The 'MIJE'

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Chapter 1 from Ameritrash by Linn Parker

The MIJE

 

The bus spat us and our mismatched backpacks and bags out onto the wet cobblestones in front of the Maison International de Jeunesse et d’Étudiants, or the MIJE (meezh) as we would come to call it. The 17th-century aristocratic townhouse stood on a dark, narrow street in the Marais district of Paris, close enough to the River Seine to smell its dank, sewer-tinged funk. The large wooden doors and window shutters were all firmly shut, preventing even the tiniest sliver of light from escaping into the night. Our leader, Professor Richard Céleste, rang the doorbell while we sat on our bags smoking and trying to blend into the Parisian atmosphere.

A small door within the big doors creaked open and a slight, dark-skinned man emerged. He looked over our bedraggled group of pseudo-hippies, sorority girls, preppies and nerds, and asserted, ‘Vous ȇtes la groupe d’Américains.’ Then he gesticulated for us to come inside.

We dragged our luggage in through the pre-revolutionary doors into an inner courtyard that was surrounded by stone archways and overlooked by French windows and little balconies with curly, wrought iron balustrades and some smaller dormer windows on the floor above. I stubbed out my cigarette and looked around. A wide stone staircase swept up through one of the arches to the left. Yellow lamplight filled the courtyard and the damp cobbles gleamed with the residue of September rain.

I suddenly felt that I had been transported back in time from 1990 to 1700. The faceless strip malls and parking lots of suburban New England seemed to be light years away as I stood, taking in my new surroundings with a sense of wonder.

Richard sauntered to the center of the courtyard, cleared his throat and started to speak in his meticulous French-accented English. ‘Gather round, please.’ When Richard spoke we listened, especially the female students, who were usually riveted by his sparkling brown eyes and tall, well-toned physique. He was nothing like the other French professors from the university who were mostly elderly existentialists; he was about 35 and preferred wearing tight jeans to tweed suits. ‘I’d like to welcome you all to your new home for the next month. You will be taking some cultural acclimatization and language lessons here every morning, to get up to speed before moving in with your host families in Rouen and immersing yourselves in the rigors of French university life.’ He ran his hand through a head of thick black waves, and you could almost hear the collective sigh of my fellow females. Too bad he was already married and his heavily pregnant wife, Lucinda, was accompanying him on this trip. ‘You are here to learn as much from your individual experiences in France as in the classroom, but please be careful as well. I have heard rumors that this very building was once a brothel and ghosts of disrepute are said to haunt its halls.’ A ripple of laughter went through the group.

I couldn’t see any ghosts, but I could see a few other people ambling about behind windows and through the courtyard. They looked foreign, their clothes were different and their hair was different. I made a mental note of a couple of good-looking Scandinavian-type guys.

Richard read out the list of who was sharing rooms. Most dorms had four people sharing, but as there were 13 women and only four men, there would be one room with only three. ‘Siobhan Schreiber, Lindi Tucker, and Gabriela Ferreira,’ he read out.

Our room, we discovered, had French doors and a balcony, and was situated right in the center, overlooking the courtyard. The floor was made of chipped terracotta tiles and there were two sets of iron bunk beds, a rickety wooden desk and chair, and a large, ornately carved armoire. There was a small, open wash area in the corner of the room with a shower and sink. The toilet was down the corridor and shared with the rest of the floor. Gabriela chose one of the bottom bunks, I decided on the one above and Lindi chose the other bottom bunk, leaving the second top one empty.

Gabriela wrinkled her nose. ‘The room’s a bit shabby, isn’t it?’

‘It’s pure luxury compared to the army barracks I had to live in,’ Lindi replied.

‘You were in the army?’ Gabriela asked, intrigued.

‘Well … um, I don’t really like to talk about it, but yes,’ Lindi said, looking at the floor. ‘I’m not proud of it, but it was the only way I could get my studies paid for.’

Gabriela put an arm around her. ‘Don’t worry, I think it’s very admirable.’ She smiled.

I watched as Lindi and Gabriela unpacked their things. Tiny, dark-haired Gabriela hung up a few plain blouses and some jeans, and set down a small statue of the Virgin Mary next to her bed. She saw me look at it quizzically and explained, ‘My nana from Portugal gave it to me, and it reminds me of her.’

