morning Done, Broken Field and more – look out for the lovable character of Pud!). “They’d just stand there arguing for hours on end about how to do it before leaving to drink some wine in a café.”
I should have known when the most impressive thing about Notre Dame Cathedral during my visit was the size of the crane being used to repair the worst damage this architectural wonder had endured since the French Revolution.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I found myself 3,500 miles from home, in Paris, the café capital of the world – at a fucking Starbucks.
In my defense, I was only there for the wifi – and sure, maybe a Cappuccino, and hell, I was already there so might as well throw in one of those Pain au Chocolats. But mostly it was the wifi, which would only be available for another fifteen minutes, until 7PM.
In a defining moment I would misconstrue as great luck, I would find an AirBnB with just ten minutes to spare, and have my request accepted with five.
Dad comes through again, I thought. Maybe Elle-B is onto something with this whole spirituality thing…
My blessings, however, would be short-lived.
At 7:05, wifi gone, laptop packed away, a contented smile on my face, I would receive a call from Philippe, the host of the room in which I would be spending the night, informing me that she was working, and wouldn’t be home to let me in until 10PM.
My very soul only slightly crushed to its core, I kindly explained to Philippe that I’d been traveling since 7AM, had been walking many hours, and many miles, with a loaded, heavy pack on my back, and I was so very tired.
“I will see what I can do,” she told me in a delightful French accent that held unlimited promise. “I will call you.”
Between the prospects of additional sightseeing, a little dinner, a glass of wine perhaps, maybe an espresso, having to kill a couple of hours in Paris seemed like a wonderful problem to have. I decided to make my way toward my address for the evening, 126 Rue de Rennes, so I would be close at hand when Philippe called to tell me she’d finished her work early, and was on her way.
Around 8:30 I came across Le Traite d’Union, a cafe with picturesque outdoor seating and just the right amount of customers. And the best part was, it was just a few doors down from where I would lay my head in just in just an hour or so.
As luck would have it, Collum, an English-speaking Irishman from Donegal, would be my waiter. In each passing, I told a little more of my story, he of his.
I enjoyed a beer, and then a glass of the suggested Pessac-Leoanan Bordeaux. Then I had a second, occasionally checking my phone to make sure I hadn’t missed my call from Philippe, all the while entranced by the vibrance and fashion and beauty of the people passing by in this hypnotic city.
Unfortunately, this particular story is not about the vibrance and fashion and beauty of Paris, so we’re going to skip ahead a bit.
By 10:10PM, my phone still had not rung, and even Collum was becoming visibly annoyed with Philippe. Tired of waiting, I called her, but got no answer. I left a message, and followed that with a text. I paid my bill, bid Collum Au Revoir, and walked to wait by her door. At 10:20 I received my reply. Philippe was upstairs cleaning the flat, she said, and would need 25 minutes more.
“I am literally standing outside the door, Philippe, and I am exhausted,” I replied. “I don’t care if there’s a dead body in the room, just leave it and I’ll sleep in the other corner.”
I can see now, with the benefit of hindsight, as I transpose those words, how a message like that one, especially with a language barrier, could maybe possibly come across as slightly disconcerting. But in that moment I didn’t care, as I felt I had more than earned a bit of snark.
Her next reply informed me this was all my fault to begin with, “for having reserved so late in the day,” she said. That, in turn, caused me to feel the slightest plink of what might very well have been a very, very tiny aneurysm.
After asking if there really was even a room, that perhaps I’d been hameçonné (phished, for my culturally illiterate American friends), Philippe replied that she was sending her boyfriend Francois down to let me in.
This was the first I’d heard of Francois.
Now, in case you’re wondering why I’d kept the reservation in the first place, well, rooms were quickly disappearing and, as I’d mentioned, my wifi connection was about to disappear. But more importantly, this unit had both a washer and dryer, and I really needed to do laundry. If I could start around 10, I could be asleep by 12, I’d reasoned, and could start the next day well-rested and with a clean pack of clothes.
A moment later, a very small Frenchman – about the size of Louis LeBeau, but looking more appropriately gaunt – with slicked back black hair and a wisp of a mustache, stood in the almost comically large entranceway for a man of his challenging stature.
