I hear the final echoes of my friends’ and family’s farewells as I move from the airport lounge to the plane that would carry me to Paris, France. I’d been studying French for seven years, and for the past few months, working at a miserable job, I’d been motivating myself with the word “Paris” written on my palm. As a little girl, I had begged my parents for French lessons, given my Barbie dolls French names, and played “restaurant” with a French menu. I was great friends with my high-school French teacher, studied the French dictionary during my spare time, and befriended the French high-school exchange student on his first step into class. France had always been a part of me, yet I’d never been there.
I didn’t sleep the whole way to Amsterdam, my layover point, and I picked up a copy of Le Monde, in order to prove to myself that France really existed. This was not another French class reading exercise — it was the paper of French people, and I was almost there!
Through my jet-lag haze at Charles deGaulle Airport, I made it onto my Paris-bound bus, and then I saw it, that most magnificent of wonders, the Eiffel Tower. I sat up, immediately energized, and looked around me, a full 360, and that’s when it really hit me: I’m alone. I had no one but strangers to tell. When I finally stood outside my new university, luggage and all, I could barely even get myself to go in. I’m in France! I thought, mesmerized by the street, the French signs, the corner patisserie oozing the rich scents of sugar and butter, the stylish people carrying fresh baguettes home, the dogwalkers, the woman sweeping the sidewalk outside her boutique.
When I finally shook myself out of the trance and walked in, I entered a room full of people mid-conversation. A tall brunette in an elaborate scarf turned to me, “Ah! Vous etes qui!?” This was the moment that my ear would begin accepting French language as its norm. I introduced myself and learned that my new French “mother” would arrive any minute, as would many others for the 41 other students as big-eyed as myself. Minutes later I discovered what a puppy at the shelter must feel like: dozens of French ladies appeared, announcing American names with their best effort. With each one I thought, She looks nice, could this be the one that takes me home?
The one who did was a small woman in her sixties, immaculately dressed. The brunette pronounced my name for her, she whisked us into her oh-so-small but chic car, and she took on the crazy drivers of Paris. As we sped by monuments I had only dreamed of, Madame told me about “la perspectif de Paris,” spilling out impressive historical dates and architectural facts that make Paris what she is today. It felt like an out-of-body experience, yet I had never felt more alive.
Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of my new residence. After punching a code into a large stone wall by the street, we passed through a courtyard to a residence building, then punched another code for entrance through a thick wooden door. A ride up a tiny elevator brought us to Madame’s floor, where she entered an old-fashioned key into an even thicker door. In the foyer my jaw dropped: the ceilings were so high I feared my voice would echo. It was furnished with what I guessed were antique Greek busts, Oriental rugs that probably cost more than a year’s tuition at the university, and a chandelier that made me gasp.
Showing me quickly to my bedroom, Madame informed me that dinner was about to be served. I dropped my things in another high-ceilinged room, with another chandelier, a large bed covered in thick toile blankets, and French doors that opened on that peaceful courtyard and a view of miles of Parisian rooftops beyond. Still in a daze, I made my debut in the dining room, where an incredibly long table was set to perfection. French doors opened to a small balcony with a bird’s eye view of Paris and the Eiffel Tower in the hazy distance. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more unreal, Maria, the server, arrived with our first course on her wheeled cart. I sat down and took my serviette (napkin), anxiously eyeing the quantity of shiny silverware as Maria put an herb-stuffed tomato in front of me. Aromas of French tarragon and anise filled the room as my glass was filled with the fullest-bodied Bordeaux wine this 20-year-old American had ever encountered. Was it a kind of wine so rich and tannic that it needed to be taken with food, or was I just that unaccustomed to it? After each tiny sip, Maria immediately poured more into my glass. My cheeks were turning very rosy, my insides ignited, as I listened to Madame proudly tell me about Paris. I told her that I was mesmerized and immediately in love with the city. My little American, she replied in French, you have such a good accent. Emotions flooded me and I smiled so big I had to look down.
Dinner finally came to an end after three hours of the best food I’d ever eaten, and I was advised to turn in. But first, Madame gave me directions to my school: Metro stop this, metro stop that. … After forty-eight hours without sleep and three glasses of wine, making sense of directions given in a different language was a challenge. I slept very well in my big French bed.
Day one opened with me putting to the test those directions I’d heard last night: metro Monceau … Metro? Ah! There was the sign, and the stairs leading down into Paris’ mysterious underworld of transportation. I ran to the underground ticket window to purchase my carte orange — my new metro identity — from the ticket seller. In test number two, speaking with a fast-talking native, my years of devotion to French paid off. She handed me my little booklet and map; all I needed to complete it now was my photo.
I felt so empowered, so independent getting on the metro — I now had access to every corner of Paris. Trying to hide my enormous smile and not blow my cover, I sat down and noted my fellow riders’ attitudes and apparel: don’t carry a backpack, get a chic bag; act like you know where you’re going; get some new shoes; and hey, stop smiling.
At Rue Daguerre — these words stuck with me from Madame’s instructions last night — I hopped off the metro and ran back down that first enchanting street to my new university. We students received an incredible welcome: an orientation, great quiche, class schedules, and a lecture by a gendarme (policeman) about the laws in our new country.
I made friends with two American students, and, after class, we got on the metro with no direction, using our new cartes oranges as keys to the city. This would become one of my favorite things to do. After our day of exploring, we found a small restaurant in the middle of a narrow cobblestone street, where we feasted on authentic paninis and a bottle of wine. The air carried French voices, the bright crescent moon hung between two old buildings and illuminated the smiling faces of my new friends. We had no idea where exactly we were, but Paris was answer enough for me.
