I know what you’re thinking. Of course. Everyone wants to go to Paris. It’s every girl’s dream. I’d be foolish to say it didn’t cross my mind but I’ll tell you what, it didn’t.
Before I dragged my champagne-saturated, year-older self out of Charles de Gaulle International and beheld the city so great that it holds world city titles for both, “Light” and “Love”, I never really dreamed of going to France like so many others do, for two reasons.
French culture is highly played out at least in the United States. I was overexposed to the Eiffel Tower stamped on any surface a decal can be applied to, from three-piece shower curtain/trash can/soap dish bathroom sets to mini replica paperweights and keychain fobs. I won’t get started on reprinted Chanel logos and the Fleur de Lis. These icons seem to be splattered on everything with the purpose of evoking a sense of nostalgia and style, but thanks to low-quality and mass production, they come across devoid of charm in my humble opinion. This disinterested and desensitized me to all things Franco-fony and unfortunately with it, anything Franco in general.
And so, somewhere along the way I blurred the corner of the map in my mind that belonged to France. There are so many other countries on my list to visit and it already seemed like it would take a lifetime to get to the ones I want to visit in Europe the most. Germany to discover my families heritage, Italy for my coffee and wine obsession (and possession), Spain to satisfy my yearning to master its language, and the United Kingdom to someday reunite with my crumpet-tea-pairing, Guinness-chugging, kilt-wearing teacher friends. Which brings me to a more reasonable reason.
I thought I could manage a few of those trips while I was still young enough to enjoy them, then maybe I could retire and spend the rest of my life traveling the world. Only it would not be in the lively misadventurous, hostel-hopping, Euro-squandering, local-loving, beautifully spontaneous way I could in my youth. That said, as a qualifying young person, I often don’t know what I am talking about and there is a little thing called airline mileage points that I’d forgotten about. Now I’m just working out the hurdle of the average American’s 10 vacation days.
For a long time, it seemed like I had no room to hope for a luxurious Parisian getaway. I immediately and unconsciously wrote it off so long ago that it didn’t come up as a travel destination for me when I started making my way in the world. It was better to look into lesser-known locations, the ones where traveling and exploring solo are encouraged.
So it was big deal when I decided to celebrate my twenty-sixth birthday in Paris. While looking into some places for females traveling alone and inspirational places to celebrate birthdays, I found the famous words spoken by my idol and honorary Parisian, Audrey Hepburn:
Paris is always a good idea.
That is all the convincing I needed.
As a fan of history, there was no way I was going to go to France without learning enough of the language to communicate with the locals. With twenty-eight days to go, all I could say was “merde.” So I downloaded Pimsleur’s audio lessons for learning on commutes in the car and doubled up diligently studying/playing on the app, Duolingo.
My cultural education involved spending my nights leading up to the getaway watching the following films: The Intouchables, Before Sunset, Midnight in Paris, Paris I Love You, Chocolat, Paris When it Sizzles, Amelie and my all time favorite, Love Me If You Dare. Add Captain America 2, if the fight scene in French counts.
To get the lay of the land, I relied on offline maps and mostly the Parisian half of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises for navigation.
The night before leaving, I felt unprepared not knowing enough about the legendary place, but by the time the plane took off, I didn’t care. I just wanted to be in it!
Then there I was, red-eyed and greasy-haired, my tired body trying to make sense of the time difference in a busy brasserie near The Louvre. The spry, young bartender was cheerful. The servers were indifferent at best. While patrons slathered foie gras across slices of bread, I ignored the basket all together as I enjoyed my first bite of duck confit for lunch. I finished it with a sip of kir and was impressed. I hadn’t slept in over 36 hours though, so you can’t tell from the photo but I’m happy it captured groggy me savoring my first taste of authentic French cuisine.
Just look at how pretty it’s set. I chewed as slowly as I could before reveling in the roasted new potatoes. Without thinking, I crammed a buttered piece of baguette in my mouth and regretted it for a split second: don’t fill up on bread! Then I realized it was French bread.
Flashback right then and there to my freshman year of college, to a sterile, overdeveloped shopping plaza in central Illinois. Standing in the line with my friend at Panera Bread, they were telling me I, “Seriously have to choose a combo that comes with a baguette.” I recalled the loaf of bread I’d seen a million images of in the aforementioned plastic French decor and asked for one with my order. Biting into it was like trying to tear off a hunk of brick. With my teeth. I’m a small-town girl whose palette was developed on the local fare of establishments with the names, “Lu-Bob’s” and “Country Kitchen” and I would not eat it. BUT THIS WAS NOT A BRICK OR LU-BOB’S. I don’t have the narrative skill to tell you what it was I was experiencing except that to call it bread would be a crime against humanity.
Anyway, I’m addicted to the learning bit of travel. Bill Bryson, the author of one of my favorite books, A Walk in the Woods, said it best:
“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” Abroad, you can’t help but think on things. Why the people do this or that, their way of cooking, the ingredients used and where they come from, cross overs in languages and customs, the development of attitudes and politics. The history. You start to analyse and consider your surroundings and appreciate it every day in a way you are too desensitized to do at home.
Well, I appreciated the bread down to the crumbs. The waiter took the second empty basket away along with my spotless plates. I was stuffed but he returned with another full basket as if to say, “Of course you’re not done learning yet.”
Happy you’re all here to witness my developing obsession.