Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Paris, I’m back!

on February 25, 2014

And so, in September 1967, I returned to Paris, which then symbolized the nearest thing to home for me.

We are told that the sense of smell is the oldest one in evolutionary speak. And as the taxi drove us through the streets, and as I watched through the open window the huge rusting leaves of the maronniers, what struck me was the smell of Paris. Was it an after rain smell? or was it the fragrance of a temperate afternoon sun? Or the mixed scents of old limestone architecture and new civilization? I drank it in, almost dizzy with it.

avenue de la Republique

Uncle Lung and Aunt Lily had rented a fourth floor apartment in the 11th arrondissement, a rather older quarter in Paris. Along the Avenue de la Republique, Second Empire architecture reigned. The building was maybe 5 or 6 floors tall, without an elevator. Which was good, because I never liked those old boxes that creaked and whose doors were iron gates that had to be pulled and clanged and slammed noisily. It took forever to move up just one floor rather wobblily while the swish and moans of the ropes and cables told you exactly what their status was.

Louis XIV chairs

The apartment was small, two bedrooms with wallpaper, a small lobby-dining room that looked onto the central ventilation well, and a sitting-room termed the salon, which also served as Uncle Lung’s study. The furniture in the salon was old, which is an excuse for calling it antique. It was supposed to be Louis one or the other, maybe XIV. And therefore, we were not supposed to go in there to play, as we might damage the furniture, and Uncle Lung was in no position to pay for damages of that extent. Apart from the desk and the chairs, there was a really interesting item which Aunt Lily had brought from Taiwan: a large carved chest made of sandalwood. Aunt Lily used it to threaten my little cousin Louis. He would be disobedient or fussy or something, and she would carry him, horizontally, in her arms all the way to the chest, with him kicking and screaming, and would attempt to open the lid, which is pretty near impossible in that position, and would keep saying loudly, “I’m going to put you in the chest, I’m going to put you in the chest…” She actually never did. And I wonder that Louis never caught on that fact.

chinese carved chest

The bathroom was also antique. There was a bidet, that Gallic article of hygiene which puts the French people on a par with the Muslims. Few non-Muslims realize that we are supposed to wash and rinse thoroughly our private parts after each use, and it is difficult to do so in American public toilets. I actually have to carry a little empty plastic water bottle which I fill up at the sink, or if I don’t have one, I then use a double piece of hand towel and soak them thoroughly so when squeezed they will produce a little running water. Other bathroom guests look at me wonderingly. That’s OK. They already stare at me anyway because of my hijab.  But why is it they think that their private parts are clean when simply wiped with a dry paper? If your hands had touched pee or poop, would you really think that wiping them on dry paper would cleanse them properly?

bidet

The toilet flushing tank would be located high up on the wall, near the ceiling, to provide extra pressure. A long chain with a pretty wooden handle hung down all the way to accessible height.  And I wish they would still do that today, for in my childhood, we never had a problem flushing the toilet. We could throw toilet paper in there and whatever else, and it would go away nicely. Today, in order to avoid plumbing problems, I actually have to flush after every bowel movement — you know, so they won’t stack up too thickly —  and throw the paper in a covered bin.

toilet with high tank

The kitchen could be accessed through a swinging door, which made it easy to open and close when we would be carrying dishes out into the dining room. I believe there were some folding doors in the kitchen, but I’m fuzzy as to what they led to. The dining room was at the center of the home, and the round dining table was pushed against the large window. I used to sit there often, staring onto the grey and dirty walls of the ventilation well, peering at the tiny triangle of grey sky at the top, and dreaming of the blue skies of Jeddah.

I developed a morbid addiction to nostalgia. Missing home and my parents became a delectable pastime. The beauty of memory is that you see images: unending immensities of blue, bright sunny play days… but you do not feel the heat and the dizziness, the fatigue and the humidity. And so, life on the shore of the Red Sea seemed so much happier, brighter, more colorful and now so much farther away.

 


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