Lindi was emptying a big, worn-out, army duffel bag. She had loads of CDs, a few miniskirts and fishnet tights, some hair gel, and a box of red hair dye for the upkeep of her spiky punk haircut. Lindi saw me lounging on the bed watching, and flashed her big, blue eyes at me. ‘Aren’t you going to unpack, Siobhan?’ she said in her Louisiana drawl.

I jumped from the top bunk. ‘I’m too excited. We’re in Paris, ladies!’ I already felt the shackles falling from my middle-class consciousness, now that I was a million miles away from Connecticut and my neurotic Catholic parents, and I was itching to get out and explore. ‘Let’s get out on the town,’ I suggested.

 ‘But I need to call my parents and Jamie to tell them that I got here safely,’ Gabriela whined.

‘Do it tomorrow,’ I said. ‘Let’s go.’

Once we had stepped through the huge wooden door, we stopped and looked around us. The river Seine was to our left and a web of crooked cobbled streets to our right.

‘Let’s go right,’ I suggested. I thought it looked a more promising place to find a bar. Finding a drink was the natural thing to do if you were a 20-year-old American, newly arrived in a country where alcohol was not denied to its under-21 citizens. We wove through the streets, Gabriela clinging wide-eyed to Lindi’s arm.

After a while, we heard footsteps behind us. We all looked back. There were three men walking not far behind us.

‘I think those guys are following us,’ Gabriela said, nervously.

‘Just keep walking and look like you know where you’re going,’ Lindi responded.

Eh—les filles!’ one of the men called.

I made the mistake of turning to look. They were gaining on us. We increased our pace but they did too. One of them shouted something else in French that I wasn’t sure I understood correctly.

‘What did he say?’ I asked Lindi.

‘Do you really want to know?’ she said.

‘Yeah, tell me.’ We were practically running now.

‘He said, “Do you foreign girls want a taste of French sausage?”’

Suddenly I remembered a slang phrase from my street French book, which I had studied scrupulously on the plane before coming to France. I stopped in my tracks, turned around to face our stalkers and yelled, ‘Fous le camp, conard!

The men stopped and looked surprised. They shrugged their shoulders and backed off. I was so proud. I had spoken my first words in French, to a French person, in France—and they seemed to understand me— ‘Fuck off, asshole!’ I was glad I had bought that book. It was more useful than all the years of French classes I had sat through in American educational institutions.

We found a little bar and sat down at a table outside, lighting cigarettes and watching the Parisians strut past. We waited and waited but the waiter completely ignored us. I was on my third cigarette and was getting thirsty. ‘I think we have to call him over,’ Lindi suggested. We were used to the prompt and attentive service that customers received in the USA. Even at the cheapest diner, before your butt even hits the seat, a menu is waved in your face. If an American waiter ignored a customer for half an hour, he’d be fired.

Garçon!’ Lindi said, finally. An annoyed looking waiter took his time coming over.

Without taking his eyes off a woman walking down the street, he said, ‘Oui?’ and stood over us. We didn’t know what was on offer, so didn’t know what to order.

Le menu, s’il vous plait,’I said, boldly.

Il n’y a pas,’ he said, now looking at a Ferrari that roared up to the front of the café spewing exhaust over the sidewalk tables.

‘How can they not have a menu?’ Gabriela coughed on the exhaust fumes.

The waiter frowned at us, exasperated. ‘You speak Ingleesh?’ he said. Then without even waiting for an answer he launched into a list of drinks and snacks—in English.

We ordered three kir royales. It was liberating to order a drink without being asked for proof of your age. Both Gabriela and I were 20 and were used to having to show our fake IDs to get into bars in the USA. Lindi was already 23 so it wasn’t so much of a big deal for her.

Sipping our kirs, we discussed what we wanted to do during our time in Paris. I wanted to go to Père Lachaise cemetery to see Oscar Wilde’s and Jim Morrison’s graves, and the catacombs. Gabriela wanted to go to the Louvre. Lindi had already been to Paris as an exchange student in high school, so she’d seen most of it before—her goal was to meet the Frenchman of her dreams.

As we left the bar, feeling happy from the kir, I noticed an elegant old woman sitting at a table. Her companion was an immaculately groomed bichon frise that was seated in the chair opposite her enjoying a croque monsieur from a dainty plate on the table. Only in Paris, I thought. I knew I was going to love this place.

