Living with the Baron, Awaiting the Countess
More about rue de Richelieu
How Would I Earn My Way?
I lit up another cigarette and stared out the window. Even at 11 pm, rue Richlieu was still noisy. Young couples laughing as they left their flats to join friends at their favorite bistro or club. But my heart jumped unexpectedly when I heard the heavy double doors of the building close four floors below. I waited, breathless until I heard M. Ginini moving heavily up the winding staircase.
I was so lonely in this huge city. What had I been thinking? It certainly had seemed like such a romantic idea. Doug and I had planned this over pitchers of beer and German homework. But it hadn’t worked out the way we’d planned. I was in Paris and he was in living in Salzburg with another woman.
I had 267 ff left and then what? Become one of those humiliated figures covered with a scarf that begged at the metro? Call home for help? Some days, these options seemed really tempting. But no, I just couldn’t do either.
And then there were those suspicious ads, the ones tacked up among ads for au pair jobs, roommates, and odd jobs.
“Female assistant needed. Good pay. Evenings . . .”
At 22 and fresh from Maine, even I wondered. But how bad could it be? After all, they were advertising on the bulletin board at the American Church.
The door to the flat opened and I stirred from my depressing thoughts. In walked Monsieur Ginini looking tired and worn down by life. I moved out of my room and into the light of the living room so he would see that I was still up. Monsieur Ginini's face brightened when he saw me. He turned, came toward me and put his satchel down on the table in the middle of the room.
The Inglorious Baron
“Where is the Baron?” he asked in French?
“Already gone to bed”, I answered, partially in French and partially in gesture.
Slowly, I took another drag on my cigarette. I had started smoking while backpacking in the South of France with my girlfriend – just wanting to “be French”. But I had found that I really liked the ritual of smoking; the social aspect and always having something to do with my hands. But smoking was expensive on my tight budget and so I had to keep to a 2 pack per week maximum. This hardly qualified me as a serious smoker. Ah, but the Baron was another story.
Most Americans have a romantic vision of European Aristocrats: Rich, sophisticated, living glamorous lives. But the Baron defied every illusion I had ever conjured up of this nearly extinct petty royalty.
I had met him six weeks earlier after responding to an ad at The American Church. The job included joining a Count and his family on their four week vacation, tutoring their children in English. The Baron had been the one to interview me. It seemed that he managed some sort of business and the building for the Countess. He’d been grumpy and gruff and intimidating but he hired me, much to my surprise.
After a month with the family in the South of France, I had proved myself proficient and trustworthy. So the Count offered me a “situation”. All I had to do was to look in daily on his mother and in exchange I would get my own room. “Tres grand” he’d described it. I had quickly accepted, not knowing what else to do to stay in France. I also thought the hard part was done. Now, I’d only need to find a job! So I finished out the stint with them and took the train back to Paris.
And now here I was, staying in a room within a vast apartment with the Baron until the old Countess returned home from her summer vacation.
The Baron was Belgian but I had no idea what had led him to Paris. He was a small, thin man, physically strong despite his vices, but had aged rather ungracefully. He had a small head and his eyes were deep-set. From a small nose grew an equally small mustache. The Baron was almost bald, which made his head seem somewhat out of proportion and he had two large ears that protruded from the sides of it. When his back was turned, I could see a rather large bump at the base of his skull. This growth both fascinated and revolted me and I was not entirely sure if I wanted to look at it or turn away!
The Baron smoked what all hard core French men smoked – filter-less Gittanes. He smoked incessantly, his short yellowed fingers constantly gripping a Gittane; his little box of an office would have killed a canary. Often, with mischief in his eyes, he would offer me one of his cigarettes. But I declined, refusing to amuse him with my fits of coughing and gagging.
The Baron slept in a cot in the attic. Being an ex-army man who had spent time in a POW camp and then years in the Far East, he thought anyone who slept in a bed was soft. He had a bad back but refused to see a doctor about it; “Maybe a vet, but never a God damned Doctor!”
Although he was an alcoholic, the Baron was a gruff but nice man, at least until he was very drunk. Often he was friendly right past dinner and into the evening, but some days, the twinkle in his eyes was gone by 10 am. He mostly drank a very cheap wine, bottled in plastic, with a drawing of a red-nosed 19th century gentleman on it.
Some days, if the pain wasn’t too harsh and the Baron hadn’t drunk too much yet, he invited me for lunch or dinner, serving blood sausage, pig’s head pate, and other foods he was sure no American would like. He delighted in telling me how they were made – while I was trying to eat them.
