Strange People I’ve Met While Traveling

Part 4/4: Françoise

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It wasn’t immediately clear that Françoise was crazy. In fact, she seemed kind of normal for a 60-year-old French lady who lived alone in Kathmandu with a little Pomeranian named Bardo in an apartment that had no furniture. She had no money, but vaguely had a job, something she did on the internet. She also had a young Nepali boyfriend named Raju, a short, stout, dark-skinned Newar with a mustache and a leather jacket, who zipped around the dusty streets of Kathmandu on his 125cc motorcycle.

Before coming to Kathmandu I had arranged to stay with Françoise through Couchsurfing.org, as I wanted to meet locals and save a few dollars on accommodation before leaving for a three-week meditation retreat. Upon arrival I found five other couchsurfers currently staying with her, all gathered atop disheveled cushions in her living room drinking tea.

I left my things in the corner of the spare bedroom, which had three roll-up mattresses on the floor and was full of backpacks, and introduced myself to the other couchsurfers. They were a motley crew — a French school teacher, a Korean environmental scientist, an Indian rock climber, a Swiss university professor — and like me were all traveling alone.

We drank until late in the night while Françoise chaperoned the conversation with the élan of an experienced socialite, seated on a cushion with her legs crossed, lighting a new cigarette every few minutes, not saying much but directing the discussion where she pleased, from film to art to Buddhism to whether or not is was moral to assassinate the leaders of North Korea.

Around midnight she finally began to talk about her own adventures, how she’d been raised by French diplomats in a number of African countries and had later moved to Paris to raise her own children, who were adults now. She had lived the most extraordinary life and continued to live it at age 60. Here she was, full of optimism, opening her home each day to all these strangers, living on the outskirts of Kathmandu in an building full of Nepali families who probably thought she was mad.

Over the next few days bizarre, open-minded people from all over the world came and went. I enjoyed their company and their odd life stories, but by the third day I was ready to move on. Every day a new batch of travelers would arrive and it was becoming too much. Making your way around the apartment without tripping over someone was difficult and I was now sharing the spare bedroom with four other people. There were also four sleeping in the living room and two in the hallway. In the end, however, I stayed for a week.

When I returned from the meditation retreat I found Françoise’s apartment pretty much the same. Over two dozen travelers had come and gone during my absence. At the moment there was only a young German girl, a twenty-year-old on her first trip out of Europe. It was with her that I first saw Françoise’s dark side.

By now Françoise was treating me like a flat mate, giving me claim to the finest, thickest floor mattress, allowing me to carry around the only spare key. She always seemed pleased to see me. But with the sweet and innocent German girl, for reasons I still don’t understand, she transformed into a bully. On the second night Françoise began to boss her around, to monitor and criticize her as she cooked, pointing out everything she did wrong. Then, when the girl made a comment that revealed her ignorance of Nepal and the developing world, Françoise snapped.

“You’re an idiot,” she said. “You know nothing of the world. There are people here who are just as modern as you. Cooler than you, in fact, and much more beautiful! Who are you to come here and belittle them? Who do you think you are?”

It was a severe overreaction and I tried to calm her down, reminding her that it was the girl’s first time out of Europe. Françoise looked at me as though I’d betrayed her, and went to her room and shut the door.

After that I thought about finding a hostel, but decided to stick around until I left for my trek in the Himalayas a week later. The German girl was soon gone and others came and went, some so quickly that I don’t remember what they looked like. Some days I would wake up and find the living room strewn with people who’d arrived during the night, piled onto the couches or lying in a tangle on the floor, with empty liquor bottles and bags of marijuana everywhere. When I returned in the evening everything would be clean and the strangers would be gone.

Every day I woke up early, before 9am, the only time of day when the house was quiet, to tiptoe over sleeping bodies to the kitchen to meditate. Sometimes I would do yoga out on the shared balcony. In this way came to know Françoise’s neighbors, who often came out to watch me. They were a large family and rented the apartments above, below, and on all sides of Françoise. I can only imagine what they thought of her and all the ragged people who came and went in that apartment each day.

At night we would cook dinner communally, each traveler devoted to a separate task, and eat together at the kitchen table, often in the dark due to the constant power outages, and drink chang, a cheap Nepali rice wine you could buy in 2-liter coke bottles from an unlit shack down the road. Sometimes, if a Nepali was present, we ate with our hands. All was pleasant and well, and then I left for the Himalayas. When I returned three weeks later Françoise had undergone another transformation.

I had fallen ill during the long, frigid weeks of my trek and had a bad cough, clogged sinuses and a fever. My entire body felt sluggish and all I wanted was to grab the things I’d left at Françoise’s and rent a hotel room to pass out in.

But to my surprise a friend of mine was waiting for me at the apartment, a friend from Bhutan who I’d met months ago in Dharamsala. I had vaguely mentioned to her, before I set off for the trek, that I was staying with Françoise but had never expected her to actually come there, given that Kathmandu was an arduous three-day bus ride from Thimpu.

