Strolling down the Boulevard Champs-Elysses, Julie was hit with a fresh wave of nostalgia and the familiar sense that the holiday season was beginning again. It was still early in the Christmas season; early enough for one to appreciate the lovely decorations such as the grand Christmas tree in Galleries Lafeyette and the little white huts of the Christmas market whose roofs were outlined in twinkling white lights along Champs-Elysses. The crowds of people and crazy shoppers were not yet out in full swing, thus it was possible, for the time being, to still view Christmas with a childlike innocence before you were reminded how this season actually affected people. Earlier that day, Julie had seen two little girls peering over the railing in Galleries Lafayette, their eyes transfixed on the train set and stuffed animals surrounding the bottom of the tree, which danced to the sound of Christmas carols. There were many children in the store but she noticed these girls in particular because they reminded her of the way she and her sister would stare at a tree like this; engrossed in the imaginary world of the North Pole and all the unknown wonders of Christmas.
But as you got older, you began to see this holiday for what it actually was. Years of working retail jobs as a seasonal employee when she was home from college reminded Julie how petty people could act during this time, testing the limits of appropriate behavior to receive a holiday discount or to be the first to arrive at a pre-season sale. It all just seemed like a lot of unnecessary stress and pretension for what was supposedly a religious holiday. Was it possible to go back and enjoy Christmas they way you did when you were a child, she wondered. Julie walked back to the hostel, tired out from her day of visiting the Louvre and wandering through the city looking at Christmas displays. She sat down at one of the tables in the kitchen to eat her pizza from a “good local place” down the street that the guy working at the desk recommended.
“That looks delicious,” a voice says from next to her, “We were gonna go to that Italian place, but we got Thai instead.” Julie turns and notices that a petite blonde girl who is sitting at the other end of the table.
“It is really good,” says Julie, “how was the Thai?”
“Amazing,” says the girl.
“Nice. Where are you from?” says Julie. And they begin having one of those typical conversations between travelers about what they’re doing roaming through Europe. Julie learns that the girl, named Emma, who just arrived in Paris today, is from Canada and has just quit her job in finance to come travel for a few months.
“So did you get to explore the city at all yet?” says Julie.
“Not really,” says Emma, “I’m actually gonna go get some beers with these guys I just met if you want to come,” She offers.
Fifteen minutes later Julie is sitting at a table at a pub down the street from the hostel. The pub is “really french,” meaning that it is mostly occupied by true Parisians rather than tourists. The building is industrial-looking on the inside with steel pillars interspersed throughout the large room and minimal decor on any of the walls. The group of four is seated at a plain wooden table, which has only white paper place-mats on top of it. The waitress, a bony woman with big brown eyes and a deep voice that is also very French, comes over to take the order from the table: a bottle of red wine to split between Owen and the two girls and a beer for the other young man, Ethan.
“You can totally tell that you guys have been traveling together for a month,” says Emma, clearly amused with the playful bickering that is ensuing between the two young men. One of the boys, Owen, is pretending to be mad at his friend for not doing any of the driving on their road trip through Europe, as Ethan claims he doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift, the only type of car available to rent. You can tell that their banter is mostly a charade that is just for show and for the entertainment of the two girls at the table. Now, as they’ve established that the only way to keep Owen from killing Ethan is to get him drunk, they proceed to order more red wine.
“So… What’s your life story?” says Owen as he refills the girls’ wine glasses. He is asking Julie, as they have already covered what Emma is doing.
“My life story?” echoes Julie, “Well, it’s not very long yet.” She explains that she has just earned her degree in Psychology and has been living near Paris for the past few months teaching English to Lycéens.
“Psychology, huh,” says Owen, “My friend’s girlfriend majored in that. She was kindof crazy.”
“Crazy how? She was wild, like a party-girl, or crazy like she had a lot going on in her head?” says Julie.
“The second one. Had a lot going on in her head.” he repeats.
“So what do you do?” asks Julie. He says that he is a photographer and he is taking a break to visit his parents in Europe and travel because it is the slow season for photographers. He starts talking about the work he does and the models he shot back in New York and he shows a picture on his iPhone of one of the more popular models he photographs. She is not the typical American beauty, but she is still rail-thin and she has red wavy hair, fair skin and pale blue eyes. The photo really captures her. Then, they get into discussing how New York and Paris are two of the cities with the most lovely Christmas decorations.