When we arrived back at the MIJE, we were surprised to find someone else in the room. A naked woman was lying on the unclaimed fourth bunk above Gabriela’s bed. She didn’t seem bothered about covering herself up when we walked in.

We didn’t know where to look. A huge muff covered her lower belly and blended gradually into black fur-covered legs, like a 3-D velcro map of Africa. All three of us were stunned. The woman swung her hairy legs over the side of the bunk and reached out her hand, exposing a thatch of sweaty armpit hair. ‘Bon soir, je suis Veronique.’ As she shook our hands, she looked each one of us up and down. When she rested her eyes on me she gave me a wink. I quickly turned away and started fumbling in my bag.

Veronique jumped off her perch with a heavy thud and sauntered over to the wash area. There was a knock at the door, so she opened it. Our classmate Mike, stood in the doorway. Mike, usually quite articulate, gaped open-mouthed and then stuttered, ‘Um—excuse me… I’m really sorry. I think I got the wrong room.’

‘Hi Mike!’ Gabriela shouted, jumping up from her bed and blocking the doorway.

‘We’d invite you in but it’s a bit crowded in here,’ I indicated the naked Frenchwoman with my eyes.

Veronique thankfully disappeared behind the shower curtain. Mike shifted nervously from Birkenstocked foot to foot, fidgeting with his watch. ‘I got some weed. Anyone want a smoke?’ he said, not daring to enter the room.

Leave it to Mike to sniff out some weed within hours of arriving in Paris. Lindi and Angie didn’t smoke pot, so I left them behind in the room, which was slowly filling with steam.

Mike already had the joint rolled up, which he produced from the pocket of his orange kaftan. We skulked down dimly lit back alleyways on our way to the Seine, getting pleasantly high as we walked. At the edge of the river promenade, a few dried leaves stuck to the skeletons of trees, rustling lightly. Mike kept turning round to see if someone was behind us, the yellow streetlights glinting off his round, wire-rimmed spectacles.

‘It’s just the wind blowing the leaves,’ I reassured him—my head spinning from the last toke. The immense sky rolled low before us—a soft hue of mauve-orange dappled by blotches of grey clouds. ‘It is so beautiful at night,’ I said and giggled. ‘Is it me, or is the sky closer here?’

 ‘I think it’s just the clouds that are closer to the earth, making the sky seem closer,’ Mike said, pushing his glasses back up while bringing the joint back to his mouth. There was a comfortable silence before Mike said, ‘Can I make a confession?’

‘Sure,’ I said, intrigued. I didn’t know much about Mike and felt flattered that he wanted to share some personal information. There was another moment of silence and Mike inhaled, getting ready to let me in on his secret. Just then someone stepped out of the shadows. ‘Excusez-moi. Avez-vous de feu?’ the man asked. Mike exhaled and offered the man a light. We walked on in silence. He seemed to forget that he was about to tell me something and I didn’t want to seem nosey, so I didn’t pry.

The clouds flew by over our heads and the lamps cast a halo of moisture around the bulbs. We finished the joint, lit up our cigarettes and continued walking through the silent sound of rustling leaves and whispering water. I was lost in my own thoughts, escaping from my head before I could hold them. There was so much that was new, so much to take in that I felt like I might explode. I was like a bird that had escaped from the safety of its cage into the outside world, where it was dazzled and confused by the noise, the lights, the sheer expanse of the never-ending sky. I was determined to make good use of my freedom.

When I returned to the MIJE, I found my roommates all fast asleep. I lay in bed thinking about my boyfriend back home, Toby. I almost didn’t come on this trip to France because of him. A week before I was due to leave, we went out to the woods with a case of beer and some weed. Toby was wasted as usual and started to cry. He got down on his knees and begged me not to go. I remember the intense heaviness that gripped my heart. I knew what I had to do, though, and I was going to go to France, even if it meant leaving him behind in the blandness of middle-class suburbia, furtively drinking Red Stripe and dropping acid in the woods.

            Then there was my mother, sobbing in the airport, clinging on to me so tightly like she would never let me go. For a second I wasn’t sure I could leave her with my obsessive-compulsive father and depressive sister. She needed me—Toby needed me. How would they cope once I was gone? I had all of that holding me back, but I didn’t let it.

