Growing up in suburbia I never liked school, even though I liked the idea of school. I felt the same way about summer: nice idea, but too sticky, too hot. And a couple of school years bookended with trips to summer camp led me only to believe that kids my age were bigger jerks out in the country than they were in my clogged suburban subdivision.
Perhaps these experiences made me want to get out, and get to the big city. And the fact that huge and exotic cities existed far outside suburbia made me dream big. At age 14, I wanted to be dropped off in New York to walk the city by myself, experiencing its storied terror, grit and vigor first hand. London, Amsterdam and Paris all seemed like new planets to conquer. And I thought about meeting an American girl abroad, one who was alluring, fascinating, mysterious.
I've been to Paris a few times, but not in a decade. And the last time I was there it was the beginning of summer of 2001 when I was there with two guy friends. There was Brian, an architect and wellknown dry-humored smart ass and semi tough guy; and Dugg a short story fiction writer who ended up staying in Europe for a while. I met both in college.
Brian is Japaneze-American and from Park Ridge, IL, and usually addresses me as "bitch" or "whats up, punk?" in all greetings either in person or when he calls just at Christmas to tell me he's in town. From him I learned to call pizza 'Za, a thoroughly ridiculous moniker, and also learned what a MILF was long before the film American Pie put it in the lingua franca.
It was right by Hemingway's old loft on Rue de Mouffetard that the weird shit started to happen.
Dugg and I are like an intellectual Beavis and Butthead, with cackles, oddball inside jokes and side references galore. Before we became friends I met him in my German class with a Bavarian goofball of a professor. And so, much later when we started smoking pot together --when I was a college senior-- we had come up with our own lingo about getting gebacht (meaning "baked") or gesteinigt (which does technically means "stoned" but more in the biblical Saul stoning St Stephen meaning of the word). Sometimes I'll suggest we hit a bar or a movie and he'll say "Ja, Ich bin damit" which is supposed to be dorky German/hiphop lingo way of saying "Yo, I'm wit' it".
We were very old school hip-hop in the home-schooled sense.
Anyhow, Dugg and I first flew to Amsterdam, where we spent our first day getting settled, and then eating space cakes at an outdoor coffee shop and talking German Football with an art grad student from Berlin named Fabian, a funny dude. It was a rousing time for jetlag and fresh air at around 11am and I remember easing into the feeling while drinking about six or seven espressos, about which Dugg lampooned me. Then Dugg and I enjoyed the home stretch of our buzz, eating Indian food at an immaculate place called Akbar. Weed and Indian food are an excellent combination from what I remember.
But we joked more about the misspellings in the Akbar menu. One menu section called "Delicate Dishes" misspelled the same word --delicate-- several times. One of misspelling noted the "Defecate Fish" which not surprisingly came in an aromatic brown sauce.
We met Brian at our hostel in Paris a few days later, after walking around all day because his flight was delayed. We wondered if he was getting a rise out of us, or just decided not to come. Dugg and I went out for lunch, then dinner, then drinks in a bar playing Will Smith songs like "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It", only to come back and find Bri sitting outside having a smoke with the hostel owner, as if they were war buddies, now at about 11pm. We went out for more drinks.
St. Denis: A good head on his shoulders.
A week before in Europe, Denmark decided in a unilateral parliamentary vote to take a shit on the euro, so thanks to the teetering financial markets our dollar was strong and everything was cheap. We ate four-course dinners every night and drank probably a bottle of wine each, a pittance at about $9 a person. The weather was beautiful, and though I wasn't really writing back then because I was too lazy, I thought about how Styron and Henry Miller lived the life that we were living these few days, enjoying the sunshine, wine and the mischief they created. And it was right by Hemingway's old loft on Rue de Mouffetard that the weird shit started to happen.
Dugg, a government conspiracist lefty who reads Chomsky books and writes poetry has always been superstitious and talked about legacy and consequences sometimes as if he was Oliver fucking Cromwell. Or maybe it's his white-guy-from-Ohio version of explaining karma when it appears. That evening he was fretting about the fact he had taken photos of the statue of St Denis under Monmarte. Supposedly St Denis was an early Christian in Roman times who liked basically to say 'fuck you' to the Romans. One day a Roman soldier cut his head off with a sword and he said his final 'fuck you' by picking up his head and walking off with it. The statue depicts this, and some say you're not supposed to take pics of it.
Later we're walking up Mouffetard, Bri and I are on the right side of this slender street and Dugg is on the left. For no reason Dugg stops as if to tie his shoe, and a pile of concrete waiting to fall from the building drops right in front of him, smashing to the ground and barely missing his head. He remarked that maybe it was "a warning".
It started to rain and we had no umbrellas, so we zipped into Bowling Mouffetard because all of the sudden bowling seemed more fun than getting rained on. To this day Bri and I still call each other "moof tard".
I've bowled twice now in Paris. They play Elvis and Chuck Berry type music since they love American oldies. Even though this was a Sunday night at about 8:30 on the Left Bank, people were decked out. One guy looked like Adrian Zmed, TV's proto- Johnny Depp who used to host Solid Gold, with a big collared polyester suit as he dashed flamboyantly into his roll of the ball technique. After bowling a few frames the rain stopped and we walked up to a nearby square where Manet painted some painting and Hemingway wrote.
That was where we saw the ferret, the guy with the manboobs and the drunk American.
The drunk American could have been from any Midwestern university. He wore Rockports and a preppy Carhartt "barn jacket" like the old J. Crew kind worn in 1994 by every dufus with a credit card, along with a Boston Red Sox cap plus khakis. And he woke up from a bench next to some bums who were sleeping on the next bench over. He stuck out like a sore thumb, so of course we noticed him. And he must have gotten lost, or we surmised that (fraternity style) his friends got him shitfaced and ditched him. Now awake but clearly still drunk he stupored and stumbled, then dropped his pants, squatted, and did his business right there in the public grass, before toppling and stepping in it and then walking off in a general direction toward us. And the Parisian people acted like this was not shocking.
Meanwhile, a dirty Frenchman who had manboobs that dangled in --I guess you could call it a sweatshirt of some sort-- hobbled over slowly to us with his ferret that he was petting and hit up Bri for a cigarette. He only spoke French and badgered Brian making a "I must -how do you say- want to be smoking a cigarette" motion with his hands as Brian made it like he didn't know what the man wanted and asked him in English to speak English. After five minutes of Manboobs badgering Brian, and Brian messing with the guy, the older man expressed his frustration in French and poked Brian. Brian poked back and said, "Yo bitch you gotta step!" And so Manboobs hobbled off and yelled at Bri coddling his smelly ferret but no cigarette.
About two minutes later Manboobs and Barn Jacket were walking on a collision course but were both in their own worlds and didn’t notice each other. Staggering slowly, the two collided in the square, lost their balance and almost went into a table full of tourists eating dinner about twenty feet from us. The waiter kind of did a sidestep dance to shield the table from them, and the patrons seemed not to notice this two-person hobbling/drunk nuisance.
I thought to myself, "What an interesting metaphor for a clash between two cultures".
We were hungry but needed to get back. On this last night in Paris' Weirdo Square we heard a church bell start ringing, even though it was 10 or 11 at night. I took it like the bell that rang in film European Vacation, and said "let's get the hell out of here".
Andy Frye writes for ESPN.com and the Chicago Sun-Times. Follow on Twitter at @MySportsComplex.