“Paris would be a great city if it weren’t for the people.”
“Don’t bother asking for help. Even if you try to speak French they’ll just ignore you or laugh in your face.”
I try to keep an open mind but everyone I talked to about Paris had something negative to say about the people. There were no exceptions. Most of the people I talked to had never been to Paris themselves and were just repeating what they’d heard so it was easy to dismiss them but when I talked to people who’d been to Paris I heard the same thing. And they were speaking from experience. So when I stepped out into the streets of Paris I kept to myself as much as possible. If I had to buy something I kept my eyes down and if I had to speak I spoke quietly and in French, or at least the best French I could muster since I’d never actually learned the language.
I had done my best to master a few words and phrases I thought might be helpful, or at least help me avoid getting yelled at: “sil vou plait”, “merci”, “excusez-moi”, “cruddite”. From reading I’d picked up a little bit of French even if I couldn’t pronounce any of it. I memorized “Je ne parlez pas Français. Parlez vous Anglais?” even though I was sure it was going to get me yelled at for being a typical stupid American tourist. And I also made sure to memorize “Je suis perdu. Ou est les…?” I knew it would also get me yelled at but I was pretty sure I’d get lost and I figured it was worth a try. Since I thought it was only polite to try and speak the native language the one thing I was determined to do was not speak English to anyone unless they offered to speak it first.
I spent the first day checking off my Parisian wish list. I’m crazy about art history, especially the Twentieth Century with all its Isms, so it felt like I was breathing in greatness just walking around Le Bateau Lavoir where so many famous artists worked alongside each other. The building had seen so much history–I’d heard a story about the intersection of art history and global history that may have happened there. At the height of World War I Picasso and Braque stood in the doorway watching soldiers march by. Picasso noted the camouflage they wore and said to Braque, “We invented that.”
It was amazing to go to the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay and stand in front of paintings and sculptures I’d only seen in books, to see the real things. I also tracked down Milan Kundera’s apartment building and actually met his wife, but that’s another story. Other than that I’d managed to avoid people for most of the day but I’d fallen in love with the city itself. My mind was buzzing with famous names and famous events. As I just walked the streets I knew I was following the footsteps of artists and writers and philosophers who’d also come to Paris, people whose art I’d seen and whose words I’d read, even if only in translation. Or in the original in some cases. Gertrude Stein lived there. So did James Thurber. Edward Hopper studied art in Paris.
Late in the evening I decided it was time to stop wandering and turn in. As I stepped out of a Montmarte Metro station I suddenly realized I had no clue where my hotel was. I’d set off without bothering to make any mental notes. Or physical notes. I’d been too excited to get going. It could be in any direction. There I was in the City of Light and literally and figuratively in the dark. At least I had a card with the name and address. I was terrified but I approached an older woman waiting to cross the street.
“Pardon. Je suis perdu. Ou est les…?” and I held out the card. She looked at it then gave me a half smile. Then she started pointing and rattling off directions in French. The light changed and she motioned for me to follow her. So I walked alongside her. A light rain started to fall. She asked me something I only partly understood–at least I got the word “parapluie”. “No,” I said, and she popped out an umbrella and held it over both of us. We crossed the street and walked a block. She then pointed and said something. There was my hotel.
“Merci beaucoup,” I said. She gave me a little wave then said something and was gone.
Why hadn’t she yelled at me, laughed in my face, or just ignored me? Well, I thought, even in Paris there must be exceptions.
The hotel lobby had the obligatory stand with pamphlets of touristy things. One caught my attention: a Dali museum. I had no idea there was a Dali museum in Paris but I was a huge fan. I grabbed the pamphlet and set off. Two Metro stations later I stepped out and started climbing a long flight of stairs. It seemed like the right way to go but the map was kind of confusing. There was an old man coming down the stairs so I stopped him.
“Pardon, ou est le Place du…” I stopped, afraid I’d mispronounce the name.
“Tertre” he said matter-of-factly.
“Oui.” I pointed up the stairs and also showed him the pamphlet.
“Oui, oui,” he nodded. “La haut.” He pointed up the stairs and then motioned off to the left. He said a few more things. Then he set off.
“Merci!” I said. He just waved and kept on going.
As far as I could tell the Dali museum was right where he said it would be.
This pattern continued over the next couple of days. I’d get lost or I’d be unsure where I was going. I’d ask someone on the street for help and they’d help. I started to look people in the eye. I smiled. People smiled back. I went into cafes and ordered food without just pointing at the menu. For all I knew the waiters called me a stupid tourist but they seemed friendly. I spent most of a Metro trip talking to a young woman with a guitar who’d overheard me asking for directions. She told me she was thrilled to be able to practice her English. I was happy to have a conversation where I could understand most of what the other person was saying. I bought a cassette of her music. I wish I still had it. She’s probably famous in France now and I could say I met her back when she was still busking for centimes.
My interests can be somewhat esoteric but I also love doing the typical tourist things. I’d been to all the major landmarks at least once but the one I kept going back to was the Eiffel Tower. It was incredible to stand underneath it. Pictures just can’t convey how big the damn thing is. And I went to the top three times: once during the day, once during the night, and one more time on my last day, just because. And then I went for a walk through a nearby neighborhood. I really didn’t think about where I was going. I figured as long as I could see the Eiffel Tower I’d know how to get back. I wandered down narrow cobblestone streets past apartment buildings. And then I looked up and realized I couldn’t see the Eiffel Tower anymore. It’s over a thousand feet tall. How could I possibly lose it? I wandered around looking up and only looked down just in time to avoid stepping in dog shit. Then I heard laughter. I turned around and there was an old woman in a brown dress. She laughed again and said something. Although I think I picked up the word merde I didn’t know what she said so I laughed too and said, “Oui.” And there we were both laughing.
Then I said, “Je sui perdu. Ou est le Metro?”
She laughed again then pointed and started giving me directions. I watched her hands and got the gist.
“Merci beaucoup madame” I said. I bowed. She laughed and then waved her hands at me, the universal gesture for, “Yeah, yeah, get out of here!”
As I was leaving the Metro station for the last time to go catch my tour bus I still had a dozen or so tickets. There was a guy coming in and I stopped him and handed him the tickets. He looked baffled, then he said something to me that I’m pretty sure meant, “This is too much. I can’t take these.” It was less than ten dollars-worth of tickets, but it still must have seemed pretty generous. And I guess I understand. How often in any big city does a stranger stop you to offer an unexpected gift? I said, in English, “I won’t be needing them anymore” and walked on. I don’t know if he understood me but I hope he used the tickets.
I’m sure there are rude Parisians. There are rude people everywhere. I just didn’t meet any of them. Maybe I was just lucky. Maybe I had some downtrodden look that made people take pity on me. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I was polite and when I needed help from Parisians I put aside everything I’d heard about how they were supposed to be and just approached everyone with an open mind that they were kind to me in return. People are individuals which is why broad assumptions always break down at the personal level. It’s true everywhere.