French Like Me (Part 5)


Christine lived her life in Paris but slept in Arcueil, a quaint, quiet commune (birthplace of designer Jean-Paul Gaultier) three short métro stops outside of the southernmost city limit. She rented a small apartment on the second floor of a three-story building at 47 rue Victor Carmignac. Around the corner, the busy two-way avenue Aristide Briand led straight to the fourteenth arrondissement of Paris ess than two miles away.

The bulbs hanging from her ceilings radiated through multicolored light fixtures she’d brought back from holiday in Morocco. On her living room wall, a framed print of Italian painter Gino Severini’s abstract Sea=Dancer took me back to when she bought the poster four years ago—at the Guggenheim museum in Venice where we shared a vacation. Like heavy drapes in hotels, the typically French metal shutters in her window gave me relief from the bright sunlight when I first arrived from New York full of jet lag. Her folded-out futon proved as comfortable as the sleigh bed I’d left behind in Harlem, her bedroom separated from the living room by long curtains the same red and orange shades of Buddhist monk robes. Christine still hadn’t upgraded to a DVD player, videotapes of favorite movies like 37°2 le Matin and La Femme d’à Côté stacked next to her TV set.

Ten nights had come and gone since I showed up again in Christine’s life; the following day I was going back to New York City. But I never saw our week and a half ensemble as a vacation. I knew my plan to move to Paris would have to unfold in progressive stages, and this was the first: finding out if Christine and I still had any heat as a couple; looking for an apartment and a job; and discovering if Paris was still someplace I could see myself living, after my earlier taste of the city ten whole years ago.

Christine turned me on more than ever with her lacy Lejaby lingerie, her love for Salman Rushdie books and a passion for cooking that I’d never known about before. Jobs weren’t falling from the sky, but I thought some freelance writing might tide me over until I found permanent work. The Internet made the world much smaller; it would be easy to edit articles with American magazine editors via email. And Paris was still Paris. I had fallen in love with Nutella crêpes all over again. The gardens of Luxembourg and Tuileries were inspirational for brainstorming in my journal. And I was an ocean away from my distracting social life back in Manhattan. My first book was scheduled for release in four months and its jacket said I already currently lived here, a “fake it till you make it” philosophy in full effect.

The City of Light was seductive. Chez Adel, a colorful bar with live music nearby the trendy Canal Saint-Martin area, gave Christine’s cousin Vincent a slot on piano and I helped him warm up with my own limited repertoire of pop songs. Being able to play “Raspberry Beret” in Paris, even for a handful of the bistro’s oblivious regulars, encouraged me even more to stay a couple of years. Miguel, a record company publicist I knew, met me for drinks at Le Fumoir to share essential info about his 2003 move here. “The last American the French kicked out was killing people,” Miguel said with a laugh. “They assume we all have money to spend, so they’re more than happy to have us. Don’t sweat the residence card.” At Pur’Grill I drank Beaujolais with Margeaux, a writer on a press junket whom I knew from back home. “I’ve never seen you so Zen!” Margeaux said. I was the first to admit that the city agreed with me.

Vincent volunteered to drive me to the airport the next morning. Christine borrowed her parents’ Renault tonight for another reason: Jean-Claude, her Martinican salsa instructor, was deejaying a party on L’Alizé, a boat docked in the river Seine. The Latin explosion that reached an American peak around 1999—when Jennifer Lopez’s booty was the latest fashion—hit Paris around three years later, and Christine joined her girlfriend Nadia’s salsa class. Newly thirty-something, they were feeling too mature for most clubs but still felt like going out to dance and meet guys, and they found the perfect outlet at Salsabor with hundreds of other students. Christine met nearly all of the friends she introduced me to this month in those classes. Romances regularly spun out of Jean-Claude’s group, including Christine and her most recent ex.

Latin music was not my thing at all, but a riverboat party on the Seine didn’t sound like a bad way to wrap up my trip. We arrived about eleven, a starry sky and full moon giving a picture-perfect backdrop to the twirling dancers and brassy blasts of Tito Puente music. Christine walked us straight to Jean-Claude, who just finished choosing the perfect Héctor Lavoe record for the sweaty, well-dressed crowd. Clean-shaven and thin in his dashiki, Jean-Claude left his chunky headphones and turntables behind, kissed Christine’s cheeks twice and greeted me with a handshake before choosing another song. His girlfriend Sophie, an equally skinny brunette with expressive brown eyes, embraced us with double bises and the three of us found Nadia outside on the deck, cooling off from a hot dance.