The Baron would also tell me stories. For these I would gladly endure the shocking foods. He told stories of recese monkeys, great white beaches, snakes in the orient, and of war. What I loved most was that the Baron would actually disappear into his youth while telling them. During the stories of tricking recese or gibbon monkeys covered with toothpaste and toilet paper, he would become the monkeys, leaping up from the table, wrinkling his face and dancing hunched-back around the table. The excitement, however, was always followed by a deep, reflective quiet. And without a word, the Baron would suddenly take his cigarettes and bottle of wine into his lonely office and shut the door.
The sound of wrinkling plastic grabbed my attention and I saw Monsieur Ginini take out 2 liter bottles of beer. He placed them on the table and smiled at me again, “Would you like some beer?”
Inviting me to sit with him at the table, he poured the beer from his liter bottle into glasses. It was late and we were alone. I wished the Baron was still up.
Although I craved Monsieur Ginini’s attention, I still didn’t know what to make of it. The room was quiet and I became very self conscious. My cheeks flushed and I seemed unable to control my breathing, becoming hyper aware of my chest heaving up and down. The more I tried to breathe lighter, the harder my chest heaved.
It was so quiet and he didn’t say a word but just sat there smiling at me and drinking his beer.
“I have to move tomorrow“, I said in French, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
“Oh, mais non! You’re leaving us?” He looked at me, dejected.
“No, no. Just moving over to Jean-Francois’ room.” This room was a funny round space in the center of the flat. It had no windows and was raised above the floor like a stage. I had to pull myself up into it using my arms and jumping. It was a mess, filled with teenager things and a mattress on the floor, but I really didn’t have many options. The old Countesses return had been delayed.
“A new student will be moving into my room.” I added, pointing behind me to my current room.
“Oh, I’m so glad you’re not leaving!” he said, relieved.
Taking another sip of my beer, I looked at him, smiling again, awkwardly.
M. Ginini was German. Being 23, I had no real concept of his age: 35, 45, 55? It all sort of seemed the same to me. And I noted with uncomfortable interest his soft and fleshy lips, handsome smile, and his deep brown eyes.
“Marianne,” he said, “I don’t want you to leave . . .”
“But you know I will,” I said, flashing a teasing smile at him, “when Madame la Countess comes home.”
“Maybe she won’t come home and you will just stay here and keep me company and take care of me,”
I started laughing. “I think I’d have to go back home. I don’t think they would just let me stay here!” I grabbed my cigarettes. This was another reason I liked smoking. It gave me something to focus on when I was uncomfortable.
“Here, let me light it.”
Monsieur Ginini didn’t smoke but he grabbed my lighter and held it out for me. No one had ever done that sort of thing for me and it seemed almost romantic. I felt like I was in a silent black and white movie, but unsure of the plot and uneasy about the possible outcome.
“Oh Marianne,” he said wistfully, “I’m sure you’d prefer a Baron or a Count or some other aristocrat instead of me.” Well, so far, the only Baron I had met didn’t seem like much of a catch. I thought of the tall, lanky, pale, balding M. le Compt I had just worked for and didn’t think he rated much better. No, so far, Monsieur Ginini with his melancholy charm was in the lead. But I didn’t want to give him the wrong idea.
“No, I’m not actually interested in Aristocrats.” I giggled and quickly took another sip of beer, turning my attention back to the glowing cigarette between my fingers. I’d had very little to eat that day and the small glass of beer was starting to make me feel a bit more relaxed and giddy.
When I could no longer bear the quiet, I laughed girlishly and launched into the story of my day: my new job, the bratty and rude kids, and the frightened Algerian housekeeper.
“Oh, those kids should not be rude to you,” he said. I nodded in agreement, sipping more beer.
I went on about how interesting I thought the neighborhood where they lived was, the huge man-made park where I took the little boy, and all the African ladies in full dress, how different it was than this neighborhood.
“You must have a boyfriend back home, “Monsieur Ginini said suddenly, changing the subject back to my relationship status.
“No, not really.” Not anymore, I thought. So I spilled out my anguish, as best as I could in French, about my wicked ex-boyfriend who was living in Salzburg with a skinny woman. And how we had planned to live together while he studied in Salzburg this year, but I had gone my own way after our breakup when he’d called me fat.
“Oh no, Marianne,” Monsieur Ginini said, indignant. “you are Beautiful!”
I laughed uncomfortably, distrusting his words. I could not compare to the French women I saw everyday. They were beautiful, petit, dark, trim, always in fashionable clothes and 3 inch heals. I was chubby, curvaceous on my best days, and too broke to wear anything fashionable or new. My hips were large and maternal and my breasts made me uncomfortably aware of my femininity.
