January 19, 2006

The First Time I Saw Paris

The following is an actual letter I sent to friends and family via email; it was one in a series of (I think) eight, and was much cheaper than phone calls home. Let’s see if I’ve changed any over the last three years.

November 10, 2003

Hello Everyone!

Lemme just say that I am a rotten person for not having written to you all in so long,

(As you can see, I have always been a slacker)

I've been busy with school stuff.
(And a liar.)

I had originally planned many more Norwich Updates, but quite a few of them would have been something like "worked, studied, tried not to think about food".
(This is justification of laziness… sound familiar? The food thing is true—I was, as they say, skint.)

So I decided just to write about the highlights, mainly meaning the many trips I am taking. I have one planned for Edinburgh and Dublin next week, so I better get the last one down before it's out of my head altogether: Paris.
(I like this introductory paragraph. Just sayin’.)

The traveling group consisted of myself and 3 American girls who I met by accident in a fire drill at 5:00 in the morning. We all became friends, and we have been acting the inseparable wayward tourists ever since. We did a weekend in London, and now we were moving on to Paris.
(If you’re reading, I love you guys.)

Due to a scheduling conflict, I was taking an earlier coach (8 hour coach ride into Paris--ick), so my job was to get there and figure out where the hostel was, so when I picked them up later, I could lead them right to it. Funny how things never work out like you plan. First of all, I had no idea how we were crossing the English Channel--it seemed weird to me that I could take a coach to France, as I was dead sure there was some water in the way.
(Geography, she has never been strong with me.)

I supposed we'd drive into the ferry, and go over it. Oh, no. We actually went under--the entire coach drove into what looked like an enormous, hollow silver train, with other vehicles queued up behind it. Then they shut it all up, and the thing shook and bounced for an hour. Imagine me, alone on this trip with a bunch of strangers at 3 am, not knowing what is happening. I have no shame in relating that I buried my head in my book and did not look up once. It was like flying, only underwater--you try not to think about what's going on.
(Terry Pratchett was my copilot. Still is.)

After having survived thus far, we were hassled by customs, one of whom told me that since I was American, I needed to have a visa to come to France. I was panicked here--I had just shot under a body of water, and they were gonna ship me back before I ever got to see Paris! I wondered how the other girls would get through; I knew all we had were passports. Luckily, another gendarme wandered up & told me I was ok. This is all standing in the cold night air at around 4 am. Coach trips, I have decided, are the devil.
(I can’t believe I left out the bit about the enormous Indian man sitting in front of me, with his chair reclined literally back into my lap, reeking of some strange cologne. I had to perch my book atop his comb-over to read; he still didn’t get the message. Coach trips are the devil.)

Well, I got in at about 6:45, the sun barely up. It was then that I realized, in a sleep-deprived daze, that nobody spoke English. I was hungry, cranky and exhausted, and I didn't speak French. If you're a sheltered American like myself, it'll be great fun when you go to another country and try to muddle through their language—a ‘shoe on the other foot’ sort of thing. (Arrogant break-in: “Doesn't EVERYONE speak English?” Apparently, no, they really don't.)
(Now, I think they really do. They just refused to. They hate tourists in Paris like you’d never believe. If we could be legally hunted, the Eiffel Tower would have a head on every spike.)

I managed to blend my high-school Spanish and the French I had picked up from Canadian Sesame Street into a sort of half-correct dialect that annoyed everyone I spoke to, but they grudgingly understood. I also managed, and this is amazing considering how knackered I was, to figure out the subway system, which is unlike any other I have ever been on (and I've seen a few). Lines run according to either a completely arbitrary pattern, or the result of a creative dare. I would hate to be a commuter in Paris.
(This is vivid. It looked like an EKG. Like a line drawing of a mountain range with colored pencils. The lines only intersect about five times, so you may well be on the train for twenty minutes in the wrong direction just to make a connection. Helpful Hint: Just walk it.)

Suffice it to say, I did not have the first clue how to find the hostel, as I had no map, so I bought a locker for 2 euros, stuck my things in it, and ran off to waste time at the Eiffel Tower.
(Practical, or irresponsible? You make the call.)

