It has been eighteen years since I lived in Paris. Eighteen entire years. For me, Paris was a turning point in my life. I was young, free, educated and ready to explore the world. In 1993, shortly after the new year my mom and I boarded a plane from Minneapolis to Paris where I would be living for the next six months on a study abroad program through the University of Wisconsin. I t was a dream of mine for years and at twenty-one I was finally following my dreams.
I first set eyes on Paris at the young, ripe, adolescent age of thirteen. My mother and father, both avid travelers (see my first post ever titled “The wood-paneled station wagon“) had always wanted to take us children to Europe. Throughout our childhood, we had always heard stories about it. My father had visited several European cities while he was in the navy, stemming his life-long passion for the continent. My parents had eloped in Switzerland at the tender age of 23 and 25 and spent three months backpacking all over Europe on less than $2 a day. For my sister and me, Europe represented a place of legend, offering mystique, wonder and fascination in our young, romantic, girly minds. We had dreamed of going there as we lived through my parents’ multitude of stories.
Then one day in 1984 it actually happened and it was all the result of spending three, long, miserable days being “bumped” in the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. You see, back in the 80s airlines always used to overbook their flights, especially during the holidays. It just so happened that my grandparents lived in Harlingen, a southern Texan town near the Mexican border. Every single Christmas (until I was 15 years old), my entire family went to Harlingen for a week. Usually we drove, jam-packed, a family of five along with our Irish Setter in tow, we crammed into our wood-paneled diesel station wagon and drove the long three days from Minnesota to southern Texas, fighting all the way. It was pure hell. Nothing was ever fun about those drives. We were constantly fighting, never really sleeping, and miserably bored for most the ride. This was before DVD players, before computers or any kind of real electronic or portable games. So we had to pass the time fighting, driving my parents mad or playing “I spy”. Plus we usually drove in late December meaning the weather and road conditions were questionable and sometimes darn right dangerous. After almost killing the entire family spinning out on an icy overpass at 2 am, my mom and dad decided to pay the bucks and fly for the next Christmas.
That Christmas flight ended up being my lucky pass to Paris. The flights were outrageously overbooked. Desperate, American Airlines was offering over $300 travel voucher per ticket. For a family of five, this meant a lot of dough. Thus to our chagrin, my mom and dad continually jumped at the chance to “bump” us to the next flight over and over again until we ended up spending three full days in the Dallas airport! I believe this was even worse than the car ride given our grumpy, awful, outrageous behavior. Yet, we made enough money in travel vouchers to send the entire family to Europe the following summer! Thus in the end, despite the misery, boredom and never-ending fighting, three days in the airport was nothing compared to a trip to Europe!
The following June, we packed our bags and were off to my first trip overseas. I remember it clearly. I had permed, dyed blond hair, a full set of braces and was still somewhere between a girl and a woman. I was at that terrible age where my mother once informed me that she “didn’t know me anymore”. Puberty was hell yet at least I was on my way to Europe.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Paris. The beauty, the romance, the aura enraptured my teenage heart and soul like nothing I’d ever felt. It was love at first sight and I knew that I’d be back. I made a promise to myself right then and there, standing looking at the Eiffel Tour, that I would someday study abroad here. And, that, eight years later, I did. I spent my junior spring semester abroad studying at the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter of Paris, and then stayed on as a fille au pair (nanny) for a French family in rural France. My semester abroad was one of the best experiences of my life. I loved Paris with all my heart. It was a young, dreamy girl’s dream. It was incredibly beautiful, hip, romantic, charming, mystifying, big and international. I could walk for hours never once getting bored and always finding something fascinating to look at. I could spend an entire day sitting in one of the many perfectly manicured parks watching the endless display of PDA (aka love). I could spend even more time eating at one of the delicious patisseries, boulangeries or multitude of French or ethnic restaurants. Or I could just sit there at an outdoor cafe in the heart of Paris on a sunny day watching the world go by. My six months in Paris felt like living in a dream, especially for an overly romantic, coming of age, young woman.
After six months in Paris and three months in the countryside, it was time to head back. I wasn’t ready to leave Paris but I missed my family terribly as these were the days before internet and calling home was expensive. I finished my last year of school at UW-Madison and then returned to France once again for a three-month internship in Marseille. Marseille (or as we used to call it “merde-seille”) wasn’t anything like Paris. In fact, it was dirty not so pretty and a wee bit dangerous. But it was still France.
