Having settled into The Toolshed in Paris, I started teaching and taking classes at the local Lycée. Every Friday I would take the thirty minute uphill ride on what quickly came to be known as the Death Bike: a heavy cream coloured Dutch bike inherited from a parent of my employer. “She used to ride it on the cobbles of Amsterdam” “She took it on holiday to Bruges” “It walked her down the aisle at her wedding” , etc. It was possessed of neither gears nor working brakes and its back wheel shook like a dog on bonfire night.
Sometimes I repeatedly try something I loathe as if I’m trying to catch my taste buds out in some great gustatory rouse. Liquorice tea, Kimberley Biscuits, Beer. I have very little faith in my senses. As if to demonstrate this to the world, in 2012 I purchased a similar bike, Death Bike’s dull English cousin, to get to and from university. Spending £150 that I didn’t have on a bike that I didn’t want just to establish whether heavy Dutch bikes with no gears truly made me shudder in abject terror seemed like not only the most simple but, in fact, the only logical way to test this. It did make me shudder, it made me shudder so much so that I fell off my bike on the elephant and castle ring road. It made me shudder so much that I immediately sold it.
I arrived, sweating, each Friday morning at the small catholic lycée, an unlovely building with mansard windows and missing slate tiles. Here I was permitted to audit French class in exchange for teaching some conversational english to rowdy french 15-year-old kids whose idea of a perfect date was a trip to Burger King and some ‘finger banging’ in the cinema — they told me as much. No, they told me too much — and whose idea of a perfect stranger was me.
Ella, with whom I lived in The Toolshed at the time, accused me over spoonfuls of Nutella in the kitchen, of being the sort of foolish aberrant that would not only tolerate but actively ENJOY being The New Kid. She was wrong of course, nobody likes being The New Kid. Being The New Kid is like purposely wearing uniform on mufti day. Being The New Kid means incessant introductions and mistaking this Mathieu for that Mathieu and being the centre of attention and, finally, inevitably, fatally, calling your teacher “mum.” But she was right, too. I had liked being the 19-year-old in a class of 15-year-olds, I had liked the strange coupling of friendship’s jokes paired with teacher’s authority. I had like being a stranger.
Oklahoma, land of huge cars, de facto segregation, and bad politics, was the absolute non-Paris. A place for which I had no cultural references, always strange and always a stranger. I had never seen Twister or Oklahoma! I had never read Jumper or Grapes of Wrath, I didn’t drive or drink Keystone Lite (because it’s beer, and my senses tell me I don’t like beer). It was a kind of reciprocal stranger-ness, too. I was The New Kid with left-wing politics, sinful sexuality, and ’an accent’ (all non-oklahoman accents were subsumed under this homogenous category of ‘accent.’)
But Paris began in books. The Seine is the south-east coast of England, aged 11 and reading excerpts of The Count of Monte Cristo to Emily Steel, lying prone on the cracked tiling of the girl’s changing room floor, palms up, meditating on the imagined lives we would play out the next day; the thrill of finding General Quesnel floating, blue lips, frozen fingers in the break between History and Physical Education. Paris is an ‘old house covered in vines’. My father, his dingy apartment somewhere in the Pas-de-Calais. Him reading to me — 4, 5, and 6, the powdery smell of his books — about little orphan Madeline who, like me, carved her name into skirting boards. The sound of rain on ‘a window framing a zinc roof’ is reading Marilyn Hacker, 16, in the basement parking lot of Oklahoma City’s only Italian restaurant, waiting for a tornado to pass overhead. The Passages couverts is always Baudelaire by way of Benjamin, first read at 19 in the draughty corner of my University’s library. If the fault of Paris is that it is always necessarily a palimpsest of my memories of it, that is also its upside. Paris can never be a stranger to me, but I am always a stranger to Paris.