Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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JUNE 2, 2012 6:47PM

Set Design

Rate: 25 Flag
There I was, in my blue dress printed with white flowers, the short flowing sleeves a bit reminiscent of fairy wings, the cinched waist that perhaps evoked a corset.  I hadn’t been sure about the length of the skirt, but it fell just right with the twenties-style black heels that were starting to slowly torture my feet.  My accessories had been chosen carefully: a necklace of chunky white beads, and a black fabric flower perched in the hair that fell over my left temple.

Madame, the woman I'd lived with when I first came to Paris, was wearing a tan-colored two-piece pantsuit and black patent-leather sandals with a band in a geometric design that ran up the tops of her lilywhite feet.  She was using a lace fan, which reminded me that I have one, too, and made me remember a time not long ago when I'd always brought it with me.  Nowadays I'm more likely to just sit miserably somewhere and sweat. Building up endurance.

We chatted for a while and then made our way into the Opéra Bastille’s cavernous theater.  Our seats were good, near the stage, yet not so close as to be spat on by the singers.  They performed “The Barber of Seville”.  This production was notable for its set design: The story had been transported to an exotic country – perhaps, some suggested, a subversive version of present-day Afghanistan.  There was so much lushness of color in the first scene’s dunes and pre-dawn sky, and in the later scenes’ false interiors, that we gasped as one setting changed to another.

After the show, we went to have coffee at a nearby café.  I hadn’t seen Madame in more than two years, and there’s no excuse for it.  She told me about her life now.  She has a new roommate – not a student this time – or at least, she wasn’t a student when she first started living there.  But this new girl, my replacement, is full of ambition and plans.  

“She’s studying to become a nurse’s aid,” Madame tells me.  “She says it’s not an important job, and that she won’t be wealthy like her sister.  But I told her, ‘Look at your sister.  It’s not her money, but her husband’s.  Never, never depend on a man.'”

We both nod knowingly.  

Madame has a right to nod: a single mother at a time when that wasn’t common or favorably looked upon, she struggled and sacrificed and took on many jobs before becoming an English teacher.  She never had any handouts or help.

I think that in Madame’s eyes, I seem to be doing pretty well, too: a very busy business English teacher with too many projects to enumerate, who’s gone to operas several times over the years, and has on a dress that Madame deems “elegant”.  

When I’d sat down next to her at the start of the evening, she’d reached out to touch one of the diaphanous sleeves, and exclaimed, “Oh, it’s synthetic!”  

“Yes,” I’d told her openly, “I got this dress for ten euros at a market.”

But there were other things I didn’t say.  

I didn’t tell her, for example, that if I'd ceded after little arguing and let her pay for our coffees, it was because my bank account is so low I’m counting centimes.  I didn’t tell her I’m living with a sort of slow-burning terror in my gut; my boyfriend is out of town until Sunday night, and fairly cut off from the world, and if any emergency were to come up, and I needed cash immediately, I would have no way to get my hands on it without delay.  He would have left some money for me, but I haven’t told him what’s going on, either.  

I’ve never hidden my financial situation from the world before.  It’s much easier, after all, to let people know you’re not working with a huge budget – and I have to admit, I feel a sort of pride that I’m able to live well with little money.  But this time, for some reason, I can’t bring myself to say anything, not even to the boyfriend, who probably wouldn’t be bothered by it.  Still, I feel like I don’t want to let him down.  Or maybe it’s myself I don’t want to let down.  And I know that soon I’m going to have to give him some disappointing news: he’ll probably have to take care of most of our expenses during the upcoming trip we’re going on with my family to Tuscany.  
I’m ashamed, especially because this financial issue is completely my fault.  Why can't I work  harder, why I can't I go out and get a better job, or take on more hours?  A lot of it has to do with my IBS, but years ago, I was braver, more motivated.  I feel like, as I've grown up, I’ve gotten worse in many ways, instead of better.

I nervously touch my necklace, which comes from one of the more expensive stores you’d find in any American shopping mall, and which couldn’t have been bought by me; it's a recent birthday present from a childhood friend (who once told me supportively, “You’re good at being poor.”). The shoes I have on aren’t a vintage shop find, but could have been; they look like they’re from a century or so ago, and are about that age in contemporary shoe-years -- I wore them to my Junior prom, and they’ve been with me through some other formal occasions, as well as job interviews, funerals, and the occasional costume party, for a decade and a half.  The opera tickets themselves were an unexpected gift from a student, who found out she couldn’t make it, and offered them to me.

