Friday, September 20, 2013

Archangel by Andrea Barrett

This new collection of stories by Andrea Barrett goes even further than her National Book Award collection Ship Fever.  These stories are stunning, and in my view, they are Barrett's best yet.  Read my review at www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/archangel

PARIS ON A SHOESTRING OF SORTS

My daughter Rozzie has moved to Paris for the year. Last week, while we were together in her tiny apartment, she told me about a disorder known as Paris Syndrome.  Evidently it often strikes the Japanese, who arrive with an idealized image of Paris that doesn't match reality.  They're expecting accordion players and quaint cafes, friendly men in stripey shirts and berets, stunning debutantes dressed in high fashion.   Instead, they find an enormous unwieldy city, indifferent to foreigners and heaving with traffic, metros spilling out grey faced commuters and occasional corners smelling of pee.  So these poor visitors break down psychologically. They find themselves reluctant to go outside. They experience hallucinations, dizziness and various other troubling symptoms.   The Japanese Embassy in Paris has even found it necessary to set up special desks to handle citizens suffering from this syndrome.

But isn't Paris perfect in so many ways? They just have it better than the rest of us, I thought last week, as I took the rickety lift up to Rozzie's 5th floor apartment. She's living in the 2nd arrondissement near the pedestrian street  Montorgeuil, which teems with cafes and chocolatiers, fishmongers and cheesemongers and any number of restaurants.  It's also a short walk from the Pompidou Center.  But everything seems like a short walk away when you're with a girl who loves to walk.  So I walked with my daughter to the Palais Royal and down to the Tuilleries Gardens. I walked with her to Saint-Germain-des-Pres and along the Seine, stopping at many cafes, or to browse in candle shops and florists, or to stroll through the lovely arcades.

We are city people, having lived in cities which are in some ways much less charming. We've lived in New York and London and Rome and Brussels. We have even lived in Moscow.  I can only imagine how I'd feel if I adhered to the Japanese ethic which respects obedience above all else, which values group harmony and always, always, avoids confrontation.  To paraphrase VS Naipaul, Paris is what it is. And foreign visitors who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.
Rozzie at a restaurant where Zola went for oysters

And even if you go to Paris with excellent French, a teaching job at the Sorbonne, and a willingness to accept the most humble accommodation, you will encounter difficulty.  What you consider 'small' and 'modest' must shift dramatically. "I don't think it's picky to expect an apartment that doesn't have a toilet in the only room," Rozzie said. "But evidently, I'm wrong."

We can laugh now.  In fact, we rocked with laughter, while sitting in her 10 by 10 square foot chambre de bonne up on the 5th floor, with its window view onto a wall.  This was her new seventh heaven, so yes we could laugh at the desperate hope and humiliation which marked her apartment hunt earlier that month.

I tell you this because she's given me permission, by the way. And because it's only funny because she is out of the woods.  Her price range was under $1000.00 a month.  She spent weeks checking fusac, pap.fr and seloger.fr as well as many message boards, and responding to ads which never answered back. Then, on a slender lead, she made a trip from London to see an advertised chambre de bonne (maid's room) in the 17th arrondissement.  She was equipped with a dossier which included a photocopy of her passport, bank information, her Avis disimposition, her last three pay slips,  and a letter of recommendation from two French citizens.

Stakes were high.  She had to move in two weeks time, and in spite of having looked for weeks, this was her very first lead.  Besides, others were also clambering over each other for this opportunity, so whoever got in the paperwork first would come out the winner.

The buzz words in Parisian apartment listings seem to be "calme et claire".  You judge if this one qualifies.  Rozzie found the building. She met the landlady. Together they climbed the winding seven flights to the room in question.  She saw it at a glance and although her heart sunk, told them she was interested, and would fax her paperwork as soon as she could. No problem at all.

Then she walked round Paris for hours, waiting for her Eurostar return.  Feet covered in blisters, she sat in a cafe making up lists.  This is what she wrote.


PROS:

beautiful area
lovely building ... and staircase
safe building and area
nice owner and gardien who liked me
very Parisian; no tourists
lots of markets, shops, restaurants - all seem well-priced
easy
private, probably alone on weekends.


