Being a chronicle of my adventures in France and Germany:
Friday, January 25th — Marie-Laure Pascaud, my publicist/handler at 10/18, has booked me on a nonstop flight from Seattle to Paris, definitely the way to go if you can swing it. Check-in is incredibly fast (I think this may be the only Air France flight out of Sea-Tac, so they’ve got staff to spare), which leaves me with a couple of hours to kill before boarding. I wander into the Sea-Tac Borders book shop and get a nice surprise: they’ve got a dozen copies of Bad Monkeys and two of Fool on the Hill. While I’m goggling at this, the store manager comes over and asks if I need any help, and I end up doing my first-ever airport book-signing.
Boarding, like check-in, is a breeze, and I get some more nice surprises. The guy who was supposed to occupy the window seat next to me has asked at the last minute to be switched to an aisle seat, so I have an entire row to myself. Also, this is one of those newfangled Airbus jets with interactive screens on each seatback, so you can watch movies, play games, or tap into the feed from external cameras mounted on the plane’s nose and undercarriage. I treat myself to a pilot’s-eye view of the takeoff—I can’t overstress how comforting it is to actually be able to see how much runway we’ve got left—then switch over to a GPS tracking display that shows our location, route (north, passing above the Arctic Circle and then back down on the far side of Greenland), and time-to-destination.
For inflight reading I’ve got two manuscripts: Neal Stephenson’s forthcoming novel Anathem, and Nisi Shawl’s short-story collection Filter House. The latter was sent to me a few days ago by Aqueduct Press, in hopes that I’d blurb it; I open it up, thinking I’ll just check out the first story, and end up reading half of it at one sitting. Nice job, Nisi.
Saturday, January 26th — We land at Charles de Gaulle airport at 9 A.M., although from my body’s perspective it’s still midnight of the previous day. I’m a zombie, but, as predicted, a happy zombie.
French customs is pretty much nonexistent. I don’t have to fill out any declaration forms, and my bags aren’t even glanced at, much less searched. I feel like I’ve missed an opportunity by not bringing any contraband. Maybe next time I’ll pack a small nuclear device. Or not.
A reserved taxi whisks me to my home for the next week, the Hôtel de l’Abbaye Saint Germain, which is in the heart of the city, just a few blocks from the Seine and the Louvre. I am greeted by Nova, the 4-star desk clerk, who knows my name before I give it to him. Nova tells me that unfortunately my room is not ready yet, but then he turns me over to Mehmet, my designated breakfast server, who brings me coffee, orange juice, a basket of truly awesome bread, and a jamon and cheese omelet. Now I’m a very happy zombie.
I get up to the room, unpack, shower, and nap for a bit. Around 2 P.M. I activate my zippy international cellphone and call home to let Lisa know I’m alive. Then I go out in search of more food (mmm, brains). At a brasserie behind the Museum d’Orsay, I have what will become My Default Parisian Meal When I Don’t Want To Think Too Hard: chicken with fried potatoes and salad.
The rest of the day is a jet-lagged blur as I walk around, determined to stay awake until at least 8 o’clock. Around sunset I spot a guy walking a French bulldog and start snickering—a French bulldog… in France… oh, the hilarity!—which is my cue to head back to the hotel before I sleepwalk into traffic. After a couple phone calls (my publisher, then Lisa) I crack open Anathem, which is engaging enough, even in my exhausted state, to keep me up till 10. Nice job, Neal.
Sunday, January 27th — I have a lunch date with my publisher, but otherwise this is a personal day, so after breakfast I take another walk, stopping by Mary Magdalene’s tomb and heading west along the Seine. This part of the right bank is an off-leash dog run; I don’t see any more French bulldogs, but I do encounter several incarnations of Baxter.
At 1 P.M. I meet up with Emmanuelle Heurtebize. I always expect publishers to be old, even though they almost never are, and owing to this Jane Alexander film that was playing on the plane, I have a preformed image of Emmanuelle as a silver-haired patrician lady in her late ’60s. In reality she’s roughly my age, looks and acts like an ordinary person, and, oh yeah, I’m the one with the gray hair.
We hit it off, and after we eat she takes me on an extended walking tour of the city. We go to Le Marais, a mixed Jewish and gay neighborhood (the Orthodox being famous for their tolerance of alternate lifestyles), then up to Montmartre and the Sacré-Cœur.
This would probably be a good point for me to make an aside about Paris, which is that it’s basically New York City, or at least the closest European analogue thereof.* This was a big disappointment to me the first time I visited, because the place had been hyped as The Most Romantic City on the Continent,** and instead it turned out be just like home. Now that I know what to expect, though, I find it very comfortable, so after Emmanuelle and I finally part company I keep on walking, getting back to the hotel after dark.
*You might think this would be London, but London is full of reminders, like the mirror-world traffic patterns and the distinctly un-American English, that you are not in the U.S.
**A title I would actually bestow on either Venice or Granada.
Monday, January 28th — This is my first working day, although it’s light duty, just one interview and a photo shoot. My publicist Marie-Laure comes by the hotel after breakfast and introduces me to Jean-Paul Coillard of disturb.org. I always feel bad for the guy who gets stuck with the warm-up interview, but thanks to some recent book club appearances in Seattle, I’m not totally out of practice talking about Bad Monkeys, so I think it goes OK.