“I’m having a great time,” I tell Madame, “but I’m really sorry – I think we might need to start heading home.  The Metro’s going to close soon.”

Although it’s after midnight, it’s a shame the night has to end now, when we still have a lot to say to each other.  But if I don’t make the Metro, I can’t afford a cab.  

We take up our purses and leave.  

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I've been poor and I've made a good living, now I'm somewhere in between... with time and experience you can reach a point where money doesn't matter that much and you can ask for help when you need it... but I have to admit I never had the experience of being poor in Paris. That takes some special kind of courage... don't let your bravura get in the way of asking for help.
Life is a matter of choices, isn't it? It's a fine act to maintain a balanced life between the opera and taking the metro. You bring this poignantly to your reader Alysa. The important thing is that whatever direction you take, it sounds as if you are testing yourself and pushing your limits. I hope you won't be too hard on yourself and enjoy your Tuscan vacation, even if you may not be able to contribute financially.
Alysa, I send a quick hug! I so relate to this on many levels -- just last month my husband said to me, "You are not good at being poor." (that made me laugh to read you are good at it. I am too on many levels...)
Not because I spend a lot at all, far from it, but I confess...I don't think logically sometimes. If there's a deal on a local play, one must fully Live.
ps -- why Set Design as title? Just curious. I was expecting a different post : )
jmac - Thank you for your kind words, and I hope you're feeling better. I have to admit to you, though, being poor in Paris isn't too bad; food and a lot of basics can be very inexpensive, which I'm extremely grateful for. And yet, I am still sans un sou!

Fusun - Thanks so much for your supportive words, including about the Tuscany trip. I feel so bad about that....

Just Thinking - Thank you for the virtual hug, it is much appreciated! And what a coincidence about the "being good at being poor" thing - though I'm sorry your husband seems not to have judged you well. I think we all need to have our little moments of abandon - I just finished re-reading "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and even when the Nolan family was really in the depths of poverty, their wise mother would allow each child a cup of coffee a day to do what they liked with, even just dump down the sink, to have a sense of luxury and wastefulness, if they desired. I think that says a lot. I think sometimes we do have to opt for the deal on the play and maybe having to tighten our belt in other ways - after all, not having a lot of money shouldn't mean we shouldn't be able to enjoy life. That said, of course it's not always easy to know when to pull back just a little. I know what you mean. As for the title, I chose it because I thought I seemed so fake: I was well-dressed and didn't mention my money problems, but just like the sets we saw at the opera, all that wasn't real.
You reveal so much of yourself in this piece, Alysa, so gracefully and movingly, both in the way you introduce your elegant facade and then with your careful candor in the disclosure. And I have no doubt this resonates in a worrisome way with many of us. My heartfelt best wishes.
Chicken Maaan - This post definitely comes from my (heavy) heart. I had to get it out. Thank you so much for your kind words. They mean a lot.
We all bring different things to the table, and what we can bring changes with time and circumstance. It should never be thought to mean you're not welcome at the table of friends or family, or that you should somehow feel ashamed. You're still bringing something that others need--a willing ear, a helping hand, good humor, travel expertise, free opera tickets. Some day you'll probably have money to share too. Right now you don't. So tell the boyfriend and let him help, just like you'd help him if there was something he needed. The money situation will work itself out and someday you'll looking back at those days you were so poor, but so happy.
Seems I have been poor most of my life so I do understand being to proud to ask for help, but it sounds like you are a part of a loving group of people who would be more than willing to help and hurt if you don't shame in working as hard as you can but still be unable to pay your way!
I wish you better times. I totally understand why you chose the title. Sometimes we all go through those times of theater in our lives. We cannot control our situations sometimes, only how we react to them. I hope that you will find yourself able to be more honest with your boyfriend and that seeking his help will be a bridge of lasting connection in your relationship, which shows you a depth of caring that perhaps you are not yet experiencing. Best to you.
I hate that you are suffering and that money is the cause. I've noticed in my life that there is rarely a correlation between how much money someone makes and what they contribute that is most valuable, if you know what I mean. For some of us, the cash comes easier than for others, whether because we come into it or we can't seem to hold onto it. A dear friend of mine often struggles financially, and whatever I can spare, I give her without a second thought because money is replaceable, but the way she enriches my life is entirely unique and irreplaceable. I would imagine your bf thinks the same way. :) Sending lots of good thoughts your way!