“You are with Philippe?” I asked.
“I am Phillipe,” he said.
“Wait, you are Phillipe?” I asked, confused.
“Oui, Philippe, Francois,” he seemed to say.
If I’m being completely honest, at that particular moment I didn’t much care who he was. He could have been wearing a leather mask and told me his name was Hannibal, but as long as there was promise of a bed and pillow inside, I was walking through that goddamn door.
We entered the courtyard, and I headed for the stairs.
“Non, ici. Here,” he said, pointing to a ground floor door.
“But Philippe – I think Philippe – she said she was upstairs.”
“Non, here,” he repeated, standing by the door.
Half expecting it to open to a dimly lit back alley where I would be greeted with a beating from a gang of out-of-work street mimes using day-old baguettes, I nevertheless stepped through the threshold and was pleasantly surprised to find myself standing inside a small, but nicely appointed apartment.
Francois/Philippe showed me around the place, which consisted of one nice clean bedroom (where I would be sleeping), a small living room (where he would be sleeping on a pull-out sofa), a small kitchen, and a large, clean, well-stocked bathroom. It was everything you’d expect to have in a Paris couple’s apartment. All except for the couples part – his supposed girlfriend.
“Where is Philippe?” I asked, still not sure if he was Francoise, Philippe, or possibly both.
“Philippe, ehhh, not here,” he said, looking around as if to emphasize her lack of presence.
“Did she leave through a back door or something?” I asked. “She was literally just here. She said she was upstairs and sending you down. I’m terribly confused, Francois, but honestly, I’m also terribly exhausted. The listing mentioned there is a washer and dryer?”
He pointed to the washing machine behind him, across the living room, just on the other side of his bed, about three feet from his pillow. It appeared that if I wanted clean clothes, I would have to work around Francois, or maybe climb over him. At this point, I expected nothing less.
Less, however, is exactly what I got.
“And the dryer?”
He walked me to the bathroom, and pointed to a drying rack, which is essentially a tiny porcelain ladder attached to the wall, maybe three feet high, two feet wide, with about a dozen rungs running horizontally. You hang your wet clothes, turn on the heat, and voilá. Which is fine if, say, you’re drying a pair of light, French socks and some delicates, or perhaps your rain-misted beret, but I had a full backpack of laundry. A couple pair of pants and shorts, a half dozen tees, a long sleeve, a button down, a flannel, not to mention underwear and a few pair of thick hiking socks.
What I needed from Francois, was a real fucking dryer.
“Ohhh, non-non-non-non, Francois. Nonnnn…nonnn,” I said, employing my devastatingly accurate French accent to accentuate the disappointment that was dripping from my lips, my eyes, my ears, my very pores.
“That…that is not a dryer. The listing said a dryer, Francois, and that is most definitely not a dryer. That is a rack. Do you have any idea how many clothes I have to wash? They’ll never dry on that. This just keeps getting more absurd. Look,” I said, reaching for my phone to show him a copy of the listing.
While I scrolled through my phone, he was dialing a number on his, the number of a woman who, to my surprise, would turn out to be Philippe. Even in French I could tell by the manner in which they spoke that they had never been, and would never be, a couple. A moment later he tried handing me the phone.
“Thank you, Francois,” I said, declining. “But honestly, I am just so completely exhausted at this point that I just want to go to bed.”
He and Philippe spoke a moment more before hanging up, and then he turned to me and said, “I will do laundry for you,” his pencil-thin mustache slightly aquiver.
I declined this terribly kind and terribly weird offer from a man I’d met just five minutes ago to wash my underwear, especially since washing them wasn’t really the problem. And if he had his own special way of drying them faster than that rack could, I’d rather not know.
“Thank you, but no, Francois,” I said. “At this point I think I’m just going to go to bed.”
We bid each other goodnight. I changed clothes, brushed my teeth, and was fast asleep before my head hit the pillow. In what seemed like mere minutes later I would be awakened by a tiny little dog barking in the other room, followed by Francois telling it to shush.
“Did the listing mention a fucking dog?” I found myself trying to remember as I stared into the strange French darkness. “Of course it didn’t mention a fucking dog.”
I looked to my phone to see the time. 4AM. It was then that I saw three missed calls. The first was at 12:38, the second at 12:40, the third at 12:54.
