It wasn’t the first time I’d ever travelled-not by far-but it was the first time I had done so on my own.
I had been all over The States and to Canada on family summer vacations and school trips, but I had only been to Europe once before, with my family and my Girl Scout troop and their families. About fifteen of us went to London for two weeks to see the great city. We did everything from the “Jack the Ripper Tour” to Westminster Abbey and to see the Queen herself. We ate fish and chips and took the “Tube” (mind the gap!). Piccadilly Circus was where we paid a pound to take a picture with the punks, and of course we shopped on Trafalgar Street. We even visited Mme Tousauds Wax Museum (where my mom ducked for a wax photographer) and took the famous Beatles walking across the street photo-I held the fake cigarette passed to us from another group doing the same. We rode the London Eye and saw the entirety of the Thames and buildings surrounding it. One hundred and seventy seven steps up the city’s center tower we discovered winds strong enough to push us off the edge. We even took high tea in the Orange Room in the largest garden in London.
France was different though. On your own for the first time is the when you feel most alive, most mature, most free. Being away from a group, your family and friends, you have to figure everything out on your own. And that’s just what I did.
It began with my seventeen hour plane trip around the north end of the Atlantic Ocean. I watched the land change beneath me for a while then passed out looking out the window across two people. Four hours later, the best airplane food I’ve ever had was brought to the tray in front of me. I can’t quite recall what it was but it had three full courses (pasta salad, seasoned chicken, and pudding, among other things) and a mini bottle of wine to complement it, with tea to finish. The menu was in French and English, not that it really mattered which I chose to read. Another nap to the beginning of Wall-e (in French, with no dialogue at first) and then I awoke in my seat to breakfast and the young woman next to me, Marie.
She was leaving the US after visiting some family in Virginia, returning home to Montmartre. Conversing at first was awkward because, like me, she mostly wanted to sleep and we had spent sixteen hours flying, sleeping, eating, and watching movies next to each other without so much as a “hello.” I have no idea what sparked the initial conversation, but we quickly became friends. We spoke mostly in French, but some in English-she was much better at her second language than I, but we did well enough. As passengers left the plane, she asked if I needed help getting to my next destination, to which I later was very thankful for swallowing my pride and accepting the aid. Charles de Gaulle Airport had more ways to leave than all of the American airports I’ve been through, combined. Trains, metros, busses, cabs, walking routes, and a shuttle. The plans I had tried to make at home for travel to my hotel were useless and expensive at best. Marie said it was best to take the metro- both quick and cheap as compared to the others-but there was one problem. It was a pain to find a money exchange so early in the morning, and I needed coins to pay for a ticket in the machine, so she lent me the fare until I could pay her back at the exchange. The metros were fast and cramped, especially with a lot of baggage. I sat on my case most of the time and we scrambled to get out of the way of someone entering or exiting at every stop. Some families were skittish, with little ones clinging to a weary mother. Some teenagers were too busy listening to mp3 players to notice the world around them. Some business persons were tired and groggy, not wanting to do anything but angrily stare at the roof until their stop came up. I remember feeling as though I were in New York. Nothing too strange, but definitely not boring. It was a comfort to see everyone minding themselves quietly.
Midway through our journey, Marie announced that she was to go north, and I south, but she wrote out directions and her contact information for me and wished me the best of luck. I had gone from a large familiar group, to one person’s aid, to completely on my own. I never got to pay her back, but we’ve stayed in touch to this day.
The metro dropped me at a large terminal with many exits, so I picked one and ended up in a mall. I still remember being surprised at how many people were willing to help me carry my gigantic suitcase up all the flights of stairs, without any expectation of thanks or payment. Most of them didn’t even ask-they just picked up the bottom and looked at me as if to say “are you ready?” After pulling out my laptop on the steps of the entrance, I noticed some locals staring at me through the frosty air on the glass. I looked up the location of the hotel, put my things back in my bag, and broke out into the musty Parisian air. My home for the next four days was directly across the intersection of three streets (six different roads coming from a center point), and amongst some of that quartier’s most active establishments. Like the Inner Harbor or Towson in Baltimore.
From outside it didn’t look like much, but better than what I expected for what I paid. Inside was gorgeous: velvet and faux gold trimmed the furniture and walls; marble floor and mahogany desk greeted from the main hallway; and a very friendly French gentleman escorted me to the waiting area, also furnished with a TV and internet connectivity. Since it was too early to check into my room, he stored my belongings in a closet and let me take a nap in the waiting area, although I had intended to rest for a few minutes and go to lunch. I awoke to him ushering me gently to the elevator with my bags, informing me my room was ready, and that he could call up food for me in a few moments if I so wished. I politely declined and sheepishly took my things to my new bedroom. The place was small-no, just thin-but exquisite. One bedroom, two beds, full window, TV, wireless internet, and… the most luxurious bathroom I had ever been allowed to use. No bidet, but a sink, toilet, and marble oval bath as deep as my hip awaited. I promised myself after dinner I would enjoy a lovely bath.
