I thought Paris was my playground…

 

IMG_0885Paris is my playground. Wait, I thought only good things happened there? Like getting my portrait drawn by an old wrinkled artist called Igor in front of le Sacre Cœur, sipping vin chaud at the marché de noel while strolling along Champs-Elysées, or people watching on Saint Germain-des-Près pretending I was observing scenes from a Hemingway novel. Wasn’t this city just a perpetual maze of boulevards and bistros with charming, roll-off-your tongue names?

The other day, a notification popped up from my wordpress app on my phone that announced my “Happy two year anniversary!” It was two years ago that I wrote my first post from a suburban high school just an hour train ride from Paris on the transilien.

Continue reading “I thought Paris was my playground…”

international girls

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Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. 

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Camille was one of those international girls.  She acted as if anywhere she could carry her backpack to may as well have been her home, and convincing she was, others believed so as well.  She was not a tourist, but a traveler.  

The international girl always packs light.  She doesn’t like to depend on anyone to hoist a clunky suitcase up a flight of stairs, although making foreign friends is always encouraged.  Another reason for this is that she does not enjoy being weighed down by too much baggage.  Perhaps the most important quality of the international girl is her exorbitant curiosity and endless capacity for friendly conversation with a stranger.

“I need to find a pair of shoes to give my friend for her birthday,” says Camille, “But I’ve only met her once. I’m not sure what her style is.”

Hunting around the sale section, she settled on a brown leather ankle boot, on sale for forty percent off.  Classic and plain enough that nearly anyone would look good in them. 

“I really like Camille,” said Lillie, “She always asks about you.  Always includes you in the conversation.  You never feel left out around her.” Lillie had said after she first met Camille.  

Collecting friends everywhere she went, Camille was nonjudgmental in her ways, conversing with anyone with whom she crossed paths.  The reason Camille was so like-able was due to the fact that she was the rare person who listened to what people had to say.  She had the charming effect of making you feel that whatever you were going on about was the most captivating thing she had heard all year. One would never catch her staring over your shoulder while she was with you; she was always firmly rooted in the present, as if nothing could be more significant.

“Do you speak any other languages?” says Patricia.

“Well, French and English, of course. I speak fluent Spanish. My family is Spanish, and a little bit of Italian too.” says Camille. 

Patricia, a German teacher, was a bit unconventional, both in her appearance and in her personality. She had reddish, frizzy hair and wore artsy clothes reminiscent of hippies. Camille referred to her style as eclectic.

Another one of Camille’s delightful habits was how she would offhandedly throw compliments to you. These would go something like: “Wow, you speak really good English, how did you learn?,”  or “Your jewelry is absolutely adorable, where did you get it?.”  She was gifted in weaving these intimate tokens so seamlessly into speech and one barely had a chance to say “thank you” to her.  This manner of speaking always made her look sincere, as if her behavior was effortless and she was a naturally amiable person with plenty of pleasant prose to throw around.

Camille never acted desperate though, like she was in dire need of friends.  This was part of her charm too.  She did not care what people thought of her. Unlike many people who appeared to or pretended to possess this trait, it was not an act for her.  She really didn’t care.  One night, they had met some young men at a pub. The next day at breakfast, one could picture any given group of girls analyzing and dissecting the pauses between each word exchanged, but the conversation between Camille and her comrades went like this:

“Did you hear from that guy?” says Patricia

“No, actually.  He didn’t ask for my number,” says Camille. Nonchalant.

“Maybe you could try to find him on the internet,” says Patricia.  This immediately seemed like a horrible, stalker-ish suggestion.

“Nah. He can find me if he wants.”  In fact, Camille abhorred the modern ways of stalking people on the internet and abstained from such practices.

There were other international girls like Camille, girls who lived abroad and worked in hostels, or studied on the “erasmus” exchange programs.  Some were not genuinely adventurous and clinging to the back of a leather-clad European guy on his motorcycle was a representative example of her cultural experience.  It was easy to confuse courageous individuals with the small-minded and fearful who still somehow managed outside of their elements.  The latter usually survived in foreign settings by grasping onto the hood of the person with the most blatant display of confidence.  Perhaps it wasn’t easy to tell a real international girl from a phony one at first or second or even third glance. 

The original, authentic international girl, like Camille, wasn’t afraid to go places alone.  This, in fact, was normal.  To her, it was requisite to talk to the locals about their politics or their culture. She spoke French to locals who waited on her at coffee shops and restaurants, wandered through the maze of Parisian boulevards in drizzle or smog, always somehow finding her way back to where she had begun. However independent Camille and these wanderers of the world were, they did sometimes travel in packs, like an unofficial sorority which was miraculously devoid of jealousy and drama.  These girls wouldn’t yell at each other for stealing one anothers’ boyfriends or call each other “slut” or “bitch” in that half-endearing, half-serious tone of voice.  They were too busy exploring and their semantics were much more sophisticated.