CONS:

absolutely miniscule
seemed nervous about my signing papers from afar
far from any cool or young areas
has a toilet in the room (translation: this is a converted bathroom)
nowhere apparent to store clothes
single bed (translation: bed must fit in bathroom)
wouldn't be able to put much of a stamp on it
long staircase which may be weird in the dark (translation: loose cables hung into stairwell which owner pulled aside as they climbed)

She made a third list.

WHY IT MAKES ME FEEL SAD

--face up to limitations, financial and otherwise
--I don't have friends here and I'm all alone
--I don't have any idea of what kind of life I want to live
--I'm really tired and have blisters on my feet
- It is jumping in the deep end and I am not sure I'll like it.
--I'm generally so tired that it is very hard to imagine that I Am now here, let alone that I will be for a year.


No, we - her family and friends all chorused, when she came back from seeing this apartment.  You cannot take that place! And she held out.  Then, at the very last minute, really pressing her luck, she received a response on the apartment she now occupies. It's tiny but quiet and full of light, and the toilet is in a separate room.

But somebody else has taken that bathroom on the 7 floor walk-up.  There must be many bathrooms for rent in Paris, at exorbitant prices.  In some countries this might not be allowed for health reasons.  But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps this is the case for many world class cities now.  Paris is beautiful, but for the young and hopeful, it isn't what it was in Hemingway's day.



Monday, September 9, 2013

LONDON'S RESTING FACES

Rozzie and Atli's Vauxhall flat is just in front of a bus stop, so double decker busses regularly pull alongside their 2nd floor windows. When this happens, particularly at night, since the busses are lit up, you get a fleeting view of waiting passengers.  They don't know they are being observed.  We'd be sitting at the dining table as the busses pulled up and it was like being served a tableau. The passengers were in an insignificant moment for them.  But for us it was like a moving theatre.

I decided to take some photographs but they didn't turn out very well.  The flash spoiled it. Most of the time the passengers didn't know I was there - but once or twice someone did look over - sensing they were being observed, perhaps.  Then they might look uncomfortable - or else begin to giggle - and occasionally we would wave at each other, and once or twice blew kisses and laughed, before their bus pulled away.

I think Edward Hopper might have enjoyed painting these upper decks- with their empty seats lit up- and sparsely placed passengers, reading or sitting side by side, or glumly alone and waiting.  That was the point of it, really; they were waiting for something else to happen.  This wasn't it. They were in transit as well as in transition.  

But later in the week, we saw an extraordinary passenger.  He wasn't on a bus but in a van.  Rozzie and I had walked down the Southbank  - she'd been showing me her London - and we ended up at Borough Market. Under an archway, a crowd had gathered and people were pointing cameras and smart phones at this parked white van.

In the driver's seat sat a large man in a t shirt, his arms crossed, and an amused self satisfied smile on his face.  His passenger was a dog who looked almost human. The dog reminded me of those pigs at the end of Orwell's Animal Farm - whose faces had begun to turn human.  "The creatures outside looked from pig to man from man to pig and from pig to man again. But already it was impossible to say which was which."

Well, that's what this dog looked like. The nose and jowls had begun to turn pink and the expression was knowing and placid - also rather bored.  When a woman in the crowd reached to stroke his ears, he reacted not at all.  He simply stared out front.

There was another strange aspect about him.  His front legs were crossed, and resting on the open car window ledge, both pointing forwards.

Rozzie took his photograph. Later, sitting in Shad Thames having coffee, we still couldn't get over him. In fact, from that point on, we showed his picture to everyone we met. We showed it to Atli and to Robert and Sherry and all of the flatmates.  Rozzie showed it to her friends in Oxford. We emailed a copy to Ben and Alice and Clare back in Hingham - and when they didn't respond and we realised it must not have gone through, we made a point of sending the picture again.  There was no way you could see this photograph and not be astonished.

 What is the meaning in his expression?  I know you all - like Shakespeare's Prince Hal, I suggested? But no, that wasn't it. At last we realized what it was.  This dog had "bitchy resting face".