Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Ugly, The Bad, and The Good

I've inverted old Sergio Leone's formulation for the simple reason of leaving you, dear reader, with an uplift rather than a, um, downlift at the end of this post. And I'm writing the post because I haven't written anything here for a month, and gee, you'd think nothing had happened. Of course, you'd be partially right. Still, if you have a delicate constitution, you might want to skip down to the bad.

The Ugly

One of the best things about this past summer was that the family that lives directly above me was gone.  I say "family," but I'm not quite sure what the actual structure up there is. One thing that's inescapable is that there is a woman, who is much younger than she sounds, and she has two children, a boy of perhaps eight (I'm terrible at guessing kids' ages) and a toddler who is sort of pre-verbal, or just on the cusp of talking. Who the kids' father is, I have no idea. There are two men who are sometimes there. One is young, like the woman, and dresses sort of hip-hop. The other is tall, skinny, and much older, and is prone to long spells of coughing, the kind you expect to end with the thud of a body hitting the floor and, soon, the arrival of an ambulance crew. When I see him on the stairs, he's rarely without a cigarette. But he's apparently still alive. 

The thing about this crew is that the woman, who is clearly the alpha of the group, knows only one way to keep them in some kind of order, and that's by yelling. I have to say, for someone as short and slight as she is, her voice just cuts through everything, including the doors, windows, and walls of my apartment. You have met her here as Madame Merde, in honor of her most-used word. It's like the punctuation at the end of most of her sentences, at least those declaimed at the highest decibel-count in her range. I have no idea what, if anything, she does for a living, but we do have an opera company in town, and it's occurred to me more than once that with a little training, she could project right to the back of the auditorium. 

She's got a very cavalier attitude towards the fact that she has neighbors, though. She shakes out the bedding and the rugs every morning, which hasn't been a problem lately because my windows are closed. That's not going to be the case very much longer. She smokes constantly, which means ashes. When the window here by my desk is open, it accumulates cigarette ash -- far more than it ever did back when I smoked. She's got troubles, too, ones she doesn't want the kids to hear about, so she takes her cigarettes and her cell phone and sits in the stairwell and talks and talks and smokes and smokes, and sometimes she sobs. I don't listen in, despite the fact that her already loud voice is amplified by the acoustic chamber of the stairwell, or the fact that she sometimes repeats things over and over, like the other night when whatever she was talking about involved Sète, Aix, and Montpellier, words I heard a lot. You'll notice I didn't mention her taking an ashtray out into the hall with her. Guess how I know that. 

Her boy is, of course, a problem. Well, hell, I was at that age. And although I've heard her yell it now for a couple of years, I have no idea what his name is. He seems to be a nice enough kid, sometimes kicking a football around in the street, sometimes hanging with another kid his age, but he does torment his little sister, and he went through a period of being fascinated with gravity: two of the apartments across the courtyard have broken windows from his throwing toy metal cars. 

Besides his name, the words most commonly yelled upstairs are "merde" (of course), "dépêche" (hurry up), and "arrête" (stop). He often whines back in protest, which just causes his mother to raise the decibel level some more. The other day, they really got into it. Eventually, he bolted, ran outside, and, agitated beyond his usual level, leaned over the railing of the stairway and puked his guts out. 

The stairwell in happier times
I was here, working or reading or something when this all happened, but shortly afterwards I had to go out. Unconsciously, I grabbed the railing there on the right was slimy. And it burned. And I ran back into my apartment and washed my hands with soap. It had been an hour or so since this incident, and, as I discovered on my next venture out, not only had Mme. Merde not cleaned the railing, she hadn't cleaned the steps, either, where the majority of the discharge had landed. 

Nor has anyone, over a week later: this was last Tuesday, and there's a reason for my noting that. We supposedly have a cleaning service that comes in and does the public areas of the building, and I get charged €30 a month for them, but that now-dried patch remains. 

The Bad

There's a cumulative effect to this constant conflict upstairs. It's that listening to angry people all the time is wearying. I'm not the one being yelled at, yet there's an unconscious perception of the emotion that acts sort of like it would if I were. This shouldn't be a problem I have to deal with, but it's just one element in the growing dissatisfaction I have with my immediate environment. When I was on the road in March, I found myself pondering an odd question: why is it that I had no problem putting my pants on in hotel rooms, yet I occasionally lose my balance when doing it at home? I had thought I was getting unstable in my old age or something, but really: zip zip and my pants were on. So I consciously thought about this when I got back here and made a discovery which led to a set of discoveries. My bedroom is so small that I don't have room to spread my legs out enough to put on a pair of pants. Moreover, I realized the other day, I've become used to stepping over the corners of the bed to get over to the window leading to the tiny balcony, which is open during the day to let in what little sunshine gets to me, and, in nice weather, fresh air: hop, hop. To get to the closet-like thing where my socks live, I have to shut one of the panels of the window, which ordinarily blocks it. And this led to other discoveries: unconsciously pulling back one shoulder or the other as I go down the hall to the bathroom or kitchen, so as not to knock over anything or spill a cup of coffee going from the kitchen to the desk. In short, I'm too big for this apartment, I have too much stuff in it, but I'm not prone enough to claustrophobia to have noticed this. 

