July 25, 2006: The following is a transcription (with some slight
rewriting) of a manuscript of fifteen pages that I found recently in files
of mine that I had left at my mother's house in Alexandria. The manuscript
describes the first few days of a trip to Paris: my first visit to
continental Europe. I had visited my future spouse in Manchester, England,
the previous February; we had become an item in Toronto the previous fall.
Ayşe and I went to Manchester after Paris also; I may have made these
I was getting ready to move out of my Washington group-house, and I would be
in Illinois for the fall. I had recently finished my ph.d. at Maryland.
Ayşe was going to be in France anyway, for a conference in Marseille.
In the text, I allude to problems getting my ticket to Paris; I remember
them as follows.
I bought the ticket from a company advertising in the Washington
Post; I thought a roommate had recommended them, but she had meant a
different company. I think they were in Florida. I reserved a flight
to Paris, and from Manchester. Credit
cards cost extra, so I mailed a check. Then I found they didn't have a
ticket from Manchester, but would give me one from London. Would they pay
for my train ride to London? No. They were supposed to send the ticket to
me by Federal Express; then it turned out they used a different company.
They also sent the ticket, not to me, but to another of their offices. By
this time, overnight service was required. The ticket was due at my house
by 3 p.m. Friday. It came at about 3:20. However, I had
been able to confirm with the airline that a seat was registered in my name.
My agents were just not very competent. I should at least have got the name
of the first person I talked to; every time I called, I spoke with somebody
else, who told me something different.
I was getting ready to move out of my Washington group-house, and I would be in Illinois for the fall. I had recently finished my ph.d. at Maryland. Ayşe was going to be in France anyway, for a conference in Marseille. In the text, I allude to problems getting my ticket to Paris; I remember them as follows.
I bought the ticket from a company advertising in the Washington Post; I thought a roommate had recommended them, but she had meant a different company. I think they were in Florida. I reserved a flight to Paris, and from Manchester. Credit cards cost extra, so I mailed a check. Then I found they didn't have a ticket from Manchester, but would give me one from London. Would they pay for my train ride to London? No. They were supposed to send the ticket to me by Federal Express; then it turned out they used a different company. They also sent the ticket, not to me, but to another of their offices. By this time, overnight service was required. The ticket was due at my house by 3 p.m. Friday. It came at about 3:20. However, I had been able to confirm with the airline that a seat was registered in my name. My agents were just not very competent. I should at least have got the name of the first person I talked to; every time I called, I spoke with somebody else, who told me something different.
On Memorial Day, May 26, 1997, my housemates and I packed the rest of my things into my mother's car, I drove the car to her house and unloaded it, and then my mother drove me to National Airport for my flight to Paris via Newark. I was tired, both from having anxiously awaited my ticket till its arrival the previous Friday, and from having had houseguests who stayed (at my invitation) till the day I left myself.
The excitement of travel invigorated me somewhat. I slept for only an hour or so over the Atlantic.
After settling in next to me, the two young women who were my neighbors over the ocean began poring over a fashion magazine, discussing the application of lipstick. I figured they might be high-school students, but they said they were in law school.
How did the flight attendants know whom to address in English, and whom in French? I don't know, but I am sure that there are many clues that one learns with experience. I fooled nobody by asking for “vin rouge” rather than “red wine” with my dinner. Even from the neck up, I suppose I appeared to be non-French. At any rate, in Paris I saw few men with beards or long hair (and those who had one or the other were generally tourists).
I was going to Paris to meet my sweetheart. I could not get a flight to arrive when she would be coming, so I was coming early. Ayşe had a friend, Deniz, who was studying in Paris [but whom I had not met]; Deniz was going to help me get settled in the city.
At the Charles de Gaulle airport, admission to France was trivial. The landing card did not request a local address, much less ask whether I was importing anything restricted. My passport was looked at, but not stamped, and I was waved past the baggage inspection site.
The way to the train into Paris was not clearly marked, but another American had found out where to go, and he told me. In the queue for tickets, I made way for a well-dressed man; but in French—French French—he very politely said something like “after you.” I thought I might try out my French, so I confirmed with him that I was in the correct line. When he stepped up to the ticket window, he asked for a ticket; then, realizing he had forgotten to say good morning, said “Pardonnez-moi Madame; bonjour!”
I descended stairs to the train platform. A uniformed woman told me something in French, but after seeing my puzzled look, added in English, “Only the front part of the train goes to Paris.”
