I left Berlin for Paris yesterday. There is plenty I could write about my previous week in Berlin, but I want to spend this post describing my journey into Paris.
For the past ten days (and counting) I have been relentlessly learning French. I made a decision to learn French and to commit to fluency in Spanish. Being surrounded by Europeans who speak two, three, even four languages doesn't make me feel inadequate. It makes me want to become more cultured in this sense. That one day I might be able to hold a conversation (or two) with someone in their native language. In any case, I flew out on Thursday morning from Berlin to Paris with a few compulsory phrases under my belt such as:
Pardon me, if you please, do you speak English?
I'm sorry, I do not speak French.
Hello, how are you?
See you later! / Goodbye!
I am tired/happy/sad/angry.
When I arrived at the airport in Paris, I knew I would have to make three transfers to get to my stop. A bus to a train to a metro (subway). When the bus dropped me off at a small train station, I felt a little uneasy. There, the ticket machine wasn't working, and there was no train station employee onsite. No ticket...could I ride the train? I noticed two young people chatting and thought, well, here we go....
"Excuse me, do you speak English?" (Me, in French)
"A little." (man, in English; the standard reply everywhere)
Proceed to them not knowing about the train or the tickets.....until I hear a voice...
"I speak English." Another man, probably in his late 40's, approaches. He was on the bus with me, I recall.
Anyway, the man, whose name I found out later, is Francois, proceeded to accompany me on the train. Me sans ticket. I learned that he had been to the States, that he's a computer engineer, and that he would like to work in the States. We spoke a little in French. He told me how to say things in French, simple things, that I can't necessarily recall right now. "You're welcome," was one. "I am from...." and so forth were the others.
He got off at the train stop with me and tried to purchase tickets for me, but the machine wasn't working. I said that was too generous of him, in any case. He travelled all the way to Gare du Lyon (my train station/metro station stop) with me.
He told me that he left work early because he had someone coming to his home to do some repair work --- I think we can all relate to that-- the infamous window of time in which some repair person will come and so we must be available for hours during the work day--and his boss had given him permission to go. He had to be home by 1 p.m. and it was nearly half past--he was being so kind. All of this time and assistance, for me?
Of course, the usual suspicions went off in my head. Older man, what does he want? Wants to move to the States, is this a ploy? Offering to purchase tickets for me, again, what does he want? But, I got absolutely no sense that anything was amiss. Plus, it was the afternoon and we were in highly populated areas. I was keenly aware of where we were. And he was so calm, friendly, open.
I feel like it's important to tell you something else about this man.
He is African. He is well-dressed. He is French. I feel like it is important, because I wonder if you've assumed someone white or maybe you aren't picturing anyone at all. I wonder what your idea of a French man is. Or, what if I wrote about a "young, French woman?" France is incredibly diverse and one cannot assume anything at all.
I will admit that I did feel and notice the difference in our skin color. Mostly because of the racial violence in the United States. Mostly because I am always thinking about race / class / gender differences and assumptions and biases. Judgements I make. Conclusions I assign to people based on a variety of factors. I am thinking about these things all of the time.
When we got to the Metro, he finally said it.
"My friends, they think I am crazy. But I like to help people. I know what it is like, traveling in a new place. I want to help because I want to help make a good impression of Paris (pronounced Pa-ree) and the people here." I'm paraphrasing, but this is the essence of what he said. We talked about how there is so much violence everywhere. I said we needed more peace. He nodded. I let go of the tension I was holding in my body. We were human beings, trying to be kind and considerate. I was grateful.
Finally, we exchanged our names and said thank you and nice to meet you and he was off. To wait for the repair person. And I was off to find a locker to store my backpack.
Backpack stored, I now had a few hours to wander the city.
I made my way around St. Germain. I was feeling the pangs of hunger. I had been awake since 4:30 a.m. and it was now around 2 p.m. The pretzel and handful of almonds I had eaten weren't cutting it. And then, I found it. By happenstance, though if I had read about it earlier, I probably would have sought it out just because.
I found a Star Wars-themed creperie. It looks like the inside of one of the Imperial starships.
