Thursday, June 10, 2010

Under my umbrella

I grew to hate rainy days in Paris. Fortunately, Paris isn’t all that rainy. Unlike its stiff upper lipped cousin to the north, it’s generally quite dry and temperate in Paris, or at least it was the year I lived there. Normally, I love the rain and am happy to be out and about underneath an umbrella carrying on about my business. In the case of my year in Paris, my business usually comprised of a train trip into the city from my suburban home base, exploration of some new neighborhood, a little lunch, and then eventually my afternoon class at the Sorbonne, followed by the more exploration, un peu de shopping, and a return trip home.

I walked miles and miles each day, born originally out of trepidation to sort out the bus system but eventually because it afforded me the greatest opportunity to uncover the incredible nooks and crannies that comprise the web of what is now my favorite city in the world.I walked everywhere, from the tony streets full of fashion houses surrounding the Champs Elyse to the Marais, the Jewish neighborhood where I always had to stop for falafel, I saw amazing architecture and fascinating people. The novelty inspired me while simultaneously challenging my rural, American, belief structure. I encountered women in full burkas, not something I’d seen at home and I achieved a comfortable familiarity strolling streets lined with vendors, artists and prostitutes. I was introduced to a sense of history that cannot be found in America, plaques on synagogues documenting names of children rounded up and sent to concentration camps, ruins of Roman viaducts surrounded by bustling markets and booksellers, as if nothing about that juxtaposition should cause anyone any sort of pause.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that I stuck out like a sore thumb with my blue jeans, my clogs and my long blonde hair. It also didn’t take me long to figure out that Paris was full of single men of varying nationalities, who, apparently, lived and worked in that city without the benefit of their spouses. Unattached and clearly a foreigner, I was an easy mark. I learned quickly not to make eye contact, as that clearly was an invitation to hassle me. I learned how to avoid and evade and side step unwelcome suitors. Because there is so much to see in Paris, however, adopting an eyes-to-the-ground stance was impractical. Therefore, I developed a sort of 10 mile stare, eventually learning to see right through the leering on comers while still taking in all of the amazing sights I did want to see.

This worked quite well for me, on sunny days. On rainy days though, one’s vista is occluded by the umbrella, and I was left to scan the horizon on more of a mid-torso level. The first time I saw one, it wasn’t until I passed him completely that it fully registered. Penis. Small and limp and completely free of its usual confines, as if out for a walk, unleashed like some small, hairless canine. I couldn’t see the face of its owner, because of the umbrella, and yet because my gaze was already fixed at the beltline I could not avoid seeing his member.

The second time it happened was just after school one day. Fortunately, I was in the company of male classmates who gave the exposer a rash of epithets that had definitely not been covered in any of my language classes. He scurried away leaving my friends laughing as we headed home.

It continued happening, sporadically, but only on rainy days. This is not to say that I wasn’t approached and accosted on sunny days, because I continued to be leered at, followed home, etc. but the exposing only happened under the cover of umbrellas, as if the penises were a bit shy, somehow, perhaps afraid of catching chill or maybe a sunburn.

While initially shocking, it came to be more of an irritation to which I resigned myself every time the sky clouded over. I learned far more about life, the year I lived in Paris, than I did about French grammar.

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