I am writing this while speeding across the European continent towards Paris, which thus fulfills a long-held dream I have to write something while traveling by train to Paris.
Honestly, the journey isn’t very long at all — my ticket says two hours and change, but everything here in Europe is so close together that it won’t even seem like that. That’s combined, of course, with the fascination that comes with traveling to a new place for the first time. Even now, I can look to my right, and see the French countryside flying by. In fact — forgive me, I just took about five minutes there to watch the fields go by, little villages with brown and white-colored buildings serving as islands in seas of green and tan under a blue sky full of white cloud mountain ranges. It’s pretty beautiful. I can snap a picture with it flying by the train’s clouded windows at over a hundred miles an hour, but I’m not sure my little Lumix will capture it.
At least I tried, I guess.
I’ve traveled to a foreign country for an extended length of time exactly twice before (well, three times, counting this Europe trip). When I was a little kid, my parents once told us three siblings that Christmas as we knew it was canceled — instead, we were all going on a road trip down to Mexico. Not the fun part of Mexico where co-eds frolic on beaches, but the other side of it, where everything is covered in dirt, everyone is poor, and where a family of five with three young kids probably doesn’t belong. Things did not go well — we first got some stomach virus from eating at a hotel together, and then on the way back, all three of us kids decided it was a good time to contract chicken pox.
The other time I’ve spent in a foreign land was much more fun — while going to school in Ithaca, NY, two friends and I decided to drive up to Toronto for the film festival. That is, we decided to go to Toronto while the film festival was going on — we didn’t have any tickets, or money, or even really knew what or where the film festival actually was. It worked out all right, however — we found out that we could legally drink up there, and we holed up in a cheap hostel with a bunch of international college students who also liked to drink. So that was much more fun.
But I say all that — sorry, spent some more time looking out the window there. All of these little towns have tiny little chapels in them, and I’m imagining all of the little stories and histories that must have taken place across these French fields around me. Anyway, I say all that to say that I am very likely woefully underprepared to be in a foreign country by myself. England is one thing — as Oscar Wilde said, England and America are two countries separated by nothing more than a language. But France, and eventually points east, I imagine will be something completely different.
At times I worry that it just won’t work. Already, while staying in the train station and just sitting here on the train listening to the overhead announcements in both English and French, I feel like a barbarian. I chose this day to wear a t-shirt that says “California” on it, and there’s part of me that wants to zip up my hoodie to hide it, to not speak for fear of giving away just who I am. I just finished reading Madame Bovary for the first time while on this trip (I wanted to read something very French that I hadn’t yet), and to be honest, I’m not really a romantic. I’m more the opposite of. Maybe I’ll get there, and find that Paris just isn’t for me.
But of course that’s silly. I’m old enough, now, to know that any place to go and anything you learn is just what you make of it. Even if Paris doesn’t agree with me — if those boulevards and arrondissements don’t inspire something, and if the French language grates in my ears and the food and wine turn my stomach (this last one is probably the most unlikely at all), at least I’ll enjoy looking at the dead stuff. The Catacombs have three million people in them! The cemeteries, I hear, have to be seen to be believed. I have no doubt I’ll find something good in Paris, no matter what happens.
Like, for example, this countryside. Although it seems to be picking up into a more populated area now — maybe we’re almost there. After I get in at Paris Du Nord (which I don’t need a translator to tell you is a train station in the north of Paris), the first task is to grab a metro ticket, and then find my way to the hostel I’m staying at, on the east side of the city in Bry Sur Mame. I hear that’s near Euro Disneyland actually. I don’t have plans to go there, but who knows — if the Eiffel bores me and the Lourve is crowded, maybe I’ll go and visit Mickey instead. I am a barbarian, after all.
I am an idiot, of course.
The train arrived at Paris Du Nord, and I am somewhat ashamed to say I was quickly overwhelmed. Thinking about what a foreign country would be like, but seeing the language everywhere, and having no other options even in a pinch, is something completely different. I walked off the train just marveling at the number of people around me, and for a guy who writes for a living, just navigating from point to point was even extremely hard.
Let’s see — I want the Metro, I think. Is that what that M means? What’s RER? Did that say SPCF? Down this staircase, I guess. Tickets is what I need, but no wait, I’m in France, so what’s the French for tickets? Ticketas? No that’s Spanish. Wait, there — billets. Ok, so billets. Where can I get some billets?
For months, I wanted to be the smooth American that’s nice enough to overcome the legendary French archness, but of course I’m not him — after standing around for a few minutes, I walked up to a security guard, and attacked him with the only language I have. He silently pointed up around the corner, where I found a ticket counter, and I was whisked onto a train heading to my destination.
Wide-eyed, in almost a state of shock, I followed my trains and the signs to the stop for my hostel, and then followed Google Maps to my destination. Even walking up to check in, I had nothing to communicate with but my native language. The receptionist didn’t roll her eyes exactly, but she did check me in, give me a room key and directions, and when I had to turn back and ask again because I couldn’t find the lift, explained things to me as if to a child.
I got into the room before dinner, and my original plan was to just stay in the neighborhood this evening, but how could I? Paris was right there. So I got back on the train, and willed myself past the language. I would walk the streets of Paris this evening, find a small cafe, have some real dinner in a city known for them.
And I did. The streets of the city are incredible, and have a life all their own. London reminded me of an old New York, but Paris is another feel entirely — it’s like Disneyland, with colorful little cafes and gorgeous art and design on every block. The pressure of eating my first meal in a city like this was too much at first — I just walked around, block after block, trying to find what I thought was a reasonable and uniquely French enough cafe to eat in.
The one I found was called Le Petit Chatelet. I walked in, and the waiter looked at me and spoke in French — all I did was point up a finger to tell him I was just one, but I think he knew then instantly that I was American, and thus would need to be babysat. He sat me down and passed over a menu, and said another waiter would take care of me, and could do any translating I needed. I scoured the menu, and found it even tougher than I expected — a little menu I thought I could order from was actually for lunch, and I couldn’t tell if the filet mignon was for steak, fish, or pork.
The waiter kindly told me it was for pork, with a pepper sauce, so I had that, and a glass of wine to go with. I read while I waited for the food, and listened to the whirlwind of French around me. I regretted that I hadn’t tried to learn the language beforehand. And then my food appeared.
It was, of course, excellent. My fears disappeared right away. I am going to have a great time here. Because no matter how much of a language gap there is, no one who loves food as much as I do could ever have a problem with this city.
Tomorrow: The Eiffel Tower, and the Musee D’Orsay.
Posted on Wednesday, April 11th, 2012 at 4:44 pm. Filed under general.