As a side note, I've recently come to suspect--long but good cautionary tale for another time--that when someone refers to themselves or is described as "ambitious," it's actually a euphemism for "mercenary, unapologetic asshole." Just saying.
Alysa, I lived on pancakes and brown bean soup at one point in my life.

My advice: tell your bf EVERYTHING about your financial situation. The problem becomes bigger if you try to keep it a secret. FOTI kept me in the dark about a little financial fiasco of his own during the pancake and brown bean years. I was furious about being kept in the dark, not so much about the money side. So furious that if we weren't married I'd have walked out. He doesn't keep secrets about money anymore.
It's a poverty of the heart you should fear. And on that, I think you're doing quite well. What's "practical" about feeling dead?
I once left a basket of groceries because I was playing the roullette of using all my cash to pay bills and having to live on credit. It broke me emotionally, especially when I went to a bankruptcy lawyer & he said I would have to sell my dog if I filed. I finally called my parents, sobbing, & they helped me out. Still tight at times, but making it.

Hope you can work this out. And don't let the IBS flare.
Alysa,believe it or not I have just lost in a travel the jean I had for almost 10 years and I had wear it in every occasion..from the day I took my degree to a trial..and so on.And I am angry for loosing it.Well,being ρoor is awful to tell the truth..but the secret is..not letting the others know that we are ρoor..I always hated the symρathy look..and the "oh,such a lost case'.So I develoρed my defences...I'd rather be called ρeculiar than ρoor...I know the feeling of not getting better,although getting older.Same situation here.And your words " Or maybe it’s myself I don’t want to let down" mine exactly!!I am wishing you all the best..We are in such similar ways...I hoρe we both can make excellent writing!!!
Grin says it best, "It's a poverty of the heart you should fear" There are so many other worse case poverty's than that of money. Having met you personally, I would say you are rich in those categories which matter most on a day to day basis.
May I suggest taking a walk through your beloved Paris to soak up some of its beautiful "richness."
This really touched me, Alysa--so poignant, and yet proud in the best ways. I too have always given a good impression at being able to "live on air and dirt." I understand all the inherent shame and self-scolding. When you follow your dreams that are not motivated by money, you are led into a world you chose, or that chose you. Trust all will be well. And consider me a sister in "arms" (with vintage accessories :)
"but years ago, I was braver, more motivated. I feel like, as I've grown up, I’ve gotten worse in many ways, instead of better."

This whole post resonated with me, but especially this line. We have had layoffs where I work, and if it happens to me, I simply don't know what I'm going to do. I'm kind of terrified, actually. Not because of finances, but because I know I'll have to find something else, and I'm not good at that.

Well, all that to say that I identify with what you write here. Feeling unsure, fearful. Yeah.
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

I don't see this as being about money.
So yes money makes the world go...wrong. Enjoy each moment you have in Paris with skin as youth and air is free. Coffee and popcorn fueled my figure and grade point for many a year. Wouldn't change a thing... now.
Alysa, your piece is so honest and conveys the fear that I and many have shared. When I first moved to NYC as I starving actress I pet sat. Living in musicians' upper west side apartments and ate eggs because they were cheap. And i've had ups and downs since. Please don't be ashamed to reach out to those who love you! They may understand better than you know, and would not want you hurting in silence. You hang in there and have a good vacation!!
Everyone needs help now and again. The idea that we are all self-supporting in every way is a fallacy. And I know the IBS and resulting anxiety can be demoralizing, paralyzing, especially to those who have always been strong. Makes you doubt yourself and you can't foresee a day when that will lift...but it will. One of the nicest things you can do for those who care about you is to let them help and then you can think of ways to give back to them in return.
This is so familiar to me, as I have spent my whole career in the non-profit world. And it is totally worse in NYC and Europe, where you can't walk down the street without dropping $20/euro bills in your wake. But I think you should come clean with the boyfriend. I kept my finances separate through grad and law school for a lot of the same reasons, but it became a non-issue once we opened a joint checking account. And that was years before we got married. (Also, you can find fabulous vintage in the secondhand stores in Paris, so why would you ever shop retail?)
I once had everything but now have nothing. I look for nothing because I cannot afford it.
You do your best ma cher and that is all we can do. Somtimes I long to have the extra money I once had but there were strings with that money and that is something I no longer want to relive.

Take it day by day and I shall throw a penny in the fountain to wish for good luck for you.

sorry to be late
I was right there inside your head with you thru this whole post. My set design is wonderful too. I am very good at illusion. Money is so hard and real. Not easy.
Nothing like Money to squelch one's joie de vivre, strangle
the spirit,
get those already irritable bowels
even more pugnacious, i bet.

