I was broke, homeless, and unable to communicate. Or at least that’s the way I felt sitting in Charles de Gaulle airport just after arriving in Paris.
The ATMs wouldn’t dispense money (a fault of my subpar bank) and without money I couldn’t make my way to my Airbnb apartment. And asking someone for help (A lift somewhere from a stranger in a foreign country? Begging for a couple of euros to get on Le Metro?) would mean squeaking out the French I’d been working on recalling from high school and college.
Uber finally saved me, a way I could go euro-less and also not have to navigate a city I didn’t know at night.
At the apartment, a five flight walk up with a winding staircase, I couldn’t find the light switch in the unfamiliar hallway and my American hands were inept at manipulating the tiny Parisian lock and key. The next door neighbor was kind and a partial English speaker who opened the front door with ease. See? she said. Et voila.
Finally, I was inside the studio apartment. What was the best part of my trip to Paris? That night: sleep. I could start on my adventure the next day.
Except, the morning didn’t make me feel very adventurous. I woke up early so I wouldn’t waste a bit of my time, but the urge to stay in the bed, to stay in the apartment overwhelmed. Who would ever know if I just remained in that cozy studio? If I did nothing more daring than get from Charles de Gaulle airport in an Uber? I started to wonder why I had done this, all alone with no one to fumble through French with, no one to pull my arm from under the covers and say, Come on, it’ll be fun!
I had taken the risk, thrown a big parade in its honor, YOU TOOK A RISK written on a banner carried by two majorettes, the tuba and cymbals and big bass drum making a huge racket.
So now what?, I wondered under those covers. Oh. Right. Now, I actually have to follow through with my choice. I was afraid of things I could just as easily have encountered at home in Chicago: embarrassment, danger, shame. That could be just a bad morning of tripping up a flight of stairs to the L, a fight breaking out on the train, and then getting into the office to discover that my boss needed work from me that I said I would finish days ago.
But, for a time in that small room, it was difficult to think outside of it, to see the experience before me as any I had conquered before. Paris and all my visions about what a trip by myself could be were shrinking. I’ve been in small rooms like that before, limited spaces that I’d put my creative aspirations in or my belief in what my life could really be. Going abroad alone had been all about expanding possibilities, but here I was contracting them.
Then, I got up and looked out the window. Below was a market, the kind Paris is famous for, the kind I knew I would see when I went. Stalls of fresh seafood and vegetables stood near tables laden with jewelry and scarves. Older couples strolled with arms linked and young Parisian men outpaced them with their motorcycles on the street.
Further up ahead was the Bastille, time to storm it and the whole of Paris.
I got dressed, in clothes that sometimes feel a bit out of place in Chicago, but I knew would be perfect in Paris. I wandered around the market and then wandered the entire rest of the day, from breakfast until dinner. I fumbled over French and stalled in counting out my euros. I was uncomfortable all day and it was wonderful.
Small rooms are safe, the world is not.
Years ago in New York, I saw the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Met, leather face masks and metal armor covered many of the mannequins. It was all strange and gorgeous. I left bewildered and inspired. Afterwards, my writing was never the same.
I like the idea of “taking” a risk. That it is something you grab and also something you keep. Buying the plane ticket was the grabbing, but getting out of that small room to be embarrassed or in danger or ashamed or uncomfortable was the reward I got to keep.
More next week and a few pictures from the day…