[May 6-9, 2012]
I write to you while sitting in the Luxembourg Gardens… and not 10 minutes into my writings, I am approached by an adorable older man, offering me a hot beverage from his kiosk behind me. It’s an overcast day, and I decide to say yes – partially because I’m a bit cold, but mostly because I’m proud of myself for understanding his French enough to know what he’s offering. He seems a bit flirtaceous for how much older than me he is, but harmless :) I put my computer in my bag and follow him to his kiosk behind me. He gets me un café and asks “au lait?” - again, proud of myself for understanding, I say “oui, merci.” After refusing to let me pay, he then comes around to the front, pulls up a chair, motions for me to sit and says something that I don’t recognize, but believe to mean “I’ll return.” As I’ve already accepted his beverage, I may as well oblige – so I sit.
He disappears and quite soon, another man comes into the kiosk – and we start talking. He speaks enough English, and me enough French, that we’re able to hold a conversation of sorts. He’s friends with my coffee man, and has been helping him with his business lately. He worked in a nearby hospital for 13 years, and is either on a leave from that job, or he’s done with the job entirely – I’m not quite sure which. He says it was no good – something about the ambiance, and that he worked near or in the operating rooms? He’s never been to America, but he’s been to Mexico - Cancun. His mother was from France and his father from Morocco. He tells me that business for his friend is not good – the stand made 30 euro yesterday, and only 5 euro so far today. I feel a bit badly for having accepted a free coffee, but the coffee man had been insistent, and well, what’s done is done. We chat for a bit longer until his friend comes back - who greets me with a kiss on each cheek – delighted I’ve stayed, and then tries to give me a bag of candied nuts. I laugh and say “non, merci!” He somehow is able to make me take a lollipop, which I don’t even know that I will eat – but I didn’t feel like I could say no. I ask if I can take a picture of them, and they oblige. My coffee man’s name sounds something like Alain, and I already forget the friend’s name – something like Javarelo… though not that at all. Alain then comes to kiss my face again and says he’ll be back. I say that I want to go sit in the sun and type – and he says something that his friend translates – “Will you come back after?” And I say yes.
I hurry off to a bench much farther away from the coffee/snack stand.
I feel obligated to tell you about my bumpy entrance to Paris this time around. I’ve been here once before – in 2009 with two girlfriends. It was January, and it was cold – but I fell in love with the city nonetheless. I took French in high school because my heartstrings were drawn to it – and in my 2009 trip, I loved that I finally had an opportunity to use it. And boy did I get to! Since we were there during an off-peak time, a lot of the shopkeepers were not expecting American tourists, and I did my best to speak French as much as possible. It was sometimes successful and sometimes stressful – but I felt very proud of myself for some of the situations I helped us handle. We rented an apartment rather than stay at a hotel (in the 3rd Arrondissement – the Marais), and I loved that I could pretend I was a local Parisian for the week we were here.
In preparing for this trip, I was sure Paris would be fairly easy for me – since I’d been here once before and since I “know” the language. I bought a phrasebook just in case - and even downloaded a game onto my phone that would help me practice my French. On my Eurostar ride here from London (which by the way went really well, and I’m glad I’m now familiar with how that works), I’d planned to thoroughly study my phrasebook… but the thing is I was EXHAUSTED because I never once had a full-night of sleep while in London for the week, and as soon as the train started moving, I fell fast asleep. Once I woke up, I was just 15 minutes away from Paris – and only got that brief amount of studying time in, before I was released in the Paris du Nord train terminal – along with five million other travelers from around the world.
Lines all over the place – hard to tell which line is for what – Metro tickets, RER tickets, Information, etc. People taking advantage of tourists whenever possible – a woman trying to bully me into signing something and donating money, young boys trying to get people to pay them to help them in the ticket buying process, etc. I knew luckily, which Metro train line would get me to my accommodations in Paris – so I decided to get in the automated ticket machine line, rather than the super long people-to-help-you line. First problem: when I got to the machine it didn’t like my credit card and only wanted coins if paying by cash. I mostly had paper money, not coins. I should have expected the credit card issue, because I had it in London. I guess credit cards in Europe all have chips in them now? This must be new, because in all my Europe travels (and there have been a few!) – I’ve never experienced this. So anyway, our apparently antiquated American credit cards require signature, which is a whole process, and requires a person – i.e. no automated machine purchases possible. So basically, I took way longer at the automated ticket machine than was appreciated by the people behind me in line, and finally after realizing my credit cards were not going to work – I used the couple of euro-coins I had, to get a single-journey Metro ticket. PHEW.
