(Can You Believe) Her Name was Giselle?

But the world is full of men, she thinks. And look what’s happened.

–Stephen Beachy, Some Phantom

To encounter for the first time a room filled with decades full of junk and dust and memories stored. A room you spend months in cleaning out, organizing, cataloging, and cleaning until you practically vomit dust, feeling as though you’ve smoked a pack of cigarettes in less than fifteen minutes, non-filtered heavies, and from moment to next blessed moment resting on the two foot wide balcony that gives a view of the cluttered street below and a view into the pizza man’s apartment directly across the way.

At night, the pizza maker’s two daughters and their mother would watch t.v. so loudly that there’s no way anyone on the block could achieve sleep until they were through. The guess that every night they might be eating anything but pizza, but of this who can be sure?

From your deuxieme étage perch, you watch some of the most beautiful women in the world walk by carrying bread or flowers or fresh meat or heavy bags of groceries, or they walk their dogs never even once thinking in their lives of elegance and style about picking up their pets’ poop in public. Women who, as they age, get more and more beautiful and retain a Medusa-like quality that is highly imposing. Women who speak loudly in the streets, women who talk with their entire bodies and are not afraid of touching or being touched. Women who know they are the cat’s meow, the cream of the crop, the ain’t no mistaking it number one stunners of the world.

But at least the mail comes every day and there’s the promise of a better situation, maybe, and as the days of wandering with nothing to do but enjoy life and wine and food, the sea and the thyme-scented mountains that eternally erode right in front of our very eyes, there’s a sense that the only place to be what you want is that land of dreams from which you were spawned but do not, nor never will, belong. And do not miss that much.

Then, what does one do in Europe? With little money and a lot of time. Take a train to Aix only because there’s a good English bookstore that sells new releases and textbooks for classes at the University. A trip.

To take a train anywhere is a voyage. It’s to see a city and the countryside in a way it’s not used to being seen. Cities with cities within, throughout, and behind them, cities. Or even to take a coach, a bus that is, at a price of eight dollars (dogs ride free). To be driven as you lounge in a grandly comfortable pillow of a seat and arrive in a place you’ve never arrived in before in a city never really known is an essential escape.

Unfortunately, to take public transportation in the U.S. is naturally associated with impoverishment and that’s revealed through the Greyhound or Amtrack windows as being not only destitute but lame. Public transportation is associated with a 1950s like feel: diners, trips to Yellowstone, crummy motels that are just barely functional, the sense of not having changed in fifty years. In Europe, and probably everywhere else east of the Americas, trains, buses, taxi cabs reveal an intimate view of the complex levels, stratifications of what the passenger is passing through, entering. And sometimes the trains go slow enough to take in every crack in the wall. Instead of being whisked through the outside world, you step into deeper circles of where you’re going. The progression from A to B can be measured, in history. And there’s always a small bar/ café waiting to be discovered.

One may also, if so inclined, purchase a pizza for approximately six dollars and a bottle of wine (U.S. $ 1.40) and take these two items to a park, or more preferably, to a beach where to eat and publicly drink alcohol (by God!) is not a crime. If dinner is a success and the mood turns amorous, well then, if there aren’t many people around . . .
Even though the windows of shops are small, shopping them is a most gratifying diversion. And to shop them mentally, no touching in European stores is ever allowed, is all you can do because luxury items are very expensive, up to thirty-three percent more than in the U.S. Window browsing provides the hungry, all-consuming mind with fabulous things from fabulous places and the viewer may choose to view his or her fellow strollers because many people are out specifically for the passaggio- the daily walk and talk with friends.

They dress as if they are going somewhere special. They dress with class and elegance. They are living anti-Barbie dolls of how humans should grow up and compliment the color black. They understand the concept of a personal aesthetic because they daily invent it.

When there’s nothing to do in France, there’s so much to do. There are alleys to be walked in and lost among, bright red poppies sprouting from cracks in the walls, tempting you to make a sedative tea of them.
Each and every house is a variation on the theme of a dwelling villa– no two are the same. You can only wonder who lives within and what they hold sacred enough to hang on their walls.

