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I'll Always Have Paris, and Maybe D.C. Too

By Laurie Lesser
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 14, 2005; Page C10

My friends all thought I was crazy when I announced my idea to leave my adopted home -- Paris. But, after a disastrous year financially, I wondered if it wasn't time to move on. I needed a change and I needed to earn some money.

I started thinking about Washington, a world capital conveniently located halfway (well, sort of) between my home town -- New York -- and my parents in Florida.

After 25 years, the author said adieu to France. (Christophe Ena -- AP)

At first, the thought of leaving Paris after more than 25 years terrified me. I began feeling homesick before I even packed my bags. The only thing that kept me from changing my mind was the realization that Paris wouldn't go away just because I did.

I'd been generously offered a place to stay in McLean. "We're only seven minutes from the Metro," my hosts informed me on the ride from the airport. While the weather was still mild, I figured out how to walk to a bus that would take me to the Metro, but I knew I'd quickly have to find a place in town. I soon moved into a guesthouse in Woodley Park, which was clean, affordable and offered free newspapers with breakfast.

The first time I used the Metro I carefully watched other people using the ticket machines, and put $15 onto a Metro card. When the gates didn't open after I inserted my ticket, I went to the stationmaster. It seems I'd used the disabled-persons turnstile, where the ticket comes back at you, waist-high, rather than popping up on top. In my confusion and in the time it took to go to the booth, someone had picked up my ticket and I'd lost $15.

"Off to a great start," I thought. The stationmaster was understanding and gave me a chit to get me out at the other end. "I don't have to do this," she made clear. Then, pointing at my Kerry/Edwards button, she added, "I wouldn't do this if you were wearing a Bush button," confirming what I'd been told about how everything in D.C. is political.

I've had my share of lucky breaks, too. Early on, some friends remembered over dinner that they would be away for three weeks and asked if I'd like to stay in their luxury apartment near Dupont Circle. Although the guesthouse was reasonably priced and offered copious breakfasts, I was eating out every night. Here, I could cook my own meals and drink wine at less than $7 or $8 a glass.

I moved in on a Saturday and that evening drank about half a bottle of California wine, which tasted fine and cost less than $10. Halfway through dinner on Sunday, the remaining half bottle was gone, and I felt like having just a teeny bit more. I remembered the wine rack in my friends' kitchen, the wine rack I'd sworn to myself I wouldn't even look at. I saw a couple of French burgundies -- better not touch those -- and then, a bottle of Ravenswood merlot. "Hey, you can get this anywhere," I said to myself, relieved.

Relieved that is, until -- just as the cork was coming out of the bottle -- I noticed that it was a 1997. "Uh-oh. There goes my three weeks of free rent."

I spent the next week searching the Internet for a replacement. One wine merchant in New York replied that he didn't have it in stock, but would be happy to order a case for me. I finally found a shop -- here in D.C. -- that carried it, and a bus that would get me there. "Yeah, we have it," the guy in the shop said. "Twenty bucks." I couldn't believe my luck. Twenty was still a lot, but my skin was saved.

I have found temp work -- and an apartment -- while seeking the perfect job, but I'm barely earning enough to live on. I miss my monthly pedicures and my Clarins èclat de jeunesse (CVS moisturizing lotion just isn't the same). I've resisted buying fresh-cut flowers only because I can't afford a vase.

Although all of my colleagues were delighted to have Martin Luther King Day off, it took food out of my mouth the following week. Same for the office Christmas party. When we were told we could all leave early if we wanted to, I went to see a 4:30 movie. Having assumed, incorrectly, that even temps got paid for leaving early at Christmas, it turned out to be the most expensive movie I've ever been to.

A few weeks ago, very low on cash, I figured I'd better fill my Metro card to cover me until payday. When I put it through the turnstile, "See Stationmaster" came up on the screen. My card -- the one I had recharged just hours before -- had become demagnetized. Nobody told me not to keep Metro cards in the same coat pocket as a cell phone.

"No problem," the stationmaster told me, as he handed over the form for requesting a replacement. "Or, you can go directly to the Metro Center station." I left 15 minutes earlier the next morning and got my card replaced. But I panicked momentarily when the clerk rounded things off to the nearest dollar and asked me for a quarter -- I wasn't sure I had one. I dug around my pockets and came up with a dime and three nickels and left, relieved.

The jury is still out about whether I'll go back to Paris or hold out for that perfect job. I guess only time will tell. Time for the snow to melt and the famous Washington cherry blossoms to show themselves. Time for me to earn enough to be able to think in dollars and not in pennies. And time for me to feel at home enough here to feel homesick when I think of leaving.

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