So then, it was off to my particular Metro line, which luckily, I was able to find in the chaos of the train station terminal. I should mention at this point that my luggage has gotten quite out of hand during my travels abroad. For the London portion of my trip, I needed to pack a number of professional outfits – which is not as easy as a normal wardrobe for a trip – AND I felt the need to buy a number of gifts while in London – so let’s just say I BARELY got my bags closed when I departed London… and let’s just say the weight of them is such that people would be quite impressed with me that I carried them up and down Metro stairs here in Paris. I took up too much room on the Metro car, but by God, I got myself in there and was proud for it. I’ll just say it: I’m not quite sure how persons with disabilities get themselves around Paris! If it’s hard for an able-bodied young woman with luggage to get around, I can’t imagine what it would be like if you were less-than-able bodied. I didn’t see elevators for any Metro – still haven’t – and I’m not sure if that’s because they don’t exist, or if I just have not been able to find them.
As you can imagine, my muscles were quite mad at me by the time I arrived at my rental apartment… not to mention my feet, because this crazy broad felt the need to wear boots with heels yesterday, so as to make a fashionable entrance to Paris. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Needless to say, today – day two – I am not wearing heels. Pretty sure my feet would have declared mutiny had I tried that today.
Making my way up the leaving-the-Metro stairs, huffing and puffing was probably quite a sight. Resting momentarily after that ridiculousness, I got my phone to successfully dial the French-man who was renting my apartment to me, and I then successfully found my way to the apartment, without my phone map (trying not to use 3G because of the data cost). Samuel the apartment man was very nice – prompt in showing up, and – GOD BLESS HIM – helped carry one of my bags up the stairs (which I apologized to him profusely our whole way up due to the ungodly weight). He made sure I had everything I needed, before leaving me on my own. I was relieved that the apartment was JUST as it was advertised online – super cute, and not an inch bigger than I needed it to be. Plus, in a great location – the 5th Arrondisement, the Latin Quarter. Close to the Seine, Notre Dame, the Metro and the RER. Perfect, perfect.
I found out from Mr. Samuel that there was a small grocery store down the block, so that was my first stop – to procure necessities such as: water, Greek yogurt, a few pieces of fruit, wine, cheese, proscuitto, and salami. I’d like to think that up until I went to check-out, I had masqueraded as a local Parisian – I’d greeted the man at the register with a confident “bonjour” – I was not in jeans, I was a female by herself, I’d brought my own grocery bag (I think they charge you for them here)… but once I got to the register with my purchases, I quickly revealed myself to be the bumbling American I was trying not to be. The man told me in French that the partial case of water bottles I’d grabbed would cost me more and that I should just go get a full case. (6 instead of 4). I only sort of understood his French and it took longer for me to comprehend than should have, but he was kind and said I could leave my other purchases – and let me cut line when I returned. I then tried asking if they’d take my American Express, knowing that they probably wouldn’t, but then when I asked about MasterCard, he just said Visa, which luckily I had… but I then couldn’t articulate that probably he’d need me to sign for it because I didn’t have the goddamn chip in my card… And I kept wanting to use Spanish phrases I knew instead of French, and there was a line behind me again (lines are just so stressful!)… but somehow – he and I finally sorted out the whole transaction, and I hurried out of the store with my purchases. Boy oh boy.
I pride myself in trying to live like a local when I travel, but sometimes, it sure would be easier to go to huge chain stores and speak my boorish American English and get poor quality items for more money than should be spent. Luckily, I’m stubborn in my travel-morals… and am proud of myself for persevering in stressful times.
