(“Part Un” is here.)
Done with all your touristy stuff?
…Go to where Parisians live.
I arrived in the city in the middle of a sanitary worker strike. Especially along the river, where there is a concentration of eateries and other commercial concerns, trash piles were everywhere. On top of that was the flood’s after-effects, which combined to give the city a rather pungent smell.
Then, there was the inconvenience of a transit worker strike, which did not help the city’s gridlock, nor–I imagine–people’s mood.
Oh, and there was also the ISIS threat, specifically targeting the Euro2016 tournament, which was hosted by France this year.
And what is the Parisians’ attitude?
There are still brilliant days to bask in, there are still tourists’ cameras to mug for, there is still coffee to sip leisurely, there are still afternoons to while away with a good glass of wine. There is still life to live, in short.
I was hanging out along the Seine with my camera one afternoon when I happened upon the three young ladies above. I gestured to them, from across the river, that I would like to take their photo. They readily agreed, and proceeded to strike a number of poses, some rather grandiose. After I gestured to them to relax, they settled into the pose above, with just their brilliant smiles. It was the best of the lot.
Somehow, I had come to Paris thinking that Parisians were surly and rude.
As it turned out, it’s nonsense. Absolute nonsense.
Sure, there is what I come to think of as the “Parisian frown”: slightly furrowed brows, more of a preoccupied frown than a downright scowl; eyes hidden behind dark Ray-Bans; ear phones in, nose inches from a personal communication device.
But, behind that facade is almost always a brilliant smile.
Don’t trust me?
Yield your seat on the tram during rush hour; or your place in a grocery line; open the door for someone; or even just a simple “bonjour”; I guarantee those will bring out that friendly Parisian smile.
Speaking of “bonjour”:
I consider it a courtesy that I speak French when communicating with the locals. After all, I am a guest at their home, and can’t assume that they could accommodate me in my own language. (Now, THAT would be rude.)
French is very similar to English, especially in terms of spelling. One can browse through store signs, or a menu, and have a pretty definite understanding of what one is reading. French pronunciation does take a bit of practice, but one is no worse for trying. That’s the point of traveling, isn’t it, to try new things?
Sure, every so often I would get a bemused look in return, for slipping into the English pronunciation of certain words, or having my statement construct slightly out of order. And here’s where Parisians are accommodating: they would ask questions, to make sure they understand my intention.
(Learning French, or any language for that matter, is so convenient nowadays with the Internet. One can find any number of Youtube accounts teaching everything French, from every day words and phrases to detailed discourses on Jean Paul Sartres. The one facility I used for learning both French and Italian is duolingo.com. It is at one’s own pace, and can be as leisurely or as rigorous as one makes it. It has been rated as good if not better than Rosetta Stone. The best part? It’s free.)
I wandered into a local bar, Le Valmy, one afternoon, and asked for a beer.
The bartender put the beer on the counter, and asked–in English–where I am from.
I told him, “America”; then wondered aloud if my French is that bad.
“No,” he said, “your French is very good. Very good. Because of your accents, I know you are not from here.
“You have no accents,” (meaning that my French is not Parisian French) he continued, all in perfect English.
We then proceeded with our conversation, about nothing really, I to him in the best French I could muster, and he back to me in his great English.
(Le Valmy, a local dive, is across the street from Canal St. Martin. The crowd here tends to be bohemien-trendy, congregating in shabby-chic bars, bright-colored bistros, and of course picnics along the canal, often with a guitar or two. I was wandering the neighborhood looking for vintage CD’s when I stumbled into it.)
It’s my experience that–the further I strayed from the touristy spots–the more friendly the people are. Wait staffs seem more relaxed, more welcoming, less rushed, more ready with a smile (while those on the tourist routes tend to be a bit more curt and hurried.) It must be that us tourists can wear thin on people.
The Friday after I arrived, Euro 2016 started.
And Paris erupted into international colors. Depending on which countries were scheduled to play at Stade de France on any given day, the city was awash with those countries’ colors.
Of the fan groups I did run across, the Irish contingent was perhaps the most boisterous.