When there’s nothing to do, there’s always a stroll with the task at hand of cultural research, perhaps if only to read each restaurant’s window menu and taste if you will an imaginary dish that you can afford to buy. A bouillabaisse of the mind weighty in its salt of inspiration. And there are so many restaurants of the small, family-owned variety that it boggles the mind’s boggler.

When there’s nothing to do there is always the beach, a park, some getaway to get away to where there will be other people, probably well dressed, enjoying themselves, talking loudly. And if you happen to be near a beach in the south, they might even be undressed. About this particular diversion– naked people watching, or human form appreciation– a mathematic is soon revealed. Eighty percent of those unclothed (topless, that is) are of a robustly, fleshy nature. Those exact same body types in men don speedos. You can almost see the suits under their ample belly rolls. What can you expect from a country that has such good food?

Calculating, calculating. It does leave about twenty percent of beachgoers with pretty close to perfect bodies. These types have little qualm in showing them off, sunning themselves until they are an oily, deep bronze. Rarely do they actually swim. They dip into the Mediterranean, then take a soapy shower in the open air showers.
It’s all so voyeuristic and civilized that nobody gets embarrassed.

When there’s nothing to do, there are too many challenges of something to do that sometimes you give in and do what’s best; absolutely nothing. Turn the radio on. Watch pigeons from the tall, cool glass of sunshine windows. Take a bath while listening to voices in the street. Watch the sky from the terrace, see how clouds resist intersecting with the sea. Be who you’ve always wanted to be in a far away land: not you.

Down and out in the south of France. To have to make any and all phone calls from pay phones because in the large apartment in which you are staying the service has been cut off due to financial difficulties. To admit to the fact that you’re living with you girlfriend’s mother and her mean old spinster sister is probably (don’t fret- there will be more) the most humbling experience you’d never thought you’d face. Who knew you’d grow up to be a failure. Who knew every day would be an enactment of shame?

Days go by like this: wake up very early and you begin cleaning. You mop the floors, the ones that are carpeted you sweep as best you can. You dust and arrange and quietly put the washed dishes from the previous day away. Tink, tink, wake up bugs.

You bathe rarely so as to conserve water. Most of your visits to the bathroom are in fact clandestine ones. Meaning, you have cleaned the garbage from the loo under the stairs. It used to be used by the adjacent grocery store’s employees. It’s the size of a small closet. It’s impossible to enter without banging your head, arms, or legs on its portal. Bugs and mice visit it much more than you do and they leave their prints in the fine lawn of dust that never quite goes away.

The water supply to this cabinet of human cleanliness is cold and cold only. The reserve for the toilet water is seven feet above the seat of the toilet, which is a classic chain pull, and it leaks a Chinese water torture on the head or lap of its occupants. Thus, most mornings are spent in the mildly abrasive encounter with very cold water administered to the face and body. Mornings in a chilly singular downpour in cramped corners. Makes you wonder about the facilities on a submarine. Mornings become something to which you don’t particularly desire waking up.

The next idea seems only to be a natural one. You have no job, no prospects, you can’t support yourself, and you have basically become in the eyes of your host family a squatter, so you refrain from eating. At first, to be in obvious, you do eat a little when offered food, but you take one-third the portion that your musculature requires. Later, afterwards, when no one is around, sure you sneak some cookies, drunk down by cold bathroom sink water, to quell your rumbling gut.
Down and out and poor and hungry. Sad and unsure why it is you are alive. Then and only then can nature do her job. Consolation. Each cry of a seagull is in commiseration, each turning of a wave smoothes out the tangles in your thinking, each thunderstorm pools then washes away your daily dose of despair.

There’s no other form of consolation than to walk in the hills that surround the city. They are heights that distance helps to colour what surrounds in brightness: blue, green, orange, and dark highlights. It’s a very effective sedative. A sad-ative.
What to see? Thousands of years of human habitation continuing to thrive while it doesn’t eradicate or forget its past (no buildings over a certain height can be built). Islands in the sea, one of which has a village. The others are desolate, treeless, white crags that will never drown, whose lochness-like forms tempt the dreamer to swim out to their barren shores for the reversal of views they dare and offer.
Or just to watch the clouds come in from Spain, Spanish weather, and to wonder how the day might be in neighbouring Geneva, Lyon, Ajaccio, Rome. To be under the weather, as we say, to be in a French Foreign Legion of the mind is to be not of the self. It’s a highly addictive drug. There’s no accounting to do, especially when you’re not making any money. The process is like becoming who you were born to be: no one in particular.