After a quick drop-off of goods back at my apartment (successfully getting hallway lights to work and apartment keys to open all necessary door s in the building), I was ready to go off on some minor exploring. I am happy to report that the River Seine and Notre Dame are still as beautiful as ever – even on a weekend day in May with tons of tourists everywhere. Souvenir shops and restaurants are still plentiful – and the streets are still delightfully narrow. A new observation – there are so many bookshops here! I feel like the bookshops in the States are near extinct… and it’s so refreshing to see so many here. I wandered into one that was called Shakespeare and Company, and I fell right in love. A cute man on a ladder gave me a very nice smile, and I’m sure that didn’t hurt :) I probably should buy a book from a bookstore before leaving Paris. I’m sure I will also buy some art.
Once my feet were finished with my wandering (still wearing my heeled boots – WHAT a crazy person), I returned home to dine on my grocery store purchases and get some writing and photo-editing done. I got as far as eating some food before I realized that my exhaustion level was so intense that the only energy I had left was for a shower and bed. I retired quite early in the evening and slept in this morning – I believe that’s called body-mutiny. Sleep was simply commanded of me. So, while I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t get out earlier in the day today, I’m quite aware that rest was needed, and at least I’ve been enjoying the surroundings of the Luxembourg Gardens this past midday as I’ve caught up on my writings. And I’ve made some old-man-friends. Doin’ good.
I wonder, as I have a little less than two days left in this city, what discoveries I’ll make and what revelations will come to me. I’ve been a bit down, lately in life – and I had high hopes that this trip to Europe would lift my spirits… but maybe it wasn’t very intelligent for a lonely-heart girl to put herself, alone, smack dab in the center of the city of love. Even in the time I’ve been seated writing, I’ve already seen a woman sitting on the lap of her lover, the two of them kissing and whispering to each other. But as much as I long to find my love, I have to remind myself that it’s the wrong goal. That I should long to love myself so much that I can be content in life without him. I complain about the trials of traveling to a foreign country without fully knowing the native language or acceptable behaviors, but the journey of loving myself – as I am, as a single individual in this world – that is probably the hardest journey I will ever go on, and the one I most look forward to finishing.
I hope that with each world journey I undertake, that I am one step closer in that bigger journey. I hope the pride of witnessing my own bravery so many times over – now, for the first time traveling alone in a foreign country - I hope that helps further validate my opinion of myself, and also helps me learn a bit more about who I am, by myself – as individual. It’s funny – my life outlook these days is quite well mirrored by the type of day it is in Paris today. As I sit and write – the sky shifts from overcast, to sunny, to overcast, to sunny. It’s cold when the clouds are above – and then when the sun comes, it’s warm – and just as soon as one gets too intense, it seems to switch. I’m half inclined to ask the sky to make up its mind… but alas, it probably wouldn’t understand my English-French-Spanish word muddlings, and it would also be a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.
I’m sure the impending age of 30 (in just about 3 months, my goodness) isn’t helping me these days. I adore birthdays, and I should be excited that another one is not too far away… but I think I’m angry at myself for not being the kind of grown-up I thought I’d be by now. I realize this is harsh and self-critical, but I can’t help it. If I ever have children, I have SO many things I hope to instill in them at a young age: don’t try to plan your life. Don’t make any mental images of what it will be, because there’s no way you can know. And whatever journey ends up being right for you isn’t wrong. Don’t think a relationship will fulfill empty holes within you. It won’t – it will only make them deeper and more obvious. Forgive yourself. Early and often. See the world – learn as much as you can about people who are different than you are. Treat yourself well – which sometimes will mean indulging, but will sometimes mean to not indulge. Seek wholesome and healthy people to spend time with. Know that it’s okay to pick yourself over others, when it comes time to make a decision. Decide what your life priorities are, and let them guide you. Know that it’s okay if those life priorities differ from others and if they don’t approve or don’t understand. And make art – make art of some kind. Be it writing, or music, or decoupage, or photos of things that inspire you. (I’m sure I’m paraphrasing a quote here). Fill your life with things that make you happy in a healthy way.