“You are the most beautiful woman in France, “he continued, “In France and America.” Now, I just laughed in disbelief.
“You are foolish, Monsieur Ginini.” I said and quickly finished my beer. Standing up, I took one last drag on my cigarette, and feigned a yawn.
“Well,” I said hurriedly, “It’s late. Goodnight Monsieur Ginini.” I turned and practically ran the three steps to my room. When I looked back at him, a coquettish smile escaped my lips and I quickly shut the door behind me.
The Attentions of Two Gentlemen
MonsieurGinini normally rented a small room on the ground floor of the building. But it was being painted and so the Countess had offered him a room in this flat. Some nights, when the Baron had not been drinking all day, they ate dinner together. And some nights, they would invite me to join them.
The two men would cook me dinner – herring, broiled tomatoes, and other simple fair. Since Monsieur Ginini was a beer connoisseur, there were usually specially selected beers to sample. Mostly the men spoke in German, which I had studied but had mostly forgotten. They analyzed the origins and relationships of words in German and Dutch, the Baron’s mother language. Other times, they spoke in French and I tried to inject some kind of intelligent thoughts into those conversations.
But sometimes, they spoke just to me: the Baron in his flawless English and Monsieur Ginini in French. They would smile at me and stare into my eyes, but both for different reasons.
When I had first stayed with the Baron, I didn't think he liked me. I thought he merely tolerated me because I had come into the good and generous graces of the Countess he worked for. And because I would be living with the mother-in-law, Madame la Countess. Soon, I would be out of his misery.
But I quickly realized that the Baron did like me, in the sort of way an older gentleman likes a young woman, as if I reminded him of a daughter or a granddaughter he'd never had. Sometimes, after hours of silent retreat, he would burst out from his smoky office and say, "I've been thinking about your welfare...." Other times, he would invite me for a glass of wine, "one-for-the-road" as he headed to his cot in the loft above. He'd smile kindly, kiss me on the forehead and slowly disappear up the stairs, holding his painful back.
Monsieur Ginini, on the other hand, seemed to like me in a different way. I was so young, lonely and full of self doubt. Did he just find me interesting? Was he just being friendly because we were both living in the same apartment? Was he just lonely? Or was there more? The idea that there might be more sort of thrilled me and so I felt a growing infatuation with him, or at least with his attention.
I found Monsieur Ginini’s looks sort of exotic. He wasn’t trim and fit like the German’s I had seen as I backpacked through Europe during the past summer. He was a bit round and soft. He reminded me of an eccentric music conductor or a slightly puzzled science professor. He was bald except for tufts of dark un-tamable curls running u-shaped around his head. There were touches of gray around the temples. He carried a leather briefcase stuffed with papers and folders and language books. He was a German tutor and a student of psycho analysis. And he was a photographer, but only for pleasure he said. He wanted to photograph me; several times he had told me so and I always accepted out of appreciation for the artistic process. But he never arranged a time. I wondered what it would be like to see myself through his eyes.
A Countess Swirls into Our Lives
Suddenly, the Countess I had worked for during the summer arrived like a whirlwind and everyone scattered: The Baron to his office for serious work, Monsieur Ginini to his office at the University, and me to anywhere my feet could take me and no metro ticket was required.
The Countess was very nice. She was tall and slim and ran around organizing things and people. I was certain she must have been hyperactive as a child.
It wasn’t that we didn’t like her, but the tornado of her personality and energy and ideas intruded on our calm and personal rituals. So for a week, I felt very lonely and ungrounded in my strange round bedroom. I listened for the sound of the heavy front doors below and for Monsieur Ginini’s footsteps coming up the stairs. But they never seemed to be his.
I missed my friends back in the States and it was difficult to make friends in Paris. Young women seemed competitive, as if I would steal some sophisticated French boyfriend away from them. And the male attention I received, well, friendship did not seem to be what was on the men’s minds.
So I spent a considerable amount of time alone, hiking back and forth from the Latin Quarter to the Eiffel Tower to the Champs Elysee. I looked into chic store front windows wishing for enough money to buy something that would help me feel like I belonged.
Now, Everything Was Difference
And as quickly as she had arrived, the Countess blew back out of our lives to returned to her home in Geneva.
But our comfortable routines and relationships had been altered. The Baron did not invite me to eat with him anymore. He was grumpy again, often scowling and drunk by lunch. He shouted at Monsieur Ginini and me; I felt my presence was no longer welcome. The Baron had run out of stories for me.
