©2019 (Unedited Excerpt from my memoir)
A good neighborhood—Le café “Aux Deux Magots,” feverish with activity on Le Boulevard St Germain, faces La Rue de Rennes and right there, on the same sidewalk the little church of St Germain stands as always. I live in the center of Paris between the churches of St Germain and St Sulpice. I barely acknowledge them, reserving my ecstatic admiration for Notre-Dame.
Early mornings, before traffic begins, I walk in front of the majestic edifice. In winter, I gaze at the cathedral when the freshness of the air retains in its suspension a bit of mysterious creepiness—emanation from frozen gargoyles. Motionless, they stare—mouths and faces deformed with a fixed look that chills my bones and adds to the iciness of winter.
Summer evenings, I sit on a bench of Notre-Dame’s paved square and watch in its somber shadow entertainers and tourists. Some play guitars, others spit fire or juggle what look like dozens of balls. To think about how much Notre-Dame has witnessed over the centuries makes me daydream about scenes from previous centuries, people wearing different outfits and costumes. Other lives, with other concerns, dreams and hopes.
For now, I share this room with Yvette, on the left bank. Our garret, about 6 feet wide and 18 feet long, follows the seasonal temperatures: cold in the winter and hot in the summer. An electric hot plate cooks morning oatmeal which I enrich with milk in the winter. But early spring, the room temperature determines what we can buy, what stays cool. I cook oatmeal in water only. I don’t mind.
There is of course, no running water, just a faucet in the hallway, next to the toilets which serve the entire 7th floor’s occupants. We keep two buckets. One with clean water, which we pour into the sink, the other bucket kept under the sink, fills up with the used water which we then pour down the toilets. Everyone’s routine on this floor.
The garret offers no window per se, but merely, a reachable but small skylight which gives a skinny and rectangular view of the Parisian winter view of gray clouds, or a spring blue sky. It opens on hinges with a rod and notches. A narrow escape to the outside world which doubles as our only painting, our only lithography, our only photograph in this room that I call home. It brings in a ray of sunshine or cold rain and makes the elements of nature very real. I sit on the floor, spread my schoolbooks. Next to me, my camping cot stands straight up against the wall and this way, leaves some floor space. Every morning, I roll up my sleeping bag which I tuck next to it. I listen to the street noises. I can only guess what happens down below in the street. Blind with my eyes wide open, I can see only the sky and its changing moods.
A siren down below attracts my attention. Is it a car accident far enough from my neighborhood that I didn’t hear the crash? Or an elderly woman who broke her hip and fell? A car skids on the pavement. From my garret, I hear slamming doors and honking cars. Buses put on their brakes and then take off. Their doors make that ssshhhhh noise as they open and close. I can only guess my city down below which lives its life without me as witness. In the same way I can only guess what my life is all about.
At night, I lie down in my sleeping bag, snuggled between the two edges of the narrow camping cot: it feels good. I sleep well. I feel safe—I have a roof over my head. That was not the case when I first returned to Paris. No work, no money and therefore no place to stay. Sometimes, I chose to not return to my parents’ house. After class, I strolled through the campus and approached strangers with friendly faces. I asked them for a corner where I could sleep.
Sometimes I could stay for a couple of nights on an old sofa. On days when luck deserted me, I kept warm in cafés. At a round table, I drank my tea, opened a notebook and studied until it was late enough to venture back into the street in search of an open apartment building.
Back then, I pushed on all doors leading to dark courtyards. When one opened, I entered, my feet unsure on the cobblestones. I listened to noises, jumped at the shadowy presence of a cat. Around me, lifeless windows and people asleep in their apartments. I cozied myself up at the end of a cold hallway and hoped to not be discovered by a latecomer who could kick me out. My orange backpack doubled as my pillow and contained everything I needed—carefully folded clean clothes, soiled ones in plastic bags, my warm down feather sleeping bag, some toiletries and of course my heavy schoolbooks.My backpack and I have been living as gypsies. But I was never late to my early morning class because I stayed in the city and my father didn’t have the opportunity to put me down.
Now, in this seventh-floor garret, I am glad I have a secure place, I am glad those homeless nights are over. Back then, I dreaded the early mornings too. Before daybreak, the noise of an unlocking door brought me to my feet. I couldn’t ignore my backache, but somehow, I had to manage to slide out of my sleeping bag. I slipped my feet into my Cashmere short boots and stumbled downstairs, backpack on one shoulder and sleeping bag in my arms, grateful for the hat on my head, my gloves on my hands and the granted safe night. In the courtyard, I passed in front of the concierge’s glass door. When the lights were on, I waved and kept on going. Sometimes, from the corner of my eyes, I noticed the lifting of a white lacy curtain by an invisible hand.
Photo Credits: Huy Phan from Pexels.com