by Karen Moller
Excerpt of Forbidden Games, a novel by Karen Moller to be published early March in the U.S. and the UK by AuthorPartner. ISBN 978-1-304-32030-8 - 267 pages, $16.50. [ed. Karen Moller is the author of a fascinating memoir, Technicolor Dreamin': The 1960's Rainbow and Beyond.]
(Swans - January 27, 2014) Daylight was bleeding towards the magical moment of dusk when the bus reached her destination. Having passed along tree-lined boulevards, impressive buildings and monumental churches, each more picturesque and wondrous than the last, she was a bit disconcerted when she arrived at a structure, supposedly the Beat Hotel in the heart of the Latin Quarter. It was a very old, run-down building in such disrepair that had it been in Canada, it would have been condemned. It displayed no name, but inside English speakers crowded around marble topped tables, talking in loud voices as if it was a club. No front desk, only a long wooden bar and behind it the sharp-eyed, diminutive landlady.
Madam Rachou soon spied Julie and asked "Looking for a room?" When the befuddled Julie nodded, she lifted a key from the board and beckoned her to follow. The worn-out steps of the cramped staircase were in darkness, the only bulb, "long since died" Madam Rachou said apologetically. "Been meaning to change it."
Julie humped her case up the stairs in the wake of the landlady to the third floor, where a long narrow corridor meandered towards a small window and door No. 12. The room was sparsely furnished: a sagging mattress on a single bed, at an odd angle that prevented the door from opening completely, a solitary chair, worn or chewed, and a rickety table. The wardrobe loomed menacingly, giving the impression a thief was about to pounce. Julie pulled it open. It stank of mothballs and the wire coat hangers vibrated a melancholy chime. On the right was a small walled-off alcove with a cracked floor that served as a kitchen and a place to wash. It had no refrigerator or stove, only an alcohol burner and cement sink with one faucet. Moldy patches covered the walls and a ceiling, which narrowed down to a soot- flecked window looking out onto the red brick tiles that covered the surrounding roofs. It was so grubby, so un-artistic, and so unlike her dream of a Parisian artist's attic that for the first few moments all she could feel was dismay. Nonetheless she accepted it gratefully.
"Rent by the month," Madam Rachou said. "Payable in advance." After the cash exchange, the landlady cautioned her to leave her passport. "For them police, they'll be in to check later." She sighed, "Always checking, always something. Can't leave a body in peace." With that she turned, her quick steps receding down the stairs.
Julie began to unpack but after a few minutes the damp seeping through the cracks around the window drove her to bed. Morning arrived bone-cold. She opened the small window and looked over a vast area of crumbling buildings where noisy pigeons with small beady eyes took in her newly arrived person. They seemed to be making a meal of few crusts of dry bread that lay scattered haphazardly on the roof. She made a mental note to bring them something later and went in search of the toilet. The hotel was very old, the walls so thin Julie could hear multiple conversations going on in various rooms on all sides. Dust, Gauloise cigarettes, and odd cooking smells invaded her nostrils; the unpleasant whiff of the toilet helped her to locate what she was looking for. In the next few days she would discover the toilets were the real trial of the hotel. Known for some reason that no one seemed to remember, as "Turkish toilets" they comprised two raised areas for one's feet, over a hole. The toilet paper, old newspapers cut into squares hung on a crude hook that protruded dangerously from the wall and the cast-iron cistern cascaded down in a flood soaking her feet till she learned to step out in the corridor before flushing. The light went on when a slide-bolt locked the door and might well kill an unsuspecting person should he touch the bolt with wet hands. That problematic arrangement saved a few francs on electricity, and saving on electricity, seemed a priority in the hotel. A large sign in the foyer informed the residents that record players and electric hot plates were forbidden on pain of expulsion.
The Latin Quarter, as she discovered the next morning, was a maze of small streets where students and foreigners lived side by side with the Parisian working class. She strolled from place to place enchanted by the avant-garde galleries, the dusty bookshops and the relaxed sensual atmosphere, then took a seat on the terrace of an inexpensive café and sipped a wonderful coffee. On her way back she discovered an open-air market that sold single portions of food for those, like her, with no refrigerator.
By Monday morning she felt settled and very much a Parisian. Esmode, her specialized fashion college was a huge old structure near St Germain. It was everything she thought a designer's studio should be. A line of windows ran from floor to roof, illuminating the central area over large worktables. An American on the boat had warned her about French heating, or the lack of it, and as winter came on she discovered that the round stove barely took the chill off the icy winds that swept through the cracks around the primitive windows, obliging the students to wear their coats while they worked.
She was astonished by the parade of young Americans forever passing through Paris with lots of spending money, and little idea of why they had come to Europe. They hung out at the Montparnasse cafes, La Coupole or Le Select while the intellectually minded drifted down to Café Flore, where the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had once held court. She spent much of her free time wandering the boulevards or leafing through the second-hand books along the Quai, discovering France through the country's great writers. In the evenings she would wander down to the nearby Seine where the on-going night etched deep blue shadows into the dusty stone of the city and watch the reflection of colored lights interspaced between the dark shadows of the towers of Notre Dame. Unfortunately it was difficult to linger for long as her thoughts would be interrupted by a voice in her ear making sexual propositions, or worse, creeping hands trying to sneak a quick feel. Her angry protest merely made the perpetrators, often French Arabs, their eyes full of hate, laugh.
She found it safer to frequent Le Mistral; a bookshop owned by George Whitman, an American left over from the war. The walls were lined with books on makeshift shelves, the furniture haphazard with an even more haphazard collection of people. Occasionally she would meet visiting authors, but more often she would just sit at one of the small tables, lining the sidewalk in front of the shop window, flipping through books or playing chess and watching people floated by under the bowl of radiance light that showered down from the street lamps. In this intermingling there would often be an interruption when someone she knew or someone she wanted to know would speak to her. At times she couldn't help saying to her new acquaintances, "It's strange. You come to a place, maybe you've passed through a string of places you never wanted to live in, or maybe you've just read about them. Either way you can't imagine ever wanting to live there. Then suddenly bang, you come to a place like Paris, and you feel as if you have always known it and loved it, even if you have never been there before."
"Next you'll be saying you want to stay here," one of her fellow students teased.
"Oh but I do! I feel I belong here."
"Don't be ridiculous. You're gonna go back home just like the rest of us."
"We'll see," she said suddenly aware that Americans intent on heading back to the States would never understand that there was not a hair on her body that wanted to leave. She had found her home.
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About the Author
Karen Moller is the author of Technicolor Dreamin': The 1960s Rainbow and Beyond (Trafford Publishing, 2006, ISBN: 1-412-08018-5) and a fashion designer who lives half time in Paris, France, and the other half in Venice, Italy. (back)