Take the last stale pastry off the hostel’s tabletop buffet and pour a mug of drip coffee; recall the commandment Professor Jacobs issued a decade ago from her pulpit, the lectern of a Cuyahoga Community College literature classroom: “Everyone must see Paris once.” Replay that moment as you sip—how her hands flailed and her brooch gleamed, how her eyes widened and her southern drawl receded every time she said it: Paris. The others rolled their eyes and mocked her, but you took her seriously, took as gospel that Paris was for everyone, an experience that must not be missed in a meaningful lifetime.
Forget the cab driver who last night circumnavigated the city until you owed him half the Euro notes you purchased inside the airport terminal. Forget the irritable hostel desk clerk, the snoring Finn and sexually adventurous Turks with whom you shared a dorm. Think of the gallon jug that for eight years sat like a shrine atop the apartment refrigerator, collecting every spare coin—the change from every pack of chewing gum or soda from the break room vending machine.
You nearly hid that jug, weary of sarcastic remarks from friends. But as it slowly filled you ignored more pressing uses for the cash, like last April when you fell behind a month on the electric bill rather than plunder your savings. Plane fares rose and exchange rates jacknifed but finally you rolled and counted each coin, scoured the Web for a cut-rate, off-season e-ticket from Cleveland-Hopkins. The foreman laughed so hard when you told him why you wanted a week off in February. You ignored the guys who called you Frenchie, and when someone left a beret in your locker, you smiled and wore it all day. And now, as they scrape around in coveralls, you are in Paris.
As you consider what waits on the other side of that weathered hostel door, remember to chew, at least a little. Sling one last sip of coffee and undertake what will become morning routine: hide securely away in your back pocket the stigma of a navy blue U.S. passport, flip coat collar upward, yank scarf tight, straighten hat, and burst out the door. Smile.
Nothing will seem common in those first moments. The stone streets are rough with charm, not from neglect like the worn asphalt back home. And the buildings—every one unique and intricate, and you’ll wince just to think of the crumbling cube of concrete that holds your bed and all your belongings. Every step presents something vibrant and new—coffees and breads and roasted meats send their smells out onto the street, and the sun peeks down in strange, wonderful angles between buildings. And even though the voices around you are morning-muted, they swirl into a warm blur—remember to breathe.
The budget allows for one meal each day; at three in the afternoon, split the difference between mealtimes and smile at the providence of bold letters on a street cart, a word that springs back from the mind’s recesses, a remnant of high school French class, boulangerie. Try to read panini descriptions in French, but when impatience takes over, switch to parenthesized English. Near the bottom of the clapboard, find a safe selection—bread with five cheeses, and it’s even simple to order in French: “Un sandwich avec cinq fromages, s’il vous plait.”
“Comin’ right up,” the man behind the counter will say in a manufactured drawl, grinning in acknowledgment of both the effort and the hacksaw you’ve taken to his native language. Do not hand him the money while ordering, as you would back home—he won’t take it. First, watch him pull the sandwich from the display case and clamp it with a heated press. Only after the man has wrapped and handed you the bread/cheese torpedo will he accept your coins. Trade ‘merci’ formalities with him, but don’t bother with beaucoup—no one ever really says that in France. Pull back the paper wrapping, and keep the bites slow: this has to last until breakfast. Burn to memory the mild crunch of that first bite—just bread—and then the second when the cheeses get involved, their flavors alternating sharp and mild, strong and smooth.
Between bites, scan the streetscape for the housewives carrying armloads of fresh bread, the boisterous vendors, the plucky artists, the hopscotching children whose photographs illustrated Introduction à Francais. Whose images distracted you, those nights in an attic bedroom atop your parents’ row house, when you should’ve been studying the language of France, rather than the daydream of Away. The Cuyahoga was on fire back then; above glowing pilot lights, the sky alternated between grey and black—never clear. Away was a beautiful idea. Today, finally, Away is a beautiful place, even if you see none of the people your textbook promised.
Take a final bite of the sandwich as you stroll brick-inlaid Rue Mouffetard, teeth grinding in slow circles—victims of that sad mechanism, restraint. When the panini is gone, wait awhile before chasing its remnants with still water from a grocery store, just like your dog-eared secondhand guidebook recommends.
That evening, tease the budget and sip espresso at a table in the front window of Le Café de Flore. When a waiter in vest and bow tie offers a small tin pitcher of milk, nod. This is a matter of volume, not taste—it will double the size of your drink, double the number of sips, double the length of your lease on the seat. Marvel at erratic taxicabs and gaudy winter clothes as everyone floats by in a blur. Buy a second thimble-sized coffee shot to further delay the walk home.
Dump sugar and packets of processed creamer into the hostel’s burnt coffee. Drink it fast, and know one will notice it’s blonder than Marilyn. Pour a forbidden refill when the breakfast man looks away, distracted by the washing of trays.
