The First Day

Atlanta. Boston. Dublin. Paris. Over 24 hours of flying, bursting ear drums from the altitude, and starving for sleep – I’ve made it. Finally. After landing at the Charles-de-Gaulle airport, my head was spinning because Terminal 1 is a superstructure and it’s unclear which exit or route inside will take you to where you need to go. I took a train to Terminal 2 and spoke to a couple of French workers at the tourism information desk. They spoke very softly and quickly which is an obstacle for me in terms of comprehension. I was picking up my travel WiFi device from them so that I could always have GPS and access to the blog when I’m away from home. I rushed to get a ticket for the train to Paris. I met a French anarchist and Macron dissenter during the commute. He traveled with his Spanish camarade from the airport who sported an Edna Mode haircut and carried a copy of The Top Ten Things Dead People Want To Tell You by Mike Dooley. The anarchist politely delivered me his spiel about the relationship between French people and the hierarchy within France.

The Spanish woman who sat across from me said,

“Ignore him. He’s crazy.” she chuckled at me through a grimaced smile. My eyes glanced back at the title of her book. I laughed with them and we had a nice chat as the train carried us to Paris, the city I had not seen since I last visited in the summer of 2016.

It was 12 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit) in Paris but I was sweating by the time I got from the train to the metro. My beautiful friend Julia and her mom had just had breakfast and awaited my arrival at the W Opéra. At this point I had been wearing the same clothes for longer than 24 hours and frankly I stank. They allowed me a hug and then a shower in their room. The shower was a clear-windowed walk-in shower so they went down to the bar for a drink while I stripped down to bathe.

It felt as if it’s been two years since I’d seen Julia. She’s one of my good friends and I always enjoy her company. She lives in Texas now and our paths will likely remain apart for the future, so I was grateful that we were able to meet in Paris and have a meal. It was good to see her mom as well. I’ll always remember the trip to her parent’s place in Dallas in 2015. To this day, it’s one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. Today she and her mom were nice enough to let me join them for a trip to Sacré Cœur in Paris where we tried escargot and frog legs and onion soup. If you’re repulsed by frog legs, they are just smaller chicken wings without the ranch dressing. If you’re repulsed by escargot, I’m here to tell you there isn’t much to be repulsed at – it’s a rubbery texture that is heavily seasoned and sauced. Onion soup is onion soup. Each of us overestimated how hungry we were so we didn’t finish our food. Before the meal, our waiter was explaining to us that our orders could be placed at the table we were sitting at by using an iPad, then she proceeded to scroll through and read the entire menu to us as three big binders of various food options took up the table space in front of us.

“She was very thorough.” Julia said. I don’t know if she meant that as a joke or an observation, but it made me chuckle.

On the way up the steps of Sacré Cœur I was kicking myself for realizing that approaching the grand church on the hill of Paris from the front was the best direction of approach. Any other direction means an exhausting climb for the visitor – something I did not know in 2016. Julia granted me her scarf so that I would stay warm. She later complained that she was too hot, so I took her jacket then. I looked fashionable. At first I hesitated to wear any more layers other than my button-down shirt because it is easy to warm up walking through Paris – experienced travelers can control their own pace and thus their own temperature. However, I’m not an experienced traveler so I feel pressured by other Parisiens to hurry. The November wind did not do me any favors.

On the way up we were stopped by a couple of people wanting to sell what looked like  friendship bracelets to us and I knew enough to say “No” immediately this time. They had scammed me during my study abroad trip in 2016 by holding a piece of colorful orange string in a loop out in front of me and asking me to stick my thumb in it. I remember a man asking me to put my thumb in such a loop outside of Le Louvre and, naive as I was, I did it. He tied it into a bracelet from around my thumb and around my wrist and asked for 10€. I gave it to him because I was a putz. I’ve grown since then. A tip for visiting any city: say “No” to anyone who requests your attention and keep walking, or don’t say anything at all and ignore them. The people who don’t scam you are the people who ignore you.

In front of Sacré Cœur is one of the best places to take pictures of Paris because of its vantage point, and the view is even more beautiful and complete if you climb up to the dome. The only downside to taking pictures in front of the church is that the Eiffel Tower is not visible from the ground level. Inside Sacré Cœur, Julia and I lit a candle for our friend’s professor who died recently. I’m not religious myself, but I enjoy spiritual practices, and I try to absorb moments like that in my life. What would have been a quick look at some stone and crosses became another shared experience with a friend for a friend. After that, we marveled at the angels in the ceiling and parted with the sacred heart.

