Magie Étrange: Escaping America and Getting Lost in Paris

Nov 10, 2015

On the day after Valentine’s Day I sat at Rochester International Airport waiting for my plane to be de-iced and tried not to notice the blinding snow drifting across the tarmac, and I was going over each stage of the trip in my head (Rochester > New York > Paris), the departure times and layovers, and I started reading an excerpt from D.W. Gibson’s book about the gentrification of New York (The Edge Becomes the Center) in Harper’s, an anecdote from a Manhattan graffiti artist named Raul. He became an in-demand drug dealer to the billionaire class, a guy who went from wondering how to make rent to making two hundred grand in a year and being helicoptered out to the Hamptons and flown to Paris at a moment’s notice and standing behind Nancy Reagan at the Carlyle on his way to meet an heiress. I felt ready for an escape, not just away from what Mother Nature does to the Northeast in the cold months, but an escape into something like the odd magic of Raul standing next to Nancy in the elevator, and I thought about my grandparents.

When I was little, they lived in New Jersey. My family and I would visit them in the summer. We’d get crumb-buns from a local bakery and eat dinner at a restaurant with alleged mob ties. My grandfather—a former engineer at Exxon—took me to the zoo, told me about carp and pelicans (he hunted and fished), and showed me his CB radio. My grandmother took me to Toys R Us and told me to pick anything I wanted, so I picked two things: a small King Tut toy with a spring-loaded mummy that popped out of a bright-colored plastic sarcophagus, and a Menudo lunchbox.

When they moved to Florida, we visited and swam in their pool. In the mornings we listened to the jumping fish in the pond behind the house. We’d go to Siesta Key and taste the salt water and feel the sand that never gets hot in between our toes. After they passed away, the Florida house went to us. My parents maintained it for years, though our family used it less and less. It was a home we owned but one we almost never saw; we had it, but we had to drive two days to see it. My parents finally made the decision to sell it.

Meanwhile, my mom was about to turn seventy, and she wanted our family to go to Paris, her favorite city, to celebrate. It sounded incredible. My mom started making plans. We had regular family meetings about it until my sisters and I all had to say at one point, “So, uh, this trip is going to be really cool and also none of us can afford it.” Not long after that, we got an email: the Florida house had sold and my mom wanted to use part of that money to take us to Paris. Our flights were covered, our rooms were covered. We had wondered how we could pay for this French birthday and there the answer was: my grandfather the engineer slicking his hair back and managing projects at Exxon and my grandmother fixing a drink and—many years later—a house disappearing, the splash of the jumping fish somewhere in the background. An odd magic.

I got to JFK and had five hours to kill, so I stopped at a bar. Four young, chic Brits (two girls, two guys) were getting hammered on their way back to the U.K. and were belting out songs from a musical. People glared at them and I tried not to pick sides. I looked at the menu. Maybe I’ll get a Stella, I thought. Two seconds later a bartender walked by.

“Sorry, you wanted a Stella, right?”


A young woman who reminded me of Sade sat next to me and we started talking. Her name was Shauncey. She was heading back to Portland after working the NBA All-Star Weekend. She worked for a charity organization run by Michael Jordan and had just seen Prince play a surprise performance at a Jordan after-party where Beyoncé and Jay-Z had been hanging out. I think I said “holy shit” ten times.

“Oh my god,” she said, pulling out her laptop and looking at one of the booths behind us.

I turned around and saw a woman in a grey business suit sitting in front of a laptop, phone to her ear, sobbing uncontrollably.

“She’s doing that in front of everybody,” Shauncey said, looking concerned. She looked at her own computer before looking back again. “Is she okay?”

I turned around. The woman was wiping tears from her face, taking slow breaths.

“She’ll be all right,” I said.

I hoped I was right. A few days earlier I had been out for birthday drinks with a friend. The stress of my job (I was working long hours as a postman in the middle of winter) and the weight of a recent breakup finally caught up to me in the middle of a restaurant—what I now realize was the first in a series of low-level anxiety attacks I would have over the course of the year. I left early, went home, and dripped sad water out of my eyes for a while. But now look at me: talking about Prince with a cool woman who works for Michael Jordan, drinking a beer served by a psychic, heading toward the City of Light.

