In preparation for the trip, I had not learned any French whatsoever. I wasn't convinced the trip was going to happen till the last minute at which point I asked my beloved to teach me a few useful phrases. His considered advice after this lesson? Under no circumstances was I to attempt to speak French while in France.
Shaken from my French lesson, I convince myself this is sound advice and that I'll be with enough French speakers that I will be insulated from interfacing with the local community. I immediately realize upon landing that this was an incredibly stupid plan. After some indeterminate amount of time which seems endless and fraught with peril, and through extraordinary effort, I learn the essential French word in these circumstances: taxi.
Lesson 1: no matter how badly you speak them, learn a few words anyway. Then write those words down on a card so you can convey information to people like taxi drivers.
Somehow I make my way to Jerome's. His wife, children, and home could not be more lovely. It's an idyllic afternoon. Mrs. a Paris is preparing a jaunt with one of the children and, lulled by the sunshine streaming in the windows, the drowsing cats, and the napping child on the couch, I volunteer to stay with the other little ones. There follows a perfect, almost magical, 15 minutes.
The spell is abruptly broken by an incident of vomiting on the part of the aforementioned napping child. This is accompanied by high fever and much crying. I call the child's mother, then realize I don't know how to tell the child anything, including the fact that her mother is on the way home. I wrack my brain and come up with two more words -- mama oui. This has no effect and, in fact, seems to escalate the crying. I resort to singing. Oddly, this works. The little one and I are bonded.
Lesson 2: music really is the universal language, at least among fevered 5 year olds.
Later, I have a lovely dinner at a bistro. I order the lasagna. I meet two lovely French-Canadians who grill me about George Bush and what I think Obama's chances are.
Coincidentally, two of my friends from LA are in Paris this week and we decide to get together today, my free day before the start of the meetup, and to meet at the Eiffel Tower. My friends are an hour late because of - foreshadowing alert! - train problems. I walk all around the tower several times, wondering if I'm in the right spot. It's all much bigger than I thought it would be.
During my wait, I am approached by a young woman who asks if I speak English. She then shows me a printed sign that says she's from Bosnia, that her father has died, and asking if I can please help. I regretfully decline. Over the course of the next hour I am approached by four more young women, all from Bosnia, all with dead fathers, all with the exact same sign. I'm also badgered by souvenir salesmen. I finally end up somehow buying an Eiffel Tower statue, hoping it'll shield me from further pitches. It doesn't.
My friends finally arrive and we have a great lunch at a Chinese restaurant. It's been quite a walk getting to it though, including going from one street to another up an enormous flight of stairs.
Lesson 3: in Los Angeles, "not far" means a drive under 15 minutes. In France, it means a walk under an hour.
My friends and I go to the Louvre. It's also big, which I'd been told, but I still wasn't prepared for it. I cycle through the stages of the Louvre -- delighted, awed, overwhelmed, exhausted, resentful. I end up ranting about plunder and slave labor as I limp up yet another flight of stairs that are seemingly there for no apparent reason other than to break up the monotony of the miles-long marble corridors. I wonder if there is no French equivalent of the Amercians With Disabilities Act.
I collapse in an alcove and ponder the enormous task of retrofitting Europe. I despair of ever finding, much less making it to, the exit. I learn another word: sortie.
Somewhere along the line I've also picked up bonjour and merci.
We finally get out. Our relief is such that we become giddy -- if we can find the exit in the Louvre, we can do anything! We decide to go up the Eiffel Tower. At least there's an elevator.
All day long my friends and I have been turning to each other and asking "can you believe we're in Paris?" We're not from good areas of Los Angeles and we're lucky to have gotten out of our neighborhoods, never mind the unlikely scenario of traipsing around the Louvre together. If you'd told us 30 years ago that we'd be doing this today, we wouldn't have believed you. At the top of the tower, our disbelief is suspended. There it all is. Paris.
And here we are. Life is strange and beautiful. I return to the a Paris household at midnight, tired and happy. Also hungry.
Lesson 4: Paris is not exactly crowded with all-night diners. If you go to the top of the tower on the last trip of the night, you will not be finding someplace to get pancakes after.
I talk with my beloved. He gets caught short by the fact that my two main meals so far have been Italian and Chinese food. I'm ordered to eat some French food. I vow to find some crepes.
Days 3, 4, and 5
These are the meetup days and they're a blur of good food and even better company. Meeting the ET people is amazing -- all smart and interesting, and much warmer than in text! When I was a child I used to watch the tv show Gumby. Gumby could walk into books which was a concept I was enamored with. Meeting people from the blog, people I'd been interacting with in writing for years, was kinda like that. I was in heaven.
