Paris Diary

OK. Writing on Sunday, March 18. Tomorrow is St. Joseph's Day, a sort of Halloween for New Orleanians who like to eat and see altars, and I think I am finally well enough to look back on our disastrous Paris trip with the bitter amusement it deserves.

The first piece of bad luck involved a thunderstorm in New Orleans. We took off 2 hours late and missed our flight out of Washington, even though it was supposed to be a continuation of the same flight. Thank you, United, and thanks again for not picking up our hotel bill. If we hadn't had a little extra money, I guess we could have just slept in the airport. Those are some real friendly skies you got there. I think you're lying about the new legroom, too.

The only good thing about being stranded at the soulless purgatory of Dulles Airport was that it allowed us to eat at a New York-style deli near our hotel. In New Orleans, any place serving sliced meat on sandwich bread calls itself a "deli," and things like matzo ball soup, chopped liver, and green tomato pickles are unheard of. We had all these things, which should have provided a boost to our immune systems. As it turned out, not even matzo ball soup could stand up to the Parisian Plague.

Caught our flight out, read Patricia Cornwell (no stylist, to be sure, but my favorite author for long plane rides), slept a little, arrived in Paris at 7:00 AM. Settled into the darling little hotel in St. Germain, our tiny room with exposed beams and hand-painted wardrobes, not knowing that in about 36 hours this place will become a suppurating, stinking hellbroth. Lunch with Anne, my editor's assistant ("The Angel" -- my editor at Au Diable Vauvert, Marion, is "The Devil") at Le Procope, which Chris says was the first place in Paris to serve coffee. Watch closely, because this may be where I make my big mistake: overexcited by the availability of my favorite French foods, I have raw oysters and raw steak. They are delicious and the restaurant is impeccable, but when I read the symptoms of salmonella in the New Orleans paper a week later, I can't help wondering a little. (Watch closely also because I am now switching from past to present tense without warning or reason.)

Now begins the full-on media blitz. Marion founded Au Diable Vauvert in part because my previous French publisher was squeamish about being associated with EXQUISITE CORPSE -- Marion bought out the rights to EC and purchased my next 3 books. I'm glad my publisher is behind me and pleased that the French media is interested. BUT THIS IS INSANE. I do 4 major interviews the first day. By the final one -- being filmed in the basement of a goth-ish bar for a TV channel called 13th Street -- I am too jet-lagged and punch-drunk to keep making sense. Asked some question or other, I say, "I don't know if I'm the best person to answer that." The next thing that comes out of my mouth, without warning or consent from my brain, is "BUT I'M THE ONLY ONE BEING INTERVIEWED -- SO WHO ELSE YA GONNA ASK???!!!!" followed by mad laughter. I hear Chris and Anne snickering in the background.

That night we have dinner at an Alsatian restaurant with my online friend Melanie and her boyfriend Thomas, who is also my translator for some of the interviews. The choucroute garni is delicious and our companions are great fun. We can only remember what it was like to be fun. As we usually do when we're tired, I stop talking altogether and Chris talks nonstop about any fool thing that comes into his head. Melanie and Thomas are kind and like us anyway (at least I assume they do, since they come to 2 of my subsequent signings).

The next morning I have a TV interview in Pere Lachaise cemetery, where I've never been. The questions are along the lines of "You look so sweet, how can you write such shocking stuff?" but the trip to the cemetery makes it more than worthwhile. I've referred to New Orleans cemeteries as "necropolises," but this place is to St. Louis #1 as Manhattan is to Cut Off, Louisiana. There are gorgeous tombs everywhere -- on hills, on bluffs, tucked into cul-de-sacs and mossy folds in the terrain. We have a free 90 minutes after the interview, which we use to find and visit Oscar Wilde's huge Art Deco tomb. The white marble is covered with lipstick prints in every color. We see a handsome black cat there, as well as a sleek mackerel tabby I'm certain is his boyfriend (a new boyfriend, not that little punk Lord Alfred Douglas). We take the Metro back to St. Germain. In a shop in the Pere Lachaise Metro station I find the plain, perfect black cardigan I've been wanting for months. It costs about $22. TRAVEL TIP: I've found some of the best clothing bargains of my life in unpromising-looking shops in European train stations.

More interviews and a photo session as Chris goes out to scour Paris for edible delicacies. He comes back with two kinds of unpasteurized cheese (we can't always find these at home, as they are illegal, and we love them) and some pastries from a patissier near our hotel. Actually, "pastries" is too pedestrian a word. These are ethereal manifestations of butter, custard, fruit, and chocolate, designed like little pieces of modern architecture. It will sound disgusting to anyone except another food nut, but the caramel "Mabillon" is so rich and silky that it reminds us of a dessert version of foie gras.

And now ... DISASTER.