This is what you see from the door when you enter this place.

And this is the view from the other direction
Come November, I will have been in this place, with its insane tenants and obscene rent (which was raised at the start of the year), for five years. Five years of cooking on two electric elements jammed as close together as they can be, showering with an implement that's essentially a hose with a showerhead on it that barely reaches the top of my head and that requires the use of one of my hands at all times because it doesn't hook onto the wall, and navigating without bumping into anything. With luck, come November, though, I won't be in this apartment. 

Where I will be, though, remains a big question. There's the fantasy of renting a big, inexpensive apartment in Barcelona. In fact, an old friend from Austin put me in touch with a friend of hers who's lived there for many years and is in the process of buying a new place and divesting herself of exactly the kind of apartment I've fantasized about, and at some point I'm going to head over there to look at it, although neither of us knows when it'll be empty or when I'll have the dough to make the move. There's also the question of whether I want to learn two new languages (Catalán and Spanish, although just Spanish in a pinch) in order to make this move practicable. Whether I want to, hell: if I can is more like it. I picked up a teach-yourself-Catalán course not making brilliant headway. Or, to be honest, any. 

Where I will not be, most likely, is France. Which I hate to admit, because I know the language here and there's a lot I like about the place. There's a part of me that wonders if it's not time to go back to the States, although it seems, in many ways, the most foreign of my choices. The politics scare me. The lack of a social safety net scares me: imagine my health crisis in December happening in the U.S. I would likely not live long enough to see myself get out of debt. But French society, as I have noted elsewhere on this blog, is set up in a way that's antithetical to the way I live, urging a regimentation on people that I resist almost on an organic level. 

So what's to do? I hear Portugal's nice. Stay tuned. 

The Good

As I said, the incident with the kid upstairs happened a week ago this past Tuesday. As a lot of you know, that's one of the market days, where I walk across town to the outdoor market and buy stuff to eat for the next couple of days. On this particular Tuesday, one of the vendors had plentiful wooden baskets of tiny strawberries, garriguettes, so I bought one and enjoyed them on some breakfast cereal the next morning. There was also the first reasonably-priced asparagus, some fat peas in their pods, and what may be the last spinach for a while, which became part of a northern Indian chicken, spinach, almond, and raisin curry. 

This week's, not last week's, and only what's left two days after purchase.
These twice a week trips have gotten me eating better, losing weight (and not just from the two-mile walk that a trip to the market entails), and increasing my cooking skills immensely, even on that wretched excuse for a stove in my tiny kitchen. (Another sad thing about the space-crunch in this apartment is that it's far too small for me to have anyone over for dinner, which has been part of my socializing routine for decades). They're reminders that I'm in a part of the world, which, unlike Berlin, pays close attention to the seasons and rests in surroundings capable of producing a huge variety of natural products. (Incidentally, for my friends in Berlin, I just read a book which casually noted that the ancient Prus, the ancestors of the Prussians, were pre-agricultural until the thirteenth century! Dang, no wonder they never developed a cuisine worthy of the name.)

Wherever I wind up next, I'm pretty committed to continuing this way of life. It doesn't cost a lot, and it's good for me. I'm very thankful that I discovered this, even if it took me most of my life to do so. 

And I'll be back here with another post soon, believe me. It's just that the post-trip comedown this time was hard to deal with, and, as you can see, I'm still dealing with some of the fallout. 


  1. I'm shocked about the 'Ugly'. Bad neighbors are one thing but that whole scenario is awful. I'm happy for you not to have to deal with that anymore.

  2. Well, the way things are going at the moment, I'll be putting up with it until around the end of the year, unless she moves first.

  3. Ed

    Come up North, Brittany?

    It should be cheaper?

    Seasionality (in food) is more important - the winters are worse?

    You being in France is important- don't give up on that.

    All the best


    P.S. Like you, it took me most of my life to find the life that I was destined to live (a cheap and cheerful one?) I now see the past as wasted time; although I don't get too upset about it - why should I/we - we've found the answer; we should be proud?

  4. I'm not regretting wasted time, I just don't think French society and I are a good mix. All theoretical until I can afford to move, though.

  5. "I just don't think French society and I are a good mix." Interesting personal insight, what mix of society does suit you then?

  6. I think a foreigner would be forgiven for speaking only spanish in Catalonia.

    Beware Portugal's remote location and poor rail connections to the rest of Europe: to go anywhere from there you have to fly. Have you considered Belgium or the Piemont region of Italy? I was once in Turin and, I swear, in the bakeries you could have thought yourself in France: same food. Makes sense historically (kingdom of Savoy).


Site Meter