One morning, as Monsieur Ginini was leaving for class, the Baron yelled from his smoky office, “Hey. Wait!” As I sat at the table, I looked at poor Monsieur Ginini, frightened by the Baron’s tone of voice. The contorted figure emerged from his smoky office,
“Your room downstairs is painted,” he yelled. “Move out tonight”
Monsieur Ginini looked at me and then sulked out the door.
“Humpf,” he grunted, looking my way. “The old lady is coming back in a couple days,” he shouted at me. The Baron turned back towards his office and somewhat more gently said, “Move into Ginini’s room back there tomorrow.” With one hand clutching the pain in his lower back and the other waving off toward me, he muttered something under his breath and slammed the door behind him.
It was all different now. Already I missed them and although I hadn’t thought it possible, I felt even more lonely.
The next evening, I moved my few things into yet another bedroom. This one was nice and big and I was, at least, glad to be out of Jean Francois’ strange round room. Unable to settle down and longing for my friends on this Friday night, I leaned against the window sills and strained my eyes to see the few stars visible above the Parisian skyline. It was quieter on this side of the building.
I started at the knock on my door. It was late and the Baron had long passed out. When I opened the door, I was surprised but happy to see Monsieur Ginini standing there.
His hair was tousled and I realized how I had missed him. But I felt embarrassed and confused as to why.
“Marianne,” he teased, “I left some things in here so I would need to come and see you.” He smiled mischievously. I felt strangely thrilled by his plot but the knot in my stomach made me feel ambivalent.
Nevertheless, I giggled and let him in. I paced around restlessly, watching him collect his things. I lit my inevitable cigarette.
Monsieur Ginini came close and looked deep into my eyes, “I have bought a special beer for you to try. I will bring it up, non?”
Feeling suddenly dizzy, “O.K.” I said too cheerfully.
I listened as his footsteps echoing loudly on the stairway – down the four flights of stairs. I smoked and paced and checked myself in the mirror. And as I heard the footsteps come back up, my heart beat quickly, the knot tightened.
So we drank and talked. And although he told me he wasn’t inebriated, he lavished compliments on me like a drunken man. He looked at my drawings and poems. “I can’t understand them, but you write, so I am in love with you!” Monsieur Ginini declared. I blushed; these compliments evoking a mix of suspicion and longing. I really wanted to believe him.
The clock finally read 2 am and I needed sleep. After dropping polite hints, Monsieur Ginini finally got up.
Suddenly, he was right in front of me, close. I felt excited but confused and the knot in my stomach took my breath away. He must just be going to kiss me on the cheeks, as all polite French people do, I thought. No conclusion to jump to…
My vision became blurry and my ears felt like someone had put wet cotton in them.
He moved closer still and I stepped backward, trying to regain my balance. But now I was standing with my back pinned against the window sill. I was still waiting for the kiss on my cheeks.
And then his plump, cold lips landed on mine. I froze, waiting for the passion to come. But instead, all I felt was confusion as his lips simply laid heavily on mine, not moving, not exploring. Still frozen, I could only hear the tick of a clock somewhere in the room and his breath vacating his nostrils.
Finally, he pulled his face away and smiled at me. “Ca va? Ok?”, He asked academically. And before I could breathe out an answer, those dead-fish like lips landed hard on mine again and then sat there motionless. Again, I froze, waiting for any emotion – but none came.
His hand reached clumsily under my shirt, awkwardly pawing at my breast. And still, his lips never moved.
It was not supposed to be like this.
Finally, I moved, squirming away from him, landing safely in the middle of the room. “Non!” I said apologetically.
His face changed instantly. I looked at my toes so I didn’t have to see it any more.
Monsieur Ginini quickly collected his things and left. I stood listening to his heavy tread down the four flights of stairs – unusually quick. Still standing in the middle of the room, a wave of regret, guilt, nausea, and remorse flooded over me and I sat down on the bed, burying my face in my hands. What had I done?
Time to Move Again
Two days later, I was ready to go. The old Countess was back and eagerly awaited me. With my backpack on my back, I descended the four flights of stairs for the last time, the Baron hunched and following behind me.
M. Ginini was just coming out of his door, keys and satchel in hand. I smiled brightly at him and said, “Bonjour!”
He flashed a bitter look at me and mumbled under his breath to me, “Au revoir, Marianne!” And then he turned and went back into his room, slamming the door.
The Baron opened the large double wooden door and showed me onto the the rue Richlieu, pointing in the direction I should walk. I stepped out, onto the sidewalk and then I turned to say good bye. But the heavy door was already closing. It shut deliberately and finally with a hollow thud, as if I were already gone.
I never saw the Baron or Monsieur Ginini again.