Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

09 February 2009

Choose Your Own Adventure

Peering into uncertainty

Years ago my dad and I shared the same dentist: one young, handsome Dr. Kramer, whose friendly staff and general competence made it pleasant to have our teeth cleaned, X-rayed and otherwise manipulated.

The time came for my regular check-up, so I drove straight to his office after school -- only to find the door locked.

I peered in through the windows and experienced a mildly nauseating mixture of confusion and foreboding. The clock on the wall ticked the seconds off like always, and the receptionist inbox sat loaded with files and documents beside a telephone with a blinking red light. Magazines were spread neat across a corner table, waiting for antsy perusers; and a king-size water dispenser stood dormant, three-fourths full, paper cups at the ready.

But on the other side of the door, where letters were pushed through a silver slot, a pile of mail sat untouched, approaching knee-height. The office had apparently been deserted for weeks, maybe more.

I called Dr. Kramer's number but didn't even get a recording; just one of those messages that indicates the box is full. So I went back to my parents' and told my dad. He frowned, perplexed as I was. "I'll look into it," he promised.

A week later he called and said, definitively, "Looks like they're gone."

"Weird," I said. "Any idea what happened?"

A thoughtful pause. I waited for something scandalous but banal: tax trouble, a malpractice lawsuit, dental Rapture.

Instead he said, "Sometimes a person leaves his car parked outside his work, or maybe the post office, and disappears. Nobody knows what happens to him. Ten years later you find him in a different country, with a new family and a new life."

I was stunned by this elaboration. Instead of waiting for me to express the awkward "Hrm" rising to my throat, he powered on:

"That's what happens when you fail to plan properly. You fill up with regrets and do something you should've done when you were young, except now you're old and have responsibilities, and everybody thinks you're crazy."

Nothing from me on that one. After a heavy remorseful sigh, he moved in for the kill.

"That's why I always tell you to plan your life now. Get all your fantasies out of the way before you have obligations you can't escape." a family seemed to linger at the end of this grand proclamation, but he didn't say it, and I didn't call him on it.

Months later we found out Dr. Kramer had relocated to a larger office in Lafayette, twenty minutes away from us. The damage, however, was done: dad found a new dentist, and the story he told -- that bizarre midlife escape scenario -- has played itself out in my mind again and again.

It's at least one of the straws that compelled me to pursue this Paris thing, which ironically annoyed him:

"We did everything to have you kids in a free country, and now you want to move to where they don't even have indoor toilets," he once sneered. (The toilet thing is an overstatement, but I chock it up to the intensity of his feelings. It must suck when your firstborn bids you adios and moves to the other side of the world.)

Three weeks have passed since I landed on French terrain. Here's a synopsis of what things have been like so far.

I visited Paris, essentially to stake it out, three years ago. I embedded myself in its rhythm, insofar as you can do that from a youth hostel, to gauge whether we'd mesh well. My memory of that period is unrealistically romantic: I made friends, stayed busy. My French wasn't great, but I felt I could survive.

Something in me's changed since then. On my first full day I was so terrified by the size of my undertaking -- living here, as opposed to being on vacation -- that I couldn't even bring myself to reciprocate Bonjour to strangers on the street. I was too scared to buy food, too intimidated even to utter "Pardon" when I bumped into other pedestrians.

I sought solace at the nearest cyber café and confessed all this to my friend Kito, who's been living in Germany for seven months. (We're ultra-chummy now because we more or less share a time zone.)

"Get over it," he said grumpily. "You have to at least eat something."

So I got over myself and went grocery shopping. It was not without its hazards (I didn't know where to put my shopping basket at the cash register, and everyone stared like I was a Martian), but it marked a victory: these days, I eat.

Now I oscillate between really discouraging moments -- like when the perfumier asked if I checked the bottle I was buying for damage, and I just stared stupidly -- and super-awesome ones, like when a woman on the street asked me for the time, and I gave it to her, or when I took the metro by myself (and transferred TWICE!).

I've also been lucky enough to tap into a small network of people willing to keep me company. Kito visited once, as did a friend living in Zurich; I have a Parisian friend, Alexia, who's enduring enough to let me hang out with her chums sometimes; and a few fellow expat/writers let me bootleg their wifi and sometimes even treat me to drinks.