I was able to make it back to Paris a few more times in my twenties but then times began to change. I got married, had two children and for my future travels chose to explore other parts of the world. It wasn’t until my recent trip to Morocco that I actually got to see Paris again (see post “I’ll Always Have Paris”). I had a six hour layover at Charles de Gualle airport and on a whim, decided to take the RER train to the city for a cup of coffee and some memories, then headed back, somewhat satisfied.
While in Morocco, I couldn’t stop thinking about Paris. That was when I decided to look into changing my return flight. Wouldn’t it be great if I could have one more day in Paris? I pondered, dreamily.
On one of my last day in Morocco, a fellow CCS volunteer and I spent a crazy afternoon trying to find the Air France office in the middle of a protest. The roads were blocked; the police were out with their machine guns; and there was a bit of uneasiness in the air. Yet I wasn’t afraid. Everything was so peaceful and so organized. It was nothing at all like the media lead you to believe. Plus I was a woman on a mission.
After fifteen minutes of walking circles and trying to remain as anonymous as possible, we finally found the Air France office. Against the backdrop of chanting and protests (peaceful mind you) I asked in French what the charges would be to change my flight to the earlier time. “$250” she said. Without hesitation, I changed my ticket. Not because I wanted to leave Morocco. I loved my stay in Rabat. It was because of that little girl excitement beating loudly in my heart that told me I had to do it. I had to spend just one more day, albeit short, in my beloved Paris.
The night before my departure, I tried to go to bed early so I wouldn’t feel tired the next day but I found sleep impossible. Thoughts raced through my head like the night before Christmas. What would I do first? Where did I have to go? What sites did I want to see? Where would I want to eat? What shops could I possibly squeeze in? I found myself restless, tossing and turning all night long in my twin-sized bunk.
I woke up at 5 am to the now normal Call to Prayer, not able to sleep any longer. I knew that I had to wake up shortly to get ready to catch my 7:45 am flight to Paris. Plus I was beyond excited for my day.
The flight was non-eventful. I tried to sleep but I had a screaming, kicking baby behind my seat and an unhappy, rude mother who yelled at me for declining my seat. Thus I ended up chatting with the Moroccan man next to me who was very kind and loved the fact that I spoke rusty French.
We landed around 10:30 am and by the time I gathered my luggage, went through customs and walked out the airport doors it was already noon. Without thought, I grabbed a cab and gave him the address of my hotel. Immediately, I realized I had done something terribly wrong. The cab driver, an immigrant from some other French-speaking African country began to berate me to the point of humiliation. I was no longer in Morocco that was for sure! He yelled and complained that he had waited three hours in line and then wound up with a short fare. My hotel was only three miles from the airport and I should have taken the courtesy bus, he claimed, fuming. My mistake. I apologized and gave him a measly tip yet inside I was glad I didn’t take the slow-boat to China courtesy bus. It was already one o’clock and I was famished.
I checked into my hotel, nothing special, yet convenient since I was flying home the next morning. I asked if there was a place in the hotel or nearby to grab some lunch and then I was sent on a wild goose chase ending up with only an apple and a yogurt from the only open place in the Roissy village. By this time, it was approaching two o’clock and I wasn’t anywhere near Paris. The RER ride is at least 45 minutes long to the center of town.
I waited for the black courtesy bus and waited and waited. Thank goodness I didn’t take it from the airport (despite having an angry cab driver, it would have just wasted more time). I finally got my ticket to Paris for about $10, sat down in the un-airconditioned train, sweltering (yes it was 80 in Paris!) and beyond hungry. Once again, I met some friends along the way. My henna attracted the attention of a group of young Moroccans who talked to me happily the entire ride to Paris telling me that yes they do date and no, there parents far away don’t know. Ha Ha.
By 3:30 PM, I was finally there! It wasn’t the “whole day in Paris” that I had planned on. But I was going to make the best of it! I walked and walked throughout herds of people. I couldn’t understand why there were so many people there. It was absolutely nuts. Nothing like I remembered it eighteen years ago. It was gorgeous, hot and sunny. Plus it was Saturday and finally, it was Easter weekend (Yes that was really the reason. Easter is one of the biggest holidays in Europe and prime time to take a holiday). Thus Paris was packed.
I desperately looked for an empty table at one of the hundreds of outdoor cafes in St. Germain and finally, like a vulture preying on some road kill, found a couple vacating a table and I snatched it. Here is a picture of me, finally eating my lunch (a mouthwatering tartine au fromage) and having a much deserved half carafe of white wine, freely and openly (we’re no longer in Morocco baby):
There I was, drinking wine and watching the world go by in one of the greatest, most beautiful cities in the world. I could have stayed here all day!