The girls were not due to arrive until noon-ish, so I went down the street to the subway, the Metro. I had to actually buy tickets from the man at the counter, because the automatic tix machine refused to take my credit card. So, I ambled up with a hesitant "Parlez-vous Angles?" "NO!" Ah. OK. Crap. Before I figure my next move, he says something in French, followed by "Sprechintze Deutsch?" (I spelled that wrong.) I said no. "Italiano?" Um, no, I said again. People were starting to form a line behind me. I managed some quick thinking out of sheer panic. The word for ticket, billet, was printed on the window. They were sold singly, or in packs of ten. Sesame Street kicked at my tired brain: Un, deux, trois... "Um, dix billet?" I ventured. "AHHH, oui!" He said. We had made contact, and I got my 10 tickets. I got on the train, feeling quite proud of myself. On the journey to the Eiffel Tower however, I reflected that it was strange he spoke nearly every language, except English. Or, I thought, maybe he DID speak English, and the French are incredibly rude. I tried keeping an open mind, but I was pretty tired. Looking back on the trip, some of the French are, true to reputation, extremely rude buggers, but I didn't meet all of them, so I can't speak inclusively.
(My goal when I go back to Paris, having taken my semester of French, is to find this man.)

Many of those in my family have heard the story of my first view of the Eiffel Tower. 8:00 am, in a slight fog, wandering up the banks of the Seine, with a small camera bag. I looked about me for the Eiffel Tower, and then looked up. And up. And up. And fell flat on my rear end.
(This happened. Luckily, the banks were fairly deserted, no nobody saw it.)

The Metro stop had let me off more or less right under it, and I had somehow expected to see it from a distance. The falling over was about 70% lack of sleep and 30% awe. It was lovely, and I took tons of pictures. I tried to get my bearings; by following street signs I was able to shamble up to the Champs-Elysees and get a look at the Arc de Triomphe. I got some good pictures before the day really started, not a whole lotta people about yet.
(Unlike later, when any picture you take will have the head of a Japanese man in front of it. Why do the Japanese want to be in their picture? It is a cultural thing? Do they need to prove they were there? Anyway…)

After this, I decided to eat one of the PB&Js I had packed, and looked for a cheap coffee stand around the Eiffel Tower to wait until it was time to meet the girls.
Ah, French coffee. If this email wasn't already phonebook-sized, I would write a long manifesto on the Rights of Coffee, but I am tired already.
(‘Rights of Coffee’ could have been funnier. Missed opportunity, there. Damn.)

Here is why: all coffee in France is the same. It's good, very good in fact. But the only available size is super-super-small. You can order espresso, cappuccino or just plain ‘cafĂ©’, but you will always receive it in a Dixie Cup. For someone like me, who slugs coffee back like water (or rather, like I should drink water), this was a rather inconvenient size. I failed to make it last more than 5 minutes, and that was if I REALLY paced myself. Later, the girls and I learned that the best bang for your... euro... coffee-wise, was good old McD's. Coffee for 1 euro, the size of 2 Dixie Cups. It was bigger, anyway. And the French have managed not to have a single Starbucks on their continent, so my poor American's longing for a Venti Latte lasted all the way until we were back in the UK.
(For all I exaggerate, this is completely true. Although about a month after I left, they opened a Starbucks in Paris. I guess I wasn’t the only one who took notice.)

I related my findings to the girls when they arrived, picked up my bags, and we headed out. Hilarity ensued as we tried to get by with the language; 3 Spanish language students and one German, trying to get the French accent right. It was pretty bad, but at least now I wasn't the only one doing it. The best story on this note: Jensy, in an attempt to ask for tap water at the French Bistro. She asked me how to say it, and I looked it up in my 5-euro French book that I had cracked down & bought in an attempt to master the language. "Eau de robinet," I said. The waitresss returned, and Jensy asked for "Eau de... Ro-bair?" The waitress smiled, but looked like she understood. After she left, I broke it to Jensy that she had said "eau de Robert", and had actually asked for "Robert's water." Jensy went bright red as we all laughed at the confusion, and she refused to speak any more French. We apologized, however, and I got told I would be the one speaking from then on, cuz I had the book. We all learned fairly quickly, though.
(This is one of those ‘funnier if you were there’ stories. Jensy was really red, though. I miss these girls.)

Well, this email has been way longer than I intended, and I have some homework left to do.
(Read: sleeping)

If you want to hear the whole story, I am sure I will be retelling it over & over when I get home--it's worth hearing at least once. I hope everyone is well--let me know how you are, and I will have more for you after I see the Celtic lands!
(I went to Edinburgh and Dublin after this. I really hope I kept those emails. Especially Dublin; there’s much more to talk about when you hate on something.)

Well! I certainly hope I have more to talk about after this next trip. All I have to say now is it’s going to be freaking expensive, since I am no longer a student. And I’m sure you’ll be hearing all about how much it’s going to cost. Since I am quite the tight-ass, I hope you don’t mind if I share little tips on the cheapest way to do Europe. You don’t mind saving money? Oh good. No worries, then.

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