I know what you’re thinking. Of course. Everyone wants to go to Paris. It’s every girls’ dream to go to France. And I’d be a fool to say it didn’t cross my mind, but I’ll tell you what, it didn’t.
Not because I don’t enjoy the finer things in life and fine things come from France, but maybe that it was indeed too fine for me. Before I dragged my champagne saturated, another-year-older self out of Charles de Gaulle International Airport and beheld the city so great that it took not just one, but two “City of” titles for both Light and Love, I never dreamed of going to France, for two reasons.
- French culture is highly played out in the States, and I was overexposed to the Eiffel Tower stamped on anything you can apply decal to. From each piece of a bathroom shower curtain-trashcan-soap dish set, to mini replica paper weights in home office aisles everywhere, and any item in any Korean cafe ever, to name only a few. I won’t get started on reprinted Chanel logos, Oh la la, and the Fleur de Lis. The famous symbols are splattered on everything with the purpose of evoking a sense of nostalgia and style, but through mass production and lack of quality, they come across utterly devoid of personality, in my truly humble opinion. That 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 European countries on my list and it already seemed like a pipe dream to cross off one of those. Germany for my heritage, Italy for my coffee and wine obsession and possession, Spain to satisfy my yearning to master its language, and the UK to someday reunite with my crumpet-tea-pairing, expat, teacher friends. Which brings me to a more reasonable reason.
As a teacher, whether it’s yoga or English, I thought I could manage a couple of those trips in one lifetime. Then sure, maybe travel the world in retirement, but not in the lively misadventurous, hostel hopping, local-fighting, local-loving, euro-squandering, penniless-gallivanting, two-dollar pistol gambling, beautiful, spontaneous way I could in my youth. But 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 all about (once I get around the American 10-vacation day hurdle).
I thought with certainty that I had no room to hope for a luxurious Parisian getaway. In fact, it hurt my feelings to think about it as a little girl. I naturally and unconsciously wrote it off, and so long ago, that it never came up. Better to focus on the exotic locations, the ones where traveling alone, and preferably barefoot, are encouraged.
So it was a pretty big deal when I decided to celebrate my birthday in Paris. I had twenty-eight days to learn French and all I could say was “merde”. I downloaded Pimsleur’s audio lessons and only studied feverishly, once. I was pretty diligent with Duolingo though, and have the app to thank for most of my successful communication. I intended to spend my nights leading up to the getaway watching American and French films set in France. I got through 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. I won’t hyperlink it, but add Captain America 2, if the fight scene in French counts. When I arrived, I relied mostly on the Parisian half of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for my navigation and education.
The night before my twenty-sixth birthday, I felt unprepared and undeserving of the trip -I didn’t know enough about the place yet. 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 crotchety body trying to make sense of the time difference in a busy brasserie near The Louvre. The spry, young bartender was cheerful, the servers 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, so you can’t tell from the photo (so unchic), but I’m happy it captured groggy me savoring the cuisine. Just look how pretty it’s set. I chewed as slowly as I could before reveling in the roasted new potatoes. I handed myself a buttered piece of baguette and I absentmindedly crammed it in my mouth. I thought nothing of it, except that it was a waste to fill up on bread. Until I tasted that it was French.
I’m not kidding you, I had a flash back right then and there, to my freshman year of college. I was standing in the line with a senior friend at St. Louis Bread Company (Panera Bread for those of you outside of the Saint Louis Area) in a sterile, overdeveloped shopping plaza on the outskirts of Champaign, Illinois. My company was telling me that I seriously had to choose a combo that came with a baguette. And so, after recalling the image of the loaf I’d seen a million times on the aforementioned plastic French decor, I did. When I bit into it, 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, author of one of my favorite books, A Walk in the Woods, said it best with,
“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 and I was stuffed, but he returned with another full basket as if to say, “Oh no, you’re not done learning yet.”
Glad you’re all here to witness my developing obsession.