You would think being alone in a huge city like Paris would be intimidating for a foreigner but not for me. I found traveling solo to be invigorating. In fact, it actually opened a lot of doors for me, especially because I speak French. The people I talked to and the conversations I had during my time alone in both Morocco and Paris were amazing. I found that being alone and just talking to the locals is when you learn the most about others and even yourself.
I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around, window-shopping and rediscovering Paris. Yes, it was outrageously crowded, and it truly bothered me. Yet, it was still the same old, wonderfully amazing Paris. A city I once loved and will always adore.
At one point during the day, the skies above suddenly rumbled and let down layers of thick, heavy rain in the midst of a blue sky. I t was wild! Of course I didn’t have an umbrella. The sky was perfectly clear when I left the hotel hours before. Yet I didn’t care. Paris in the rain is still unbelievable.
Before I knew it, it was getting late. I had walked for hours and was exhausted. Plus I didn’t want to deal with taking the RER back too late by myself. Conflict arose. Should I eat dinner down here or at the measly, airport hotel? That hotel was so boring. Paris is so exciting! But I was so incredibly tired. Wouldn’t it be great to just kick back, go online, and have some wine before bed. Just relax. Yeah, right. This is the thirdeyemom, someone who can never relax. Plus, when on earth would I ever be back in Paris? The decision was made. I would eat downtown. Now I just had to find the nearest metro station. Ok, without a map that took me another hour and once again it was getting late and I was t-i-r-e-d!
I changed my mind and decided to go back to the hotel. I bought my $10 RER ticket, boarded the train and was ready to chill out for the long ride when all the sudden a zillion young twentysomethings boarded the already packed train. What on earth was going on? I wondered, feeling my anxiety rise (I don’t like being crammed like a sardine in a hot, stuffy train! Never did, never will). I asked wearily to the young man next to me. It was the big match de foot…the soccer game! After two stops of pouring down sweat and nearly passing out, I desperately crammed my way through the mass and jumped off the train, forfeiting my $10 ticket back.
I jumped off the train and checked my surroundings. Hmmm…where was the nearest place I could go? It couldn’t be anywhere, of course. It had to be awesome, somewhere special, and somewhere that had memories. I looked at the large map pasted on the dingy, dirty subway walls. A-ha! Montmartre! It was only a few blocks away. So, not thinking about the tourist hell I’d experienced all day long I headed out the door and towards the Sacre Coeur and “quaint” Montmartre. Instantly, I knew I’d made a big mistake. There were hordes and I mean hordes of people taking up the entire width of the street. What was I thinking?
Disappointed, I decided to at least walk up the hill to Montmartre just to see if it was indeed packed. I walked up the steep steps to the whitewashed Sacre Coeur and knew that eating in the beloved square of trendy Montmartre was out of the question. I couldn’t even more through the layers and layers of tourists thus immediately turned around and headed back. Thankfully the visit wasn’t at all moot, as I was able to catch my favorite Parisien landmark on film, the beloved Tour Eiffel in the distance.
It was nearing eight o’clock and I really needed to find a place to eat, even if it wasn’t the best. I walked down the windy streets of Montmartre, trying to get off the beaten path and find a less crowded street. Then, alas….I saw one empty table outside at a cafe and grabbed it. I ordered up a typical French meal with a prix fixe (set price) of aperitif of kir royale, followed by a delicious salad, salmon and a dish of “deadly for the figure” profiteroles. I sat back, relaxed and truly enjoyed the last hour of being in Paris. Ahhh…..Paris.
Happy, I headed back to the metro and had to once again spend $10 on a ticket back to the airport (since I had earlier forfeited mine). About thirty minutes into the ride, I realized I had to go to the bathroom….a terrible thing in Paris because there are literally NO public bathrooms, anywhere. I sat and sat on the slow boat to China, once again, because after eight pm apparently there are no direct trains to the airport. There are only the ones that stop at each and every metro stop. An hour later, I was at the airport and desperately looking for a bathroom. There was none. Ok, I could keep holding it, I thought. Then, I waited for that black courtesy bus, still holding it. I waited. And waited. And waited. Until finally twenty minutes later it came and I was nearing tears. I boarded the bus which stopped at every single hotel and didn’t arrive back to my hotel until thirty-five minutes later. By this time, I was ready to explode. I ran to my room and finally relieved myself. It was 10:30 PM. It has taken over two hours to get from downtown Paris to my hotel. I was spent. All I wanted to do was go to bed which I did after packing up my bags, sending off a quick email to my family and thanking the Air France ticket agent for changing my ticket. Was it worth the $250 and all the craziness and adventure of the day to be in Paris once again. All in all….YES! Paris, je t’aime toujours.