I was twenty-three years old and working at a dead-end job when my boyfriend, a graduate student, was offered a chance to do a semester abroad in Paris. This boyfriend spoke no French and had never been abroad, whereas I spoke some French and had spent one week in Paris the year before. This made me something of an expert. Not for nothing had I slogged through all sixteen French tenses in college, including those used to demarcate actions intended, actions completed, and fleeting actions long anticipated whose ultimate execution leaves you feeling strangely hollow.
The semester abroad came with a small stipend but nowhere to live and so it fell to me to find us an apartment to sublet. Every morning I combed the classifieds atop our tiny hotel bed and called every listing only to find the apartments already rented. Unfortunately, I was not making a very good first impression, confusing as I did the word l’annonce (which means “an advertisement”) with the word l’avertissement (which means “a warning”). This confusion would come to seem fateful.
I hardly remember the first weeks, considering all that would come later, except for the cold and the dwindling money, the sense of impending doom, the consistently bad water pressure. After days of costly phone calls, only one option remained. L’avertissement read:
5th, M. Jussieu. Flexible availability. 2 rooms, 26m2 furnished flat w/ bathtub, American kitchen, 800 €/m. 5-6 months.
(The “American kitchen” is local terminology for a studio-sized kitchen nook without proper counter space or an oven; in other words, small, like America.)
I called the landlord immediately.
“Bonjours, j’appelle au sujet de l’avertissement de immobiliers,” I began.
“HELLO?! DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH? PARLEZ ANGLAIS? HELLO?”
“Oh, yes, hello, I speak English.”
“SO, YOU DO SPEAK ENGLISH? DO YOU? SPEAK ENGLISH? GOOD. THIS IS MARGUERITE DELUCA.”
(It’s important to note that while I will shortly abandon the practice of writing her words in all capital letters, Ms. Marguerite Deluca will in fact continue to speak in all capital letters. Every single word she says.)
Only a few hours later, I would find myself face to face with Ms. Marguerite Deluca.
We spent our mornings assisting Marguerite with her excavations, running her errands, buying her croissants, carrying her packages, and taking her phone calls. Her dedicated pack of friends visited daily, crowding the apartment with boxes, trunks, and conflicting bits of advice. From time to time she would capture a young, guileless Canadian or Australian tourist and lure him back to our home to listen to her stories of Vietnam War protests and lovers lost. All the while Marguerite fanned herself from her ragged folding chair, imparting bits of wisdom like, “Be careful what you drink. The other day I drank some soap, I thought it was olive oil.”
Our evenings were spent out roaming the streets, buying time away from the insufferable backpackers with whom fate had bound us, half a dozen not-so-young world travelers wrapped in filthy North Face polar fleece, ambling through one of the world’s most fashionable cities looking like it was laundry day at forestry school.
Weeks passed; at last we were installed in the apartment, paying regular rent, and still the recipients of regular visits from Marguerite. We had simply exchanged places, and now it was she who was staying at the Young and Happy youth hostel down the street. She still came over in the mornings, always without a call or an invitation, to “pack” for America. She would plop down in her broken wicker chair and tell me, “You can just start the water for some tea, and there are tea bags in the kitchen.”
And then, with a lordly gesture, “You can just take these suitcases next door.”
And what did Marguerite pack in these suitcases for her excursion back to the youth hostel? A duffel bag full of instant soup and moldy tangerines she had dug out of her own trash can. “They’ll be alright if you peel them.”
Her last night in Paris, Marguerite arrived with a confused-looking young man in tow. This handsome German boy was staying at Young and Happy with Marguerite bullied him into carrying some boxes to our apartment for her. He came in, set the boxes down with the utmost care, and stood awkwardly in the corner, trying to figure out how long he was obligated to stay.
It was time for l’avertissement.
I led him quickly down the stairs and whispered to him in stilted German, “Whatever you do, avoid Marguerite. Really, you must flee from her.”
“I think she is crazy.”
At that point, Marguerite threw a pair of boots down three flights of stairs. One landed within inches of my head.
“Jesus!” I shouted in English. “Why did you agree to follow her here?”
He replied honestly and a little sadly, with his halting accent, “I didn’t know where I was going.”
I escorted him back through the cobbled courtyard.
“Why do you stay here?” he asked me.
“Because this is the only apartment left in Paris.”