“Où est la clé?” A Harlem Story
There was that time I was hopelessly lost in Bangkok. Or all of the times in Indonesia, so many in fact that I won’t even bother linking or compiling a list. Five years later I still remember the charming older French couple that went out of their way to drive me and a friend to the Matisse Museum in the south of France (really that guidebook map was not drawn to scale!). Travel always comes with challenges and I’ve been thankful for all of the random acts of kindness from strangers that have come my way. I never thought that on my stoop in Harlem I would have the chance to repay some of those acts. It was a warm Sunday afternoon in September. I was just settling into life in New York City — a life that is full of surprises and parades (many of the photos below are from the African American Day parade that happened in my neighborhood). As I walked up my block I saw an older couple with several suitcases standing on my stoop.
I was confused. Maybe someone else in the building had grandparents visiting? As I walked up the steps and then punched in the building code, the man and woman said, “Bonjour.” I was taken aback and said, “Bonjour.” The couple both smiled and before I knew it I had answered that “oui” I speak French (a bit rusty, it’s been five years since I lived in Paris). Well, in a very French manner, the couple had made a vacation rental reservation in my building over half a year before and since they spoke no English (they were from a small coastal southern town), they never bothered to email and confirm before arriving. And now, there was no key for them.
They handed me all of their paperwork and I became alarmed. The rental was my unit number. My mind started racing. Was this a scam? Had I been scammed with my lease? I had dealt with enough sleazy brokers during my apartment search that I wouldn’t put anything past them. On a side note, searching for an apartment in NYC is a horrid experience that I don’t wish on anyone. If a broker uses the phrase “just imagine it clean” do yourself a favor and turn around immediately. I saw one apartment in Harlem that had floor to ceiling junk. The prior resident had just been evicted and his/her food was still on the kitchen table. I have a vivid imagination, but there are limits.
I started calling all of the phone numbers on the reservation rental papers. But of course, it was a Sunday. Meanwhile my apartment-mate returned home and brought down some orange juice to the French couple, who then wanted to know “where she was really from” after I had told them America — ah yes, the not so casual French racism peaking through. We sat on my stoop together while I made phone calls and the woman showed me their French guidebook while her husband hand rolled cigarettes. Two hours later after numerous phone calls, I got to meet the Italian speaking owner of my building. She informed me they had cancelled all vacation rentals and converted the whole building into full-time rentals. Apparently emails written in English had been sent.
Luckily there was one empty unit in my building which she quickly made up for the couple while I tried to play with her hysterically crying son. I was exhausted after over two hours speaking non-stop, improperly conjugated French. The couple had another older French couple joining them that evening. The husband in that couple speaks Italian so they said they would sort everything out in Italian with my landlord the next day. And people say Americans don’t speak other languages!
On Thursday night there was a knock at my door. Again I was taken back by the rapid fire “bonjours.” The couples were so grateful for my help they wanted to have me over the next night for aperitifs. For another hour I spoke French and answered questions about America. It was the first trip for both couples to America and to New York. It was interesting to hear their takes on America. They liked NYC and thought people were pretty friendly and helpful. As everyone always is, they too were shocked by the high costs of private education in America and we spoke about this for sometime. I knew my French wasn’t too bad because I made them all laugh when I explained how this was one of the few times in life knowing French had been useful to me since I had grown up in California and not studied Spanish. After a few beers, I bid them adieu and left a business card in case they had any troubles leaving the next day.
A few days ago, I received an email. Again, I was surprised to find myself switching into reading in French. One of the couples wanted to wish me a Happy New Year. They said they hadn’t forgotten me and they had seen the photos of the cold weather in NYC and hoped I was well. The email made me smile. It’s not that big of world sometimes.
And here are some photos of warmer days during the fall in Central Park: