Friday, November 8, 2013

My trip to Paris

The first time I traveled alone as an “adult,” I was twenty-three years old and flew to Paris for two days before meeting my young husband in Bonn, Germany.  I knew no French.  The only preparation I had made was to ask my friend, Dennis, who had lived in Paris, to suggest a clean but inexpensive hotel where the staff spoke English.
    He had just the place, a small family owned hotel within spitting distance of the Eiffel Tower.  I wouldn’t need a reservation, he said.  I printed the name and address on a card and placed it in my purse.
    Flying into Orly Airport on a sunny morning, the red tiled roofs rising to greet me, was an exhilarating moment.  Paris was a romantic fantasy of baroque architecture, cobbled streets, cafes and sublime parks, all of it with a river running through it.  It was the setting for an Audrey Hepburn movie, and I for a brief moment was Audrey Hepburn.
    After working my way through customs and collecting my suitcase, I stood in a taxi queue until it was my turn.  Once in a cab, I produced the card with the neatly printed address of the hotel and showed it to the driver.  He nodded, and we were off.  I sat back in my seat confident in my ability to traverse Paris without a glitch.
    Soon, I stood in front of a hotel counter with a polite looking concierge in a dark suit behind it. I smiled and told him in English that I wanted a room for two nights.  He lifted his shoulders in a sympathetic gesture, spread his hands, one of them passing over the registrar and spoke in French.  French!  And though I didn’t speak a word of French, I knew in a nanosecond that 1) he spoke no English and 2) the hotel was full and 3) I had no idea of where to go or what to do.  
The anxiety rose up in me to become full terror. I couldn’t breathe. My mouth gaped open preparing to wail out my anguish:  I am alone in Paris with very little money, and now I’ll be thrown out in the street and will have to prostitute myself to live, and I’ll never see my family again.  Waaaah!
The concierge, like a well-trained doctor, reached across the counter and held my arm tightly as if to steady me.  He waved his arm and shook his head.  No, no, no.  Did he say that?  Holding to my arm he moved around the counter, picked up my suitcase and pulled me out the door, down the street and into another hotel.  He spoke to the new concierge in French, set down my suitcase, smiled at me and pointed to the counter as if to say, “This is your new home.”  Then he disappeared.
The new concierge said, “You want to stay for two nights?” in English, beautiful English.  Yes, I did.  Yes.  Thank you.  I signed in and was taken to my room which was the size of a prison cell but more pleasant.  Thank you, Universe.
Did I go out and see Paris?
No.  I stayed in bed under the covers one full day to pull myself together.  The next day I went out, walked about, spent the afternoon in the Louvre.  I didn’t eat for two days. 
When it was time to take a cab to the train station, I said, “Train station.” 
The cabbie shrugged his shoulders lifted his arms, hands pointed outward, palms up, which clearly meant, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
So I did an imitation of a train making chuffing noises, rotating my arms like wheels.  He understood.  Did I want to go North or South?  I understood that much.
I didn’t know.  He took a guess and took me to the North Station, which was an excellent guess, and I found the train to Bonn, Germany where they spoke German, which I’d studied in college, and where my husband waited for me.



  1. It seems husbands are never in easy to get to places, when I went to live with my now husband I had to fly into Sweden and was very lucky a kind English woman saw my despair and helped me buy a ticket for the bus to take me into town where I was to meet up with Fredrik!

  2. I rode the train into Chicago and felt the same panic. I needed to find and board the city bus that would run right by my hotel. In the madness of the downtown train station, I got lost and was too terrified to ask for help. In a long complicated story that involved tears on my part, an elderly lady took pity on me and put me on the right bus. I got to the hotel very late, hours after the attached restaurant closed. I was too scared to go out after dark, so I went without food until the next morning, when I decided to never ride the Chicago buses ever again. The whole week I was at a work conference I got up at the crack of dawn, walked miles from my hotel to the conference and then back again. I ate at the bagel shop on the way and tried a couple of other small mom and pop restaurants. My week alone in Chicago was not the glamorous adventure I imagined it would be, but I did manage to tone up my legs that week. Thank goodness the weather was excellent.

  3. My favorite travel story involving language gap actually occurred in London--with a fellow who (ostensibly) spoke English. My hubby and I were trying to buy theatre tickets from him, and I think he was just really annoyed at an American couple who dared to intrude upon his place of business (because apparently he didn't like doing business with the likes of us). So he laid his accent on really, really thick and didn't even bother to try being understandable. We eventually gave up and bought our tickets somewhere else. So, not as terrifying, but rather unexpected.

  4. Two weeks newlywed, and my first day in Cairo. Huz kissed me and was off to work. My assignment was to find the English Language Institute and sign up for Arabic lessons, since we would be living there for a year. I found it, I signed up, and began walking back to our hotel. Or so I thought. I got so turned around, I finally ended up walking along the train tracks, sobbing at how impossibly lost I was. And I do not even recall how I
    found my way back - you have dredged up a funny (now) memory of a long-ago chapter, Louise.

  5. How did you manage to resist the pastry shops?

  6. I love this! I traveled to France to stay with my penpal for a month when I was twenty. She spoke English, and I spoke no French. The scariest day was when we accidentally got separated in the Louvre. You've been there; you know how massive that place is! We didn't have cell phones, of course. I didn't know what to do. I planted myself right where I lost her. I waited for two hours, right under that famous statue of the headless, armless lady. My friend didn't turn up. I finally went in the huge room where all the escalators come in and out of. It seemed like the main room of the Louvre. I stood right in the middle and tried not to cry and waited and waited and waited. My friend finally found me. She had left the Louvre and was coming back inside to look for me. She had abandoned me earlier. ("It just seemed logical you would keep walking," she said.) I won't tell you about the other time she didn't pick me up at the bus station in a small town like she was supposed to, and I had to go into the local bar and plead for help to scary French people who didn't understand me. Prostitution may have crossed my mind, as well.