In the planning stages of the trip, Paris was what I considered the first real obstacle for us, the young, sprightly, utterly unilingual travellers. It was packed full of unimaginable beauty and acres of living history, sure, and I was also fairly convinced it was also rife with aloof, beautiful men and women in berets eating croissants and drinking fine wines. It was sure to fill up my brain and my camera. But I felt nervous about approaching the city: the meagre remnants of French I retained from grade nine were pitiful, Quebecois-tinted mots, sure to evoke annoyance and pity at best. If I needed to ask where the bathroom was, or tell someone my age or the day of the week, I would be just fine. If an interaction were to veer further into Francophone complexity, I was screwed.
We took the Chunnel train into Paris, and our encounter in Gare du Nord seemed to confirm all of my fears. I had done my research on the Parisian subway system and was moderately confident about navigating it, but the difficulty came in buying a ticket. I can’t remember which of the three of us approached the busy ticket counter first, but whomever it was muttered a Frenglish phrase and slipped across a Euro note. The woman at the counter already seemed as unhappy and dreary as all subway toll-both operators do, but her angry French response to us proved to make her seem monstrous, grotesque. When she eventually flipped to English, after, I imagine, more thoroughly eviscerating us in her native tongue, she demanded to know if I had exact change. I was just switching over from pounds, and so I told her that no, I did not. She grumbled heavily, and did the same to the person behind me in line. France’s major economic crisis appears to be that it has a massive shortage of change.
From there, encounters with the French (those few who remain: by August, all the moneyed Parisians have fled on vacation) were blandly polite on average, and only occasionally veered into unpleasantness. Really, the only other instance that comes to mind is this. We were taking a walking tour around the city, and during the break, the only nearby source of food was McDonald’s. Shamed, we walked inside and went to order. Haughty and full of myself, I managed to order entirely en Français, an achievement largely unimpressive to the entirely fluent teenaged staff. Zack, similarly confident he remembered enough restaurant French, ordered a Royale sans fromage, and I was ready to dole out a high-five. The woman behind the counter spat rapid European phonemes at him, and when the conversation eventually ruptured in his polite, Canadian shrug, she reported “A Royale without cheese… but that is impossible!” (Zack would later retort: “It’s not like I ordered a fucking hamburger with dark matter.”)
Overall, Paris is still fairly accommodating to those blundering tourists who find its language unwieldy, and most everywhere we went we could find someone who spoke English, or who would amiably parse our French and mime combo. Our hostel had a pretty much exclusively bilingual staff, which was nice, except that many of them were unpleasant assholes (they also managed to bungle our booking: we were in a six-bed room; at one point they moved nearly every occupant of this room to another six-bed to fit a six-person party incoming… why they did not put them in the room we moved into still escapes me).
Our days in Paris, much like our days in the other cities, unfolded as you can expect: walking tour, French wine, hostel partying, etc. etc. It was August, and so the city was absolutely boiling, including the subways. The Parisian subways, by the way, are every bit as drenched in urine as you’ve heard. They are efficient enough (though they occasionally threw me because each station lists terminal points for the line, rather than general direction of where the train is going), but the fragrance was unsettling at first. Otherwise, even with the heat, the city managed to offend the senses as little as possible, considering it was almost as packed with tourists at London was.
While Dublin feels like it set the tone for the trip, Paris was a city where I began to really adapt to myself as a traveller. The first major thing that I learned was that I could very, very easily wear myself down into a sickly husk. We had generally been on the go for the week and a half before Paris, and so even as I felt a flu encroaching, I saw no reason to stop. One night, Zack and I stayed out roughly until 5 in the morning after meeting people at the hostel’s karaoke night. Normally, this would be par for the course, but I had planned the excursion to the Louvre for the next day, which I felt deemed a 7:30 wake-up call. Surely two hours of sleep would be enough to perk me up!
I remember little about waking up that day, and even less about getting to the Louvre. Really, the memories start for me in the line-up: I remember going to the underground entrance and standing in an enormous queue, made positively Sisyphean by the cavernous room we stood in and the encroaching delirium from fever. I stumbled around the Louvre from about 10:00 until 4:00 that day, determined to take in every last bit of art that I could. The Mona Lisa! The Venus de Milo! Dozens of statues featuring Greek mythological figures! Everywhere I looked there was something important and beautiful, and I felt like throwing in the towel early would be a defeat. I had come all the way to this city, and had braved angry French ticket-takers and the sickly-smelling subways. I would crawl through that damned gallery if I had to.
When we left, I gave in, and reported that Zack and Donny could go on if they wanted. Through pity and a need to regroup, they accompanied me back to the hostel, where I immediately fell into bed. I woke up periodically, sweaty and on fire, removing one article of clothing with each round of waking before falling back asleep. Zack, at one point, roused me to see if I wanted to accompany him for dinner with the people we had met the night before; if any of the sounds I then made were words, I believe they were a way of me declining. When I woke again another hour later, I forced myself back onto my feet and stumbled downstairs, having said I would go with Donny to the Eiffel Tower. I was still groggy and vomitous, but god damn it, I was in Paris. Against all good sense and the feeling that my legs were sure to cave in, I walked to the Tower, and then, because the elevator cost more, I walked up that beast, happy for the experience (the universe, rewarding my brave stupidity and utter disregard for my own wellbeing, issued the sunset right as we hit the first floor observation deck).
I began to get better and better at breaking the ice, a task I usually left up to Zack. I have no problem talking to people once the first awkward steps are taken, but I have always found the introduction, especially to strangers I simply feel like talking to, enormously awkward and unnecessarily difficult. Travel, especially in hostels, obliterates this: it is entirely likely that you will never, ever see these people again. Indeed, many of them don’t live in the same city, the same country, or even the same continent as you. With that in mind, a lot of the risk seems to dissolve, and my self-absorbed need to be liked or at least tolerated dissolves, because I can just start anew with fresh, one-use strangers three feet down the bar should things go awry.
I also began to really enjoy real quiet time, to realize that not all travel has to be crazy bombast and running around. The best time I had in that city was an evening where we bought some ludicrously cheap wine from a corner market, stole a deck of cards from the hostel, and sat along a concrete bank on the Seine. Dozens of young French and even more tourists were doing the same, lining the water and having a drink. I did not have a map out. My camera was stowed in my bag. My rancid shoes were off my feet, and I didn’t have to walk anywhere. Somehow, I was managing to incorporate actual relaxation into travelling. Unthinkable!
I worry in these posts that I don’t say enough about the city, but it isn’t like Western literature and dozens of other places on the internet don’t have accounts of Paris. Suffice it to say: it is beautiful. It is old. It has nice food and wine. During high tourist season, you develop the distinct sense that you are watched by what I imagined were incredibly clever and debonair French pickpockets. The local gypsy population excels at squeezing tourists for dollars, and also they get angry if you pretend not to speak English (Zack attempted this while trying to shield the Canadian emblem on his bag).
It is also a city that I felt I left undone: I ran myself, and Zack and Donny, ragged for the four days we spent in the city. In the previous locations (except maybe London, though the surge of tourists made it feel Done), I felt happy with how much time we had spent. Paris felt unfinished. Paris felt like there was still a whole lot of city left to do. Paris left me wanting to go back for more, snooty booth-operators and all.