Dinner was at the restaurant next door. By that point, the day was over and my plans for the evening (partying with French drunkards in front of the Eiffel Tower, drinking champagne) had been reduced by a long journey and lack of motivation to party alone, so I decided to go get a full course meal. The waiter took my order of water and came back with a bottle of Perrier, the check, and a turned up nose. Apparently we had a misunderstanding, so I tried to clarify by ordering everything else I wanted right then and there. An appetizer of buttered and seasoned escargot (like calamari with more flavor), broiled salmon served with French string beans and turned potatoes (arranged on thirds of the plate with edges slightly touching), both accompanied by the house white wine, and a luscious crème brulée in a hot ramekin and chilled champagne for dessert. The waiter’s nose dropped back down to normal height, but he still paid little attention to the stupid American girl in the window. I waited for the check for an hour after I finished my champagne with no sign of the waiter, and I was quickly falling asleep, so I paid what I could remember and left. I decided I would be caught very quickly if there was an issue, but I never heard a peep.
While steaming water filled the tub in my room, I found the French version of New York’s ball drop and realized I could watch it from the tub in the other room. As I eased into heaven, my traveling pains vacated my body and I enjoyed New Years alone in Paris, watching the ball drop and thousands make fools of themselves on TV. It felt like home.
The next day Sam arrived. She was one of the six other UMBC students who decided to band together and take the study abroad on our own versus through the program. Her parents felt it would be safer for her to stay with me in the hotel, and I didn’t mind because that meant splitting the cost. I’m still wondering if it was worth the money saved.
Like me, she was tired when she arrived and slept most of the day, so I explored some of the shops in the very near area. Unlike me, she arrived in the afternoon, so it was dinner time when she woke up, although she didn’t share my appetite. I left in search of something she could identify with, culinarily, to possibly entice her into giving me company for dinner. I first stopped at a local grocery store to buy some cheese, bread, and wine, and to see what else I could snack on. I bought a few things on the list above, and added an apple and a small bag of chips. I figured at least we could share some snacks. Then I walked two stores down to get a pizza. The wait staff ignored me, and the customers stared silently as I entered. I walked to the back to find the maitre d’ to order. I read the menu, decided, and ordered when he asked, but then the strange man ushered me to the register to punch it in, slide my credit card, and wait by the oven for it. I noticed several pizzas already on the wall, just sitting out, getting cold, but didn’t know what to say or to whom. Twenty minutes later, I tried to complain and was handed a cold margherita before being pushed out the door with a skeevy smile. Fine. I’m hungry and I’ve paid for it. I’m going to eat it. I took it back to the room, woke Sam, and offered the food. One look was all she needed to decline, and I understood why: the box it came in tasted better. No more pizza in France for me. I ate a sample of each of the grocery items I bought, then fell asleep to snoring next to me and French babble on the screen.
Sam, Day Two: We both woke up early and commenced our plan to see all the tourist sites in Paris almost entirely by foot. I began my morning by watching the most incredible lady with a food cart make my crepe from scratch on a small round flat-top grill, stuff it with swiss cheese, fold it, and wrap it in wax paper. Garnish with a side of grape juice. Bliss. Sam’s breakfast: two sips of grapefruit juice and a piss-poor attitude for “throwing away” a euro. We rode the metro to the right side of the center of town; we started with a statue she wanted to see. Then we walked to the Louvre. I chased Sam around as she stayed a quick four steps ahead of me at all times; she glanced at some of the 16th century paintings and returned to tap her foot at me when I lingered every now and then. We both cocked our heads and stared at the modern exhibit of completely black canvases.
For lunch we sat down in a small café off the main drag. We took off our coats, and before I could say “Pardon?” Sam had already shown how stereotypical she could be.
“I don’t speak French. I need a menu,” she announced, in English, to the waitress.
“Je suis très désolée, madame, mon amie est fatigue et elle a très faim,” I quickly apologized, then ordered for myself. “Puis j’avais le sandwich de la maison avec les pommes et les pommes frites?”
“Oui madame. Merci.”
Sam sat there puzzled at my humility.
“I’ll have this. Just this,” she pointed to something on the menu. The waitress rolled her eyes and left without writing down the second order.
“Sam, IF the waitress takes your order, you can probably look forward to more than spit in your food.”
Now, my companion doesn’t drink, and she doesn’t like sweets, and this is lunch after walking halfway across the city with no breakfast; she ordered a Grand Marnier and Nutella crepe, took one bite, and drooled at me and my plate: hot spinach, Spanish ham, and fontina between toasted sourdough smeared with seasoned aioli, deep-fried thin wedges of potato, and apple slices on the side. The waitress removed Sam’s full plate with my empty one.
We then visited St. Sulpice, a church my boyfriend-at-the-time’s father (still good friends) urged me heavily to visit. Being Catholic, Sam rolled her eyes as she partook of the holy water in cross fashion, speed-walked around, and stood impatiently at the door. Being Protestant, I slowly paced around, gathering all the information I could, praying for Papa R (afore-mentioned supporter of visiting the church), and bought two candles as souvenirs. I was shocked at her irreverence and embarrassed to be there with her. We decided to leave before service started; Sam was tired and wanted to call her boyfriend, so we left, taking the metro back “home.” She spent 4 hours on her cell phone while I enjoyed a lovely Italian dinner with Bordeaux, came back, and took another bath.