“So you’ve been to Paris before?” asks Owen.
“Oh, yes,” says Julie, “I visited for a few days last year. It was during this time of year too. I was just so blown away by all of the window displays and the lights and the Christmas market. I felt like I was walking through a winter wonderland. And I stayed at this adorable little hostel near the Sacre Cœur. It was so quaint and charming and I ended up meeting quite a few interesting travelers.”
“Well that’s great,” says Owen, “Yeah I do love it here during this time of year. And it’s all about the people you end up meeting. I feel like Paris doesn’t have the best hostel culture, but there are some good spots. I mean some people I’ve met here just don’t care about getting to know the culture of a city,” he continues, “I think most people really just want to get their picture of the Eiffel tower so that they can post it on instragram.”
Not that there was anything really wrong with this goal in traveling, but it was just a bit simple-minded to think that all one can take away from a place is a few photos to show off to friends. This was what people did though, Julie thought.
What an odd evening it had been. Both of these young women were pretty and interesting, but it was a bit strange that they both seemed to be traveling alone through Paris. Shouldn’t they have some boyfriends or suitors chasing after them? Or at least a posse of giggling girlfriends to go out clubbing with. Maybe they were just a bit lost at the moment. Well, who was Owen kidding, so was he. Just that evening he had sent a text to his father which had read: “Arrived in Paris, broke, got two flat tires today, now I’m lost.” He had meant that he couldn’t find the hostel he was looking for, but actually he was lost in the general sense of life as well.
Owen just wished he could do something to help them, especially this Julie, then maybe he could start getting himself back on track. He had tried to joke with her, to incite some kind of reaction from her when he mentioned that he knew a Psychology student who was “crazy,” but that hadn’t worked. She had just responded in a mild and measured manner and had wanted him to define what he meant by crazy. Oh well, he thought, there would always be others. They had still shared a pleasant evening and there was no use dwelling on either of these two when he would never see them again.
He would be seeing his ex-girlfriend soon who lived in Amsterdam. She had sent him a passive-aggressive text message a few days ago that went something to the tune of “so, are you going to let me know when you arrive in Amsterdam?”. Owen hadn’t yet decided if he wanted to see her, but now he figured he would reply. That was one relationship he could manage.
“Well, have a nice life,” says Owen, laughing, as the group approaches the hostel.
“That’s what we’ve been saying to all our acquaintances we’ve met in the hostels,” Ethan explains. And that was goodbye.
As she was falling asleep to the sound of her snoring bunkmates, Julie was thinking about the first time she visited Europe and stayed in hostel. She had been in Galway, Ireland with a group of students from the exchange program she was in. They had taken the train from Dublin, where they were studying, to Galway for the weekend. Europe had been such a novelty back then, she remembered feeling like a little girl waking up on Christmas morning well into the first month of her stay in Ireland. She remembered all of the street signs written in Gaelic, the thick Irish accents of the people and the endearing expressions they would use like “how’re ya gettin’ on?” and “what’s the story?” as if the whole experience had been a dream.
She wasn’t in a dream anymore. She was more cautious and more skeptical now. She didn’t expect things to magically work out as she had back then, but she was realizing that was part of her problem. You had to believe in the good of people. For the past two months she had been listening to her students give their English speeches on the theme of Myths and Heroes. She had heard them say their lines over and over again: “A hero is someone who changes the world or the history of their country. They want to make the world a better place,” “Heroes are examples we can follow and they allow children to grow up.” These words had struck her as corny and clichéed when she first listened to her kids speak. As they recited their lines again and again for her to correct, she began to realize that part of what her students were saying rang true. They were clichéed and overused phrases for a reason: because they were accurate descriptions.
Part of her didn’t except to meet anyone in Paris. Each year the horror stories on the news seemed to get more and more depressing and people seemed to trust less and less. As she had explained the U.S. customs of Halloween and trick-or-treating to her class of fourteen-year-olds a few weeks ago someone had asked if she unwrapped all the candy to check if it had been tampered with before eating it. This would have seemed ridiculous when she was a kid going trick-or-treating around the neighborhood, but now it didn’t seem that out of the question to do such a thing. But it was still possible to trust people; to make friends with a stranger every once in a while. Her evening had proved that, even though it seemed unlikely from the boys’ goodbye that they would stay in touch.