Paris Gets Sassy

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Paris 11ème. Photo by Christopher DeWolf

Dmitri, a small man with a Russian accent as thick as the three or four red sweatshirts he was wearing, led me out a door and into a walled-in courtyard. He gestured at four plastic drums, each one about the size of two ATMs back-to-back, each one coloured in a ridiculously peppy shade of recycling-bin green.

“This,” he said, “is where we collect rainwater to use for our toilets.”

I nodded slowly.

This was a new one. In my admittedly short life, I’ve seen quite a few apartments. Exactly zero of them had toilet systems based off vats of rainwater.

Dmitri gestured to somewhere behind me. “Now, if you like, I’ll show you your room,” he said.

I nodded vacantly; my brain was still on the rainwater toilets. The implications of that system started to wash over me. It isn’t that that fact would make a difference when actually using a toilet – but what did it say about Dmitri? Was he some kind of eco-freak? Or just conscientious?

Regardless of which of the two was the case, he was now looking at me rather oddly.

“Your room is behind you,” he said.

I turned quickly; Dmitri led me into the diffusely lit enclosure via a flap of thick translucent plastic. The room, if it could be called that, was small and spare. To the right was a white mattress on what looked like exactly one half of an Ikea bedframe. To the left was a white desk with a depressed old folding chair tucked underneath. A space heater sat dejected in the middle of the room. The ceiling was made of corrugated metal on wooden slats: the kind of construction most often seen in Discovery Channel documentaries about Kenya.

“So this would be your room,” he said. “This is what we like to call the Writers’ Studio.”


The Writers’ Studio. Interesting spin to put on it. I pity whoever has the Actors’ Studio, especially if they have to live with James Lipton.

“So are you interested or not?” said Dmitri. “If not, we can just call it an end here and not waste time.”

I looked around the room again. “Well, theoretically, I’m still interested,” I said. “But can you explain to me what this place is?”

“It’s a loft,” he said matter-of-factly.

“But there’s some kind of art component to it? What about all the art I saw on the way in? And what about the other guys I saw sitting around on the way in?”

“Oh, they’re all English. They’d be your roommates. And it’s not really an art loft, just a loft.”

I paused. “So,” I said, “is the washroom communal?”

“Well, why don’t we go take a look at the rest of the loft and I’ll show you,” the Russian said, turning toward the exit.

From the Writers’ Studio we traced our way through the loft. Dmitri led me through the common space, where the English guys sat with their laptops. We passed a few other rooms and arrived at the kitchen. It looked like something out of Good Morning Vietnam: a stove sat dejectedly under a layer of rust-coloured grime. The entire back wall was covered in small drawers with odd names like “Spaceship” and “Sunrise.” The refrigerator looked as if it had been plucked out of an episode of I Love Lucy and then summarily dropped off a cliff.

“We share our groceries,” said Dmitri, “and we compost and try not to waste.”

That I could handle. We used to compost back at the apartment in Montreal, until our landlord complained that our compost pile had drawn a colony of black flies into the apartment. Weakling.

From the kitchen we moved on to the restroom. Neither the toilet nor the shower appeared to have any divider separating them from the rest of the apartment. And along the side of the shower were about fifteen bottles: soap, shampoo, conditioner.

That did it. Maybe the kitchen was weird, but at least I could cook; maybe the bedroom was small and developing-world style, but at least it was separated and quiet. Even the common toilet would be OK; I do that now with people I don’t even know. But sharing a curtainless shower with multiple guys? I haven’t had to do that since sleepaway camp seven years ago, and it was a stretch even then during my pre-teen years.

“So if you’re still interested, why don’t you come this way and we’ll talk about it,” Dmitri said, gesturing to a room that branched off the hall.

I paused for a few seconds. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I think I’m going to go.”

“Okay,” Dmitri said with a shrug. “Bye.” He opened the door across from his room and gestured with very little fanfare that I leave.

So I went. Back in the street, I reached for my cell phone. My Polish friend, Charles, had been looking for dinner during my apartment visit, and we met and boarded the metro to head over to a student bar area where some friends were due to be gathering.

Since English is the language that’s easier for both Charles and I, it’s the language that we speak when together. As the metro rumbled toward its next station, I recounted the apartment visit to him: the funny drawers with odd names, the sad-looking space heater and desk, the shower with no curtain. And then, as we ground toward a halt and the doors opened –

“And they should send all of the foreigners back to their countries! La France aux français!”

I turned my head quickly. Entering the Metro were two scruffy-looking thirty-odd year old men, each wearing hooded sweatshirts and clutching large cans of Pelforth beer. Each one took a folding seat at the middle of the metro car, legs thrust straight forward to form a V, heels on the floor.

As the men continued to lash out at one minority after another, Charles and I shot each other the kind of mischievous glances that one uses after having stolen a few pieces of licorice from a roommate’s desk. A woman sitting across from Charles who had heard us talking in English noticed the stupid faces we were making and laughed.

“Pelforth isn’t a very French-sounding beer,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Charles. “You’d think they’d be drinking Kronenbourg at least.”

For the next five or six stops until Charles and I made our transfer, the two men continued to spew idiocies as others flicked them off or yelled at them. Of course, my French isn’t good enough yet to try to throw ripostes at racist drunkards.

But then the portly man behind me got in on the action. “Would you stop pissing people off!” he roared. “It’s people like you who make France look bad to others.”

“Well, fuck them!” retorted the louder of the two racists. “They can stay in their own countries.”

The man shook his head and turned to Charles and I. “I’m really sorry that people like this exist,” he said quietly. “Just ignore them.”

“Yeah, it’s OK,” I said. “They exist in Canada too.”

As I left the metro, I caught his gaze and nodded a thank you.

This entry was written by Sam Imberman , posted on Sunday December 03 2006at 06:12 am , filed under Europe, Society and Culture, Transportation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “Paris Gets Sassy”

  • Christopher Szabla says:

    nice vignette; I’d like to see more of these here. the photo was well-chosen as well.

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Definitely something I’d like to see more from you, Sam (hint, hint). These are the kind of dispatches I expect from Paris!