It’s taken me more time than it should have to get to where I am with my French. I am still struggling with the basics, but I am finally starting to be able to have simple conversations with people. And my newly minted French voice is opening all kinds of doors for me both figuratively and literally.
My apartment is in a mix of a neighborhood. It’s right in the middle of town close to the main train station so there are, of course, the obligatory drunks, vagabonds and sex shops that seem to materialize near train stations.
There are also a ton of cafes and restaurants and bakeries that fill up with tourists and locals each morning, the biggest church in town and the biggest mosque, a police station, a couple of corner stores and the main shopping street is one block over.
Overall, the area is pretty nice. Everything is at arms reach, and I know it sounds stupid, but it just look so French. All the ornate buildings, and little balconies look so perfect it feels like a movie set of the south of France.
It’s not all quite so picturesque though. For some reason, the front door to my building and a twenty-foot radius around it seems to be THE place to be for the slightly menacing young men in town who have nothing better to do than stand around smoking cigarettes all day.
I hate that they stand there. Not only because I’m pretty sure they like to use the elevator inside as a urinal from time to time, but I don’t like having to push my way through them to get in the building, and I don’t like worrying that the person leaning against the door will fall into the foyer each time I pull the door open – which they sometimes do.
There are diverse groups of strange people hanging out on my block, but I don’t see any other doors blocked quite like mine and it drives me nuts. I swore I would ask them why they insisted on being there day in and day out – just as soon as I had the vocabulary to do it.
The other day, as I was going out, I pulled the big wooden door open and sure enough, in tumbled a young, seemingly stoned man. That was it. I could feel the annoyance rising up from my stomach and turning into courage somewhere around my chest and before I knew it angry French words were coming out of my mouth: “excuse moi, est-ce vous habitez ici”? I asked.
After getting up onto his feet, the smaller of the two, looked at me with a slightly shocked expression on his face. having seen me angrily push past him countless times I think he was a bit surprised to hear me speak.
“no.” he replied.
“pourquoi vous restez ici devant la porte?” I said, the decible and octave of my vice rising.
I think they though I was flirting and neither seemed to understand what I was saying. I tried again in English to blank stares, and then the words came, propelling themselves from my throat in what I imagine were very high pitched, near shrieks.
Il est impossible d’arriver et sortir quand tu est devant de la port!”
I saw the understanding sink into the taller of the two’s face. At the very least the darkening flush of my now burning cheeks and the tone of my voice conveyed unhappiness.
His goofy smile disappeared and he said “je comprends” as he pulled his friend away from the door.
Since then the doorway has remained pretty much clear. Although the patch of sidewalk does still seem to attract all the unsavory characters in the area.
I still see the young stoners hanging out in the neighborhood. They have chosen the Laundromat across the street as their new perch. I think they saw my scolding as an invitation to be friends though, as they now wave and say hello when we pass each other on the street.
In addition to the loitering, there also seems to be some kind of feud taking place between the two apartments on the first floor of my building. When I moved in, the apartment below mine was undergoing extensive remodeling where they changed the one bedroom layout (like mine) to what I think are 5 or 6 studios in the same space.
After seeing a variety of young single women being dropped off outside with luggage, I instantly thought a modern day brothel of some sort was the only explanation. I haven’t seen any evidence to support this, but shortly after the renovations were completed, and the new inhabitants moved in, I started noticing bizarre things.
First the door handle was taken off, then the entire door was removed from it’s hinges. Then I saw graffiti spray painted on the neighbor’s door. Next there was garbage strewn on the ground in front of the now missing door.
And it has gone on like this for months. Every few weeks the door is replaced and then, just as sure as the sun rises, the door handle will be forcibly removed leaving a hole, and a day or so later, the whole door will be gone. Then a repairman will show up with his drills and his tool belt and replace the door.
Every day this week, I have seen a new pile of garbage added to the coffee grounds, and empty milk carton that appeared on Monday. The door is currently missing its knob, which seems to have been hacked out leaving a jagged hole in its place so I can only imagine the whole thing will be clean off by the end of the weekend.
I am dying to know what the hell is going on down there, but I think my French is still at least a month off from getting to the bottom of the situation.
Thankfully my new vocabulary is not only being used to fend off public urination and discover a potential prostitution ring in my building. I have finally started making some friends here and miraculously, we seem to understand each other in limited French.
I have now added a Japanese student to my English teaching roster, and after months of near solitude, my social calendar is starting to fill up. The pans for my first French diner party are underway.