Walk all morning, walk to weariness, smile, look up—always upward, at the balconies, the verandas, the gold foiling, at the intricate bronzework of statues memorializing people you’ll never hear of or care about. Don’t look down—the beauty of Paris is upward, even if the sky is charcoal.
In the afternoon, another street vendor—this time for a crêpe. After ordering, watch the cook eat a bite of something, then lick his fingers one at a time. Without so much as wiping on a rag, he’ll pour your batter over a circular form, spread it thin, wait for the heat to do its work, flip, fill, top, wrap then thrust your food forward, smile, and say “voila.” Ignore those unclean fingers and accept it, crush between your molars the sweet concoction of batter and sugar crystals. Smile. It’s Paris—smile. With hints of crêpe lingering on your palate, walk by the Tour d’Eiffel and Arc de Triomphe, see their grand forms and magnificent arches from the ground, but don’t pay to climb any stairs. Paris offers plenty of those for free. Later, shell out ten Euro to enter the Lourve because, well, you must. Once inside, follow the thick evening crowds to the right, see Venus and Mona, then peel away to the museum’s left bank, to the lonely rooms of paintings no one has in mind as they’re patted down by guards looking for bombs and spray paint. Marvel at the splendor and sadness in the ancient shades before you. Note that the painted forms are your only neighbors. Inside this famous building in this bustling city, you are alone.
At night, duck into a bar, someplace cramped and dim. Buy the biggest, cheapest drink they’ve got and watch students carry animated but whispered arguments. Imagine they’re discussing something profound or sexy. Sip and sip, watch and listen and long until your glass is empty. Return to the hostel, slip quietly into the room, trying not to wake anyone until you realize there’s no one else—you’re the first one to return. Pull the sheets up to your chin and fall asleep before the Turks can stumble back in and keep you awake all night.
Same godawful breakfast, but it’s still free. Swipe an extra croissant (the last one) and slather it in strawberry jam, because cheap croissants in Paris are just as dry as cheap croissants in Ohio. Paris by foot will begin to take its toll. As the day unravels, muscles will resist footsteps first with a dull ache, then with the hint of a blister on the smallest right toe. Rest by taking a seated meal amongst chatty students at a café along Rue Sorbonne, one where the wooden patio chairs all face the street. The front row will be filled, but second row is not so bad, and so it’s petit dejeuner pour un, but the waitress will roll her eyes and say “that means breakfast, not little lunch.” Study the English menu she’ll produce from the right pocket of her apron. Angle it away from others so no one can see the conspicuous absence of accents aigu or grave.
When the waitress finally returns engulfed in the scent of a prolonged smoke break, order the special, a small salad, followed by chicken encrusted with something that has no precise English translation and so its title has been left in French. But the picture looks nice, so that’s where you will point, and it’ll be tea and tap water. She will bring Perrier and will not understand—or pretend not to—when you explain you want water from the sink or basin or pipe, and she’ll summon another waitress and make a scene. Voices will escalate, arms will flail, people with English and French menus will stare—just take the damn Perrier, count it as sunk cost.
When the food arrives, ignore the pulsing blister on your toe, ignore the seeping blood that will have to be bleached from your white sock—focus instead on the flavors, the encrusting which turns out to be some sort of spiced cheese. Don’t take it personally when the tea never arrives except on the bill, or when you notice the unwanted Perrier cost six Euro. Just pay the bill and go. Brush aside what loud curses follow you onto the sidewalk when the waitress discovers a fifty-cent tip, despite assurances by both the menu and your guidebook that tips are unnecessary. Walk quickly, and think only of the food, which rests heavy in a satisfied stomach.
Evening time, explore the mad colors, jagged shadows, manic sounds of Saint Michel’s tightly drawn streets. Walk with confident purpose past restaurateurs who shout at you in English, “Couscous!” When one of them grabs your arm, draw back. He will point to a photo menu taped to the window. With bulging eyes and aggressive posture he will persist: “Couscous! For you, drink included!” You’ll understand by then how dearly an included drink can cost. When he tightens his grip, shout: “No! No couscous!” He will release you. As you exit the narrow street, Notre Dame will stand stark and backlit before you, will steal your breath. Fall in love with this place, with this moment; forgive those who would try to tarnish its beauty. Back to the hostel, back to bed, back to tap water from a paper cup, back to sleep.
Explore further reaches of the city, legging it out to avoid Metro fares. Window shop stores in which you’d never be welcome—black-clad doormen will glare and fold their arms to make this quite clear. From the steps of Sacre Coeur, use Notre Dame, the Pantheon, a bent black ribbon of the Seine to estimate the hostel’s location. Feel at first elated about how far you’ve come—then crushed at how many roofs, how much distance separates you from your goal. The sun will set and street signs won’t match the names printed on your hostel-issued mess of a wrinkled map—go ahead and say it out loud: lost. No one will respond to your feeble ‘excusez moi’ and either there are a dozen Chinese dry cleaners in this neighborhood—each with an inexplicable stuffed duck hanging upside-down in the window—or you’re walking circles down a street the map proclaims straight. Forestall worry by focusing on your toe, which throbs its way to the front of your mind, precludes even the instinct to panic. Try the Metro, but its ticket machine will be out of order— they always are. The steps back to street level will seem the embodiment of defeat.