At the crack of dawn, we were all awoken by Veronique doing her ablutions, once again in all her glory. I lay in bed for a while watching her through half-open eyes. She squatted and stuck a tampon in and, without putting on any underwear, flung on faded dungarees and Dr. Marten boots. She grabbed her backpack, bid her farewell and was gone before any of us even got up out of bed.

Lindi was the first to rise. She stretched and yawned. ‘Oh my God, what is that?’ she said looking at the top bunk where Veronique had been sleeping. Gabriela and I got up and had a look at the mussed-up sheets on the bed.

‘Eeew!’ Gabriela scowled, looking away. The sheets were stained in quite a lot of blood.

‘God, that’s filthy,’ I replied. ‘She must not have been wearing a tampon.’

No one wanted to touch the bloody sheets so we just pulled the blanket up over them, so at least we wouldn’t have to look at them.

Whenthe next girl arrived to stay in our room, a sweet little Israeli called Miki, we warned her that she should ask the concierge to get someone to change the sheets. The poor girl looked like she could use a really good bed. I thought she must have been hitchhiking all the way from Israel without a single day’s sleep or a single wash. Her long wavy hair was matted and dirty and her hippy clothes were well worn.

Miki was a good roommate. She stayed with us for a few days before going on to her next destination. She was travelling with her boyfriend Ben, who was due to go into the Israeli army for national service in a few months. She explained that they were doing some travelling and trying to see what they could of the world in case something happened to Ben. They were leaving Europe and going to Laos next as it was one of the only places where an Israeli passport wasn’t denied entry without any problems.

We soon realized that, being a youth hostel, there were lots of comings and going at the MIJE Some people stayed a month, like us, some stayed a week, some stayed only a day or two. The next group to arrive was German. Our next roommate Elke didn’t speak any English or French at all. I was the only one who was able to communicate with a bit of German. She seemed like a nice girl but I must admit that I was more interested in her schoolmates and asked her to invite them up to our room for a few beers. The boys were called Hans and Johann and they were perfect German specimens with their shiny blond hair, light blue eyes and lovely white teeth. They told us about a party at the German embassy that they were invited to and asked us to come. There would be kegs of beer and it only cost a few francs to get in. It sounded like fun so I convinced Lindi and Gabriela to come. I think Gabriela quite liked Johann, so it was easy to convince her.

All five of us made the metro journey to the German embassy. It was all lit up and there was loud music and voices drifting over the huge iron gates. Then a tall, blond, correct guard stopped us at the gate and asked for passes. The two Germans presented their tickets and said we were their guests. We made our way into the main hall, which was absolutely crammed with people dressed in finery. We jostled our way through the crowd toward the bar where the beer was flowing freely. The boys got us each a big plastic mug full of beer.

We held our plastic ‘steins’ up and yelled ‘Prost’ all together before taking a swig. Smartly dressed men and women were singing and dancing. Germans sure know how to party, I thought. After several steins of beer and a drunken rendition of ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’ we were the last ones to be shoved out the door by the formidable bouncers. We staggered to the nearest metro draped in German flags and wearing paper fedoras. I just knew I was going to love Europe.

 

***

Toby was being awkward. I was being nice by calling him and he just had to try to bring me down. ‘How’s Pierre?’ he said.

‘Who?’

‘You know, some French guy you’re probably fucking.’ He kept going on about how I was going to meet some Frenchman and cheat on him. He sounded drunk. I loved him, but he had to cut me some slack. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in small-town New England. I wanted to see the world, learn new languages experience new things. Toby was just trapped in his dead-end world of smoking joints in the woods and drinking cheap beer.

‘I miss you and think about you every day,’ I tried to reassure him. ‘It’s only a few months until you come over to visit.’ His grandmother had given him some money, and together with some money he’d saved up he was going to come over to see me just after Christmas for the New Year.

There were a few people waiting to use the phone in the foyer, so I cut the call short and hung up. Four Australians were putting their backpacks down in the courtyard. I craned my neck to check them out. Two were tall and blond and two were dark. ‘Scuse me mate, where do we check in?’ the short, dark guy with the glasses asked a Dutch guy who was sitting outside smoking. ‘I shink dee guy ish comink,’ the Dutch guy said, pointing at the concierge emerging from a door. My ears pricked up. They were cute—I liked their accents.