This train was part of the regional system, RER. In Paris itself, the RER would serve as a supplement to the original metro, using the same tickets and allowing free transfers (correspondances) to the metro. The RER line from De Gaulle went right to Cité Universitaire, where Deniz had a room.
Deniz called to me from her window when I arrived at her building. She was very pleasant, and she spoke as if we had been friends for some time. She served me some pasta with pesto and cheese, and opened a bottle of wine. She was going to take me to the hostel where she had made me a reservation; then she would take me to buy my train ticket to London. (Ayşe already had my ticket from London to Manchester, whither we would be going after a week in Paris.)
It was early afternoon, Paris time, and a beautiful sunny afternoon too, but to me it was just many hours past my usual bedtime, and all I wanted was to sleep. I did not want to ask Deniz if I could sleep in her room; but she figured out that I wanted to sleep, so she invited me to stretch out on her bed while she studied. An hour or so later, we did our errands.
Perhaps it was because my initial experiences of the city were in the less scenic parts, or perhaps it was because I was so tired, but on my first day in Paris, I was not very impressed. The cool breezes coming through Deniz's window were pleasant, but I could have felt them at home, at least at that time of year, and I could have heard at home the traffic on the street below.
The Monoprix supermarket in Montparnasse that Deniz took me to did seem to have a good selection of produce, but I couldn't take advantage of it, having no real kitchen. I selected some cheap house-brand camembert and some fruit. Unfortunately I did not know that I had to weigh the fruit before going to the checkout counter. The cashier told me something sternly in French, but I just looked at her dumbly, so she got on the telephone, and presently a woman came to tell me in English to go back and weigh the produce. “Je suis desolé,” I managed to say.
I parted from Deniz in the Montparnasse metro. I was locked out of the hostel till five, but the hostel was near the Tour Eiffel, so I went there to sit on the grass and eat my cheese and baguette. Oh sure, it was exciting to see this towering modern symbol of Paris, but I also sympathized with the 300 writers and artists who had protested its construction a hundred years earlier.
In time I found my way back to the Aloha Hostel. Ayşe and Deniz had stayed there a year before. It was clean and attractive inside. Let's Go: Paris had warned that it was swarming with young American backpackers, but this was not quite right: the crowd filling the common room were from all of the old [white] British colonies, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, as well as the USA. Most of them were touring all over Europe.
Most guests at the hostel were glad to talk to you. This surprised me a bit, though it should not have; if you have been away from your usual friends, especially in countries where your language is not spoken, then you are likely to enjoy speaking with anybody you can.
Signs posted in the hostel warned against consuming outside alcohol. The hostel sold beer: ten francs for a Heineken, 8 for a Bavaria. Most of the empty bottles around the common room were Heineken, but I always drank the Bavaria.
I slept in a room with two bunkbeds. The hostel had a curfew of 2 a.m., but the four of us in the room turned out the light at 11. I slept fine for a few hours, then only fitfully. In the morning, I ate some fruit at the hostel, but was out walking the streets of Paris before nine.
Again it was a clear sunny day. I wandered to the Hôtel des Invalides. It was not obvious how to get in to see Napoleon's tomb, but the hour was too early anyway. The gilded dome was a sight.
The Musée Rodin was nearby, and opened at 9:30, so I went there. I should have been impressed by the lovely old house and its garden, but I suppose I was still too tired. As for the sculptures themselves, they were nothing new to me: Washington had lots of Rodins.
What was new to me was just walking down the Parisian streets. I was to meet Deniz for lunch at the Cité Universitaire, and I headed there on foot. Deniz had thought I should buy a weekly subway pass, but I suspected that I would not use the metro enough to justify the expense, and I turned out to right. As my aunt Jean had said, Paris was small enough that you could generally walk where you wanted to go. Moreover, just walking past the cafes and shops and apartment buildings was better than visiting any museum.
On my way to meet Deniz, I went into a boulangerie for a baguette, which I munched as I walked. I did wonder whether eating as one walked was done in Paris. Maybe Parisians themselves would never be in such a rush. I did see people doing it later.
Ayşe as well as Deniz had recommended the Cité Universitaire as a good place for a student to get cheap vegetarian food. Alas, my experience was not so good. The “vegetarian” plate offered that day included fish. I picked up a plate of pasta with tomato sauce, wishing I could have some decent vegetables. Only then did I see that people could get lots of spinach with sausage. Could I have got spinach without sausage? I did not find out.
Deniz ate her meal quickly. Perhaps I was too full of bread already, but I only ate half the pasta before deciding not to keep Deniz waiting for me. She had to study, after all. Nonetheless, she invited me for coffee. We were joined in the cafe, first by one friend of Deniz, then another, buth Muslim men.
