Friday, June 26, 2015

Day 30: Paris Impressions

They say when you meet someone, first impressions are important. Well, I think it also works for visiting places. It’s always the first impression that sets the tone for how you will react to what happens next.

I was a bit on the low side this morning because I really liked Ostend, I liked the no pace, no rush beach scene. You just strolled. Nothing in your mind but the sun, sand and sea. I adored the cool breeze, I found it absolutely refreshing. The day started a bit grey as well. But it’s another day and another city.

It was odd that I hopped on the train at 646am at Ostend and by the time 11am came around, I was in Paris. It didn’t seem like 5hours to me. Of course there was a few bumps, like when I found the right car, my seat and had settled myself when an older Frenchman interrupted me insisting I was in his seat. I showed him my ticket, I told him this was coach 13, his ticket is coach 12 but he insisted and I just didn’t have enough confidence in myself, so I grabbed my things, ran down with all my baggage and asked the conductor and he confirmed that I was in the right coach. “Well, someone just kicked me out of my seat.” I said. He was getting the train and passengers ready to go, so he said as soon as he got the train going, he’d come up.

So I went back and told him firmly, this is my seat. He capitulated and I noticed another man who was watching the exchange, smiling. I don’t know if it was because I was obviously pissed about leaving and came storming back and smiling for my standing up to the boar, or if he was laughing at me. Our eyes met and instead of a challenge, his eyes told me he was smiling for me.

I was going to sleep, but that encounter riled me up so I ended up reading a bit. I don’t know where my head was but I really didn’t feel the hour fly by so quickly. Before I knew it, we were getting ready to arrive in Paris Nord.

I found myself walking out of the station and luckily my Airbnb host had given me good direction and I also swear by an app called Metro that has guided me through many a city’s metro stations.

When I walked up the stairs of the metro and found myself standing on Rue St Michel, I was actually excited. I’ve roamed almost all over Europe for 4weeks and it’s Paris that really got my heart racing. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my stays, well most of them, because it was still a new place. Good or bad, each city was an experience and that is all I was going for.

But Paris is always spoken with awe and longing. I would bet it’s on everyone’s bucket list. But several years ago, I dropped Europe out of my bucket list. I thought it was always out of my budget, not enough time, going for two weeks to Europe would be nothing but a tease and I don’t like that. But here I am, suddenly, wonderfully, out of the blue, I got a lot of items checked off my bucket list and I feel so wonderful. I got to do things I didn’t even know would qualify as an item on my bucket list. Religious pilgrimage? Me, the sarcastic cynic?

So many cities and places were underwhelming. The actual realities of some places weren’t simply disappointing but at times, felt like sheer betrayal.

When I was a child, the first book I ever read that did not have any illustrations was this book called “The Prettiest Gargoyle” a story about a boy who’s family moves to Paris, he’s sad because he just wants to go back home. Until he meets a girl hiding on the roof of Notre Dame. Thus the prettiest gargoyle. It was when I realized I could use my own imagination when I read a book. Thus began my lifelong love of books. And my fascination with Paris. I think I was 7 or 8 at the time. Then when I was 12yo, I read Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” and I spent that summer signing my name as Sydney Carton.

So imagine what my life became when I wrote off Paris from my bucket list.

I corrected that this year and the minute I set foot in Paris, my heart thudded, I grew excited and suddenly I was that 8yo child looking for the prettiest gargoyle. I was in Paris Freaking France!

I scored an apartment in the St. Germain area, right by the left bank. Every single space of sidewalk is covered by either a used book store or a café. I wandered around to get myself acclimated to the area and I didn’t realize that I found Notre Dame.

Paris seems like an odd dichotomy. It’s beautiful and ugly, it’s bright but dirty. It’s busy and dynamic but seemed to be taking it’s time. Paris is like being a man, watching a woman he  just met and wondering what it is about her that caught his eye. He hasn’t made up his mind what it is, but he’s fascinated.

I was thrilled to stand in the shadow of the Sorbonne, but distressed by the woman and baby sleeping on a foam mattress on the corner. I was fascinated to step into the Notre Dame Cathedral and dismayed that no one seemed to understand it was a religious icon. I wanted to pay my respects, but I had run out of coins. All I had was a €20 bill, so I asked from one of the saleswoman IN THE AISLES OF THE CHURCH SELLING RELIGIOUS THINGS, if she could change my bill for me so I could light candles in respect. She told me no, gave me the notorious French arrogance and walked away. There was no point in pursuing my show of respect where there is no respect expected.

I was fascinated by the way the traffic lights work, you have to pay attention to not one but two lights. And you don’t cross at the corner, you cross just a bit off the corner. At one place, I missed the crossing space and ended up walking 3 different corners before I figured it out.

I was confused by the Parisian insistence at the metro of standing right by the door when a few feet away was plenty of space, instead they cram themselves, pushing and shoving unaware of more space mere feet away.

I admired the beagle who sat quietly at his owners feet while, calmly ignoring the many feet that came and went before him. I had to respect the woman who stood at a corner greeting people with “BONJOUR!” her voice full of joy and delight and persisting when everyone else ignored her. I respected the man who waved a large bottle of water arguing with himself and walking a bit sideways as he walked up the sidewalk. He wasn’t on a phone. I helped an older woman who was struggling with her bag climbing up the metro stairs. I said “May I assist?” with an accent. American’s don’t say things like “May I assist?” So the woman who was a Brit, struggled to thank me in French.

I didn’t realize that Paris is actually a bit hilly with the random dip and staircases. Either I had my head down looking at my gps on the phone or I was staring up at the buildings, something had to give. So I put the phone away. And oddly enough, despite the many turns and the tiny little streets, I managed to imagine the city as a grid as if I were in Chicago and I still found my way home.

I’ve noticed that very recently. Brussel, Ostend, Ghent, Brugge and now Paris. I remember how I would second guess myself, turning myself around just when I was about to arrive where I needed to be. Then I ran into Madrid that just messed me up completely. But since Madrid, I’ve found a certainty I didn’t have before. Suddenly, if I found myself in an unfamiliar place, I didn’t worry, I just knew that I would find myself.

My ‘home’ is not perfect, I sit downstairs at the small kitchen table typing away this late night as my TV is on upstairs in my loft bedroom. It’s hot up there, a bit cramped and no AC nor fan.

But again, it’s called adapting. I’m beginning to understand what I will and won’t put up with and I’m learning to stand up for myself.

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