Monday, October 29, 2007

One weekend in Paris, Part II

So... where were we?

Ah yes, my last few days in Moscow...

My apartment was empty and my belongings en route to a warehouse in Germany (where they would be rifled through by thieves and vandals) for eventual dumping at my mom's house. I was wrapping things up at work and ready to spend a few days with my brother in Frankfurt before heading back to the United States.

P. was back in Moscow right before I left. He had returned from Paris and called, asking if he could deliver me to the airport for my last flight out of Russia. Having encountered a messed up, addictive personality or two in my past, I didn't want to discount his efforts at rehabilitation, and I agreed to accept his ride.

I also agreed to visit Paris for a long weekend. Just a quick trip to see the city before I headed home to the 'States. Man, that was a stupid, stupid decision.

Très, très stupide.

Travel Hint: if you agree to be the houseguest of someone with serious issues - especially in a country where you don't speak the language - make sure you arrive with local currency already in hand, the contact information for your country's embassy, and the phone number & address of a decent hotel. You'll thank me for this, trust me.

I flew to Paris from the safety and comfort of my brother's apartment in Frankfurt via Lufthansa, my brother's then-employer. Because I was flying on a heavily discounted family member ticket and could end up in first or business class, I had to dress the part. However, this was 1993, and I'd been in Moscow since the 80s. Let's just say that the dress-up fashion of the 80s really didn't age well. Picture, if you will, a rotund woman in a hot pink and black power suit (top - hot pink with a big black button at the top of the shoulder-padded jacket, bottom - a black, knee length skirt) with, God help me, hot pink slingback pumps. Yeah, hot pink pumps. Jeezus Christmas, what an awful thing!

Despite horrifying my fellow passengers with my own form of fashion terrorism, I made it to France in one piece. But, upon arrival at Charles de Gaulle, my host was nowhere in sight. This was well before we all had cell phones genetically attached to us, mind you, so I was left wandering around a really awful, confusing - and frankly, dirty - terminal for more than an hour. I wasn't even out of the airport yet, and I had a bad feeling about this trip.

Finally, P. appeared and when I asked him what had happened, he just laughed - very nervously - and blew off my query. We got into an elevator to take us up to the parking garage, and one of my pink slingback heels lodged itself into the overly wide space between the elevator and the closing doors.

The elevator won. My pink heel was ripped off my shoe, leaving me hopping around in an already ridiculous-for-the-90s ensemble in Paris, of all places. No worries, P. told me. We'd go to his flat, I could change, and then, we'd see the city.

But we never got to P.'s apartment that morning. Twice, he stopped to make phone calls, leaving me in the car and never explaining what was going on. I saw the edge of the city come into view, and then fade away as we turned into the suburbs. "We're going to see my parents," P. announced. This, I had not planned on.

I had met P.'s mother once before in Moscow. A Jew from Algeria, Mama P. did not speak any English, and my French was limited to a few phrases, although I could understand a good bit of what was spoken to me. P. had dumped his mother with me one day in Moscow, and I had to take her souvenir shopping on the Arbat, a quaint street lined with gift shops and cafes. We had trudged the length of the street in near silence, except for me using Sesame Street-level French to answer her queries of "combien?" whenever she found a trinket she wanted. We finally bonded - as much as we could, under the circumstances - when Lady Marmelade started to pour out a speaker on the street. At least we could sing the chorus together! Me, the Algerian Jew, and Patti Labelle, belting it out a few blocks from the Kremlin:

Voulez vous coucher avec moi, se soir?
Voulez vous coucher avec moi?

(Moscow, was, kids, one really weird place.)

At least I knew I would have a warm welcome from P.'s maman. As for P.'s papa? I couldn't guess. I'd heard a lot of strange things about him. P.'s father, I understood, constantly had flashbacks to Vietnam. He had been a paratrooper with the French military back in the 50s, dropping in twice on Dien Bien Phu, where some bad shit had happened to him, and he was, I had been told, never quite the same.

We arrived at the parents' place unannounced. I had guessed - incorrectly - that one of P.'s many calls along the way had been to his 'rents to let them know we were coming. No such luck. Mom P. was dressed in a slip, had curlers in her hair and toilet paper stuffed between her freshly painted toes. Dad P. was just in his jockey shorts and socks. Both had cigarettes burning away in their nicotine-stained hands. But, to their credit, they welcomed me warmly.

And, as soon as we arrived, me in my hot pink mess and broken shoe, P. vanished with the car - and my luggage. He was gone for two hours, during which Mom P. railed at one of her older children over the phone and Dad P. sat silently with me in front of the TV, where we watched The Simpsons and a Jacques Cousteau special. Our entire interaction was:

Dad P.: Jacques Cousteau? (grunt)
Me: Jacques Cousteau! Oui! (offering a big thumbs up)
Dad P.: Oui, Jacques Cousteau.

Let's hear it for international understanding!

Eventually, P. showed up again with no explanation of his disappearance. He immediately insisted that his parents get dressed and we all go for lunch. We packed ourselves into P.'s tiny car (mind you, I'm still in the shitty suit and broken shoe) and went to a Vietnamese restaurant. A Vietnamese restaurant in an Arab suburb of Paris with a guy who has Vietnam flashbacks.

P.'s father immediately got into a heated half-French, half-Vietnamese argument with one of the women working at the joint, P.'s mother went out to the payphone in the lobby to continue screaming at one of her kids, and P. himself quickly ordered our food and then vanished again, leaving me at the table alone.

I'll say this, the food was good. The company was... sitcom-like.

P. resurfaced after a while, paid the bill, and whisked me away, without a moment to say goodbye to his parents, whom he simply left at the restaurant.

I wasn't sure what was up, but P. was acting more bizarrely than I'd ever seen him in Moscow. Drugs? Turning tricks? I pondered all the unsavory possibilities and, quietly, calmly, I asked him what the hell was going on. He just laughed everything off and said all was well. It wasn't even a good lie. I realized this was a trip where I would have to try to make the most of a challenging situation. I asked to stop at a bank to change money, but he told me not to worry about it yet. He'd pay for everything this trip! Being an awfully independent sort, that didn't make me very happy.

He drove me through the heart of the city, at last, and it was, I have to admit, very lovely. P. wanted to stop for coffee, but I'd had enough of limping around in the broken shoe, and I insisted we go to his flat so I could change.

He lived in a tiny efficiency in a quiet neighborhood. I couldn't tell you where it was to save my life now, but it was pleasant and tidy, and I felt safe. P.'s actual apartment was a sea of chaos with laundry and bedding tossed every which way. There were no chairs. You either sat on the edge of his futon or you stood. Living like that would have made me crazy in fairly short order. I determined I wouldn't spent much time in the apartment. I only had four full days in town, anyway.

In short order, P. made a few phone calls in rapid fire Arabic. Raised a Catholic by an Armenian father and a Jewish mother from North Africa, P. walked a fine cultural line in France. He fit in many places without really fitting in anywhere. He spoke French, Arabic, Russian, English, and Armenian - he was an intelligent man, but a troubled, and sometimes downright stupid man. And he also knew I didn't understand a word of Arabic. Once off the phone, P. told me he was running out to grab pizza for our dinner. That was at 6 p.m.

He didn't come back until 11 the next morning...

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