Desperately hungry, pull the bill of your cap low over embarrassed eyes when entering McDonald’s to order a value meal by holding up three fingers. Astonishingly, this will tax the interpretive skill of four employees. As you sit alone in the molded plastic booth and drag soggy French fries through two packets of ketchup that cost a Euro each, conversations and lovely accents will fill the restaurant. Grimace as you realize this is the place where you’ll encounter the most actual Parisians living their actual lives.
Twist a faded black necktie around a white collar, giving the knot dimples in the mirror. Run through your hair a dab of gel from the corner sundry. Run across your cheek the 4-Euro single-blade Bic, lubricated by hostel soap. Jacket on, shoes shined with a square of sink-dampened toilet paper—it’s okay to smile at the makeshift job you’ve done in putting yourself together. In keeping yourself together.
Tablecloths will be sharp white, the array of silverware will dazzle and perplex. Waiters will maneuver with immaculate strides and precise, angular gestures. Blacks and whites, silvers and golds, boisterous laughs—this night will embody the Paris you expected, will embody hope, escape, Away. Wave off the English version and order from the set menu in broken but admirable French.
The wine will be deep red and heavy, will race quickly through your veins, will numb your toe, your worn muscles, your tired mind. Take another sip, then slow yourself. Savor each bite of the light, flaky bread, ignoring the thought that it’s just bread, nothing substantively different than the loaf you could have bought at the 24-hour Kroger two blocks from home.
The soup will be creamy and flavorful, but don’t linger over it so long that the waiter wordlessly swipes a half-full bowl when he brings the fish course. Though you haven’t touched a speck of seafood since third grade (when you vomited cafeteria fish sticks and chocolate milk all over the fold-out lunch table) push aside leafy garnish and fork the tender fibers of filet. Check to see if anybody is looking before dousing it with a squeeze of the lemon that is almost certainly ornamental. Chew quickly so that bits of the fibrous flesh do not have a chance to stick on the caps of your molars or slip into the chasm between gum and cheek. Chase each bite with wine.
The main dish will arrive drizzled in a deep brown sauce and surrounded by a small forest of inedible greenery. But as the knife slides along the entrée’s edge, the meat will be grey and tough. You will want to push it away, but years of grandmother’s ‘clean-your-plate’ commands have become intrinsic, and so you will continue, repressing the urge to let your mind freely think what you know it wants to: that in this moment of fulfillment, what you really want is a greasy burger with a refillable paper bucket of soda and cubed ice. Concentrate instead on the slim flickering candle that lights your table, on the waiter’s finely groomed mustache—on anything that makes Paris feel like it’s supposed to.
The cheese plate will arrive, a sweet respite. Each bite will be lustrous, but your stomach will feel bloated by the foods that already reside there. Then, the desert—cheesecake (more cheese!). Quietly wrestle down the entire beige triangle.
The dark coffee will appear majestic and expensive when it arrives in the white porcelain mug atop a saucer. But sip after sip, it tastes just like the instant stuff you make each morning. This disappointment, you will decide, is a welcomed one.
When the check comes, place the colorful bills into the thin leather portfolio without pausing to calculate or convert. Walk out the door and catch a glimpse of a raven-haired Parisienne, ruby-lipped and sucking on a cigarette, complete with a black turtleneck. Smile at this cinematic perfection until she speaks—in a British accent.
Just a short walk back to bed, but you will weave and bob—delay. Relish the chance to pull this air once more through your lungs, to see Paris through the lens of your own retina. Begin, already, to filter your memory, to shape the stories you will tell coworkers and friends and family of the wonders you’ve seen and felt and tasted. Decide which memories to leave behind. Plan the argument you will use to prove the professor right, to prove yourself right, that Paris must be seen, that there is nothing like it. That yours is a meaningful lifetime. Check your watch.
The cab will take you directly to the airport this time, sparing money but robbing you of one final ride amongst the monuments, the grand buildings. Watch the empty 5 a.m. sidewalks, the street lamps, the quiet homes blur past. Outside the heart of the city, the suburbs look like they could be the suburbs of anyplace. They look like they could be the suburbs of home. Across the lap of a sleeping businessman in the window seat, watch the daybreak departure through that thin oval film of glass as the plane curls up and away, leaving beneath you the city of flickering lights, a city that from the separation of a couple of moments and a few thousand feet carries an amber glow strikingly similar to the hue of the street lamp canopy that on Monday will guide your way to third shift at the plant, that will lead you to normalcy, that will direct you toward the mundane beauty and comfort of home.