Sunday, May 2, 2010

Paris: Getting Back

Wilde dreams swept on throughout the night. I tumbled restless, captured by the sheets: my face on fire, my fingers frantic to rip the offending fabric from me; my skin in shivery icicle bumps, piling on blanket after blanket. Hot-cold-hot-cold commenced my first night in Paris, trying to find rest in the room Oscar Wilde died in. In the impression he left behind, I dreamt in satire.
Our shared love of language had drawn me first to Paris. I'd pined over her for as long as I knew the word "expat," reminiscing over high school English class discussions of authors gone rogue. That will be me one day, I'd decided: I will be like Hemmingway, like Pound, like Wilde. Paris was the welcoming arms of a public who loved my stories never mind that my books were not yet translated into French. To the city, to Paris itself, it only matters that I am a writer. In time I would learn to write in the language of the city of light. Until then, commence en anglais. T'apprendrait.
I'd received an advance for a novel I'd written some time ago and I flew to Europe to spend it all on a dream. It wasn't exactly a whim but neither was it my most carefully laid out of plans. I hadn't arrived on Wilde's deathbed by accident, either. No, the price was far too unreasonable for that. I'd arranged three nights to absorb the spirit of my childhood hero, before I moved into an apartment just over the hill and out of the tourists, across the street from Joyce's old haunt. I would surround myself with ghosts, suck their stories up against my consciousness. I was a writer living in Paris. The Greats had paved the way.
"How romantic," my agent declared, though I could tell from her distraction that she was answering e-mails while she pressed me for a word count, "Now, as to your next project, I'm going to need a proposal soon. Your publisher is interested in a multi-book deal, but we need an idea to sell them."
I dangled myself off the railing of the bridge and Paris held me up. I am in love.
"Hello? Crystal? are you there?"
"Mmm. Jetlag. What?"
"Have you started your new book?"
"Uh... yeah, well not exactly but I have some prewriting. It's about poker, look, can I call you back, le tour eiffel est.. lighting up. I have a desperate need to stare unblinkingly into it."
When I left America I had my cat, a healthy bank account, and a mind so full of stories that I was sure to have something written about soon. In time, the distractions of the city would dwindle and I would lock myself in for furious hours behind a writing desk. Paris was, after all, the perfect place to craft a new story. Writing and Paris went together like peanut butter and bananas, two things that, six weeks into my move I was dying to munch. You see, writing is hungry work. Personally I don't believe in writer's block, but I do believe in difficult passages that require hours of pondering and multiple snack breaks. And if that snack break takes one, two, three hours, all the better to get this ecrieuse back on track and working hard.
I push back from my desk, troubling over my main character's last name. Perhaps a snack will help me think of one, I say to ma chat. Twelve blocks, four courses and a bottle of wine later I'd be ready to get back to work. Paris facilitates extended snack breaks.
And then perhaps a nap and a bubble bath as well.
I wasn't my most productive in Paris. I was not madly scribbling out a 55,000 word novel in six weeks, letting go of my friends, mon petit ami and my personal hygiene in the urgency that pressed my story onward. Ici, there was really no rush to continue working on the travel writing, or on that ever elusive poker novel: my own white whale. I started to let my agent go through to voicemail.
It was on my fourth month in Paris when the tens hit me all at once, like a gang of muggers in an ally. My agent had given me ten weeks to write a new proposal: time's up. Depressed by my lack of even an idea, I decided to console myself with, yes, food, and held my breath to squeeze into my black skirt. This same skirt had enough slack back in California that it sometimes slipped dangerously down close to my panty line when I danced. That was ten pounds, at least. I traded clothes, opting for a wrap around and stopping once more to consider the work I'd managed since the move. Ten journal pages, all of it useless ramblings on politics or my take on comparative world religion or something equally as non-salable.
Furthermore, I was ten days into an expired visa and not really sure what that meant.
Ever the pragmatist, my new friend Evelyn pondered my story of the tens over a glass of red wine. "Aren't you afraid to be deported?" she asked at last.
Deported? Deported was something that happened to illegal immigrants, hoping to find a new life in a new country but not willing or able to go through the proper naturalization process; refugees attempting to make the swim to Florida when the Coast Guard draweth near; high school English teachers with foreign accents in Arizona. Deportation was not on the radar for Euro-mutt Americans like myself. I told her as much.
"Yes, but you are not French. You are an illegal immigrant to the EU."
I hadn't considered that, as true and as stupidly obvious as it was. "I am an illegal immigrant." I said the words, made them real. Evelyn shrugged and nodded her confirmation.
Now what?
I play the role of the fearless adventurer. I jet off around the world to attempt daring feats. I come armed with equal amounts of pluck, open-mindedness and total ignorance. Well, at least, that's who I am when I return to my comfy office chair to type up the stories. That's who I am after I've picked all the bugs out of my hair and I no longer have to ride my bike through an African prison. In real life, my fearlessness is directly proportional to how safe I feel at any given moment. This was not a safe place to be and a thick, syrupy wave of panic coursed through my body. I had a vision of myself, the door to the warehouse kicked in, us illegals gathered up, forced at gunpoint from the country that we had grown to love, but who had not learned to love us back. I would babble a tearful goodbye to my friends, the ones with proper working papers. They would see me off as the police escorted me to the airport, forced me aboard an Air France flight where I would be crying too hard to taste the complimentary champagne through all the salt water spilling into my glass. France was abandoning me at LAX.
"I don't think that is what will happen."
"How then, Evelyn, how. How will your people deport me back to the US."
"I think, you will be simply asked to leave."
My plan to defect to Paris was drowning. I am not cut out to be a rule breaker, and I spent the next few days pouring over my fate on the consulate's website, where I learned that one couldn't just show up on France's doorstep without the proper paperwork. And this paperwork had to be delivered in person, in quadruplicate, in San Francisco. I also needed a letter from my mom saying that it was okay for me to stay in France and that she would give me $800 a month. Or, oh, wait, that was for the extended-stay-student visa not the extended-stay-writer-pretending-to-be-James-Joyce visa. It wasn't this hard for Laertes. Merde.
I'd arrived with an idea, a seed of a plan wherein I would appear in Paris with a round trip ticket and simply not get back on the airplane. Well, I did that part of it, and figured, who's going to tell me to go home.
The French government, it turns out.
And I had to pay for my own one-way ticket back.

1 comment:

  1. My dad was kicked out of Paris - he boasts of it every time he eats cheese.