Anne from Au Diable Vauvert has invited us to dinner at her house. She is actually cooking dinner for us, something I've never known a publisher to do and suspect most publishers could not do if their midlist depended upon it. We take the Metro over to her huge, beautiful place in Pigalle. I am hoping to see the large inflatable sex organs that are reportedly used as advertisements in the red-light portion of this neighborhood, but I am not destined to. When we come up from the subway tunnel, I don't feel that great but figure it is just the motion sickness that often plagues me on trains and planes. Anne's dinner party includes us, her three young sons, her mother, Marion, and two other people who work for ADV. The last coherent thing I remember doing is folding a paper fortune-teller for one of the kids. Then I am pretty sure I am about to faint and somebody is taking me to lie down in a darkened bedroom. For the next several hours -- while everybody else eats and talks -- I stagger back and forth from the bedroom to a little water closet in the hall. Madame Toilette becomes my only friend. I won't detail my symptoms, as I don't want to ruin the mysterious, glamorous picture that naturally comes to mind when you think of me, but let's just say I am burning the candle at both ends.

I realize other writers must have contracted embarrassing gastrointestinal ailments on overseas trips, but at this moment I am utterly certain that no one else has ever gotten sick IN THEIR PUBLISHER'S ACTUAL HOME while their publisher was TRYING TO SERVE A NICE DINNER. It's a good thing nobody hands me a sword or a gun, because I would use it on myself in sheer humiliation. Also disappointment: in Mexico City I ate veins, eyeballs, and mystery meat and only got a slight stomachache. Now I'm in Paris and convinced I will be unable to eat anything else on this trip -- and I'm almost right.

They get me back to the hotel -- I'm not even fit to ride in a taxi; one of the guests is kind enough to take me in her car, which I repay by clenching my teeth and forcing myself not to throw up until we get there. I don't sleep all night. I become delirious and tell Chris not to ship my body home if I die -- it'll be too expensive -- just have me cremated and send some of the ashes to be scattered at Seven Bridges in Amsterdam and take some home if he wants them. All I want in the world is a ginger ale with lots of ice, but there is no such thing to be had. Chris finds something called "Indian Tonic" that vaguely resembles ginger ale, only bitter and with quinine. When we beg the hotel desk for ice, they parcel it out to in little vacuum packs -- each cube is individually sealed, and there is no bucket or anything else to keep them from melting. I'm experiencing a cultural gap. Still, sick at four AM in Paris, those sad, hermetically sealed little ice cubes are the most delicious thing I've ever tasted.

Early the next morning Chris comes down with the same symptoms and my publisher insists on calling a doctor. Dr. Nin (any relation to Anais? Or Trent Reznor for that matter? I do not vocalize these senseless thoughts) comes to the hotel and gives us shots in the butt. Given that he is kind, knowledgeable, compassionate, and willing to make house calls, we Americans are not sure that he is really a doctor, but we try to trust in the Devil.

All my press for the next day is canceled, but I am given to understand that canceling that night's signing at Les Mots a la Bouche, one of the most important gay bookstores in Paris, would be a very, very bad move. I spend the day wrapped in sweaty sheets, nibbling dry rusks and drinking Indian Tonic, trying to psyche myself up for My Public. As it turns out, My Public and the bookstore people couldn't be nicer -- both Melanie and Alex (from my newsgroup) are there, which comforts me -- but I am still so dizzy and nauseous that I am only able to get through the signing by thinking of a Chicago Bulls playoff game where Michael Jordan had a virulent stomach flu and still managed to score about 50 points. He had to be helped off the court afterward, but he didn't faint, complain, or puke on anybody, and neither do I.

We both feel much better over the next few days, and I resume my press whirlwind. The only problem is that neither of us can eat anything, and it's breaking our hearts. We're like monks in a whorehouse, yearning for what we know we cannot have -- and if there ever was a whorehouse of food, Paris is it. The shop windows, the restaurant windows, even the sidewalks are full of insanely beautiful food: shellfish, foie gras, candies and pastries, every sort of epicurean perfection. We can hardly look at any of it. I manage at least seven more interviews and two more book signings (both with great turnouts -- when I arrive early to one, there are actually 50 people in line!), but only one more real meal -- at a quintessentially French hole in the wall where Marion knows all the chefs and the food is good enough to make you cry. I nearly do cry, but only because I can't eat as much as I want of my sausage terrine and marinated smoked salmon, and the perfect, jewel-like raspberries I've been seeing at other tables are finis.

On the day we leave, we have some free time before we have to go to the airport. We decide to walk over to Ile de Saint Louis, a beautiful old island in the Seine that doesn't exactly consider itself part of Paris (for years, a fishmonger there advertised "deliveries to the Ile and the Continent"). But on our way, without warning, we have simultaneous relapses right in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. Our abject state is seen by the tourists, God, and everybody. We don't actually puke in front of the cathedral, but damn close ... damn close. That's the death knell of this trip as far as we're concerned. We taxi the few blocks back to our hotel, purge ourselves of as much nastiness as possible, thank the hotel for putting up with our disgusting selves, and take off for the airport. Au revoir, Paris. You received me with courtesy, respect, and affection, and I responded, "BLEEEEURRRRRGH!!!!!" I hope to see you again in better health.