We returned to Julia’s hotel at the Opéra and I gathered my things and hugged them goodbye. It was a fun day! I hope I don’t have to wait a long time for another visit with them. I then traveled across town to meet with Laurent, a stranger to me and French man who owned a small Parisien company that makes vinyl records while working as a Blablacar driver on the side. Blablacar is a ride-share service like Uber with the twist being that good conversation is a focus during the ride. (Or not. It depends on your preference.) I was meeting Laurent next to the stadium in France because he was going to give me a ride out of Paris to Mortagne-au-Perche, which was two hours away. He was a patient man who spoke little English. He tried to explain that traffic was crazy in Paris at the time that I met him because l’équipe de France, the French football team, had a game that evening. He was right – the street was covered in cars and people and police that night. He switched to English and explained as well as he could where he was stood as I made my way through nighttime Paris with my luggage. I eventually saw a French man on his phone standing by his car and correctly assumed it was Laurent. Laurent and the young passenger who rode with us complimented me on my French. From what I gathered my fellow passenger was about my age and spoke English fluently when I asked. She does important work with Doctor’s Without Borders in Syria and other countries in conflict. We talked about politics in France, in America, the conflict in the world, the beautiful parts of France, the types of wine that Laurent liked, my goals for my future and for becoming a fluent French speaker, and the very important differences between McDonald’s in France and America. I didn’t understand much. They were kind enough to ask me softball questions and to repeat their questions when I did not understand. This may sound silly, but I was a sad to say goodbye to them after our trip west of Paris. They wished me bonne continuation and I went and waited inside… a McDonald’s… for my host, Alice.

Alice is exactly as I expected her to be after our conversation on the phone all those weeks ago. That was before I had even received my visa to stay in France. She is refreshingly kind, incandescent, true, and brave and I admire her very much already. It’s difficult for me to imagine accomplishing more than this journey I’ve currently embarked on, but I think that one day I want to be like her. She’s a skilled cook, gardener, caregiver, a story-teller. She’s a “tink tink” doctor as Viola, her 4-year-old daughter, playfully calls her. I like to insist on calling her this from now on. She seems to me to be a loving mother and an extremely organized, tolerant, and patient friend.

Viola is Alice’s sweet baby girl. She has an adorable smile and bright blue eyes like her mother. She was shy to meet me at first but she warmed up to me quickly as I joked with her in French the second day of my visit. She gave me a hug and she told the others that she loves me. I’m quite proud of that. I was excited to practice French with her because she speaks fluently, but today she told me that she doesn’t want me to speak French to her. I may ignore her request for my own betterment. After all, she is quite a good teacher. “You’re a wonderful person to know,” I said to her as we all gathered in the car for an outing. She smiled.

Viola

Ashley, or Auntie Ash to Viola, is Alice’s best friend and a great support. She seemed to be a good person who shared a lot of the same ideas I had about valuing presence, devaluing objects and compulsory consumerism. More importantly though, she was a positive force with a warm smile. She and Alice both encouraged me when I expressed my fears about this blog and my dream. They are my first friends in my new life and I feel very lucky to know them. I wish I could have gotten to know Ashley better. Just days after my arrival she moved to Oman. Soon she’ll begin an instagram called Eyes of Oman where she will tell the stories of the people there and curate a page of their eyes. I thought this was a brilliant idea and I can not wait to see it. I hope I see her again some day.

Viola and Ashley

Connie is an American, my travel companion, and good friend from Bettles, Alaska. We have fueled our friendship with French McDonald’s and rainbows as well as an adventure across Normandy to the English channel. We have seen the Archangel Michael sitting atop a majestic fortified abbey that surrounds itself with sand and fickle tides. We have seen the beach where thousands of American soldiers stormed the coast of France, where thousands gave their lives, and where thousands aided in what I have always held in my imagination as the saving of the world from overt, despicable, unhinged evil. Connie and I experienced the emotion of our country’s history as well as our own. We opened up to each other about our relationship with our parents and our desires for our own lives. She’s an amazing and interesting person. I’m glad to have met her before she returns to Bettles and I hope we go on another adventure some day in the future. I don’t think the trip north would have been nearly as exciting without her humor and her personality.

Didi, I’m sad to say, I only knew for the first dinner that I, Alice, Ash, and Connie had together. She moved out the next morning. From what I was told she mostly spoke French. I feel like I will see her again as she is also close with Ash and Alice and Connie.

We broke bread and through my exhaustion I inhaled some meal. I had even forgotten that Alice was British until halfway through the dinner I thought, She has an accent? Oh, yes of course she does. We discussed my reason for coming to France briefly and I got caught up to speed about what they had been doing in the days before my arrival. After I’d exhausted the last of my extrovert energy I excused myself from the kitchen and made my way up the stairs to my room where I called my mom (I think) then passed out.

After everything I had been through in the day, my fears about my uncertain future and my choice to take this journey in life had subsided, at least for the moment that I saw them all gathered and laughing in the kitchen of the home.

I think sometimes you can’t know what’s possible until you jump in. If you can just get there, you’ll see the other side of fear as if it were clear instead of solid.

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