The men did not speak English well, but I could follow the conversation in French. These men asserted the impossibility of close relationships, such as marriage, across cultures—for example, between a Muslim man and a Christian woman. I was pleased that Deniz was of the opposite point of view. The more the men talked, the more ridiculous if not contemptible they seemed. I was about to point out to them simply that, as they asserted the impossibility of X, while Deniz insisted on the possibility of X, Deniz had the stronger position. The party broke up before I could say this, however, and I was just left with a feeling of pleasure at having had a small part in a conversation in a language native to none of us.
What to do next? Why not the Louvre, since it was open late on Wednesdays. I took the subway thither and got in line at the pyramid. The line moved quickly, and soon I was inside, but nobody seemed to be taking money. Only after seeing some exhibits did I see a sign to the effect that some of the staff were on strike, so the museum was free.
It was hard to find one's way around. It did not help that I was not clear on the divisions of the Museum into Denon, Richelieu, and Sully. I managed to see the Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, and the Mona Lisa. One does not really see the Mona Lisa, because of the crowds and because she is behind glass. The crowds would not be such a problem if they did not include so many people wanting their pictures taken in front of this famous painting.
I wandered through galleries of French paintings, but never saw anything that particularly excited me. The stuff was too old, and there was too much of it.
When I left the Louvre after six, they were collecting money again. On the list in Let's Go: Paris of vegetarian restaurants, there was one called Country Life near the Opera, and thither I went for dinner. One served oneself from hot and cold buffet tables. The food was simple, but good; I stayed there eating for some time. The staff tolerated my weak French, answering my questions patiently in French themselves.
That night in the hostel was strange. The place was supposed to be full that night, but I had only one roommate when I went to bed. We left the door unlocked, and somebody came in the night, but he was gone in the morning. I wonder if this was the night when my American money was stolen. I had perhaps a hundred dollars in a spare wallet in a pocket of my small backpack. Some days later when I looked for this money, it was gone. I always carried this backpack with me during the day. I had not thought that somebody could steal from this pack as I slept nearby, but this must be what happened. Oh well. Now I know it's true that you can't trust your roommates in a hostel.
I had had such a full day on Wednesday that on Thursday I hadn't the energy to leave the hostel early. I sat in the common room, eating müsli with soy milk that I had bought at Country Life, when I was joined by two other travellers who turned out to be vegetarian as well. (A clue was that one of them was eating oats.) We made a date to meet at the Aquarius Café, a vegetarian restaurant not far from the hostel.
For the day, we went our separate ways, I to the Centre Georges Pompidou. The Museum of Modern Art there was given over to an exhibit, called Made in France, of works of this description from the previous fifty years. As at the Louvre, so here, I found nothing very exciting. What was exciting was the view of old Paris from the top of the exterior escalator that ran up the west side of the building.
It is hard to say what makes a city beautiful, but whatever it is, Paris has it, and I started to see this as I gazed down from the Pompidou Center. Is it as simple as the gray color of the buildings, and their uniform height? The beauty is also in the nonuniformity of the streets. I had thought that their lack of pattern would be disorienting to one used to the regular grids of American cities. It could be, but a map eliminated any problems; indeed, plotting a course from A to B became more of an adventure. It was also a delight to discover streets barely wide enough for one car, leading off obliquely from busy avenues.
I think it was on the way to the Pompidou Center that I visited Notre Dame. Or maybe it was on Wednesday, before the Louvre. Evidently it did not leave a strong impression. I suppose I am not quite comfortable in a Roman Catholic church. Also, my model of a beautiful cathedral is the Gothic one in Washington; the extent to which Notre Dame deviates from this model is the extent to which it is less appealing. In particular, the central spire in place of a bell tower looked rather pathetic to me.
After the Pompidou Center, I wandered west to the Église Saint-Eustache. This was nicer to be in than Notre Dame, if only because there were no crowds. I was back at the hostel not long after five, to have a shower and perhaps a nap before dinner. Two new roommates were trying to sleep when I got there, and one of them ended up coming to dinner, though he was not vegetarian. After dinner, back at the hostel, Brook wanted to share some liqueur with the rest of us, to lighten the load in his backpack. Being law-abiding, we did not try to drink in the hostel, but we sat outside on the sidewalk drinking. It did not make sense to me that this should be legally preferable.
There the manuscript ends. Ayşe came, and we did a lot. We visited the Sewer Museum and the Catacombs. I wept over the Van Goghs in the Musée d'Orsay…