The photo shoot is with a woman named Annie Assouline. She’s an Algerian rabbi’s daughter, which is to say she speaks Arabic, Hebrew, and French, but like everyone else I meet in Paris who has trouble following my rapid-fire English, she apologizes to me for her poor language skills.
In the afternoon I stop by the Village Voice Bookshop, an English-language bookstore, and sign their two Matt Ruff novels (one copy each of Fool on the Hill and Bad Monkeys). The British ex-pat manning the cash register asks me if I have a pile of unread books by my bedside at home. When I say yes, he replies: “I hear George Bush does, too!… Hah! Bet you didn’t see that coming!” Anti-Bush humor, in a store called the Village Voice? No, that’s a complete surprise. By the way, what’s Tony Blair reading these days?
I cap off the day with a visit to the Eiffel Tower. The lines are long, except for the one leading to the entrance where you have to take the stairs. This is convenient, since I wanted to take the stairs anyway. When I reach the first level I discover that the Tower’s keepers, for reasons unknown, have used a portable freezer to carpet the observation deck in snow. Signs ask visitors to please not engage in snowball fights; a group of screaming Parisian youth are busy ignoring that request.
January 28th, late night — Tomorrow is a big day, and I want to be well-rested. Naturally, I can’t sleep. Around 3 A.M. I call Lisa, who informs me that Bush is about to give the State of the Union address; she suggests that I put on CNN and turn the volume to low. I do, and before Bush finishes his opening sentence, I’m out cold.
Tuesday, January 29th — Busy, busy day. I start with a videotaped interview for a cable show called Les Matinales, then spend an hour talking to Héléna Villovitch from Elle magazine. Héléna is a huge fan of Set This House in Order, so our meeting is less like a formal interview and more like a really good book-club chat. I am having fun.
Break for lunch with Marie-Laure Pascaud. As my publicist, she’s responsible for all the logistics of this trip. She booked the hotel and the plane tickets, lined up all the interviews, and probably did a million other things that I’m not aware of, except in the general sense that everything is going very, very smoothly. So: All hail Marie-Laure!
Back to work. Another photo shoot, then another, lengthier video interview with Marc Iskenderian of 13éme Rue, a French cable channel that specializes in police procedurals and thrillers.
Finally, Marie-Laure and I hop a cab to the publishing house so I can meet the rest of the staff. While Marie-Laure is rounding people up for a champagne toast, I hang out with Emmanuelle, who explains the significance of the imprint: standard French mass-market paperbacks measure 10 centimeters by 18 centimeters, hence, 10/18. In the case of Bad Monkeys, though, they’ve decided to go with a larger, 13 x 20 format. To me it looks like a standard trade paperback, but for the French it’s something new, which would explain why a couple of my interviewers seemed puzzled by the book’s size.
The other 10/18ers gather in Emmanuelle’s office, we make introductions, and champagne is brought out. Apparently there have been some champagne-related accidents in the past, so for the uncorking they call in Jean-Claude Dubost, the head of the company, who under ancient French law is allowed to maim a certain number of employees per year without penalty. The cork comes out without hitting anybody, though, so either Jean-Claude is a nice guy or he’s saving his quota for a special occasion. We toast Bad Monkeys, chat for a while, and then I head back to the hotel to crash.
Wednesday, January 30th — Four interviews today, including a radio interview with Boris Beyssi of Radio Libertaire. Yesterday at 10/18, one of the editors described Boris as an anarchist and suggested he would love it if I claimed to be a fan of Nicolas Sarkozy. It’s tempting, but I don’t want to disrupt Marie-Laure’s carefully orchestrated publicity campaign, so I behave.
After I say goodbye to Boris, it’s laundry night. The Hôtel de l’Abbaye has an in-house laundry service, which I’ve been using for my good “on-camera” clothes, but paying by the piece to wash socks and T-shirts would represent a level of decadence that I don’t feel I’ve earned yet. Instead I have Nova point me to a nearby coin laundromat.
Late-night, CNN brings news from home: Edwards and Giuliani have dropped out of the presidential race. There’s also a piece on the massive snowstorm that’s paralyzed China; after reporting how certain villages are running low on food, the story’s editors try to lighten the mood by playing a snippet of “California Dreaming” over shots of stranded travelers. Nice.
Thursday, January 31st — I have the morning off, and decide to take one last long hike, from Montmartre to the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs-Élysées. In the afternoon I have two more interviews, which go off without a hitch, and then I say goodbye to Marie-Laure (All hail Marie-Laure!).
In the evening I meet Emmanuelle for a last drink, which turns into dinner at this great Italian restaurant. Emmanuelle’s partner Patrick joins us. Patrick is Irish and has a sense of humor as sick as my own, so despite Emmanuelle’s best attempts to maintain a certain decorum, the dinner conversation revolves around such things as horse tartare and the question of whether Icelanders eat puffins.
Back to the hotel to pack. I’m going to miss this place. Thank you Emmanuelle, Marie-Laure (All hail Marie-Laure!), and everyone else at 10/18. Thanks as well to Nova, Mehmet, and Lionel the hotel manager, who I haven’t mentioned before but who also took great care of me.
On to Berlin…