But there she was, smoking a joint in Françoise’s living room. Her name was Tara and she had long black hair and was wearing pink slitted jeans and lots of mascara and looked like a witch. Shit, I thought. My plans to get a room and recover over the next few days had to be postponed.

As I unpacked my bags in the spare bedroom I collapsed and lay there for a while staring at the ceiling, wondering if I had contracted some unusual disease.

Okay, I thought, let’s say I did catch something. In that case what to do? I had little idea how to get proper medical treatment in this country and hadn’t been to a doctor in years. Usually when I got sick I just lay in bed for days hoping it would go away, which it usually did. But perhaps this time I’d caught something serious. But then again I always thought that. I began to hallucinate black butterflies, which kept trying to land on my forehead. In short, I was in pretty bad shape. I considered leaving without telling anyone.

After about an hour I emerged. Tara and Françoise were in the living room drinking Bhutanese whiskey and laughing. I sat with them for a while, dazed, declining the whiskey but accepting a joint, thinking that by some miracle it might palliate my symptoms. All I really wanted to do was to go lie in bed.

Françoise announced that her daughter had given birth while I was on my trek and that she was now a grandmother. She said it in a way that seemed both joyous and despondent, and I congratulated her, but began to ruminate about the emotions she must be going through. Here she was, 60 years old, sitting in a little apartment in Kathmandu chatting to two twenty-year-olds while her new granddaughter was in some hospital bed half a world away.

The next day Tara went off with a Nepali friend named Rajendra while I wandered through town trying to find a pharmacy. They tried to sell me all sorts of things. I bought about half of what they offered and washed it down with warm water, hoping it would kill whatever was inside of me.

In the evening I met up with Tara and Rajendra. We were supposed to rendezvous with Françoise around 5pm and accompany her to a jazz festival, but we started smoking on the rooftop of some hostel and lost track of time and didn’t end up getting there until seven.

We found Françoise across the street from the venue in a feebly-lit restaurant that had only four small tables. She was in the corner, alone, drinking gin out of a water bottle. She’d been there since five and didn’t look very happy. When she took a liter of gin out of her handbag to refill her bottle I noticed more than half was gone.

The Jazz festival was held in the courtyard of Kathmandu’s ritziest hotel, the Shangri La. The patrons were well-dressed and seemed to consist almost entirely of foreign diplomats and the Nepali elite, many of whom gave us unwelcoming looks when we strolled up in our cheap traveler’s rags.

It was Latin Jazz night and Tito Puente Jr. was headlining. Between sets the four of us would sneak over to a quiet area near the swimming pool to smoke. It was during one of these little excursions that Françoise again revealed her dark side.

It began with a simple request. When I announced that I needed to use the restroom she grabbed my arm and said, “Take every roll of toilet paper you can find.”

It wasn’t until I was in the stall staring at the five-pound wheel of tissue that I realized how odd the request was. I wound a considerable bundle around my hand and stuffed it in my pocket. When I presented this to Françoise by the pool she winked at me and said “good man”. Her liter of gin was now empty.

Something was obviously bothering her and she sat there quietly as we smoked a joint. When we got up to go back to the concert she halted us.

“They have vacuums in there,” she said, pointing towards the hotel. “On every floor they have a vacuum.”

“For cleaning,” Rajendra confirmed.

“For cleaning,” Françoise said, nodding. “I need vacuums.”

We burst out laughing but when we saw she was serious we stopped.

“I want each of you to go in there and get me a vacuum.”

“I think she’s gone mad,” Tara whispered.

“You want us to get you a vacuum?” I asked.

“I want each of you to go in there and get me a vacuum. What’s the problem?”

“But that’s stealing,” Rajendra said. “We’ll be arrested.”

“I need vacuums!” she shouted.

She was having difficulties keeping her balance and looked genuinely angry.

“We’ll get them later,” I said. “Let’s watch the rest of the concert first.”

She didn’t respond and stumbled behind us back into the venue.

A little while later Tito Puente Jr. began playing salsa and told everyone to get up and dance. One or two couples got up in front of the stage and began moving around in a desultory fashion, but the rest of the audience remained seated. They even looked annoyed that the dancers were now blocking their view.

Being high and in no mood to salsa I moved off to the side and leaned against a flower bed. I closed my eyes and began swaying my head, enjoying the music. When I opened them Françoise was standing in front of me, her hand thrust out.

“Let’s dance!” she said.

I looked at the area below the stage. Only about six people were dancing out there.

“No thank you,” I said. “I’m just want to enjoy the music.”

Her eyes lit up.

“Come on,” she insisted. “Dance with me!”

“I’m sorry,” I said, starting to feel uncomfortable. “I’m too high.”

She shook her hand at me, demanding that I come. I kept telling her that I was sorry. I lifted my hand in apology.

“Put your hand down!” she screamed. “You are so fucking rude!”