Anne from our group was also outside having a cigarette and I could see her eyes following the Australian guys. There was a spark in her expression that I had never noticed before. Her eyes bored into the guys, trying to assess what was under their shorts. Anne was always very quiet back at UConn. She was small and plain looking, with long, straight mousy hair and a conventional, if not outdated way of dressing. She seemed to blend into the woodwork. I never knew she smoked, but by the way she was awkwardly holding the cigarette, trying to look sexy and sophisticated, and trying not to cough with each inhalation, I had a feeling that she had just started. I decided to join her. ‘Hey, can you spare a cigarette?’ I asked. ‘Sure, she said,’ grateful for the company. ‘Lucky Strike,’ she said, pronouncing it the French way, ‘Lookie Streek’.

‘They’re not bad,’ I said nodding toward the Aussies. ‘Should we invite them out tonight?’

‘Really?’ she said, following the movements of one of the tall blond ones. They noticed us looking at them and casually sauntered over.

‘You ladies stayin’ here?’ the tall guy asked us.

‘We’re here for the whole month of September. What about you guys?’ I asked.

‘We’re here for four days. Then we’re going to London to work in a bar. Are you Americans?’ he drawled.

‘Where are you from?’ Anne asked.

‘Can’t ya tell?’ he laughed.

‘Americans aren’t very good with accents,’ I said.

‘I’m Pete, and this is Tony, Jay and Carlo. We’re from Melbourne, Australia.’

Anne was practically drooling over the guy’s accent.

‘This is Anne and I’m Siobhan. Do you guys want to meet up tonight? We can show you some of Paris.’ I thought the short, dark one called Carlo was cute. He wore round glasses that made him look sensitive and intelligent.

The Aussies nodded. ‘We’ll meet you down here at 9pm? We all gotta take showers and stuff. Do you girls have any more friends?’ Pete asked, grinning. ‘The more the merrier, you know?’

‘My two roommates might want to come out. I’ll ask,’ I said stubbing out my cigarette.

‘See ya later,’ Anne said, winking at the tall Aussie.

Back in the room, Gabriela was applying a facemask and Lindi was reading a guide to Paris. ‘Hey ladies, how about a night on the town with some gorgeous Australians?’ I said.

Gabriela’s facemask cracked as she raised an eyebrow. ‘Australians? Where’d they come from?’

‘Australia, where do you think!’ I laughed. ‘I just met them downstairs. There’s four of them, and me and Anne are going, but we need two more girls to balance things out.’

‘I’d feel guilty about Jamie,’ Gabriela said. Gabriela never stopped talking about her wonderful boyfriend Jamie. It was, ‘Jamie does this… Jamie says this… when Jamie studied in France…’ Jamie was in the year above us at university and had done the study abroad program last year. Gabriela pined for Jamie. She was going to stay pure for him, like a good Catholic girl. I had a feeling that Jamie was probably screwing sorority girls in Gabriela’s absence.

‘Forget about Jamie. He’s not here. We’re just having fun. You don’t have to marry anyone.’

‘And what about your boyfriend?’ she said, looking me in the eye.

‘What about him? He’s not here either. I feel like having fun and these Aussies looked interesting.’

Lindi looked up from her book. ‘I’ll come with you, if only to keep you out of mischief,’ she winked at me.

‘Now there’s a girl who knows how to have a good time! Come on ladies, sort yourselves out, we’re meeting in an hour.’

Four Aussies and four ‘Yanks’ as the Aussies called us spilled out from the MIJE onto rue de Fauconnier. We headed toward rue de Rivoli to find a bar. Anne sidled up to Tony right away. She was only about half his height and was craning her neck to talk to him.

We went into a bar and the boys ordered some beers, and wine for the girls. After one glass of wine I noticed Anne put her hand on Tony’s thigh as she gazed into his eyes. Jay was staring at Gabriela’s cleavage as she talked to him about her boyfriend Jamie and her Portuguese heritage. Lindi was looking confused after listening to one of Pete’s Australian jokes.

‘Do you want another drink?’ Carlo said pointing at my empty glass of wine. I’d already had three, but agreed to another.

He came back with a couple of small glasses of clear liquid. ‘Sambuca,’ he said. ‘My grandfather swears by it,’ he said lifting his glass in a toast.

