I wish you all could have seen the first three tweets I sent from Paris. Unfortunately, they never made it from my loaner phone back to the Twittersphere. But if you could have seen them, they would have looked like this:
My first day in Paris has not been a resounding success.
Parisians are all very nice to me, but they must think I am the village idiot. Even I think that right now.
Day 2 in Paris was much better than day 1. The sun shone over Canal St. Martin. To the best of my knowledge I committed no major faux pas.
Paris was a challenge for me. Blame it on the jetlag, blame it on the lack of French language skills, blame it on the fact that I was in a foreign country I’d never been in before, but I couldn’t seem to do anything right. I tripped, stumbled, and dropped things more often than I normally do. I committed faux pas. I got lost repeatedly. I had trouble figuring out the simplest tasks. As a recovering perfectionist, it was very frustrating–and emotionally exhausting.
Remember how worried I was before the trip about not being able to speak much French? Turns out I wasn’t crazy after all. Nine times out of ten when I said “Je suis désolé, je ne parlez francais, parlez vous anglais?” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak French, do you speak English?), the answer was no. They were always nice about it, but the answer was still no.
At my first hotel (an annexe to another hotel), the front door had a security touchpad. I was given the code to let myself in. No matter how many times I tried to punch in the code (yes, I was punching in the right code), I could not get the damn door to open. No one else seemed to have any problems with it. Luckily, there was always someone around to let me in, but my God, they must have thought I was a moron. I also couldn’t get my window in my room to shut all the way. It was a swinging window, too top heavy to stay closed, and I couldn’t find a lock or a latch anywhere on it. Between the cold air and the street noises seeping in, it was impossible to sleep in the room. I fiddled with that window for probably 30 minutes before finally giving up and calling the front desk to send someone up to take a look at it. The young woman at the front desk came up herself and figured out how to close it in less than a minute.
I had lunch my first day in Paris at a brasserie at Place Republique. There was a step between the bar area and the restaurant area. Naturally, I tripped on it. (Both ways.) And I almost knocked my glass of water over. But somehow, using sign language and my limited French, I made it through that lunch without setting the restaurant on fire.
For dinner, I confess, I was going to eat at the McDonalds at Place Republique, because I was tired, it had been a long day, and I wanted to eat early so I could just crawl into bed and get some sleep. But when I got there, it was just too depressing, so I left. It was pouring rain out. I was getting wet, even with an umbrella. I passed a number of cafes and bistros and couldn’t make up my mind where I wanted to eat. Finally, I saw a menu that had quiche on it (something I recognized!) and there were people sitting inside eating. I walked past a guy smoking at a table outside and entered.
I remembered immediately that you’re not supposed to have a wet umbrella inside, so I hurriedly closed it up and shoved it in the umbrella stand by the door so I wouldn’t drip on their floor–forgetting completely the other thing you’re supposed to remember whenever you enter an establishment, which is to greet people. Once I was done with the umbrella, I looked up and everyone was staring at me. A man said pointedly “Bonjour.” I realized my faux pas and blurted out “Bonjour!”
When he got up and walked over to me, I realized he worked there. I fumbled with the french to ask for a table for one. He pointed at the clock. It was only 6:45pm. Cafes don’t open until 7pm in Paris. I had walked in on the staff having dinner. Shoot. Me. Now. PLEASE, I thought.
He was incredibly gracious about it, and ushered me to a table anyway and got me a glass of water while they finished their dinner and prepared to open. It was quite possibly the most awkward 15 minutes of my life. At the stroke of 7, he brought me a menu–all in French–and I ordered the aforementioned quiche. I made it through the rest of the meal without setting this restaurant on fire, either. Thank God for small favors.
The next day started off pretty well. The sun was shining and I enjoyed a morning stroll by Canal St. Martin before heading over to the Opera House. I went to use a public toilet at Gare de l’est train station. I thought it was weird that I had to walk past what looked like a reception desk to get to the bathrooms. . . .Until I heard “Madame. . .Madame. . . Madame!” and realized the woman at the front desk was calling to me. I was supposed to pay her 50 cents to use the toilet. Oops.
By the time I checked into my 3rd hotel on Friday, I was one frayed nerve. Blessedly, there was a complimentary bottle of red wine in my room. I don’t even drink wine, but it had been a rough week, so I struggled for 15 minutes to the get the cork out of the bottle. After one glass, I was done, but couldn’t get the cork back in. I told myself I should just dump the rest of the wine down the sink before I spilled it, but I decided to wait until after dinner to see if I wanted another glass. What do you think happened? Yup. I got back from dinner and somehow knocked the bottle over, spilling red wine all over the desk and wound up ruining one of their white towels mopping it up.
So yes, I was the Village Idiot in Paris. By the end of the week I must have uttered the phrase “Je suis désolé” (“I’m sorry”) over a hundred times. But you know what? I survived. I didn’t starve to death, I didn’t wind up in jail, I wasn’t mugged, and I didn’t wind up dead in a ditch. I saw Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and the Louvre, walked along the Seine, sat in cafes people-watching, met some terrific people, and enjoyed the beautiful architecture of a beautiful city. See? You don’t have to be perfect or graceful or even speak the language very well to travel alone to a foreign country. It may not always be easy, but you can do it.
I think being a big screw-up during this trip was good for me. Being outside my comfort zone gave me a perspective I haven’t had in a long time. Sometimes we need to struggle, to be frustrated, to be willing to look foolish in someone else’s eyes in order to learn and grow. . .and to be able to empathize with others. I hope the next time I see a tourist or an immigrant here in the U.S. struggling to figure out bus routes or items in the grocery store, I notice and stop to take the time to help, because I know now how frustrating that can be. And if I hear my fellow Americans getting snarky about visitors to our country who don’t speak English, I’ll tell them my story and ask them to be as gracious and patient as the French were with me.