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.