It was cloudy when I landed at Charles de Gaulle airport on the afternoon of October 24, 2016, so I couldn’t see much of France from the air before we landed. That didn’t stop me from staring at the landscape around the runway and convincing myself that what I was looking at was French grass, French trees, French sky. The airport itself was a bit of blur as I raced to collect my bags since I’d had quite a bit of water on the plane to combat jet lag, and was in desperate need of a restroom. It was difficult to read the signs in my waterlogged state, but I made it to baggage claim – by luck, mostly. After finding a blessed bathroom, with those delightful European stalls that have doors that go all the way to the floor, I collected my suitcase and hurried to catch the RER train to Gare du Nord. The train was sort of like the DC metro, but all above ground. The track walls were covered in graffiti, and the buildings around the tracks weren’t much to look at. A lot of industrial park type areas, grey and concrete. Cities never change.
It was at this moment it hit me I was in France. There were enough English-speaking tourists at the airport, but few tourists want to brave the RER train, I guess. Not that I was “brave” to take it, just too poor to take a taxi to central Paris.
When I arrived at Gare du Nord, I can tell you I expected a much smaller train station. I’m used to American transportation systems. I emerged into what looked like a mall with all my luggage in tow. I probably looked like a right tourist then – laden with baggage and slightly lost looking. Thank goodness European countries are more progressive with their internet, and I was able to pull up a map and figure out which of the many exits to take that would get me closest to my AirBNB, (in theory). I flagged down a taxi, not understanding what the signs were for drivers that were on break or not. Luckily, the driver was nice, spoke English, and was willing to drive me on his break. He drove me through the busy city streets to my AirBNB at 17 Rue Dupetit-Thouars (that was a fun street name to explain to him), in the IIIe arrondisement of Paris, also known as Le Marais. And to me, most notably, where my parents lived for so many years just a block away, and where I first lived when I was born – Rue Charlot.
I entered the code to the building and opened the tall, iron green doors and entered a dim hallway. The hallway led to a tiny courtyard open to the sky – I’d gone too far. An easily missed doorway led to a stairwell and lift. I learned later that there were switches to turn on the lights, but in the moment I just used my phone flashlight. A wooden spiral staircase with a thick red carpet wound up and around the tiny lift elevator that seemed to be made of windows. Since I had my luggage, I opted for the tiny lift. When it arrived to take me up, I stepped boldly forward to enter, loudly and violently encountering the glass door that you so obviously need to open first. Riding the lift up, I was mesmerized by the windows that reached from floor to ceiling of the stairwell, made of clouded or stained glass with colorful floral designs. On the other side of those windows, I passed landings with large wooden apartment doors with big doorknobs right in the middle.
Anais, the girlfriend of my host, met me at the door to the apartment with a huge smile. The apartment was beautiful – completely Parisian, and very cozy. It looked like what I imagine French chic is. I had my own room with a window looking out across the Paris rooftops. The WC was separate from the bathroom and down the hall. The shower had no curtain at all – I never did figure out how to take a shower without splashing water everywhere. Is that a French thing? Can I generalize the way an entire culture showers by my host’s bathroom? Anais and I had a bit of a language barrier, as this was well before I had practiced enough French. It wasn’t enough of one though, and I found her delightfully friendly with a quick and open laugh. She was remarkably patient with me as I struggled to figure out how to lock and open the front door. Her and Eric, the host, had provided me with everything I needed, and Anais was to join Eric in New York the next day, so I’d have the whole apartment to myself for the rest of my stay. Perfect.
After unpacking, I decided to go out a bit and explore. All I wanted was a nap – I’d been up 36 hours and was exhausted, but I didn’t want to make jet lag worse. Le Marais was so alive, even though I walked relatively quiet streets in the afternoon. I passed several cafes with people sitting out with coffees and drinks, little shops, even a model shoot in progress. By chance, I ended up in front of 74 Rue Charlot, the address my parents had lived. It’s crazy to think that the women that passed by me as I looked at those white numbers on the blue plaque could have been me if my parents hadn’t moved away. It was an odd feeling.
I chose to eat at the cafe right across from my apartment – at La Tour du Temple. Exhausted and unsure of myself, and wildly unprepared for the French style of dining, I awkwardly asked for a table. Desperately scanning the menu for a French food I recognized, I accidentally ordered steak tartare – a raw beef patty. It’s a delicacy in the North of France, and I’d been planning on trying it one day, just not exactly that particular point in time. Too embarrassed to send it back or make any kind of scene, I diligently ate as much of it as I could. It was tasty, but incredibly rich, and my traveled stomach couldn’t handle too much. I ordered a fruit salad for dessert and moped back to the apartment.
It was a rough entry, but the first, jet-lagged night in a new city is like that. It could only get better.