A changeover to zouk music evoked some cheers inside and Sophie dashed back to the dance floor. A tourist cruiser floated slowly down the Seine shining its floodlights, sightseers waving. Nadia asked what I thought of salsa, shooting an expectant glance at Christine.

“I like some of the rhythms,” I said diplomatically, “but honestly, it doesn’t move me.” Christine translated my English, as she did so often. “I don’t understand the words, and unless I’m concentrating, it all sounds the same to me.” Nadia laughed, already guessing that I wasn’t a Latin music lover.

“But there’s more,” I responded. “I heard plenty of salsa in the Bronx. I was raised around lots of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, and they would have thought I was phony or trying to steal their culture if I got interested in Latin music. Black people in my neighborhood felt that way about white kids who came to the community centers dancing to hiphop in the beginning. This party is beautiful, but isn’t salsa just a fad for all these French people?”

Now it was my turn to chuckle. I wasn’t trying to be rude to Nadia but I already knew that strong, contrary opinions were more respected here than politesse. Christine spoke up on Nadia’s behalf.

“Latin because they’re speaking Spanish?” she asked. “They’re black, d’accord? Salsa is from Cuba, and Cubans are black. Slave ships stopped there just like they did in Martinique and the United States.”

“That’s true,” I admitted. “But don’t you think Latinos in Paris might be cynical about this scene? In America, people who grew up listening to salsa since they were young would look at all these white French people and see a trendy thing happening. They would look like intruders, interested in salsa for a year or two just to meet people to have sex with. When they’re done with it and disappear again, the real people who started it might be glad they’re gone.”

“Ce n’est pas vraiment comme ça,” Nadia said. She understood more English than she was able to speak, and so no translation was necessary. She quickly responded to me through Christine.

“When Nadia went to Manhattan this year on vacation, she danced around at a lot of salsa parties,” Christine said, “and it’s not only Latinos. Just New Yorkers who enjoy salsa. There were a lot of bands playing live. These were not places with Latinos only at all. And these parties here are always very mixed with black and white people. I don’t really see Cuban people. I never even thought about it.”

A short, stocky old salsa instructor of Nadia’s suddenly appeared behind her. The man offered a bonsoir then whisked her off for a two-step. I knew Nadia wouldn’t feel out of place talking about race with us; she was Christine’s best friend. But Nadia was a fair-skinned Arab. She hardly considered herself to be a part of the black diaspora. Between just the two of us, I figured Christine might share more of her true feelings.

“Oui, as well, this is a place where you see black men entertaining the white women, ça c’est clair,” she said, raising the same métissage issue from last week. “A lot of the dancers are black men, and you have a lot of white women coming here, c’est vrai. It’s obvious that they would never meet outside of the scene. Because salsa classes are not cheap, these are financially comfortable women. It’s almost a caricature aussi: the black guys who dance sexually, the single white women. Voilà quoi.”

A pregnant blonde walked past us, perspiring and chugging an Evian bottle.

“I’m telling you—we should go ahead and have a baby,” I joked. Christine didn’t laugh this time.

“Miles! I’m not interested in being a machine for you. If that’s what you’re thinking then you can stay in America. When I’m pregnant one day, I want it to be for love.”

Her mood had shifted. Maybe I had criticized salsa too much, or I finally touched a nerve teasing about pregnancy; Christine was thirty-four and single. The reality of my leaving the next day might have caught up with us. Maybe I even eyed the cute pregnant lady a second too long. Either way, I could sense a bad attitude coming on. But I’d known Christine for ten years. She was mother material as far as I was concerned. I wouldn’t have joked about having a baby with her if I wasn’t somewhat serious.

“And so, us falling in love, this is impossible?” I asked. As a cool breeze passed off the river, I could see what French people call the déclic go off in Christine’s head. Her irritated expression softened; she almost blushed at the question.

“Non,” she said, staring me in the eyes. “Ce n’est pas possible.”