Camille, being a popular girl in high demand, seemed to always be accompanied by at least one fellow backpacking barbie, who also collected stamps in her passport like it was a rewards card for a coffee shop.  They would talk about what city they planned to visit next, unknown hole-in-the-wall type restaurants they had discovered, favorite museum exhibitions, and interesting acquaintances and lovers encountered.  They never seemed to tire of these good-natured travel anecdotes, as one could never really see everything or visit everywhere.

Julie admired the international girls. She was drawn to them because they sat at the opposite end of the spectrum in relation to the girls to whom she was accustomed.  Such girls could be considered “boring” because they wanted to settle down, play house and entertain, probably sooner rather than later. Rather than viewing the world as something continually learned and discovered, they wanted things to be “figured out.” The international girl did not think very often or in great depth of such prescribed rituals of “settling down”. Possibly she did late at night in that state between sleep and wakefulness, but consciously she eschewed these goals.

Julie had first met Camille in a pub on a group tour of Brussels. Over Belgian hot chocolates, Julie had overheard Camille say that she lived in France and taught. Julie had smiled and made eye contact with her, establishing herself as a fellow friendly traveler, while waiting for a pause to insert into the conversation.

“Oh I’m actually in that program too,” she said shyly, trying to gauge some sort of read on the girl, “Where do you work?”

“I work in Hirson. It’s a very small town in the North West.” Camille said.

“My village is really tiny too. Does it ever get depressing?”

“I teach école maternelle. The kids think I’m Mary Poppins, so it’s difficult to get too lonely,” she laughed.

It was these kinds of encounters which made one believe that the world is small, and when one became friends with such a passing acquaintance, it seemed to shrink even more.

The thing about international girls, and boys was the issue of what happened to all of their contacts collected during their jet-setting and eurrail-ing sprees.  It was unlikely that one would remain good friends with each acquaintance they had encountered. Despite the wide array of destinations frequented by these travelers, perhaps they ended up with few friends and a surplus of acquaintances.

Julie sat on the crowded Paris metro next to Camille and Lillie. They were all clutching shopping bags from the February sales which had been soaked from a freak downpour. As they spoke in French, their thick American accents brightly shown through, attracting looks from fellow commuters. Maybe the looks were just in their heads, as there were far more bizarre scenes unfolding on the metro. Homeless people, tourists who were carrying a month’s worth of luggage, overly affectionate and touchy couples, people who looked and smelled like they should shower; one soon became immune to the weirdness.

The cheery voice of the automated announcer at each stop chirped to “mind the gap” in French, English then in German.  It was easy to forget one was in the capital city of France in such instances.  Rather, they were at the juncture of cultures instead of a society of its own.  The melange of languages hummed and droned together into some incomprehensible tongue.

As Lillie and Julie parted ways with Camille to return to their village, it began raining again.  They stood on sidewalk outside of Gare de Lyon as pellets of rain plunked down on the sidewalk and their heads.

“Here, take my umbrella. We’re catching the train, and you’ll need it now,” said Lillie.

“Are you sure?” said Camille, “I can’t keep it.”

“You can give it back to me soon. I’ll be in Paris again next weekend.”

“Thank you.  That’s so nice.”

Would they stay in touch with any of their contacts, Julie wondered, or would these travel companions become dinner party anecdotes? Tales to be reminisced upon as part of the good ‘ole days but which were no longer relevant to the present. But the delicious moments of the past and friends encountered would always come back to anyone who believed that they would and who made the effort. The world was not as grand as it often seemed.

 

the beautiful people

“Our waiter hates me,” said Julie, “Did you see that?  All he says to us is ‘Je vous écoute’.  He couldn’t get away fast enough.”  

“He said Bonsoir too,” says Charlene.  His curt demeanor wasn’t necessarily rudeness in this situation, but was the culture of many European restaurants.  They were learning that restaurants in France didn’t have the same consumer-oriented feel as those in the U.S. did.  Instead of your server flirting with you, animatedly reciting for you a catalogue of specials and promotions, and dropping by every five minutes to “check in,” or “make sure everything’s alright,” one is basically left to his own devices in these establishments in Europe.

They tried to flag down one of the waiters rushing past, but this was another impossible task which had led to a few meals being eaten in McDonalds to avoid these tests of patience.

However, even the McDonalds couldn’t be considered “fast food” in the same way which was meant in the States.  The pastel-colored macaroons and other delightfully miniature pastries gave the café the appearance of a small child’s tea party spread.  The ceramic cups for café au laits and cappuccinos would also never be associated with a McDonalds in the U.S..  Even the water there, which was only offered in evian bottles surpassed the standards of most casual dining institutions in the United States, further confusing the American tourists.  