Shauncey and I wished each other safe travels and I found my gate. On the plane I sat next to an architect whose name I can’t remember now. He showed me an office he’d designed and it looked stylish and clean and expensive, tasteful. I ordered a gin and tonic and watched the progress of the trip on the little computer map. We were the white computer bird moving slowly over the blue-black computer ocean. I imagined us all riding inside a giant pelican, maybe in the stomach, maybe in the beak.

“How fast does this bird go?” I thought. “How far is this bird gonna take us?”

When I woke up, we were in France.

I found the driver my mom had arranged. He held a sign with my last name. We both said “Bonjour.” I blurted out ,“Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas Francais.” (“I’m sorry, I don’t speak French.”) He smiled and switched to English. He didn’t seem to mind that I had come to his beautiful country and immediately said, “I did not bother to learn the language of your beautiful country.” At the hotel on Rue de Verneuil I blurted out the same apology. The concierge smiled and told me she’d be with me in a moment. I was a little early for my room and I texted my family to tell them I was now in the same country they were. The door to the hotel opened and I looked over. It was the architect. Magic.

My family and I walked to a café, La Fregate, and I shoved the French version of a grilled cheese (“croque monsieur,” minus ham) into my body and we walked over a bridge to the Louvre, just over the Seine. My mom had found a kind of side door to the museum that allowed you to get in without waiting in line by the big glass pyramid. It felt like sneaking in, or like we were VIPs. From there we walked to the art. I realized quickly that it was too much to process. I don’t know if there’s a right way to see the Venus De Milo, but if you’re slightly delirious from a long trip and not sure if you’re awake and you look at the Venus, you will not feel like you’re in the presence of history, you’ll probably just think of Television lyrics and feel very sweaty and bizarre. Ditto for the Mona Lisa and all other classic art.

We headed back to the hotel. I napped then we all walked to a restaurant near the Sorbonne. After, we went to Shakespeare & Co. and I bought a book for my mom, a collection of stories by Sudanese writers. Roughly a year earlier, my mom had gone to South Sudan with a group to help build a school for girls and help create better educational opportunities for young people. She and her group had to flee the country during an attempted coup, ending up in Nairobi before flying home. It was hard to imagine that kind of danger now, even in Paris—the sight of a recent terror attack (the Charlie Hebdo shootings had happened just a month earlier)—when we were drinking wine and wandering the cobbled streets, our family together and happy.

That night I stayed up late watching Law & Order and Beverly Hills Cop dubbed into French, and listened to Ricky Eat Acid and Maurice Ravel while I read Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. I stared at the ceiling and put on Freddie Gibbs & Madlib and Cate Le Bon. They became a kind of unexpected Paris soundtrack—hard drug rap over soft-focus R&B samples and sharp, melancholic VU/Yoko-influenced post-punk—sounds I still associate with the city as much as the food and the architecture. Looking at exposed beams painted white at 3 AM and turning up the volume on “Robes” and “Are You with Me Now?” became part of my routine.

The rest of the routine began the next morning. Breakfast at 8:30 in the hotel basement: a small, low-lit room with rock walls, a cave where I ate croissants with jam and drank fresh grapefruit juice and coffee. Then, endless walking—sometimes with my family, sometimes alone—through historic neighborhoods, toward monuments and museums and cafés and bookstores. One of the first major monuments we visited was the Arc de Triumph, an impressive structure, though I was more taken aback by a sullen teenager in full Wayne’s World attire walking in front of us.

We celebrated my mom’s birthday at dinner on the Champs-Élysées. We walked to a Ferris wheel and took a few spins. We could see the Eiffel Tower lit up and sparkling like a Christmas tree in the distance. I returned to the Louvre—this time less gross and less brain dead—and saw Greek and Roman antiquities, Hammurabi’s Code, Egyptian sarcophagi, the works of Delacroix and Vermeer and Rembrandt, paintings of Napoleon, and grim religious imagery that felt very pre-Sabbath. It felt good to be small against the expanse of civilization, though after two hours my feet hurt and my stomach was rumbling. How much art can you take? Really depends on your shoes and what you had for breakfast.