Carlo was Italian-Australian and proud. He looked Italian but sounded Australian. I thought he was cute but quite different from the type I normally go for. Toby was tall and wiry. Carlo was short and quite dark and muscular. I clinked my glass with him and felt the heat of the Sambuca spreading from my stomach into my veins.

He smiled nervously at me and his little round glasses glinted. ‘Do you have a girlfriend back home?’ I asked.

‘No,’ he said, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’

‘No,’ I replied and smiled back. From the corner of my eye I could see Tony towering over Anne and whispering in her ear. She was giggling.

I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Lindi and her expression betrayed boredom. ‘I’ve had enough of Crocodile Dundee’s jokes. I’m heading back to the MIJE.’

I didn’t want my friend to walk home on her own, so I said I’d go with her. Carlo said he was a gentleman and would walk with us. The other guys decided to go too, if Carlo was going. So we all headed back together, staggering and swaying along the damp, cobbled back streets of Le Marais.

‘We’ll never get rid of these guys,’ Lindi whispered to me.

‘Well there are some of us who don’t seem to mind so much,’ I said indicating Anne and Tony, who were holding on to each other and kept dipping into shadowy corners to kiss.

I looked over at Carlo. He was looking at me and smiling. ‘Let’s hang out a bit longer in the courtyard. I don’t feel like going back to the dorm yet.’

‘No, me neither,’ I replied.

We approached the huge wooden doors and buzzed for entry. The North African night watchman creaked the door open and let us in, taking in our drunken state before retiring back to his little office to stare at the security CCTV monitors.

Lindi and Gabriela bid everyone goodnight as they sensibly headed back up to the room.

Pete and Jay looked disappointed as they noticed that Tony and Anne had disappeared into the darkened dining room. They looked at Carlo. ‘You coming back up, mate?’ Carlo shook his head.

‘No, I’m alright. We’re gonna hang out for a bit.’

It was 2am and there was no one else around. The lights were all off. We went into the darkened dining room to sit down at one of the tables, only to discover that Anne and Tony were underneath it, in the throes of passion. We discreetly left them to their furtive groping and slurping, and sat down next to each other outside in the corridor.

We looked at each other and for a split second Toby’s face appeared in my head. I immediately erased the image from my mind. My life was here in Paris now, not in a backwoods town in Connecticut. Carlo was cute—too cute. I felt the ghosts of disrepute take over my soul and I lunged at him, sticking my tongue down his throat. I could tell I had taken him by surprise, but he responded and we passionately and urgently kissed.

After kissing for a while I got bored. I needed to take things further, but we were sitting on the steps out in the open. The dining room was already occupied and the dorms were certainly not very private. I had an idea. The ladies’ toilet off the main foyer on the ground floor was clean and private. There was no one else around, so I didn’t think that anyone else would walk in on us.

As we stood outside the door Carlo looked doubtfully at the lady-shaped symbol on the door. ‘Here?’ he said.

‘There’s no one else up and at least the night watchman won’t stumble across us in there. Trust me.’

Once inside, I gently took his glasses off that made him look intellectual and sensitive, and placed them on the ceramic washbasin. We laid our jackets on the floor and lay down on them. I started to unbutton his jeans, while he put his hand under my t-shirt to undo my bra.

Stripped down to the bare essentials, I noticed Carlo was sturdy and hairy with short powerful legs, and he wasn’t circumcised. I had never seen an uncircumcised penis before and was fascinated. Toby, as most clinically clean American men, was circumcised at birth. We enjoyed a wanton sex session under the harsh neon lights of the MIJE ladies room, feeling the cold terracotta tiles against our skin. We were unfamiliar with each other’s bodies, and awkwardly bumped into the exposed pipes and toilet cubicle doors trying to maneuver ourselves around.

Afterwards, we sat naked and shivering against the cold wall tiles, casually sharing a crumpled cigarette. Something in the top corner of the room caught my eye.

‘Oh, shit!’ I said pointing up at the CCTV camera that was aiming its lens directly at us.

‘Bloody hell!’ Carlo said as he stood up, frantically trying to pull his clothes on. ‘I bet that bloody guard got a right eyeful!’

We dressed and said goodnight to each other outside in the corridor and slunk back to our respective dorms.

