The first time I went to Paris was in May 1990. The week after graduating from Wesleyan, about 20 sisters and I, led by a intrepid professors, took a trip to London. The adventure was the brainchild of Dr. Darlene Mettler, professor of English literature and 100% Anglophile. She taught us to wear a raincoat over our grubby clothes when attending the theater, and to pack grubby clothes for travel so they could just be tossed out to make more room in the bag for souvenirs. After 10 days in England under Dr. Mettler’s wing, four of us decided to hop over to Paris instead of going back home with the rest of the bunch.
Wanda and Mary were full-fledged adults, with jobs and mortgages and such. Constance and I were newly minted graduates. Constance is on the shy side. I am not. But I cried in silent panic in the back of our black cab as we left Dr. Mettler and our friends on the sidewalk in London and our driver took us towards the station for the boat-train.
WHAT WAS I THINKING???? Of the four of us, I was the only one who spoke any French and it seemed to have all dissolved on my tongue. Not a one of us had ever been to France. We didn’t even have a hotel lined up. Who was letting us do this????
Oh. Wait. We were the adults. We were in charge. I took a deep breath and remembered Dr. Mettler’s #1 rule for travel: Be Deliberate. Don’t worry about everything–focus on the next thing then the next then the next.
We made it onto the ferry. We watched the white cliffs of Dover slip away into the West. We landed in Caen and boarded the train. I started to relax because we were Doing It. Out the window, the French countryside whipped by in a parade of church steeples, late spring fields, tiny cars, and country lanes lined with poplar trees. In my heart, I thought, “This looks JUST LIKE FRANCE!” Because, you know…France! I had been looking at pictures of France my whole life–in World Book encyclopedias, art history classes, and World War II movies. I was delighted to discover that France looked just like France.
My nerves came back when the train pulled into the Gare du Nord in Paris. We gathered our bags and shuffled in a tight pack through the throngs of people. For 10 days, we had been world travelers in a country that still sounded like home. But now? We were plunged into the gabble of a busy train station with ears still filled with English.
We found a tourist information booth where the multi-lingual attendant scratched an address on a white square of paper. Hotel du Delta seemed to have the last affordable room in the 1st arrondissment. Using her crude map, we found our way there.
In 1990, it was kind of a given that everyone in Europe hated Americans. Maybe not hated, but they were pretty tired of us stomping around in our white shoes and fanny packs. I had read that we should tell people we were Canadian instead. Slick, huh? As we walked into the rather time-worn lobby of the Hotel du Delta, my three traveling companions shoved me to the front of the pack as the interpreter.
“Parlez vous anglais?” I asked the man behind the desk. He shook his head and flapped his hand at me and turned away. This was not going as smoothly as my French 101 textbook had led me to expect. All four of us exchanged worried looks. This was the last hotel room in Paris.
Right before I fainted with panic on the threadbare carpet, a teenage boy in a red Adidas track suit came out from the office. “Hi! You need English?” What a relief! He started our reservation and the other man lit a cigarette and watched over his shoulder.
“Where you from?”
“Oh…what part of Canada?”
I froze. I looked at Mary, whose eyebrows shot up so fast they disappeared into her hairline. I looked at Wanda, who looked right back at me.
I couldn’t remember which part of Canada spoke French. I looked back at the teenage boy and said, “Ummm….Edmonton?”
He laughed. “You Americannes, yeah?” We confessed. His family was from Egypt. He spoke Arabic, French, English, and a little German. I was so nervous at that point that my English was starting to fade.
We made it up four flights of curling stairs to our rooms. We marveled at the bidet. We flung open the windows to see a scene straight out of a Hollywood lot: a narrow street, a shop selling oranges, and a painter sitting in a window to catch the light. I started to hum Edith Piaf.
That night, on my broken French and a lot of good will, we managed to buy ourselves a picnic, make it to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and make it back to the Hotel du Delta where we finished off the last of the wine (which was about $2 a bottle with the exchange rate). We were IN PARIS, doing Parisy things! All on our own!
The next morning, my adrenaline left and the $2 wine headache took its place. I didn’t like going down the hall to pee. I didn’t like the noise that came through the old windows. I didn’t like the lumpy bed. I didn’t like having to clumsily translate every word for everyone. I was exhausted, mentally and emotionally. But PARIS awaited.
We went down for “continental breakfast.” Instead of the English pot of tea, bowl of marmalade, and rack of warm toast that we had grown to love, we found a tired baguette and coffee with grease floating on top. I don’t even drink coffee…but PARIS. I sat in silence with my friends as we gnawed on yesterday’s bread and kept our English to ourselves.
The owner of the hotel, who had waved me off the day before, came into the breakfast room and flipped on the television that hung in the corner. I perked up at the familiar sound of static, the ritual of listening to the morning headlines. When the channel came in and the man turned up the volume, my disgusted little 21-yr-old sheltered American heart thought:
DAMMIT. EVEN THE NEWS IS IN FRENCH! How does anyone know what’s going on?
Then I laughed at myself. Of course the news was in French. Much of France speaks French, all day every day. As I sat there chuckling at my own provincialism, something in my small sheltered heart cracked open and I got a little closer to The World.
I drank my coffee with the pearlescent swirls of grease on top. I wiped enough fresh butter on that baguette to choke a goat. I checked my fanny pack one last time then went out to see more of Paris. Where they speak French, to this day. Even when I am there! Traveling always reminds me that the place I grew up in is not the center of the world.
This was the last photo I took on that trip to Paris in 1990. As we waited at the station for the train back to England, I saw a soldier and a priest standing beside each other in the same posture, soaking up the morning sun.
I tell this story today because my heart hurts for the people of Nice, who gathered to celebrate Bastille Day but ended up fleeing for their lives. I just wanted to say, “Je suis désolé. Nous sommes avec y’all.”