So life is not bad. The biggest challenges? Living without being digitally connected 24/7. The general consensus is that it takes about a month to get internet access at home.

Heaven knows why it takes so long, but the telecoms seem to have no trouble finding ways to stretch the wait. After waiting three weeks and counting to receive a setup box via post, SFR sent over a letter that read, "Congratulations! Your request for internet access has been approved. You should receive a box in the mail within days of this mailing, and our technicians will ensure you are set up within three weeks."

I was all, You gotta be kidding. Three MORE weeks? Comcast back in Walnut Creek took 48 hours, and I thought that was heavy laggage.

Things have progressed since then. I should have wifi access by Wednesday, fingers crossed.

But being 'net-free hasn't been all bad. I go out daily on a quest for "weefee," and as a result found Sesame, a homey café by the Canal St-Martin, where the proprietress lets me futz around on my laptop and partake of her quiche all day if I want. I also spend a lot of time with an expat friend who lives close to Montorgeuil, where you can apparently buy some kick-ass cheese.

The walking is doing me good, and so has life without elevators. (My flat is on the fifth floor of a building -- 95 steps up. I count them twice a day, sometimes more, on my long way up and down.)

And because the language barrier obviously limits opportunities for engagement, I spend a lot of time alone, doing things I never do: staring out the window, preparing dinner, cleaning my apartment, listening to the radio and reading.

To echo Kito: "Life has become a lot quieter." More poetic, sure, but definitely quieter.

On Sundays everything is closed (with the bizarre exception of IKEA and restaurants), so the solitude I typically only experience for a few hours during the weekday compounds. When I finally get out of bed in the morning (...afternoon), Sunday is prime for aimless rambling.

Around every corner is a bookstore with a poetic name: L'Arbre à Lettres, Les Cahiers de Colette, Mona Lisait. Each is outfitted with its own aesthetic, its own altars raised to the authors it worships. I feel a compulsion to buy something from all of them, so my whitewashed bookshelf is far less empty than it was last week.

I also made the requisite pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Co. It's good to be surrounded by English volumes I'm intimately familiar with, coupled with a looming sense of anticipation: one day something I write may be sitting there, waiting to infuse some other naive scrivener with purpose.

To wrap this up, here's a stack of handy-dandy French words and expressions.

  • se connecter à internet -- to connect (oneself) to the internet
  • carte sans fil -- wireless card
  • prise -- electrical outlet
  • carte SIM -- sim card
  • wifi (pronounced weefee) -- wifi
  • blogeur -- blogger
  • la pub -- advertising (short for "la publicité." "I work in advertising" would be "Je travaille dans la pub." Get it?)
  • marketing -- marketing
  • télécharger -- to download

Non-techie stuff:

  • sans doute -- probably
  • sans aucun doute -- without a doubt (thanks, Olivier)
  • enterrement de vie de garçon/jeune fille -- bachelor/bachelorette party. The phrase translates to something like "funeral for the life of a boy/young girl"
  • tant qu'il y a la vie, il y a l'espoir -- as long as there is life, there is hope. This is from Alexia, who's been teaching me a lot of proverbs.

Sometimes, to be funny, she also repeats ad slogans: "Il a free, il a tout compris!" And if you want to know what that's all about, you'll have to Google it. Or, well, tune in next time.


Candace said...

When I was in France, the one thing that really struck me for the first two months was the silence. Life was so, much, quieter. After two months it wore off and french took over the silence... but I don't think it ever matched what I was used to over here. I quickly got used to listening to the radio to fill up that silence... and found solace in the two american songs they played per hour (there was a limit... law to preserve french culture).

Anonymous said...

The first portion of the blog was a creepy story. I would have never thought that happened to our old dentist.

And as for your experiences, I must say they're pretty extreme. No elevator, slow on the Internet, you're surely not in America!

It's funny that you couldn't bring yourself up to speak to people for a while. I hate that feeling. When we were in Italy I couldn't even find myself saying "Grazie" on the train.