It's called Odyssey. Of course, there was Star Wars music playing. The crepes all had names of (I think) Star Wars Universe planets, most of which I had never heard of. I could be wrong on the name meanings, but still. It was quite the space. It was small and there weren't many people in there. The young woman working there told me she liked Star Wars and X-Men. She speaks three languages: Arabic, French, English. She said that French people like people to speak French, but she thought that I should be speaking English. It's easier, she said, than French, and it's what more people speak. It was interesting to hear her say this. I wonder if it's this "old world French and white" attitude versus the "new France, the international France, the younger generation France." I wondered the same thing about Germany.
She asked me if the crepe was good. She asked me if I had friends in Paris, and how long I was staying. She seemed sorry that I was alone, like, what a pity. It was interesting to get that reaction. But I suppose it could be a common one. Alone--triste! But I didn't have the energy to explain to her how happy I am--contente--to be traveling alone. That I have found so much expansion in my thoughts and attitudes, in my centeredness, in my ability to be satisfied by, to bring it up again, the simplicity of the moment.
When I left, she asked if they would see me again. I said maybe. It was a pretty good crepe.
I literally turned the corner and saw Notre Dame. I turned another corner and saw the famous Shakespeare and Co. bookstore. And adjacent to it--a small, boutique coffee shop. Yes, please.
It was so good, sitting in the airy cafe with a small coffee, reading my book. Landing to the space, knowing that tourists and Parisians alike were all around, heading to landmarks and other destinations. There are so many tourists here. It's the first place I've been to where it feels like a tourist destination.
I wandered around some more the rest of the afternoon. I noticed how many police officers were around, at all of the landmarks, at metro stations, at the train station. Everywhere. Prepping, no doubt, for more threats or more attacks. I smiled at one, the one outside of the Gare du Lyon train station. I think I did that because he had a rifle slung around his back. I wanted him to know I saw him, for one, and that I wasn't a threat, for two. He smiled back. Oh good, I thought. He's human. Not a lifeless, emotionless drone of a soldier.
PARIS SMILES BACK. This happened all day yesterday. People made eye contact and it wasn't weird and they didn't give me this look of are you crazy? They smiled and nodded. MERCI, PARIS. MERCI. Scandinavia, please take note.
I was asked where Notre Dame was by an older white woman in French. I pointed. I didn't know how to say "Over there."
I was asked by a canvasser to (probably) sign up for something. I felt absolutely smug that I could get away with "I don't speak French," and get off the hook so I wouldn't have to hear half of his monologue about animal rights before I said no thank you. Even if they are good causes, I just don't have the patience to be pressed. I felt smug until his coworker up the street got me and I said the same thing and he responded in English. Note to self: never be too pleased with yourself and remember this very important fact. Where there is one, there are two. Maybe more. Eyes open!
Finally, I was able to meet my host at the apartment. It's one of those off the main street types where you enter into a courtyard with lots of little apartments. Up narrow and crooked stairs and there it is: a tiny one room flat where maximizing space is key. Thus a convertible couch--bed. It's cozy, and as they say, "well appointed."
I found the organic grocery store, 5 min. walk away. Got my groceries. Made dinner. Drank some wine. Fell asleep.
So. I have seventeen more days spread out before me in this city. In Paris.
Paris is dense compared to Berlin's expansive quality (it's also more expensive). It feels like there are more people here. It feels like there is a hurried quality here to Berlin's slower pace. But it isn't a bad thing. It's not chaotic. It's determined, definite. Paris feels vibrant and cultured, but also deeply sad. There's an old grief here and a new one.
I found myself deeply curious yesterday. So much room for introspection in a city with such art.
I found myself so surprised by the friendliness I have been met with. The grocery store clerk tried to teach me some French. We laughed as my groceries were rung up.
It was pleasant. Sincere. Friendly.
Perhaps it is my enthusiasm for wanting to learn, for appreciating what I am given in English. Perhaps it is that I look a little bit lost or tired. Or at peace. Or tranquil. I don't know. But I am grateful for all of this.