We sat down at Café de Flore and talked about the existentialists. We debated whether our lunch existed. I think it did, until we ate it. We rode the lifts up the EiffelTower. We were alerted about pickpockets and saw the foggy, breathtaking city below us. I went to the Musée du Cinéma (disappointing only because a Nouvelle Vague exhibit had closed a week earlier), and the modern art museum at the Pompidou—a building with large tubing along the outside suggesting either a factory or a large hamster cage. I saw the intimate black and white photography of Sophie Calle, the surreal, colorful ‘80s pop pastiche of Jean-Paul Goude, live video of Destroy All Monsters (a canonization of weird Detroit), framed punk/avant-garde/noise records (Black Flag, Sonic Youth, a record called Super Heavy Flute by Friedrich Der Grosse and Rodney Graham), and had my first up-close viewing of a Basquiat (Slave Auction, 1982).

Towards the end of the week, I met up with my friend John from back home, who happened to be traveling through Paris with his family at the same time, after visiting Wales and London. We met at a small bar called Play. I walked in and they were playing Notorious B.I.G. I ordered a Manhattan and saw a Sade record sitting on a shelf above the bar. John and his brother walked in and we were somehow in Paris and Rochester at the same time. They told me about eating at a Chinese place in London and looking over and seeing Jimmy Page sitting next to them. Magic. We walked a few blocks to a kind of British pub. I stole a Red Bull and handed it to John, while he and his brother Mark drew weird dudes and naked girls on copies of a French film magazine. All the comforts of home.

I went back to the hotel and wrote some postcards to my friends, one to my ex. I’d found one with a Picasso drawing of a bird and a woman’s face. On one of our first dates we’d gone to an aviary only to find it closed. I told her about a bird’s nest that had been built above my porch seemingly overnight and the lone egg sitting inside it, and she correctly identified it without even having to see it. “Probably a cowbird,” she said. I wrote about eating escargot, seeing a Basquiat. I ended by translating what I implied was a well-known French phrase but was actually something I made up: “You are the honey weasel who rests in my heart.” I found La Poste, came back, and starting packing up.

I made a mental list of things I didn’t do in my six days in Paris.

Didn’t visit Musee d’Orsay.

Didn’t go to Montmarte.

Didn’t see the catacombs.

Didn’t bump into Catherine Deneuve or Françoise Hardy.

Didn’t eat duck confit.

Didn’t stop at a bar called Zéro De Conduite, the name of an influential French film by Jean Vigo and also the name of a double 7” by Harry Pussy.

The things I did do:

I did stay in a hotel across the street from Serge Gainsbourg’s former home.

I did buy a copy of Les Coquins by Marion Fayolle.

I did eat the best veggie burger I’ve ever had at a restaurant called Tennessee, and then I did return two days later to eat it again.

I did buy cheap Kronenbourgs (what I imagined was the closest thing to a Genny) and stay up late listening to hip-hop two blocks from the Louvre.

I did see my mom happier than I’ve ever seen her.

The trip back to the States was uneventful, until it was horrendous. In New York an icy snow had delayed everything. We boarded our plane to Rochester and waited. And waited. And waited. The cabin was stuffy and I could feel my throat getting sore. I finished Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. In the final scene (spoiler alert), Lenu is sitting in a plane about to start her potentially incredible, potentially disastrous new life. Her plane takes off into the clouds. I closed the book. An hour later, five hours after we had boarded, we were asked to de-board. The flight was cancelled. We were booked onto an early flight the following morning and given rooms at a local hotel. I went to the hotel bar and ate a subpar veggie burger while a man muttered to himself in the corner. America!

Our flight was delayed again the next morning but we finally took off. In the air, people clapped and we were served complimentary champagne. My friend Tyler picked me up at the airport and drove me home. Everything was covered in snow. In Paris it had been in the fifties—cloudy, drizzly, if anything. I had forgotten it was winter.

I went inside and walked upstairs to my apartment. On the landing just before the top floor was a small black bird. It stood there, looking at me. I walked past it to my door and it skittered away from me into a corner. I looked back and it was pecking at pieces of snow I’d tracked in on my boots. I went into my apartment and grabbed a magazine and walked back out. I started to shoo the bird downstairs. It hopped down, stopping to peck at the snow on every step. We got to the front door. I opened it up and nudged the bird outside.

“Au revoir, buddy,” I said.


Matt Werts is a letter carrier and writer living in upstate New York, and is a member of the bands Pleistocene, Richard Snare, and Stress.