Every day was spectacular, beginning with the cart outside my bedroom every morning holding a carafe of fresh orange juice, a croissant, and a rotation of almond tart, pain au chocolat, or an éclair. After breakfast, I parted for the metro, hiding my pride that I knew my path so well underground, even at the overwhelmingly large interchange of Charles de Gaulle Etoile. I started a new ritual of getting a café au lait right before class. Class was where I found my second home in Paris: the more people who know your name in a foreign country, the less of a foreigner you become.
I often ate lunch in one of the university cafeterias available to students throughout the city. I loved that a delicious piece of French bread accompanied every dish, that the French loved eggs cracked over their pizzas, and that I met someone new each time.
Every other night I ate dinner with Madame, usually alone, but once in a while joined by a niece, nephew, or sister. All the dinners lasted three hours, and every minute was enjoyable. Madame was incredibly formal, and she didn’t speak a word of English, but we were able to cover all topics in great depth, aided slightly by the wine. As the sun set through the open French doors, we’d dine on the fine food, discussing politics, history, and culture until our bellies were nice and full and it was time to retreat to our respective rooms.
In a foreign country, small things seem so big. I found it exciting to visit the post office, amusing to see the insane amount of yogurt at the grocery store, and an awakening to see a wine and beer machine at the school cafeteria, like any pop machine in America. Every little event seemed magnified: getting a note from my French mother that I’d received a phone call from my French friend was a marvelous novelty; sitting in a park with a journal and a head about to explode with inspiration was a thrill; seeing almost as many types of cheese in the French grocery as there are total items in an American grocery was surprisingly unusual.
I enjoyed my school, and that my teachers didn’t pretend — they were just themselves, real people that we got to know during the course of the year. My grammar professor wasn’t worth talking to until she’d had her 8 a.m. café; asking my sociology professor about film noir was a sure way to get him in a good mood, and he took our class to a movie that would have prompted a Dateline special back in the States. But we were different people here; we were Parisians. I now carried a sleek bag onto the metro, and I hid my smile within to fit in with my surroundings.
I was beginning to feel really comfortable in Paris. I knew my metro route, I was a regular in my block’s café and the city’s busiest Internet café, and I knew where everything was, from les Champs Elysees to le quartier latin (the Latin Quarter). I even fooled the locals. As I sat on a bench on the Champs Elysees waiting to meet some friends, a Parisian tried to pick me up by asking if I knew how to find the Champs Elysees. He was probably hoping to have found a foreigner that would go weak at his French. “You’re standing in the Champs Elysees,” I laughed. “Merde,” he replied, “a little embarrassing asking a French person that.” Days later, a French woman asked if I could tell her how to get to the Monceau metro stop. I gave her the directions (I live across the street from it), and she said, “How lucky I am to have asked a Parisian with all of the tourists around here today.” You couldn’t dream of a prouder moment in my world.
But I had my difficult times as well. One night I partied and didn’t come home, which set me up for a shock the next morning when Madame screamed at me, “Where have you been? I couldn’t breathe, I was so scared! You didn’t call!” I felt absolutely horrible and I cried for hours. How could I have forgotten to call her, for she was my mother here, and she took care of me. I couldn’t think at school that day, I was without appetite watching my sugar cubes spin around my café au lait, I didn’t know what to say, how to apologize, how many I’m sorry’s could make a wrong right.
That evening, I came home just past dark, after a solitary sketching on a bench at the l’arc de triomphe. In front of my bedroom was a cart, holding three exquisite desserts and a small card that said, “Pour ma petite americaine.” There were no more words to be said. This was Madame’s truce. I was still her daughter.
My last day of school, the tall brunette woman with the scarf pulled me aside. “You know who your mother is, don’t you?” I did not. “She is the former President’s sister. Mitterand’s sister.” There it was. I lived with a legend. Some things about Madame suddenly made more sense. I nodded back at the brunette, sophisticatedly holding in my smile as I’d learned so well to do a la mode Parisienne.
That night was Fete de la Musique in Paris. The city was alive with music: In the streets, every five feet or so, was a band, a musician, someone singing. Surely the whole world could hear! I sat with my new best friend near the Pantheon, drinking a kir and humming as my contribution to the classic French songs sung live just in front of us.
“Things will be different when we go back, huh?” she said.
“Yeah, they said we’d be pretty depressed, at my pre-departure orientation.”
“Do you think you will be?”
I thought about it. “Yes, I do, I will be. But I’m here now.”
Yes, I was depressed leaving France, and for some time after I got back to the States. I didn’t find life as exciting when everyone spoke English, when all I wanted to talk about was France and people were getting sick of hearing it, and when I knew life went on at home without me — and worse yet, I knew it was going on in France without me. But if I close my eyes and think of it, there I am, back in Paris. I can smell the croissants in the pastry shop, I can feel the brick roads twisting through the Latin Quarter, I can hear Madame’s voice, I can see the Eiffel Tower against the black Parisian sky. I was reborn with passion in Paris — knowledge that more is out there, that, oceans apart from us, there are people, cultures and places that are completely foreign, but where you can still find a home.
Courtney Lochner holds degrees in French and Communication Studies from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Prague, where she writes, teaches English, and listens to house music with a glass of wine. Watch for her novel, Night and Dia.
Copyright 2007 Pearson Venture Group