Getting Online in France

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Paris is wired, sort of. You just need to find where to connect.

My borrowed apartment on the Rue Saint-Martin didn’t have internet, but I needed the internet for my work.

The Centre Pompidou, right near my building, had free wi-fi. I even got an annual membership to the museum so I could come and go at will. On afternoons and evenings I would join a group of other sometimes-disconnected souls who grouped on benches near the far end of the lobby area, each of us hovering over our screens for stretches of time. I’d be able to work there for a little while, but the wi-fi was slow, and soon, as happens, my computer refused to accept the signal there. So I had to look elsewhere.

So I tried getting to earlier and staying later at Alliance Française, which also had free wi-fi for its students. I’d check and send emails from the cafeteria before class, and would do what work I could for an hour or so after class, during or following the clattering lunch hour. This too worked for a while. But the cafeteria would close, and I’d be sent on my way.

I tried the Starbucks near Odéon, on the way to and from school. But it wasn’t free. You had to pay a few euros for a half-hour of service. Nor was it congenial for working, as clusters of caffeinated school kids would frequently descend and command the neighboring tables, overwhelming the space with their chaotic conversations.

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A low-priced cafeteria-style eatery by the name of Flunch offered free wi-fi to diners. One was just around the corner from my apartment, so I would head there now and then. I’d buy a sparkling water and set myself to work at what I’d hoped would remain an isolated table. This didn’t last long, and it was hard to ignore the budget-based clientele there. Many of them tended to talk or argue to themselves, which made it hard to concentrate, even as I tried to drown out their chatter by turning up the music on my iPod.

Finally, one kind acquaintance let me use his apartment on the Rue Montorgueil, about a 20-minute walk from me. It necessitated fixing a time and date, and I couldn’t stay for more than an hour generally, since he had other things to do and wouldn’t let me stay there unsupervised. But these calls were important. At the time I was interviewing the singer Martha Wash to put together a proposal for her memoirs, and we had regularly scheduled Skype calls, calls I couldn’t make from a cheap luncheonette, a museum, the Alliance Française or a Starbucks. It wasn’t ideal, but for the duration of our interviews, over the course of a month or so, it was manageable.

Then one day, I shared an elevator with a neighbor at the apartment building where I was living. Before this, I would greet him with the usual bonjour or bonsoir when we passed in the hall, but I hadn’t introduced myself to him by name. I finally did in the elevator. I explained who I was, where I came from, what I was doing there, and whose apartment I had borrowed. Marc was surprisingly friendly – with more openness than you generally find among neighbors in French apartment buildings, who tend to protect themselves from too much interaction with those they live next to, lest their privacy be compromised by more than chilly courtesy. I took Marc’s warm smile as a good sign.

I waited before approaching him again, thinking that to make such a request as I was about to make would be better if it were not done immediately following an introduction in an elevator. One early evening when I heard some rustling about in his apartment next door, I knocked on Marc’s door, and he answered and greeted me with another smile, even though it was clear I had interrupted his preparation of dinner for a guest who was seated on the couch just behind where Marc was standing. I smiled back, and reminded him that we’d met in the elevator, and further explained, as best I could in my just-adequate French at the time, that I was a writer who was without the internet he needed to do his work. He understood immediately.

“Would you like my password?”

Before even waiting for my grateful yes, he went to his cable box, and found the multi-digit code on its back (passwords here can be quite long and almost impossible to memorize unless you’re a savant of some sort), scribbled it on a scrap of paper and handed it to me.

“Use it anytime,” he said.

We didn’t become friends, and I rarely saw him after that. But I did leave at his door two fairly expensive bottles of wine and a note to thank him. Other than our elevator encounter and my subsequent request, he remained the elusive neighbor, albeit one who had allowed me access to his internet service.

Marc had treated my predicament seriously, though. I don’t know what he did for a living, since during our introductions I was the only one who had offered up that information – figuring it was necessary to obtain the password. But unlike some other people whom I’d approached for help, Marc had actually realized how necessary the internet was for my work, and work in general, even if my particular interests or needs were of no value to him.

This was different from some of the responses I’d received before this, mainly from Americans living and working in Paris. One of them, Jim, was employed at a company that finds lodging for exchange students during their semesters abroad. He had brushed off my inquietude about connecting as if all I had wanted from the internet was the ability to look at cat videos in my spare time. I remember a particular dislocation I felt then, and feel from time to time, when someone not only trivializes how you earn a living, but is uninterested in what you do simply because it seems intangible, unlike whatever takes place in an office building, with a desk, a boss, and the frittering away of idle moments before a computer whose connectivity one takes for granted.

Most people don’t care about the inconvenience of your work life, especially if you work on your own. Most people are, naturally, mainly concerned with what happens directly to them. And what I considered essential to working in Paris – or earning a living while in Paris so that I could stay there for a while – was inessential or even inconsequential to someone else who had already made that transition and for whom your journey was a threat to his own sense of superiority. Or so I saw it at the time, after being told that what I needed in order to work was unimportant to someone who had found another way of earning a living in Paris.

I felt that I had made another discovery, just as I was learning more about myself by being abroad, that others insist on holding to a certain foreignness to keep you in your place. This is understandable, like the French civilities that give interactions a neutral yet expected shape but that don’t lead to closeness let alone intimacy. I had put away in my mind something that I should go back to, turn over and explore: How foreign residents of a foreign city regard newcomers and, by extension, how anyone regards anyone else who’s new to the daily unfolding of one’s life, people who give you only so much of themselves before realizing that to offer too much might be to lose what sets them apart from those or what they’ve left behind.

Everyone wants to place another person in his mind, and people who’ve displaced themselves are perhaps even more prone to ascribing a sort of taxonomy of importance to someone who’s uprooted himself, even temporarily. I saw what it meant to know myself by seeing how I acted around relative strangers who might ask for help or even understanding. It was a difference between being patronizing for fear of losing what I thought I might have gained by being where I was, and of being accommodating by embracing ordinary empathy.

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