Staircase B

escalier b


We live in France at the moment, and I fear it’s difficult to write about this indisputable fact without falling into the style of someone else’s family travel blog. I have noticed that when I try to find day-to-day information about living in France online, I tend to keep coming across such blogs, written by white women who claim to love luxury and travelling with their families in France. Laughing, also, they say they love to laugh. I was sitting in my French class the other day bravely explaining, in terrible, improperly conjugated French, that there were really only about 5 stories in the world, and so the protagonist of our exercise (which was actually quite good, which I was enjoying very much) shouldn’t be worried that his story is not original. I wonder how long the dismayed faces of my classmates and teacher will stay with me.


When we were still in Melbourne, my ‘partner’ (so Australian) told somebody visiting from Lyon that we were going to be staying in Escalier B. My partner made sense of the visitor from Lyon’s confused face much later, after we arrived, when he realised he had proudly told him that we were to live in the neighbourhood of Staircase B. He had been reading our postal address as if the information were arranged as it is at home, where the line with the name of the suburb follows the line with the street name and number. A mailing address is so beautiful with its clean, un-enjambed lines, its accretive globalism. Actually we do live in Staircase B, even though our postcode is for the distinctive location of Croix-Rousse, which might have given the Lyonaisse visitor better specificity and context. Oh but we live in Staircase B for sure, without context, or bearing, staring into the remote Rhone and the two inexplicable skyscrapers over in the 6me, wondering whether the crying baby is the same baby we see getting out at the floor below us (oh god how I wish that was as it reads, I love the idea of a baby autonomously getting off the elevator at etage dix), even though the crying, incessant at night from the witching hour, sounds as if it comes directly from the floor above us.


We live on etage 11, etage onze. Below us, on etage dix, are two apartments. The one we live in was once also two, but the previous owner converted these into one giant, luxurious apartment. The previous owner was also once the President of the Universite de Lyon 2 (with which I presently have a very bureaucratic and meaningless relation), was also previously married to a woman before he converted a fling with one of his PhD students into something more serious. The current owners of this apartment told us this very French story with a mixture of mock horror and true glee, the wife describing to my partner the desolation of the wife left behind, the wife of the story, through the mimed action of an alcoholic necking her bottle.


The other night my partner and I stayed at the dinner table well into the night with a philosophical argument about whether or not marriage could be said to be a moral wrong. As I was leaving our house in Australia to the French family we are house swapping with, the wife told me, in a very dramatic and unexpected way, standing by my Mazda, that when they returned to France she would divorce her husband. ‘That will make divorce number three’, she told me. I don’t know how philosophical the argument at the table really was, but I can tell you that neither of us were buying the other’s line. ‘I’m almost with you’, my partner conceded at one point.


The baby may or may not live on etage dix but one thing for sure is that the elderly and grand Madame Dix lives there. She lives directly below the room which is my study (the room of my unravelling as a coherent writer: today in my notebook I read ‘incomprehension as methodology’ and knew it was over for me academically); when this room was previously used by my partner as his music studio she called our landline. I actually didn’t know what was happening when it rang – I haven’t had a landline for well over a decade. ‘Allo?’  I said, without certainty. One thing about Madame Dix is that she doesn’t let our incomprehension of French stop her from telling us things in rapid, full-throated French. During this very particular phone call she commenced her elaborate and passionate protest against something. I didn’t know what was wrong, only that something was wrong. I had been working at what was then my study when the phone rang, the object as without function or use as the dusty fake flowers next to which it was resting, until it suddenly sang its life with a series of beeps. ‘Oui’, I said to Madame Dix,  and after a few sentences, ‘desolee’, ‘desolee’. Eventually I realised a word was being repeated: radio. Searching for help, I came to my partner’s studio. He was listening to music with headphones, tapping his foot with quite a masculine vigour on the wooden floor.  ‘La radio’, Madame Mix was shouting. I asked my partner to stop tapping his foot. ‘Bon’, said Madame Dix.


We had been planning on swapping studios anyway. My old desk in the bedroom is now converted to my partner’s music studio. The beat lab, we call it sometimes, laughing. Now I sit where the university President once did, slowly unravelling all of my careful, strange sentences. The first time I met Madame Dix was in the lift, where she asked me where I was from, what I was doing in France, and why I don’t speak French. I don’t know the answers to her questions. But then her questions aren’t very good.