“We don’t have a microwave,” Alex said, showing me around the kitchen of his and Julie’s apartment. He was proud of this. “We like to cook.”
I like to cook too, but I’m not a microwave snob. But I do keep my knives sharp, unlike Alex and Julie, whose knives I noticed were so dull I was surprised they hadn’t injured themselves. I kept that opinion to myself during the walk-through, though I did say, “I’ve got a microwave in New York. You’re free not to use it.”
This was my second swap of apartments for my third long stay in Paris. Alex and Julie were going to live in my place in New York for three months – while she worked as an intern at Christie’s, and he did whatever it is he does as an “informaticien,” which means something to do with computers. And while they both practiced their English.
During the two weeks of my stay in Paris that January, where I’d gone for the civil ceremony of my friends Walter and Bertrand, I had taken the opportunity to see this apartment that, beginning in late March, I would call home.
The apartment was on the top floor of an old factory building – a small one that still had a couple of workshops devoted to the fabrication of clothes, or pieces of them. It was on the Rue Saint-Denis, in the 2nd arrondissement, near Rue Réaumur. The street was what my friend Renaud called “une rue chaude,” meaning in this case that it was lined with sex shops and populated with prostitutes.
But first, before becoming acquainted, at least in passing, with that savory or unsavory atmosphere, I saw the apartment.
I got there on a dreary Sunday, a typically Parisian winter Sunday – one that was gray and damp and lifeless, an open casket of the dead of winter. The neighborhood isn’t chic, though some might find it charming, depending on your definition of charm (some people like industrial desuetude). The area had been part of the Parisian garment district, and some of that work still takes place there – as at the little workshops in Alex and Julie’s apartment building. But it seemed, at least on that late January morning, abandoned to the season.
The apartment was decorated as you’d expect a young couple’s apartment to be decorated, without much style or comfort. The rooms looked out onto a schoolyard. Alex told me that the noise of the screaming schoolchildren during the week wasn’t too bad (I learned later that it was actually infernal), and that you could get used to it (I never did). But I figured I’d be calling this apartment mine for a while, so I would have to get used to something about it, in any event. I couldn’t see how I’d impose my own sense of personality on their home, but that wasn’t as essential to me as having found a place to stay for a few months.
I was, however, taken by Alex’s mention of their deliberate lack of microwave. A pronouncement like that, said with such odd pride, implies to me a misguided sense of what’s important, or in this case, of what cooking is. In general, you use the tools available to you and make do. And if you don’t find a microwave useful, don’t buy one. And don’t tell me, who actually finds microwave a sometime convenience in cooking, that your more highly developed sense of culinary arts precludes having one. Sure, you might equate having a microwave with relying on frozen pizzas rather than creating something from scratch – on being a mere eater rather than a discriminating diner, perhaps – but if you choose to tell someone you prefer to cook, as if that makes you somehow superior to the average hungry person who simply heats stuff up, and your kitchen doesn’t have decent pans or a sharp knife, then what is it you’re doing?
I realized that Alex was doing a bit of what I’ve done in my life – emphasizing the wrong thing. I’d had certain goals in life that, once achieved, amounted to less than I’d hoped. Becoming a reporter at the Wall Street Journal was important to me. But being a reporter at the Journal was something else. Still worthy, perhaps, but not at all exalted. Publishing a novel was important, but dealing with publishing was often more debilitating than the novel’s creation had been gratifying. Saying your life was more refined because you chose not to have a microwave was, perhaps, not nearly as profound a delusion as believing that a particular job would make you someone you had hoped to be, but offhand remarks such as Alex’s stick with me because they imply, or at least I infer from them, a sense that your search for what matters in life is often detoured by inconsequentialities, or your interpretation of them.
Random comments sometimes give me pause too because they recall to me my own idiocies about the choices I’ve made. Not that I look on them with regret – not always, and certainly not often – but that I also sense that, perhaps like Alex at some future date when he’s matured, I will look back and wonder why I considered something to be important when it was merely a passing fancy, or a misinformed opinion. Or simply naïveté.
That thought stayed with me as I said goodbye to Alex and Julie. I would next see them when I returned from Paris in June – our paths wouldn’t cross until after we’d lived in each other’s homes. And I wondered if I’d made the right choice in staying at their apartment, despite my relief at having found something for several months.
In any event, it was done, and I would make do with what I was given, and try to forge something new out of an experience that might not have been what I’d anticipated, but that would certainly surprise me regardless of any planning, or preconceptions, that I’d put into it.
When I descended onto the charmless street, I did catch sight of one of those old-fashioned femmes de joie, as the old French phrase has it, dolled up like a caricature of a prostitute and standing in a doorway puffing on a cigarette. She called out to me as I passed on my way to the metro: “Excusez-moi monsieur, puis-je vous expliquer quelque chose?”
I shook my head. Whatever she wanted to explain to me, it certainly wasn’t anything whose importance I was ready to comprehend at that moment. Unless she had a microwave to sell.