I walked toward the darker side of the intersection where our hotel was located. A small bistro with covered, heated, outdoor seating, quiet and empty save a man behind the bar, a man at the bar, and two women next to him. The older of the two women hurried over with a decanter of house Bordeaux and a basket of warm, dusty bread. She smiled as she handed me a menu and waited for me to decide.
“Je voudrais le spécial, l’agneau, s’il vous plait.” A few minutes later, my lamb shanks with a Bordeaux reduction and side of round pasta with a creamy, tomato basil remoulade greeted me, along with the same smiling woman. I assured her I was satisfied and kept eating. Throughout the meal, she kept an eye on my glass, leaving her family’s conversation to refill my beverage. I paid and added an uncustomary three-euro tip to the woman who held her hands together at her chest and bowed lightly as I waved goodbye.
The next day Sam and I continued with our plan to see all the sites. I will say that I highly recommend all of the cliché, touristy fun you can get your shutterbug hands on, and we did. Perhaps spending the time talking to Max gave Sam the drive to pull out his 35mm manual/digital camera and take pictures of quite literally everything. We decided to walk instead of take the metro, so I had more time to eat my ham and Swiss crepe while we walked what we thought was northwest. We wound up lost in French Little Italy, in the Southeast of Paris, where no one spoke French or English-as much fun as frustrating- and led us to the conclusion that the signs for the attractions lie to confuse people like us and amuse the locals. After an hour long debacle trying to translate from Spanish to German to Italian and back, involving Sam and two patrons and the deli keeper, we realized where we needed to go and left. We got our bearings, using just the map, and first stopped by Notre Dame and Les Halles. The square in front of the church was about 60% full, surprising since we were there in the off season, and the wait to get in was about an hour. We snapped photos of each other while we waited, and she made judgments about all the people around us who were “in the way” or “don’t speak French” or “who are going to bomb the place because they’re Muslim.” I wished I could’ve seen the outdoor market as the bustling food and trade center it was back before it was demolished in 1971, although the flower-wound wire arches were a bittersweet reminder that Sam didn’t understand.
The Eiffel Tower was incredible, a giant compass visible from everywhere in France, even seeing it up close two nights in a row and begging my fearful companion to go to the top level after being hit on by every teenage boy in the vicinity. In the end she refused, preferring to sit at the bottom and play her video game. Blue lights speckled the gigantic structure which was also lined by yellow tube lighting. The frostbite and the line were worth it-yes, all 4 hours. I could see the entire city and beyond. It was as if I could see all the cities beyond Paris to the horizon in each direction. Some German man and I took pictures of each other to show our companions at the bottom.
We also visited L’Arc de Triomph (too much of a maze and too expensive to do more than take pictures of the gigantic statue), the eternal flame (like the one in DC), and the long street of outlet shops in that area (comparable to any outlet mall in America). But by the end of the four days chasing my fast and skinny companion around Paris, my feet hurt, I was tired of eating alone and traveling with a disinterested greyhound, and I was ready to head to the south.
The TGV train to Montpellier displayed all of the beauty of the French countryside and all of the little towns dotted on the hillsides. It was quite possibly the most relaxed I had ever been in my life. No longer bothered by the typical American stereotype, I gazed longingly out the window, hoping to never forget the sights I had seen, and wishing I could have shared it with my Love back home. I gave up on taking pictures and wishing my life away at that point. My life is what I make of it-not what happens during it.
Then I met Marcel, the guy on the train, who helped me squeeze my 80 pound trunk into the luggage space and find my seat. He didn’t say a word at first, he too relaxed his large bohemian-dressed frame his reclined seat and stared out the window. Occasionally he looked up to see me snacking on my leftover rolls and store-bought cheese. I felt his eyes on my lap and was getting full anyway, so I took the chance of asking in French if he was hungry.
“Vous voudriez un peu de fromage et pain? J’ai plus.” I was getting full anyway.
“Peut-être… vous êtes sure?”
“Oui, d’accord. Ici,” I reached across the seats and isle to hand him the food. He carefully snatched the food from my outstretched arms, looking me in the eye as if to see if I would get offended by his eagerness. I tried to make conversation by introducing myself, “Je m’appelle Tassia. Comment vous appelez vous?”
“Vous êtes Americaine. Vous parlez bien…but …I … speak…English? I want practice. My name is Marcel.” He complimented my French, but as most Europeans, he was more interested in learning conversational English.
“Vous parlerez Anglais à moi, et je parlerais Français à vous.”
“Ok, me English, you French. What are we talk about?”
“Nous parlons à cuisine, peut-être. Je voudrais devenir Chef un jour.”
“About cooking. Ok. You become a chef, ha ha ha, you make me dinner déjà.”
We spoke about cooking terms, and about each other: where we were from, where we were going, our aspirations in life. As the train ground to a halt at his stop, I bid him “Au revoir.” He walked past me toward the door, after grabbing his back, and I called after him, in English,
“Marcel, life is a journey. I have just discovered that I am the driver.”