I won't say what everyone else has said.
All true stuff, of course...
I like that "poverty of the heart" quote...
Gotta watch out for that.

Take a leap of faith, dear friend, and know that it is all gonna
work out....somehow...

Tell Madame we don't take kindly to male bashing, here
in the Good Guy's camp. Does she have those tiny
opera binoculars? If i had some, i just might
use them to spy on the sober girls
next door. It is best i cannot
afford them.
I know how you feel, Alysa. My husband and I are in debt and living from paycheck to paycheck. Last year's flood and other disasters didn't help. Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, as the saying goes. You will get through this. We both will.
I can imagine that it would be difficult to manage expenses in Paris, but it must be worth any sacrifices you have to make. I live in Northern California, which is probably just as expensive, but for different reasons. Because California has laws limiting the emissions of gasoline, the oil industry makes us pay at least one dollar per gallon more than the rest of the country. And because we are geographically isolated (the first party to reach this area by land from San Francisco to two years to get here), everything, most significantly groceries, has to come here on a truck.
You are getting a lot of culture for your money. I'm paying for a vindictive pricing of fuel.
I do hope you find other ways to add to your income. Some of your blog posts about different places in Paris was really interesting. You probably could sell it, even inexpensively as a Kindle book, and make money. I have for many years dreamed about the travel industry. If I had the opportunity, I would take people to all the oddball places in Europe, such as standing stones, places like Le Lapin Agile, artists houses, and weird parks like the one in Nantes with a mechanical elephant. I suppose there is all that and then some just within Paris.
Alysa: This is such a hard place to be! It was my mother who always told me, "Never depend on a man." She almost never did, except when my brother and I were too young for school and there was no daycare, so she had to stay home with us. I feel as if I'm a bad feminist and have let her down.
I, on the other hand, have spent much of my life depending on men, financially, for much the same reasons as you have/do. IBS. Lacking (physical and mental) energy required for working long hours. Skills that are benevolent and creative but not very renumerative...
These days, though I don't "depend on a man," I live with Lady Lucia, whose income is seven times higher than mine! (And she is not wealthy; merely "comfortably middle class" by New York standards). 'Though I do make some contributions to our grocery budget and pay a fraction (about 15%) of the rent, I'm well aware that, were our relationship to end, I'd be in a homeless shelter. But, like you, I'm "good at being poor." So long as we are together, I can make my little bit go a long way and not seem poor to anyone who doesn't actually know the size of my paychecks.
For some of us, financial independence is such a hard thing to attain. I haven't given up trying but I do get frustrated and depressed, as you do.
I will say that, difficult as it may be and as ashamed as you feel, you should tell The Boyfriend where you stand, financially. As others have said, secrets will only make things worse in the long run. If you really anticipate a life with him (even a child or children) it's better to keep everything clear.
I hope things will get better for you, financially and emotionally, soon!
I wrote this on Saturday, just needing to get it out. I cannot say how touched I am to come back after a day away from OS and see you guys' kind messages and commiseration. For those of you who are also in dire financial straits, I hope things will get better, with all my heart. And for all of you, just thank you so much. Your words give me courage and a certain sense of relief and release. Thank you all again. I will be talking to the boyfriend about my finances soon - probably tonight. I don't think he'll be shocked, since he knows I earn a lot less than him, and there have been times over the years when I've been in a similar situation. I hate having to tell him again, but those of you who wrote me that honesty is the way to go, are absolutely right. Also, Steven, thank you for your advice about my possibly publishing something about Paris. I am in the process of working on something - not for financial gain, because I feel like I'm bound for disappointment if I make that my goal, but because I love this city so much and want to share it. Thank you for your vote of confidence that I might be able to produce something worth reading. Thanks again, guys.
Money, like life, eventually runs out and as Athos told Porthos before their ride through innumerable ambuscades on their way to the Normandy coast, "Is life worth the trouble of so many questions?" Ha, money and life are impermanent—good writing is immortal. And, young lady, you can write. This post of yours could be the French answer to Edith Wharton. Chin up, fight if you need, but don't worry too much: whenever you're ready—or simply willing—to apply yourself in some fiscal endeavor, you have the skill to succeed.
LADY. you already got what we literary types call
a body
a corpus
of delightful work.

it may mean alot, somedays when Real people piss ya off.
your os.
it may mean not so much when finally
you get to the big time.

if i ever saw a gal destined for some kinda Big time, tis you.