Most people were exactly like I'd imagined. Some from the blog I'd already formed friendships with, so I knew them well already and the actual meeting was more of a formality. Others I'd only read or interacted with in a limited way in the comments, and it was a real pleasure to get to know them better. There were no huge surprises, but some small ones -- Jerome and In Wales are both taller than I'd imagined. Helen has a beautiful BBC voice. Some of the infrequent commenters I'd assumed were shy or serious turned out to be boisterous and funny (I'm talkin' to you dvx and linca).
No surprise at all was how kind everyone is. Fran shared her room. Helen, Metatone, and others shared their metro tickets. Plus, I had perpetual technology problems the whole time I was there - a laptop with no wifi or battery, a cell phone that needed recharging, and a camera with no storage chip that needed to be downloaded onto the laptop every 40 pictures, all with no converter to plug anything in. I'd brought a converter, but of course it wasn't working.
As a result, I got to experience the generosity of the ET community -- In Wales and The Stormy Present took photos for me. Jerome, Colman, and Metatone let me email from their iPhones (I'm starting to think of the proffered iPhone as the new gesture of chivalry). Someone and Crazy Horse both brought their laptops to the hotel lobby to let me use them. There were various offers of converters and attempts to charge my phone, some more successful than others. But in every case there were people willing to help. Including afew's infinite patience with menu translation and helping me order.
Did I mention there was a lot of walking? Every time someone proposed something to do, the activity either involved walking or the activity was, in fact, going for a walk. I slow down when I'm tired and it didn't escape my notice that In Wales, DVX, Crazy Horse, and Metavision all made sure at various times to slow down and keep me company at the back of the pack. There were so many wonderful conversations I can't go into them all without this getting even ridiculously longer than it already is. My only regret from the trip is that I couldn't take Melanchthon up on his offer of showing me the shoe manufacturing center of France.
And speaking of France, I don't know where this idea comes from that the French are snooty or rude. I know I've belabored this point, but I was terrible at speaking French. A certain Irishman burst out laughing hearing me say bonjour -- my accent is just that bad -- yet the people I met couldn't have been more friendly and helpful (well, except for that last day at the airport, but I'll get to that in a minute). I mean, sure, I heard the word "Americain" repeatedly amongst the laughter, but once they recovered themselves, folks went out of their way to be nice.
I loved how the meals took forever and there were accordion players all over the metro. I also saw a seemingly normal woman hike her skirts and pee, squatting right next to a bus stop in broad daylight. I was told in no uncertain terms that this is not regular. I also had a 20-something boy yell that he loved me while blowing kisses as I was leaving a restaurant, which I was told was regular. I'm thinking these boys must be hired by the tourist department.
Oh, and you know how conservatives are always writing about conversations with cab drivers? Thus far, I've been suspicious of these types of columns. Not any more. I'm sitting in the back of a taxi with a driver that has said he speaks no English. We're riding along in silence except that he apparently has French talk-radio playing. At least it sounds sort of like our talk radio, only more elegant. Suddenly he catches my eye in the mirror, raises his eyebrows, and pointedly says "George Boosh??" I make an acking noise I hope is understood. He smiles. So I ask "Sarkozy?" And he goes "eez no good! Sarkozy Boosh same!" and we both laugh. So apparently even with linguistic barriers, cab drivers can't resist the political commentary.
Anyway, it's been the trip of a lifetime and Sunday night I'm all sad and sentimental saying goodbye to everyone, but tired and happy, too. Tomorrow I'll be back to reality, which is a world without jet lag and marble hallways. Plus, I'll be winging my way home to my beloved. I suddenly feel I've been gone forever. I can't wait to get home.
Supposedly my last day in France. I won't drag this part out. It's too painful, the wound too fresh. Events conspire - there's a series of complications, delays, and then the killing blow -- a train strike.
I should've probably expected this. Still. I wasn't panicked at first. I thought I had time. My flight was to leave at 3:55. I checked in at 3:04. I was told I missed the plane. I quickly cycled through the stages of missing your plane - denial, arguing, anger, begging, despair, pleading, etc.
Lesson 5: if you want to see some VERY French raised eyebrows, loudly say the word 'fuck' at the airport. This leads to...
Lesson 6: the word "fuck" is evidently understood by the general non-English speaking populace.
Several crying jags and frantic phone calls later, I arrive back at the a Paris household. I'm comforted, fed, and given use of a laptop. I soothe my jangled nerves online. My beloved has changed his facebook profile to say he's 'hating the French' and I laugh a bitter laugh. I IM Jerome goodbye from across the room and go to sleep.
Up at the crack of dawn. I make sure I'm the first one on the plane. I discover that France has excellent lemon tarts - why has no one told me this before? Oh, and btw, as far as I can tell, there are no crepes in Paris.