My trip to Paris was a moderately big deal for me as it was my first solo trip to a place where I don’t speak the language, and despite significant travels in Asia and the United States, I was also the first in my immediate family to set foot in Europe. And as I’ve been saying to my friends, the Time-to-Life-Changingness ratio on this trip was immense, a truly transformative experience in the most verbally inexplicable way. I’ve lived in my fair share of tourist destinations, so it wasn’t anything about the scope or the glitz – not that I could afford the glitz – but something else just beyond words. Though my leg pains from the literally 50 miles of walking have since faded, I needed to get this blog post out before my Paris mindset faded even more. Below are just some of the thoughts that crossed my mind as I wandered Paris.
The French get a bad rap for being standoff-ish.
Immediately upon arriving at CDG (Charles de Gaulle airport), I found myself being a Stupid American Tourist trying to buy train tickets into the city from the ticket machine, struggling with my credit card not working. Luckily, a kind woman pointed out that the sign (in French) on the machine said the credit card reader was broken and pointed me toward the ticket booth. And at my first stop in the city after I dropped off my bags at my hotel, Le Pure Cafe (pictured above) as made famous by Before Sunset, I found myself saying, “Bless you,” to the woman sitting next to me when she sneezed. She struck up conversation with me, I learned she was a labor lawyer, and she recommended me a restaurant that I sadly didn’t have the chance to check out only because of a 1 hour wait to get in. I was always conscious of coming off like Stupid American Tourist, which might have helped, but I feel like the stereotype about the French being standoffish and unwilling to help English-speakers is totally undeserved.
Damn, this USC/”Gryffindor” scarf gets me a lot of social mileage.
An awful lot of people complimented me on my USC scarf, or as it’s more popularly known, my Gryffindor scarf. I already knew this from stateside, where I like to half jokingly say people like my scarf more than they like me, but even in France, people really liked it! I literally had one dude yell at me across the subway platform about it: “Frenchfrenchfrenchfrenchfrench!” “I have no idea what you’re saying!” “GRYFFINDOR! ‘ARRY POTTER!” “OH MERCI!” It also single-handedly led to me being invited to go to a Parisian nightclub (The Panic Room, pictured above) with a bunch of drunk dudes, one of whom had caught me walking back to my hotel and complimented my scarf while his buddies were inside a convenience store stocking up on booze.
Strangers are kind.
Most places I went, I was fortunate enough to run into people who were willing to welcome me as one of their own for a bit, like the drunk French guys. At the bar pictured above (Point Ephemere) – which I half-jokingly call the most hipster bar I have ever patronized, not only for its decor and riverfront location but its proximity to a homeless encampment – just as I was about to leave, I ran into a group of Anglophone US/UK/Canada expats. Another one of them complimented me on my scarf, remarking with his British accent that it reminded him of his own school colors, and I ended up hanging out with them for another hour. Were it not for the kindness of strangers, this would’ve been a far lonelier trip.
When I eat real food, I can eat a tiny portion and feel full.
There were one or two occasions where I’d order food and feel like I got a small portion for the price. Take the scallops from Cafe Constant near the Eiffel Tower (pictured above, demolished). But savoring their flavor over a few glasses of red wine, I found myself very satiated by the time I was done. This definitely happened several times. It makes me wonder what it is about the food in the US means that that quality is missing. Or maybe I’ve just been eating like a poor grad student for too long, who knows.
Where has escargot been all my life?
One of my fondest memories of Paris will be discovering the magic of escargot in a random restaurant (Au Cadran, pictured above) at 4am on my way back to my hotel from the aforementioned Parisian nightclub. The buttery-garlicky magical deliciousness, where had it been all my life? I couldn’t believe I’d been hesitating ordering the full 12 pieces in favor of the 6 piece. After that first time, I ended up having escargot four more times before I left Paris, including a purposeful return to Au Cadran the night before my departure to have 18 escargot, and only escargot (and red wine, ofc), before I headed back stateside. Needless to say, “best escargot Philadelphia” is in my search history right now.
Not speaking the language sucks.
Generally finding myself in situations where I can speak the language – whether in the US or in Korea – I’d forgotten how isolating it can be to be somewhere where you don’t. Sure, most everybody in Paris spoke English, especially at places like bars and restaurants (my favorite painting from Le Petit Chatelet, right next to Shakespeare & Company, pictured above), but still. If it weren’t for the aforementioned kindness of strangers, I would’ve felt very much stuck in my own head the whole time, and I definitely on the whole felt more stuck in my own head than usual. The lingual discomfort also manifested in feeling like I had to move around more slowly than usual, on public transit for example, just to make sure I was going the right way and all.
Think of all the people you could fall in love with that you’ll never get to know because you don’t speak the same language.
Another one of my fond memories is the several hours I spent chilling at Le Caveau de la Huchette (pictured above), a.k.a. the one location in La La Land that isn’t in LA because it’s from the “what if we’d gone to Paris together” montage toward the end of the movie (Edit: 08/19/18: the menu from this place is part of my framed collection of menus from restaurants in La La Land!). As I sat there watching everyone dance and as I thought again at The Panic Room and yet again when I matched with girls on Tinder who spoke little English, I couldn’t help but lament linguistic limitations imposed on romance and existence in general. Imagine all the people we could fall in love with that we’ll never get to know simply because of language. Imagine never getting to know someone who loves all the same movies you do, all the same songs you do, thinks about things in all the same ways you do, just because you don’t speak the same language. All the connections being lost, all the bonds to never be made, romantic or otherwise, simply because of that one barrier.
Probably one of the deepest, most depressing thoughts I had, or as a British fellow tourist I aired the thought to put it, “Whoa, that’s really deep, mate.”
Paris stole my heart when I was there. I was so sad when I took this picture of the intersection near my hotel as I made my way out to the airport train. I have this grand backpacking trip through Europe in mind for September – the initial plan was to hit Nice as my France stop and my mid-trip “chill stop,” but now I’m pondering whether to drop Nice or shave a few days off some of the other stops to fit Paris back in. Can’t wait to be back, I hope soon.
PS: A map with all the destinations on my itinerary, about 95% of which I managed to successfully hit (Versailles off-map to the left) –