Imagine you’ve never been anywhere. Yet, you find yourself on a trans-Atlantic flight, destination: Paris, France. You arrive on a chilly, grey Wednesday morning. After being herded through customs, you discover that what was advertised as French when you took it was actually some other language. The babbling sounds you hear all around you sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and any prepared response you give is met with quizzical looks of non-comprehension.
Maybe you’re disoriented by the fact that you didn’t sleep two minutes on the flight over. Between the crying baby that never drew breath for seven hours and the person just behind you who kicked your seat all the way across the Atlantic, you’re just a tad tired. No matter. You’re in Paris. At least, that’s what you think as you exit the airport and find yourself in some cavernous, smelly train station, instructions you don’t understand blaring over a loudspeaker as you follow the gaggle of people onto the train.
Two stops, and there’s commotion in your car, pulling you out of your sleep deprived stupor. Some gendarmes are dragging people out of your car and are slamming them around a platform, yelling in the pseudo-French language that sounds like gobbeldy-gook to you. Suddenly, you hear the word “billet” and realize these people must not have tickets. And, you feel somewhat smug for having recognized an actual spoken word.
It won’t happen often.
The train emerges from its hole in the ground into rain that is coming down sideways over a murky grey landscape. Graffiti and garbage line the tracks on both sides. And, you think, THIS is Paris? The one I’ve been swooning over for decades? I flew all night for THIS? Can I just go back home now?
The train motors forward, and you see another tunnel in the distance. Rounding a bend, what looks like a toy Eiffel Tower appears on the skyline, but you really aren’t sure your bleary eyes aren’t playing tricks on you, and – just like that – you’re underground again. When you reach some place called Gare du Nord, your travel companion insists on transferring to another train, getting off at the Cite station. Dumbly, you follow because you don’t know what else to do. You’re exhausted. You stink. You’re hungry, and you just want to find any bed, anywhere, and sleep for two solid days.
This was my first series of experiences in Paris with MTM, Thanksgiving 2003.
MTM kept wandering around the train station aimlessly. He would approach first one exit and then another, rejecting each of them for some mysterious reason. I’m dragging my luggage and myself along behind him, becoming increasingly more impatient (read shrill and cilantroful) as he seems to be content to explore every unseen cranny of Cite. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime (read five minutes), he found an exit that appeared to be to his liking, and we proceeded up the steps.
As we emerged from underground, I saw a green lawn in front of me. I looked up, and the clouds parted, dousing everything in prismatic rays of light that converged to my left. When I looked, there was Notre Dame, bathed in stunning morning light.
I gasped. And, then I cried, as I stood there and took in a spot I never thought I’d see with my own eyes.
And, then I had my first experience with a coin operated bathroom and babbling attendant in a foreign country. Even THAT was heavenly, once I saw the light.