Along the Blvd de Clichy (in Montmartre) are a couple of Irish bars, the Harp and O’Sullivans. Starting well before the game, the celebrations there involved singing, chanting, dancing, and just general jumping up and down; of course, with a lot of Guinness and Jameson whiskey (Paris laws allow open alcohol containers in public). At some point, musical instruments–mainly drums of different sizes, and a couple of bagpipes–were added to the mix. As more fans arrived, the party spilled out onto the street, essentially blocking motorist traffic. No one seemed to mind however, maybe because, well, Paris.
For this tournament, both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland qualified, in effect doubling the fun. “It does not matter, Republic or Northern, we cheer for both,” an Irish fan solemnly told me. Then, he proceeded to down in one gulp whatever frothy beverage he happened to have in his hand.
There are many open-air markets in Paris.
The one I would recommend is on the center median of Blvd de la Chapelle (which is an extension of Blvd de Clichy, in the Montmartre neighborhood).
As I turned onto Blvd de la Chapelle, there was a sudden transformation, from western-style clothing to flowing, colorful African/Middle-Eastern robes.
And, of course, the lilting mix of languages.
Such a bustling, vibrant scene, a Middle-Eastern open-air market, selling everything from fresh produce to brilliantly-colored fabrics. Right in the middle of Paris.
I was browsing a pastry stand in the market, when its owner offered me a taste of one of the pastries. “Grazie,” I said, out of habit, and the gentleman’s eyes brightened. He then proceeded to describe to me, in a French-Italian hybrid, what he had to offer (most of which went right over my head; I think I heard “dolce” several times along the way). It didn’t matter: everything seemed to be dripping with honey and more honey.
After the pastry, I was also given a small cup of a blackish drink, which the owner said was coffee. He then gestured to me to drink it in one gulp. I was a bit timid, but drank it down quickly anyway.
The sharp bitterness of the coffee, in combination with the honey in the pastry, did leave a rather pleasant after-taste.
I read somewhere the phrase, “Travel feeds my soul.”
A co-worker, prior to my first trip ever out of the country (to Italy), asked if I had ever been there, and whether I was going with a group. No, I told him; I was backpacking solo, and that I had never been outside the US (save for a couple trips back to Viet Nam some twenty-plus years ago, which in my thinking is not really foreign travel: I am Vietnamese-American).
There is so much already written about the virtues of traveling (and this Forbes article is one of my favorites; it manages to capture succinctly my traveling experiences).
For me, traveling is all about seeing things, being in places and/or situations, never encountered before; and basking in the newness of it all; wherein I would have to use mental resources heretofore unused/dormant in me. There is something satisfying about being to communicate with another person in his/her native tongue, and be understood; about being able to navigate situations totally foreign to me, be it a city, a public transportation system, or something as simple as a dinner menu. There is something–both frightening and exciting–about finding another whole vast world out there; and what I already know does not constitute even a microscopic part of it.
I still remember–when arriving in Rome’s Leonardo Da Vinci airport for that first ever trip–thinking to myself, “Oh shit!” I had to get to Norcia, an obscure little mountain town three-and-a-half hours northeast of Rome. Sure, I did my research prior to the trip, enough to know there is limited public transportation to said destination, especially late in the day. And everywhere I turned, everything was in Italian (my Italian knowledge at the time consisted of maybe twenty words). I had no idea where anything was. It was overwhelming.
But I somehow did string together the transportation needed to get there. So I missed a train here and a bus there, but I got there. I remember thinking “Oh shit!” again–this time in relief and a bit of self-congratulation–as the train pulled into Spoleto just in time, and with just enough ticket money in my pocket, for the last bus to Norcia that night.
My co-worker, upon hearing that I was traveling solo to a new country, gave me a rather peculiar look. I asked what it was about, and was told, “You are brave. Much braver than me!”
I did not think of it as “brave.” But, coming from a former combat pilot, I will gladly take it. And my humble soul is hungry for more: it is infected with an addiction called “wanderlust”, and it needs to be fed.
As a footnote, I now know the answer to that question frequently asked by recruiters, i.e., “What gets you out of bed in the morning?”