The rest of the family was in that place where you were in awe over everything; where you felt as if you were in a dream or a movie.  These were the phrases people often used when describing a visit to a foreign country; the feeling of being so deep in culture shock it was difficult to distinguish reality from the trance you were in that wasn’t quite real-life.  Euros were referred to as “monopoly money,” the scarfs people wore seemed like ads in a magazine and the miniature espressos which could be spotted everywhere seemed so commonplace that it even seemed natural that you were drinking one.

Perhaps this was the best part of going to a new place, this “honeymoon” stage where it was difficult to see any faults and only the beautiful and the charming could be captured by one’s eye.      

Nous avons un reservation pour ce soir,” 

“Vous parlez très bien le français.  Vous préferez parler en français ou anglais?” says the man standing at the desk.  

Français.  C’est bon,” says Julie, encouraged by the compliment.  It was always reassuring to hear someone say that you spoke well.  Between the hundreds of dispiriting encounters with locals where you were literally at a loss for words, your accent was off, or other person simply judges you to be so incomprehensible that they switch to English or find someone who can, these small victories made one feel like speaking a foreign language wasn’t a completely hopeless endeavor.

They’re standing at the hostel bar later and not long after they arrive, they are approached by two men, one of whom starts speaking to Julie in French.  They make small talk for a few minutes and then he introduces himself and his friend, who is shorter, with dark curly hair and is sporting a plaid scarf, to the two girls.

Ça Va?” the friend turns to Charlene who has yet to add to the conversation.

“I don’t speak French,” she says unapologetically, not bothering to hide her boredom in her inability to comprehend any of the dialogue.

“American?” he says.

“Yes,”

“Where in the States?  Not from the boon-docks,”

“We’re from outside of Washington D.C.” 

“So you’re not hillbillies then,”  He says, looking more interested now, “You’re real Americans.”

“It’s okay,” says the short guy jovially to Charlene, “I don’t like the French, even though I am French.”

“Why?” giggles Charlene.  

“They are so condescending,” he says urgently, “And snobby.  They think that they’re better than everyone else.  You must agree?” He looks at Julie, who is silent for a moment, searching for the right words.  He takes her silence as confirmation to his point.  “I know you think so too,” He goes on.

“I don’t necessarily think that,” says Julie diplomatically, “I think there are French people you encounter like that.  I’ve met them more often in Paris than elsewhere, but there are people like that in every country,” She concludes logically, adding, “And I’ve had many good experiences with the French too.”

“So there aren’t any snobby French people in the town where you learn English?”

“I teach English.”

“Teach.  Learn.  They’re not the same thing,” says the tall guy.  The correction seems lost on his friend.

“Not really,” she responds to the original question, “It’s a tiny town in the middle of nowhere.  I don’t think there’s much of a reason for people to be stuck up.”  In glittering Paris, where people came from far and wide to appreciate art, cuisine, history; where the true Parisians have money and are considered cultured and refined, snobbery seemed like a given quality.  And fashion particularly was a reason, and perhaps even a justifiable reason for this attitude, as Parisians could be categorically considered the best dressed.

“The way Europeans dress is so practical,” said Paula as they pass an attractive family linking arms as they stroll onwards.  People are walking by cloaked in wool peacoats and leather jackets, scarfs, fur; warm clothes that looked chic and made of high quality material.  There was an understated elegance to the way they dressed which wasn’t present in the mainstream U.S. population.  There, yoga pants, clunky Ugg boots and puffy ski jackets were acceptable or even fashionable attire for running errands or going out, where they screamed tourist in Europe.  

“People think I’m French,” Julie added, as an endorsement to her good fashion sense, “I get asked for directions all the time.  And sometimes I can even tell them the right way to go.”

“I like the ésharpes,” said John.

“Are you going to get one of the bags that the men wear too?” said Paula.

“You can set the trend in the D.C.” said Julie.

“Please don’t wear the man purse,” said Charlene, “You can’t pull it off.”

“I’m going to wear it when I visit you and tell everyone I’m your dad,” said John.

“You hardly notice any overweight people over here,” said Paula, “And if you do see one, you just assume they’re an American.”

This refreshing absence of the obese also seemed to make clothing look several times more glamorous, as the thin always served as better live models.  One of Julie’s students had commented on this fact; she was confused as to why she never saw any fat people on American television series and Julie responded that “they only show the beautiful people on television and in the media.”

“It’s true,” said John, “Sometimes when I’m waiting for the train I count all the overweight people I see to pass the time, and it’s like eight out of every ten people needs to loose weight.”