The next morning in the canteen, waiting for my bowl of coffee and baguette, I noticed Carlo and the other Aussies. I nodded and smiled but didn’t go over to talk to them. Carlo looked down at his bowl, a bit nervous and embarrassed. I couldn’t be bothered to make that much of an effort to go over and talk. I knew he would be leaving for London in a few days. The North African came over to my table to refill my coffee bowl. As he poured the hot liquid into the cup, he fixed me with his black eyes and grinned a wide, lascivious grin. I felt sick with embarrassment and quickly turned away to stare into the depths of my coffee.

‘What’s that all about?’ Gabriela asked, bemused. ‘That guy’s such a grouch. He never smiles at anyone. What have you done to deserve that?’

‘I have absolutely no idea,’ I said trying to make myself inconspicuous by slouching down into my chair and hiding my face behind my bowl.

I noticed Anne go over and sit down with the Aussies. She waved me over but I slid further down in my seat and pretended not to see her. I wondered if the concierge would give her the grin as well.

Carlo and I pretty much ignored each other for the next couple of days, until it was time for the Aussies to leave for the UK. Surprisingly, Carlo came to my room to say goodbye and tell me he was leaving. ‘I had a really great time,’ he said nervously, looking sensitive and intellectual with his little spectacles. ‘In fact, it was a really unforgettable time,’ he smiled coyly.

‘It was great to meet you too. Have a great time in England. And don’t get led astray into any more public toilets,’ I laughed. We hugged each other like good buddies.

‘See ya ‘round, maybe?’ he said tentatively.

‘Yeah, see you again sometime maybe,’ I said. But we never exchanged numbers or addresses and we never saw each other again. Carlo would be just one amongst many people that would come and go in my new life, unfettered by the moral constraints of the USA. I was in Europe now.

 

***

The next day I had an acclimatization lesson with my American classmates. We met every morning in one of the meeting rooms at the MIJE while we were staying in Paris, in order to prepare for our real studies at the university of Rouen, which would start in a month. After some intense grammar practice, study of current French news events and research of an assigned arrondissement, our acclimatization would end with a final exam. Richard, being an unconventional professor, announced that the exam would consist of a treasure hunt around Paris. Our group was thrilled not to be subjected to a long written exam and relished the opportunity to explore the city. The group was split into teams and the team that was able to collect the most ‘treasure’ would win.

My team was lucky to have two of the best French speakers, Lindi and Mike, along with Gabriela and me. We had a week to complete the task and it was meant to get us to explore Paris, learn a bit about the history and culture of the city, as well as use our language skills in real life situations. There were some quite odd tasks, amongst them: photographing ourselves in front of the building that Ernest Hemingway once lived in; naming the museum where a pair of stone Lamassus could be found; counting how many steps there were up to the dome of the Sacré-Coeur; listing three interesting facts about the Place de la Concorde; finding out the price of a crêpe from the street vendor on the corner of rue de Rivoli and rue du Renard; finding the inscription written on a plaque in Place des Vosges; taking grave rubbings of the names of five famous people buried in Père Lachaise cemetery; naming the metro stop for the Paris catacombs; listing the current films playing at the Les Halles cinema; finding out the price of a student ticket there; and, the most difficult of all, getting a copy of Moliere’s Les Fleurs du Mal out of the Sorbonne library.

Our second to last task was to find the exact location of the former Tuileries Palace, which was burned down by the Communards in 1871. We needed to ask someone to take a photo of us at the site, pretending to be shot by the government forces in retaliation. The stunned Japanese tourist who took our picture seemed very amused as we lay down on the ground on the terrace overlooking the Tuileries gardens.

So our team had accomplished all of the tasks and we were confident that we had been successful in obtaining all the information required. There was just one more item remaining: the book from the Sorbonne library. We had decided that it would be best to send Mike into the Sorbonne on his own. It would be easier for one person to get through the security at the entrance of the library than a group, and he had the kind of stoned, confident arrogance that would be useful for talking his way in.

Lindi, Gabriela and I decided to kill some time while waiting for Mike. The sign in a travel agency across the street caught our eyes. It was advertising a ‘student special’ bus trip to Amsterdam. It included the bus travel and two nights in a youth hostel in the center of Amsterdam. I lingered in front of the window. ‘Let’s do it,’ I said.

‘Oh I don’t know,’ Gabriela whined. ‘Isn’t Amsterdam known for drugs and prostitutes?’