I didn’t know what to do. The people around us began to stare. She came up into my face.

“You. Are. So. Fucking. RUDE!” she yelled. “How dare you! How dare you! You never, never tell a woman no when she’s asks you to dance! Never!”

She swung her hand drunkenly to invoke the crowd.

“You have embarrassed me in front of all these people!”

She stormed off and I sat there leaning against the flower bed, wondering if it really was rude to deny a woman a dance. I mean, I didn’t even really know how to dance salsa. Plus I was high, which would have made it intolerable. You can’t try to force someone to dance and then become enraged when they tell you no. Or was I in the wrong? Or was I just stoned? It was all very perplexing and soon paranoia took control of my thinking and went on and on about what a horrible person I was for refusing this poor grandmother a dance. What would it have hurt me to go out there and help her have a good time? I felt terrible. The concert was ruined for me.

After the show I pretended nothing had happened. So did she, but I could see her distaste for me brewing just beneath the surface.

It was around 11pm and the power was out again. The streets were a riot of dust and headlights. After a half hour we managed to hail a taxi, but as we crawled in Rajendra announced that he needed to get home. Françoise told him no.

“You are staying with us,” she said.

Rajendra was in his mid-twenties but like most Nepalis he still lived with his parents, who didn’t approve of him staying out late.

“My parents won’t allow me,” he said.

“Call them.” Françoise handed him her cell phone. “Call them and tell them you’re staying with me.”

Back home the gate at Françoise’s apartment complex was padlocked. She banged on the loud metal it until some old woman stumbled out in her nightgown mumbling something under her breath to unlock it. Upstairs the power was still out and we had to light candles. Françoise immediately poured herself a whiskey.

By that point I was feeling so sick and sleepy that it was difficult to keep my eyes open. I tuned out of the conversation, thinking about what would become of me if my illness intensified, only occasionally allowing my attention to drift back in. They were talking about solar lighting and Françoise was abrasively criticizing Rajendra’s business acumen (he sold solar bulbs) while Tara underwent attacks of fitful laughter.

Then all of a sudden Françoise’s posture changed and it was like a demon came into her body. She demanded that Tara sit beside her, then began running her fingers through her hair as she whispered things in her ear. Rajendra and I monitored the situation with increasing discomfort. When Françoise whispered “I don’t need a man” Tara turned to stone. Françoise tried to pull her down and kiss her. Tara jumped up and moved away.

My fatigue vanished and I was suddenly alert to the approaching danger. Françoise downed another glass of whiskey and stumbled into the kitchen. She banged some plates and silverware around, then rushed in and seized Rajendra by the arm and tried to pull him into the back bedroom, shouting that she would show him a wild night. It took some effort, but Rajendra managed to wrestle himself from her grip.

“You think you know?” Françoise screamed, stumbling backwards across the room, Bardo, her little Pomeranian, leaping about her feet and yipping. “You are all so stupid! Look at you! You don’t know anything! You talk and it is all nothing. You don’t know what will happen to you! Nobody knows what will happen! You think you know now but one day you’ll realize. Shut up Bardo!”

She stopped screaming and her face went rigid.

“Who is in the room? We are five here, no? Who is in the room?”

“There are only four of us,” Rajendra said.

“But there are five. Who is the fifth? He is in the room, no?”

She ran into the back room.

“Where is he?” she shouted from behind the wall. She poked her head out. “Where is he hiding? He was just here.”

She dropped her glass and it shattered on the floor. I leapt up gather the shards before she stepped on them and Rajendra and I helped her back to her cushion, where she sat still for about ten minutes as we stood on guard, ready to restrain her.

Then she lifted her eyes towards Tara.

“Tara,” she growled. “What have you done with my keys?”

Tara looked at me, then at Rajendra, then back at Françoise.

“Your keys?”

“Tara, where are my keys?”

“Françoise,” I said. “Tara would have no reason to take your keys.”

“I know you have them Tara.”

“Françoise,” I continued. “What do they look like? We’ll search for them.”

“Tara where are my fucking keys!?”

Françoise jumped up.

“He’s back,” she screamed. “I knew he was here!”

She ran into the back room again.

“We need to go out of here,” Rajendra said. “That woman is mad.”

“But where will we go? It’s almost three a.m.”

“We can get a hotel room.”

The power came back on and Françoise appeared in the doorframe. She yelled something in French and then began stumbling around the house. Soon the silverware was clanging in the kitchen and I thought she may be searching for a knife. I grabbed the empty whiskey bottle off the table, gripping it by the neck, ready to use it if she attacked us.

Suddenly the power cut out again and the kitchen went silent.

“I think she fell,” Tara said. “Good riddance!”

A lighter flamed up on the other side of the room and lit up Françoise’s face.

“Enfants stupides,” she said. “Bonne nuit!”

She stomped into her room and slammed the door.

We sat there speechless for a about an hour, until we were sure she was asleep, then gathered our backpacks and left. TC mark

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