Things were smaller, sleeker, more compact: the cities, the cars, the clothes, the people.  It was even liberating to observe that one didn’t really need the superstores, the gas-guzzling vehicles, the huge houses which seemed to sprawl endlessly across the suburbs between U.S. cities, instead of the way that European towns were compacted around the town’s interior.  This thoughtfulness is soon interrupted…

Attention!” a woman shouts at Julie and her father, who have stopped walking, standing  in her way.  Despite being deep in culture shock, her sharp scold reminds them exactly where they are.

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el diablo

The thing about Paris, despite how many times you had been there and had gone back to each arrondissement still had the effect of feeling new.  One could return to their familiar surroundings, but it was impossible to have noticed every brasserie, boulangerie and boutique which seemed to blend together on many identical-looking streets.  You were always stumbling across something you hadn’t seen before and in this way the city never felt boring or tired.  One small annoyance, which did in fact make many cities feel tiresome or boring, was the constant problem of the homeless people wandering the streets.  The vast majority were probably certifiably crazy, or at least fell to the extreme poles of the spectrum for normalcy.

“Sometimes, I can’t tell if they’re a beggar or a real person,” said Julie’s mom, as a woman draped in ragged, ill-fitting clothing, who is obviously one, approaches them.  She shoves a plastic cup under their noses and mumbles something about a petite pièce.  Refusing to make eye contact with her and acting as if she were invisible, a nothing, was the most effective way to get rid of them.  After lingering for a few more seconds, shooting them more pathetic glances, she sets her sights to other tourists and travelers nearby in hopes of them taking momentary pity on her.

Along with her collection piece, she is holding a bundle of swaddled cloth in her arms, arranged to resemble an infant  The face of the bundle is not visible and the thing is completely still, which leads Julie and her family to believe that it is only her prop, used to further her pathos as a pitiable woman.  Julie’s mother turns to face the other direction, as if simply not looking would eliminate the problem, which it probably did for most people.

“I don’t like to see these things,” she says, but turning around there was no escape.  Not far away, on the other side of the train station, they see a woman with similarly sloppy clothing carrying about half a dozen stuffed shopping bags, another tell-tale sign of the homeless, but they are wrong.  At first glance she does look like a beggar, but the nice baby carriage she is pushing gives her away as a “real” person.

“I got attacked by one of them,” says Owen to the group, as this topic comes up, as they are enjoying drinks and dinner.

“You have to tell them about el diablo,” says Antoine, and Owen is left with no choice but to recount the story.  He begins to regale the group with the tale of how he came to be feared and revered by a local gang of the Parisian homeless.

The tale of el diablo

Owen commences the story and the atmosphere of the evening subtly shifts. The full attention of everyone is now focused on him, as he is about to divulge his enthralling tale.

“So, I’m walking home one night, and one of the homeless guys starts yelling at me from the little camp that he and some of his friends had set up.  Never leaving their familiar place, there were a few of them who I always saw around the front of a grocery store, sitting on a pile of blankets along with a dog or two.  I was drunk and must have yelled something back at them, and as I was continuing home, I realized one of them was following me.”

“I start to walk faster to try to get away from him, but he keeps picking up his pace, and then, he was standing right in front of me with a knife demanding that I take out my wallet,”

“Before I knew what was happening, I realized that I had punched the guy square in the face, and I heard him hit the pavement with a hard smack.  One of his friends was coming up from behind so I couldn’t stop to see if he was okay; I just kept running around the corner to a restaurant where I knew the waitress and began pounding on the window.”

“She looked scared and like she didn’t want anything to do with me, but I was somehow able to communicate to her what was happening through the glass with gestures, and she let me in.”  He pauses

“I was depressed for weeks; I really don’t like punching people.  I thought I might have killed the guy.  He was older, obviously not in good shape, and the sound he made hitting the pavement made me think the worst.  Each day I was checking the obituaries for descriptions of homeless guys in the area and whenever I saw one of them collecting change or sitting with a sign reading J’ai faim, I’d give a coin and ask about him, but I couldn’t find out anything.”

“Then one day, a few months later, I saw him.  He was peering out at me from behind a dumpster with a dirty blanket wrapped around him; it was as if he were hiding from me.  I didn’t think it possible at the time, but it seemed as if he were afraid of me,” Owen says, looking completely harmless as he sips his wine with a plate of salad in front of him.  It seemed unthinkable that he could have punched anyone, but in those situations survival instincts just took over.  He wasn’t telling the story to impress or to paint himself as tough, but merely because he found it such a completely puzzling series of events.

“Then right before he turned around, he said something to me in Spanish.  He just stared at me coldly and muttered: el diablo.

“Soon the story must have gotten around, as they were all calling, el diablo, el diablo, to me whenever I passed through.  They were always careful to speak to me from a distance though, perhaps for fear of another confrontation.”