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Talking Paris Hotel-Room Blues

Photo: AP/Wide WorldI AM ALONE IN A HOTEL ROOM IN Paris. Tomorrow I will be somewhere else.

Outside, the wind is blowing. Rain is falling into the courtyard and shutters are banging. I keep the thin pink curtains drawn. There's a light above the mirror over the washbasin, two lights on either side of the bed and another light hanging from the ceiling. Four lights in all, but the room is swathed in gloom.

This is the hotel Jacques Brel stayed in when he moved to Paris from Belgium, and I don't think it's changed much since. There's a desk and a bidet and a washbasin, with a toilet down the hall. For a while I was going down the hall, but now I piss in the bidet. The shower, which I've used just once, is upstairs. You have to wait for the moment when there's some hot water and then get a key from the concierge. The daytime concierge is from Africa. The one at night is an old-time Frenchwoman with no teeth who spends her shift in a glass-fronted booth on the first floor watching television and smoking cigarettes. You pass your keys to her through a slot in the window when you go out, and she passes them back to you when you return. She's friendly but seems to have trouble with messages. She is available to bang on your door in the morning if you need to be woken up.

The chambermaid is from Africa also. She is dark-skinned and tall with muscular calves; she coughs all the time and seems incredibly weary. Once, when I ask her if it would be possible for her to clean my room right away, she gives me a wan smile and replies, "À l'hôtel Ideal nous sommes toujours disponible à nos clients, Monsieur." ("At the Hotel Ideal we are always available to our customers.") Then she cleans my room.

The room smells strongly of olives au citron, a bag of which I keep on the table next to my bed. They are completely addictive. I buy them at an Arab grocer's on the Rue des Abbesses, and I can imagine that, were I to live in this neighborhood, we would strike up quite a friendship, the Arab and I, over the olives au citron. It would be one of those pleasurable urban friendships that take place entirely between countertop and cash register, and in which no conversation occurs without an exchange of cash for food.

On the table in my room is a post card I bought showing the street Jim Morrison lived on during the last six months of his life. An arrow points to his apartment window. On the back of the card it says that Morrison "voulait se consacrer à la poesie et au cinéma," but in the end he just conked out. I can see why. Paris is a tough nut to crack. More than most people, the French wrap themselves in codes and rituals that make them feel at home but keep strangers at a distance. Which means, on a short visit anyway, that though there are limitless opportunities to observe, there are far fewer in which to partake. Walk into a café in Paris a complete stranger and chances are you'll leave the same way.

Up in Montmartre, where I'm staying, the streets are tiny, rising and falling at steep angles, twisting back on themselves, lined on either side with parked cars packed together so tightly it's amazing anyone can get any of them out again. The wind blows in sudden frigid gusts loaded with rain. I was last in this neighborhood five years ago, and since then almost nothing has changed. The same family-owned restaurants with their special dinners à la carte for 60 or 99 or 160 francs; the same small clothing stores specializing in shoes or sweaters or handbags. Almost nothing is "international" or "chain": Everything's French and one-of-a-kind, and the overall feel of the place is more like that of a small town than of a city. Several days into the new year, people are still greeting each other on the street and in the cafés with elaborately worded wishes, kissing each other twice on each cheek, old men kissing young women, young men kissing old women.

Did Jim Morrison ever learn French? I wonder about that. Wandering the streets of Montmartre at night, I look into the minuscule glass-fronted bars Parisians call boîtes (boxes), thick with cigarette smoke and artily dressed types talking and drinking red wine, and it's easy to feel permanently left out. France may not be a dominant power anymore, but it knows how to make people from more powerful countries feel small.

It's past midnight and rain is still falling in the courtyard. My two suitcases, tightly packed, zipped shut, stand stiffly on the floor. They seem impatient to be gone, to end the pretense that I have anything to do with this city. I brush my teeth, piss in the bidet and get into bed. I am alone in a hotel room in Paris, and tomorrow I will be somewhere else.

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