I listened to the messages from Philippe, one nearly three minutes long, the last left almost two hours after I’d fallen asleep. In them she would accuse me of being “crazy, drunk, and violent,” demanding that I leave her home at once.
I laid there in disbelief, honestly wondering for a moment if maybe she had called me mistakenly, thinking I was someone else, her real boyfriend, perhaps.
I then began to do the math. It was 4AM, and I was still deadly exhausted. Her last call had come over three hours ago. If she truly meant that I – and not someone else – was “crazy, drunk, and violent,” and needed to leave her home at once, surely the gendarmes would have woken me by now, and I would be drinking instant cappuccino and eating a day old croissant while being forced to read a well-worn copy of Les Miserables while lying on a clean and relatively comfortable prison cell bunk. Or at least Francois, sleeping twenty-five feet away, would have knocked to tell me I had a phone call before running out the front door and away from the crazy, drunken, violent man who refused to leave his home. But there had been no gendarmes. And Francois hadn’t left. Nor had his tiny little dog.
So, I did what any reasonable person who might find him or herself in a similarly tenuous – if not downright dangerous – situation might do.
I went back to sleep.
In the morning I would pretend to be hearing Philippe’s messages for the first time, letting out a “Huh?” and “What the??” for the benefit of Francois and his tiny little dog, should they be listening at the door.
I didn’t shower, feeling that might be a little too instigatory and risk putting me in poor favor with the gendarmes should they actually appear, but I did take my time cleaning up, packing, making up the room as reasonably as I could, but not too much, and being sure to take photos upon my exit. I bid Francois and his tiny little dog a simple but satisfyingly curt “Au Revoir” before leaving, and, just in case, snapped one last picture of my bedroom from the courtyard window, through which Philippe probably peered while leaving her insane messages just hours before.
My fight with Philippe would go on for several days, via the AirBnB messaging app, she claiming untruths and inconsistencies, all of which I was happy to counter by simply pointing to our documented conversations. It ended when I suggested the AirBnB intermediaries simply ask her to describe me. What I’d been wearing. Whether I wore glasses or not. Describe my hair or even skin color. “We never even met,” I told them.
Later, when my friend Margot pointed out that there seemed to be just one common denominator in all of my AirBnB mishaps to date – an accidental BnE (innocent!), an incorrect floor (innocent!), an incorrect key code (innocent!), etc., now all amusingly quaint by comparison – I would also learn from her friend Beate that this is not such an uncommon tactic in the AirBnB world. If a host gets wind that a bad review might be coming their way, putting their status with AirBnB in jeopardy, some will launch preemptive attacks, with accusations as serious as “drunken violence” blunting mundanities like “Late check-in <<sad emoji>>,” “That’s not a real dryer, Francois!” or “A tiny little fucking dog barked at 4AM!“
The effect on the guest however, can be substantial. And in my case, with months more AirBnB’s ahead of me, potentially devastating.
In the end, I would get my money refunded. I don’t know if anything happened to Philippe. Whether she was reprimanded or removed, or whether the team at AirBnB simply went back to their lives, their cappuccinos, and their croissants.
The next morning, as I walked the cool, early morning streets of Paris looking for a laundromat, I couldn’t help but ask my dear friend, Elle-B, who, despite my unwavering insistence on a potentially mild attachment to agnosticism, still insists that I will find God somewhere along this journey, “Where the hell was Dad’s guiding spirit in THAT mess?”
The answer would come just a couple of hours later, strolling along the Seine with a clean pack of clothes on my back, and a warm coffee and pain au chocolat in my stomach, when I happened upon the famous Shakespeare and Co. bookstore. A sign immediately inside the door reminded me that not all lessons in life can come from a parent’s literal or spiritual handholding, that sometimes you need to be thrown into the fire and figure it out yourself.
So I decided that maybe Dad was with me after all, giving me a hand by letting mine go, reminding me, as he occasionally would, that sometimes you just need to figure shit out for yourself.
To those who know me, or have read any of my prior entries, it will come as no surprise that this long story, made short, wasn’t so short after all. But at least you can count on my being consistent, just as you can count on another, incontrovertible truth…