What we did do was hopelessly look for jobs, tried in the meantime to enjoy life as we had never known it, enjoyed each other those rare times we were alone, and then came up with the goofy plan of finding the most wonderful place in the world to live.
Employment came as a lark. A fellow American had just transferred into town and was running the show of a small, privately owned language school. It had the fortune to be placed right next to the American consulate. This provided its steady stream of business and its changing cast of teachers. The six or seven American flags hanging from it balconies didn’t hurt. Located as it was in a large downtown building, in the heart/heat of the action, there was no better place for an outsider to be.
The blue, white and red beating heart of the city constantly beat. It was always filled with hustling people, hustlers, always aglow with a simmering of possibility, if it didn’t right out bask in its own neon traffic light, with the halogens of boats coming into and waving goodbye as they left the port.

We, a rag tag team consisting of Adam- a big bloke from Hartley Pool, England, who spoke with such an English accent that most anglephones would look at him, shake their head twice, and simply smile. Unless you were a north Englander, you couldn’t understand a third word he said. In his relatively fast way of talking and his rhyming Cockney slang, he was much harder to comprehend than the frenchiest of the French.

Big as Big John, he was the kind of guy you’d go to any bar or dive with knowing that there wouldn’t be any trouble. A drinker, a curser, bollocksly devoted to sport, be it (first off) soccer (Manchester United), then aussie rugby, then cricket, even a little baseball, or the televised version of the Tour de France. Adam, who at he drop of a hat, would put one on, preferably a lager, and was not immune to whiskey, wine, weed, and certainly not women.

There was one we couldn’t quite figure out. Her name impossible to remember because, could it be the memories would drive you mad, absolutely flooding the heart and mind with endomorphs and adrenalin until the room itself shares in the dizziness, the carpeting, the posters of the wall of how many of the fifty beautiful states in their pastoral beauty. Welcome to Oklahoma. Drive route sixty-six. This was the decoration of our gloriously tiny language school and no one questioned its bad taste.

Though, you will not remember her name, even though she, for being southern french was so hometown straight blonde-haired, even freckled, middle American looking with her eye-liner and lipstick, and her toenails painted purple.
Strange it is to know someone who is not who they are when they speak another language. When she spoke, her wonderfully flawed English, struggling hard with her “th” sounds, you could see and hear her soul trying out words for the first time.
Sometimes, it could be a scary sight. Apparently, she has at least two concurrent boyfriends who despised one another and took it out on her, as she suggested, even in the throes of intimacy. She lived alone, drove her mother’s Renault, studied English because her dream was to be a flight attendant, and she wrote stories that she’d translate and turn in for homework. A most curious and unlikely person.

Until the night a party was thrown in honor of simply getting wasted, at an apartment right above the Arab market street. The rooms were full of French, American, and English kids, clouds of smoke, and pretty loud music that no one would bang on the wall or door and tell us to turn it down. As in any party in any country, a group congealed in the kitchen.
There she was. She had shown up with two guys who weren’t her boyfriends. At some point in the evening, we began to talk about life and art, generally abstract things that the French are fond of commenting on and she said she had a work of art to show me. A tattoo.

She turned around she that she was no longer facing me, pulled up her shirt and tugged at the top of her pants to reveal, right above the crack of her derriere, a butterfly made of lightning bolts. It was oddly beautiful. Her slightly damp skin glistened. She asked if I liked it.

Then she showed it to every guy in the room. Like her ass was a menu. To each and every masculine individual, she paraded her backside while she flipped her long head hair out of the way, turned her head over her shoulder so she could measure how each one reacted to her white expanse of flesh.

It was a good party but after it, I never saw her again. Except in my mind.

About Philip Kobylarz

Philip Kobylarz's writing has appeared in the Paris Review, Epoch, Poetry, and Best American Poetry. His two books are rues and Now Leaving Nowheresville. He has two books forthcoming.

Philip Kobylarz's writing has appeared in the Paris Review, Epoch, Poetry, and Best American Poetry. His two books are rues and Now Leaving Nowheresville. He has two books forthcoming.

Leave a Comment