Privilege in Paris

I.

On one of my first afternoons in Paris, I walked with Emily to the boulangerie my friends and I now affectionately call the maison jaune for its yellow awning. Emily was wanting lunch.

As we walked in, I examined the sandwiches skeptically. It was early on. I was afraid of anything that was too colorful, too expressive. The greens and reds and all the cheeses left me without appetite. Searching for the most utilitarian lunch possible, my eyes caught onto a jambon beurre. So unsophisticated, so easy.

I looked over my shoulder at the counter, where Emily was buying a chocolate éclair.

As we were leaving, I watched her unwrap the little dessert.

“Lunch?” I said.

“Oh. Is this awful?” She asked as she raised the éclair to her mouth.

I smiled. I didn’t really care, but I didn’t know her well enough to tease her anyway.

She bit into it. I saw the chocolate cream and couldn’t say I wasn’t jealous of her.

“Shit,” she said with her mouth full. “Fuck.”

These are words I would come to live by in Paris.

II.

I am on the east side of the Champ de Mars. It is 11pm. I am waiting for Kevin next to the Bicentennial monument. It is a mild October evening, save for the rain which falls at a slant into the yellow lamp light that casts the Egyptian-style building into a perpetual day-state. It’s very pretty.

I ought to be writing a paper but was restless in my apartment. Even though it is raining, I decided to take a walk. I asked Kevin to come because he lives on this side of the Champ. The ugly monument is the half-way point between our places.

From the monument platform, I can see the Rue de Grenelle. It the darkness, Kevin is walking in my direction, under an enormous red umbrella. I try to imagine what I must look like, standing on the platform in the yellow rain beneath a red umbrella of my own, all framed by a hesitant blackness. To me it is a very romantic image, one I had never imagined for myself in the United States. I smile as Kevin collapses his umbrella.

III.

My umbrella is a cheap little thing. I would peg it at about five dollars. In New York, it might last a day. I bought it at Monoprix on Rue de Passy in the middle of a downpour. It cost fifteen euro. Even though the rain has turned to mist, I keep the umbrella open, as if to justify the cost.

Kevin and I are walking north on the wide, empty sidewalk of Avenue Élisée Reclus. It is the first time I’ve been alone with him in a while. I ask him how his work is going, whether he is enjoying himself. The answers, I know, will be negative, but I enjoy hearing him speak hyperbolically about “giving up on life.” It is our biggest common ground, this capacity for turning every thumbs-up or thumbs-down question into an existential crisis.

“I don’t even know what I’m doing here,” he says. (I remember he said this on our first day in Paris.) “I don’t even know what I’m doing in college.”

I remind him of our grandiose surroundings, the Eiffel Tower, the value of “the experience.” He sighs.

It is a sigh I have heard many times before. It has become, in my mind, Kevin’s aural signature. I look at his tall, bony frame. His pale skin, his dark hair, his sharp nose, his sunken Proustian eyes. His black jeans. His pea coat – which he, resignedly, bought for a hundred euros at Uniqlo – the hood of which hangs just above his hairline. His whole aesthetic seems to, has always seemed to, embody the word. Sigh.

“What does that even mean?” he says. “How does this experience help me? Why even bother coming to school, coming to France, studying French? I’m just going to go home at some point and forget it all anyway.”

“Why can’t you just enjoy yourself?”

“I can and I do. Which makes it all the more disappointing after it’s over.”

When we reach the end of the street, we turn around and walk down the other side. I am nervous and hungry and say that I’m going to go to Carrefour, down by the École Militaire metro. Kevin says he will come, too.

“I feel more guilty about my parents,” I say, “because it feels like I deceived them, like I’m tricking them by being in college.”

“Oh, I know.”

“I don’t have it quite as bad as the others, but the idea of loans really freaks me out. My mother has to reassure me all the time that it’s okay.”

I tell Kevin about the mystery-money aspect of my education, my parents’ constant reassurance that “we want you to do what you want” regardless of the cost. The money doesn’t come from nowhere, I know.

“My parents are the same way. My family doesn’t even take the loans, but just pays for the tuition outright. They always tell me how happy they are for me, that this – my ‘happiness’ – is all they ever wanted for me.”

“That’s really sad.”

I think about how I once e-mailed a picture of myself on the Great Wall of China to my parents, who promptly responded that it was what they had always wanted for me. I think about how strange it is that Kevin and I have such similar experiences of guilt. I think that it’s not so surprising, after all. I think back to one of my first experiences with him – spending our freshmen Thanksgiving with our professor and her son. I think it’s funny how Paris, of all places, has made the connection much clearer, suddenly less mystical, and slightly more painful.

“I mean, how exactly do you apologize to your parents for wasting their money?”

IV.

At Carrefour, I grab a bag of chips and a beer (Bavaria; recommended by Morgan for its 7.9% alcohol content). I find Kevin staring at candy. He has his eyes on a six-pack of Lion bars. Twenty cents a barre. We laugh a moment. I can feel his excitement. The fluorescent lights of the bustling green store at midnight revive us, in a way, as much as the dark Parisian streets subdued us. It feels a little more like home. He grabs the packet and heads towards the caisses.

As we leave, I remark that our food choices are rather appropriate. No use holding back if you’re in Paris, if you’re not working, if you’re a completely ungrateful dependent. If we find guilt in our large indulgences, we find relief in our smaller ones.

V.

A couple of days later, Kevin gives me one the Lion bars. I expect something like a Snickers, but it’s more like a Kit Kat with a little oomph.

“Fuck,” I say. “Shit.”

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