|The Exchange, Part 1|
By Bonnie Weiss
Im knocking on the door at 14 Square Alboni. The door opens and the sweetest and most excited faces--all smiles--- grandmother, mother and child, greet me. Behind the smiles is a very large, totally barren entry hall and living room, bare wood floors that look as if they havent been sanded for 50 years, and walls with no decoration, absolutely no decoration or color anywhere.
I think about
the house I left in L.A. Oh my God, I traded my gorgeous home for
We sit down and I am offered refreshments. The pretty eleven-year-old girl tells me that she has been singing, My Bonnie Flies Over the Ocean all morning. We are all talkative and excited.
I look at
the three ladies in front of me who look like characters right out of
Oliver Twist. Three little urchins with their thread bare smocks, albeit
charming, clean, intelligent and alert. They tell me how they came to
live in this large elegant apartmentan architectural landmark in
one of the most beautiful neighborhoods of Paris in the 16th Arrondisement.
for the lack of furniture and show me my room that has a little cot in
it. We make the bed together. I am taken on a tour. There are three bedrooms
each with a little cot, a small table and little lamp. One bedroom has
a TV table with masking tape holding it up. The TV table is the only table
in the room. There are beautiful French windows, two of which have the
shades pulled down. The others have a white sheer curtains. There is no
decoration on any wall. The beds are unmade. The kitchen is
signs of exquisite tastetwo antique Japanese tables, a worn, once
beautiful, sofa covered with silk fabric, very nice little wooden table
with two carved chairs. Given the financial means and or intention, they
could make this place gorgeous. There is no sign of either.
were here to live as residents, study French and travel with our
railroad passes. The ladies insisted I come and stay with them before
they were to leave for America. There were so many things they wanted
to teach me not only in regard to the apartment, but also practical knowledge
regarding shopping and living in Paris, valuable knowledge that they learned
living there for the last ten years. They wanted to teach me how to shop,
how to clean, how to bathe, how to take the metro, make international
calls, local calls, train and hotel reservations, but most important to
carefully follow all the rules for
This is my
first night and they are very happy and excited to have me join them for
dinner. They have cooked a lovely meal. We sit down to eat and the conversation
immediately turns into a lecture - how to save paper napkins, save paper
towels, save plastic bags, save jars, turn off lights, actually hardly
ever turn on any lights. They can barely wait to orient me. I cant
help thinking of the word anal. In fact, they are beginning
to make my definition of the word anal look like ghetto.
and admire their extraordinary fastidiousness and economy, but already
I feel a sterile, dark, immaculate, Spartan way of living which completely
lacks any resemblance to any letter of the word, soul. There
is no breath here.
If you dont
turn off the smallest light imaginable as you leave a room, you are called,
bill here must be the all time record low for any apartment in Paris.
It is still day one. I have already learned not to touch the walls---any walls, any time. The paint job cost $100,000 (so they say although it doesnt look like a very good job.)
believe the size of my 69 1/2 pound luggage. I cannot believe that they
are going away for 2 ½ months, the three of them, with one little
Day two arrives.
We have toast and coffee together. I love the way they make their coffee
in a little pan and add wonderful cream and sugar. After breakfast it
is time to
3. The dishrag,
(oh my God) looks like it is from the 1890s. No paper towels, only
torn paper somethings for napkins. Just two Japanese antique
tables for furniture. Dont ever touch or put anything on them.
refrigeratorVery tricky. You must always verify that the main
If I tell my husband about all this, he wont come. If I tell the ladies how messy my husband and granddaughter are they wont leave.
here to stay no matter what. It took too much work to get here. Im
keeping my mouth closed and making the best of it. If I want to come back
here some day, and I may,
This is day
two. We re going to the supermarket. I wheel the little bandaged
On the way
back to the apartment I ask if I can take them all out to lunch. No
way, says grandma ungraciously. We have not gone to a café
or restaurant in ten years. That is a sin, I say under
when I arrived, they invited me to eat with them, and this morning we
had coffee and toast together. I want to reciprocate and am happy to make
I hear sounds
of pots, pans, cooking noises and I figure dinner must almost be ready.
I go into the kitchen and see dishes being washed. I am totally mortified.
I catch my breath.
For the next
two days and nights before they leave, I cook my own meals.
Thank the Lord they are off to America tomorrow with their little suitcase. Theyll probably be traumatized by our home that is full of color, soul, beauty,
My job is
to put breath and soul into this place for Samantha before she arrives.
Time to go out for lunch.
Here is Parisa
lovely little shopping street with flags that cross from one side to the
other, a light breeze. The French owner of the restaurant is sexy without
glitz; the French women, confident, strong. Here I see life walking by.
"Are you having fun?"
"Fun? We didn't come to LA to have fun. We came here to work, to go to the doctors, to go to Costco, to go to the dentist."
"Can't you have a little fun in between these things?'
no. It is just horrible. We have so many things to do."
together the key, passport, list of medicines and money on a pin
ladies arrive to a house in which the LA husband has turned on all the
"So we don't have to make up three beds."
As soon as
the granddaughter from LA arrives in Paris, Grandma and granddaughter
Grandma, while cooking, scrapes the little pan with a fork and is horrified.
French ladies put their stew pot that won't open in a sink of cold water. It explodes. They are horrified.
Both Grandmas on the phone:
"You dented the lid!," (To herself, "I am so relieved,
now I don't feel so
"How about having a little party? Our home is a great party house."
"No, we don't want to get anything dirty."
"Get it dirty. It cleans up."
too much work. We don't use anything. We don't get anything
dirty. We don't use
don't have to get it so clean. Try to have some fun. Go outside
in the beautiful
"No, we would have to pull the shades down again at night."
"Well, think about it."
return home. There are no flowers, the blinds are closed, the lights
return home. The Paris house has flowers in it, fresh fruit in
a bowl. The
looks upset and sets about immediately fixing everything. The LA
The French grandma freezes the cakes and puts away the candy for the future. She starts checking everything for cleanliness and starts re-cleaning the house that the LA grandma cleaned by hand for hours and hours.