Porte de la Muette by Jay Lee is one of the winning entries in The Good Life France 2014 writing contest. The judges loved Jay’s descriptions and wonderfully evocative story…
Nico wears a beret. It’s not his choosing, but I put it on him and he doesn’t mind. I think he feels jaunty. He never liked hats, but he’ll wear the beret. I got berets for everyone in the family. I was anticipating that we’d celebrate our arrival in Paris by taking a family photo at Trocadero or some other readily identifiable Parisian landmark to let the world and ourselves know that we’d arrived. Sure, it is kitschy, corny, maybe a little embarrassing. My wife said wearing a beret in Paris would be like a French person wearing a Stetson in Texas, only not quite the right size. You’d look like an asshole under the best of circumstances. I don’t disagree. We struck a deal — I can wear my beret when I’m outside Paris, but at my own peril. Nico gets away with it even in Paris because he is Nico and he is an adorable 12 year old boy whose smile and piercing blue eyes you can’t ignore.
It was hard to get us here: the wife, a career diplomat, endured a year in a war zone for a Paris posting; our two typical boys were delayed an extra month of summer at grandparents in the States while visas were processed; even the dog suffered setbacks and didn’t arrive from South America until three months after us, and even then only through the good-natured assistance of an Air France cargo supervisor — she had a special needs son at home, she told me as we waited on a rainy loading dock outside a cargo terminal in which my dog wasn’t. And the toughest was piecing together the possible for Nico, a communications therapist, an OT, a behaviourist, check, but a school, a place he’d go every day to be around other kids? There was nothing. There had to be a place. It is France, not one of the developing countries in which we’d previously lived. We’d get on the ground and suss it out.
We take the 52 bus from the 16eme to the 9eme a few times a week for a therapy session. Takes an hour, but it is easy to get on the buses with Nico’s folding chair. He’ll climb out and clamber onto a seat and enjoy the ride. He likes the Metro more but the stairs are tough, transfers exhausting, and he doesn’t want to leave. From Muette the bus trundles down Passy, midday it is us and older well-dressed folk. We pass through storied and monied places. Past St. Lazare we walk up to St. George on narrow walks, me pushing his stroller past fashionable younger parents and their hip kids, past trendy little restaurants, theatres, ecoles maternelle, countless macarons. I will sit in a cafe with WiFi until Nico is done and make a tiny coffee last two hours. Then the bus back across town, fuller now, less likely that Nico can sit in a good seat, more likely he’ll vocalize his displeasure with traffic, or his gnawing hunger. I will get out a few stops early if we draw too many stares, though generally people politely ignore us. I’m relieved to be back on the sidewalks, as is Nico. Now we’re getting somewhere, he thinks.
Nico gets a hearty handshake and a handful of chocolates from the gentlemen at the local tabac. He is served with the flair afforded a welcome local, and it isn’t lost on him. He grins widely and rocks back and forth in his seat. He knows what that’s all about, the round tables and wicker chairs and open windows and the clink and clatter of flatware and silverware and the hunch of people over a formule. He will lunge into a doorway, he will crane to see what’s on plates. His enthusiasm for a place could turn its prospects around. A place is set for him, a stemmed glass, napkin, cutlery, salt/pepper/mustard pot. His eyes light up when a chocolate mousse is put just so before him, two spoons (one for me). There is no fawning, no questions. It is lunch, it’s what people do. Sometimes in the melee of frite-to-face the floor is noticeably strewn with fallen frite and I make an effort to do some triage but it is invariably waved off, ne pa grave, monsieur.
His enthusiastic vocalizations evoke sweetness and smiles when he buries his face in my neck on the bus, puts me in a loving headlock. I wonder how he will be met when he grabs someone’s arm and he is their size. When he clutches you with an insistence and expressive imperative that now is surprising but in 10 or 20 kilos will be alarming.
We delve into markets and taste cheeses. The seasons have heaved by. Nico should be in school. Instead, he is at home. We roll past the cacophony of school yards at recess and he strains to see over stone walls. France only recently passed laws that every child go to school but I’m told Nico would sit alone in a corner in a public school and then only a few days, a few hours a week. Were we to stay in Paris beyond our two or three years, his isolation would grow and mine with it.
We draw people out. Strangers on the street or in the park or in stores will approach us and talk about Nico and about the special person in their family or their orbit. Likewise, if we see someone on the street, we accost them and shake them down for information, always ‘does your child go to school?’ Shortly after our arrival, and as the reality started to sink in that prospects for school placement were few, my eldest astutely quipped after one such shakedown, “Another attack of the poorly informed.” But now we know. We can see the future. So we live very much in the present.
Jay Lee is an American in Paris.