This week’s episode of This American Life is called “Americans in Paris.” It inspired me to write about my own adventure in Paris, about four and a half years ago. I’ve written about it briefly before, but now I want to talk about it in more detail. Sorry, this post might be kind of long. Sometimes I ramble.
I spent the first semester of my junior year of college studying abroad in London. It was by far the most exciting, terrifying, and nerve-wracking experience of my life. Before this, I’d gone on two other international trips, but those were part of a group. My semester in London was more insulated than many semester abroad programs since I was living and going to school with 23 other students from my college, but I was still more on my own than I had ever been before.
By the time I went to Paris, I was already a pro at traveling. I had gotten over my fear of traveling through London alone after about a week of being there. I had gone to Scotland, Spain, and Ireland earlier in the semester. And then it was nearing the end of my semester, and it was time to go to Paris. Because where else would three 20-year-old American girls want to spend Thanksgiving?
To be fair, we actually spent Thanksgiving Day in London at our Australian professor’s flat. But the very next day, Kaely, Liz, and I woke up at the crack of dawn to hop on the Chunnel. And the adventure began.
We got to Paris a couple hours later. We immediately went to exchange some money at the train station, then attempted to find our hostel. Word of advice for anyone thinking about going to Paris: get a map and learn how to say “Can you give me directions to ____” in French. Because that city is confusing. With the help of a stranger, we were directed toward the right place. We got to the hostel and learned that we couldn’t check in for another few hours, but they would allow us to lock up our bags until then. Which we did, and then we were off. We spotted the top of the Eiffel Tower, and with zero plans for our trip, decided that was the perfect place to start. I already told the story of how we got lost, but here’s a refresher: we didn’t pay attention to where we were going. At all. We just kept making random turns down random streets with the goal of getting to the Eiffel Tower. Which we did. It was getting back to the hostel at the end of the night that was the problem (you see, our hostel wasn’t a big pointy thing that towered over other buildings).
Once we got to the Eiffel Tower, we saw the line for the elevator and decided that we were young and athletic enough to take the stairs. So we walked to the top of the Eiffel Tower and it was one of the coolest views I have ever seen. I’m really glad I got that experience and didn’t take the elevator just because it was faster. One thing I learned while traveling: even though everything about where I’m from is about going faster, faster, faster…nothing about traveling is like that. It’s about experiencing new places and cultures, not about fighting against a clock. Traveling shouldn’t be stressful, it should be enjoyable.
Anyway, after the Eiffel Tower, we got tickets for one of those “hop on/hop off” bus tours that got us around the entire city for two days. We wandered around Notre Dame. I bought gloves and a scarf because it was freezing. We saw a lot of cool buildings, we saw the Arc de Triomphe, we wandered through a really cool little street fair thing. It was an excellent day of adventure.
Then it was night time, so we decided to stop in a little café and pick up a baguette and cheese for dinner as we attempted to get back to the hostel. And we failed, miserably. We had no idea where we were, and it was dark. None of us panicked though, because what’s the point of that? We stopped under a street light to check our map, and two different Parisians stopped to ask if we needed help. In English. I guess it was a good bet that we didn’t speak French. With their help, we eventually made it back to our hostel, checked in, picked up our bags, and discovered that our room was basically in an attic of a really old building. We were sitting in our beds talking when we heard male voices coming up the stairs. I guessed they were Australian, but they were actually from New Zealand (I was pretty proud of how good I was getting at guessing accents, though). And then 5 guys in their 20s burst into our room, and we met our roommates for the night. And what a night it was.
Our Kiwi friends insisted we go out with them. They were so fun and interesting and silly and drunk. It was a blast. They also brought along another guy from our hostel, a kid named Robin who spoke perfect French and perfect English. He helped us not get helplessly lost again. We took the Paris metro and went to a bar and saw a band play and just had a fun night out in the city. Then my friends, Robin, and I left the Kiwis and went back to the hostel. I just remember it being so cold in the hostel and we didn’t have blankets and the girl at the front desk just gave us a bunch of top sheets and a space heater. I slept in my jacket and Uggs. It was a really nice establishment. When the Kiwis got back, they woke us up and we hung out in the room with them for a while.
The next day, the Kiwis left and the three of us were on our own again. This time we were smarter and paid attention to where we were. We took the bus to the Louvre. I’m not really an art museum person, but it seemed like something we had to do. Liz managed to get us in for free because there was some deal where European students didn’t have to pay. And technically we were studying in Europe, so…it was legit. We saw some cool art, including the Mona Lisa. But it was so crowded in there and we were exhausted. The most memorable part of our experience in the museum was when we were paying for our food at the restaurant, the cashier greeted both Liz and I in English, and then got to Kaely and started talking in Spanish. Everyone thinks she’s Spanish.
That night, we visited the Moulin Rouge, then checked out the Eiffel Tower at night (beautiful). We were exhausted and had an early train to catch, so we went back to the hostel. That night, our roommates were just a couple of boring Americans, so we only chatted with them briefly. Then we froze to death another night, woke up early, and were on our way back to London.
For only being there for two days, I feel like we covered a lot of our bases – we saw all the major sites, we got lost, we made friends, we ate cheese (I honestly don’t remember eating anything but cheese and bread in Paris). We did it all.
The episode of This American Life focused on what it is about Paris that Americans are so fascinated with. It got me thinking about my own expectations of France before I got there, and how I feel about it now. I was only there for two days, but it was enough for me to feel a fondness for Paris, even all these years later.
French culture was never something I was particularly interested in. Up until I actually went there, my impressions of Paris were from television and other people. I was told that Parisians hate Americans. I was told they were snobby and that the city was dirty. I have no idea what other people’s experiences there were, but from my own, I can tell you that I did not witness any of this. Was Paris “dirty”? Not any dirtier than London or New York or any other city. Were the people rude and condescending? Well, there were numerous occasions when the three of us got lost and, sometimes without even having to be asked, kind strangers volunteered to help us. So, I would say that my experience in Paris defied my expectations. I’m sure there are people there that don’t like Americans or tourists or whatever, but that could be said about any place in the world. Every person I interacted with was polite to me. Maybe I got lucky. Or maybe people should stop listening to generalizations and stereotypes and actually go out and form their own opinions based on actual experiences.
And that’s Lori’s Life Lesson for the day. You’re welcome.