‘Exactly! That’s why we should go. We’re not in the land of the Puritans anymore. Live a little.’

Lindi chimed in, ‘I would love to go. There’s the Rijksmuseum, the Anne Frank house, canals and windmills. It’s not only drugs and prostitutes.’

‘OK—why don’t we go back and tell the others in the group? I think they might want to come too.’ Gabriela said.

I had a feeling that Mike would be up for it, but I really wasn’t too sure about anyone else. I couldn’t picture who else in the group would want to explore the red light district or trawl the coffeehouses in order to sample different kinds of weed. They were all just too American, with their bouncy blond hair, preppy style, suntans, white smiles and bubbly personalities. I couldn’t picture the inseparable sorority girls, Natalie and Sara, toking away on a big joint, looking cool and blending into the European laid-backness; nor Margery, with her Alice in Wonderland hairband and long, straight, carefully brushed hair; nor meek little Sarah who looked like she’d just got out of Catholic school; nor Esther, the studious and serious Puerto Rican, who muttered prayers under her breath while fingering the small crucifix she wore on her neck. Nor could I picture statuesque Fiona, with her porcelain English skin untainted by chemicals, desecrating her perfect body with drugs. And Lulu was just too much of a cutesy airhead; she was dopey enough already. Even Sandra, who was Jamaican, had an outspoken disdain for marijuana and got annoyed when people stereotyped all Jamaicans as pot-smoking Rastas. Maybe Kelly and Penny might be up for a bit of a laugh, but they seemed a bit snobby and didn’t bother too much with anyone else. From what I’d already seen of Anne, however, she might prove to be up for an adventure. Or possibly the boys; Bobby was so immature and naïve, but he seemed willing to expose himself to new situations, and Phil, who was a bit of a loner, might be a dark horse. Now Aidan—definitely not. He was a disturbed individual, who must have had some sort of OCD or other psychological problem. Everyone avoided him like the plague. He was just plain weird and I wouldn’t want to see him go even more psychotic from drugs. Cathy, the graduate student who was meant to be like our mentor, was straight as an arrow as well. She didn’t even drink. But Mimi, now there was someone I thought I could really relate to. I would suggest that we invite her to go to Amsterdam with us. She liked to have a good time. She occasionally smoked joints with Mike and I, and she enjoyed a drink. She was a beautiful, laid-back Jewish party girl, with sultry black eyes, a mane of wild curly hair and luscious, pouty lips, which always had a cigarette hanging from them in a seductive way.

As we meandered back across the street to the Sorbonne, we saw Mike coming out of the library with an attractive Frenchman. He stopped on the steps of the library for a few moments, engaged in conversation with the French guy. He saw us and waved. The young man looked our way. He scribbled something down on a scrap of paper and handed it to Mike. He shook Mike’s hand and went on his way. Mike approached us and pulled the book out of his backpack.

‘Great, you got it!’ said Lindi. ‘We must be the first ones to get here!’

‘We must be winning! How did you get it?’ Gabriela clapped.

Mike casually popped a Gauloise in his mouth and shrugged, imitating the Gallic body language. ‘I just asked someone if they could get it out for me. I promised I’d return it.’

 

***

The next morning, we triumphantly entered the meeting room where the acclimatization sessions were held. As Richard read out the list of treasure hunt tasks he asked each team to give evidence of what they’d managed to find. Our team had correctly completed every task. When he came to the last task of obtaining the book from the Sorbonne, Richard explained that this was actually a trick question and that no one was supposed to have got the book as only students of the Sorbonne were allowed to take books out of the library. Lindi politely raised her hand and pointed out that our team had indeed achieved the last task. Mike produced the evidence from his bag, holding the tattered copy of Les Fleurs du Mal above his head. Richard grabbed the book, opening its cover to verify the Sorbonne stamp on the inside. He and Cathy stood staring at us in stunned silence.

‘But this is almost impossible. You certainly have not procured the book by the most savory of means?’ Richard pried.       

Mike smiled enigmatically. ‘I just made friends with someone who got it out for me. It’s entirely above board.’

‘However,’ Richard said, pointing at the book cover, ‘Les Fleurs du Mal is actually by Baudelaire, as you’ll notice!’

Lindi, Gabriela, Mike and I still ended up getting an A+ for our ‘final exam’, and to celebrate we decided to book that trip to Amsterdam.

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