On Saturday I spent a few hours in Bois de Boulogne, a huge park on the edge of Paris. Certain parts resemble a forest so quiet that I think, “If I get lost, no one will find me,” but then I make one turn and suddenly I’m next to a wide road with cars and pedestrians and cyclists on a cement path. Walking on the outskirts of Bois de Boulogne brought me back to my first week in Paris, when I got lost by the bois at night. I was trying to get to my friends’ house in Puteaux, a suburb slightly outside of the city. These friends, a couple and their nine-year-old daughter, were people to whom I was eternally grateful and who, oddly enough, I would not have called friends a week earlier.
I had corresponded with the woman a few times by email quite a while before I even knew I was going to Paris, but we lost contact when she became busy. Leading up to my arrival, I dropped her a line and mentioned that I was moving to France and was a bit stressed by the idea of looking for an apartment. She offered the aid of her husband, who had more flexible working hours and could Skype with me to discuss my search. During our IM chat, he asked me if anyone was picking me up from the airport. The answer to that was definitely no. I knew a few people in Paris, but I didn’t want to impose, plus I knew that at least a couple of them would be at work when I arrived on Monday morning. My friend’s husband said that he would pick me up. I was floored. But that is another story, the story of my first day in Paris.
On the day I landed in France, I didn’t get a chance to meet my friend and her daughter or give them the gifts and food items I had brought from the United States. That is how I ended up on my way to Puteaux about a week after my arrival. Since they lived outside Paris, to make it as easy for them as possible, I had offered to go to their house to deliver the goods. Of course, it wasn’t that simple…
Up until then I hadn’t taken public transportation out of the city before, nor had I ridden the bus except in my student days. During my semester in Paris, I would take the night bus after the last metro had stopped running, but even that I must have only done two or three times. I was not yet the loyal bus rider I am now.
To find the route to my friends’ apartment, I input my address and theirs into RATP.fr, the official public transportation web site. I followed the directions without really having a sense of the area around their apartment. Instead of taking the tram, which is a stone’s throw from their place, I took a metro and a bus and got off at a stop with plans to walk the rest of the way. Wasn’t I surprised, then, when I got off at the indicated bus stop and found myself on the edge of dark woods with hardly anyone in sight? Furthermore, because the road was next an immense park, you could walk for long stretches without seeing a street sign. In any case, the streets would not have been marked on my Paris map, as I was outside the city.
I didn’t want to make my friend’s husband pick me up, so I started walking to find a sign or someone I could ask for directions. Picture an isolated path at night with a road on one side and woods on the other. Picture me, a not-tall Asian American girl with glasses trying not to look lost.
I gestured to a passing biker, but he waved me off. I kept walking and saw a bunch of women at a bus stop. I asked one of them if she knew where my friend’s street was. Her “Non” was accompanied by what seemed to be a slightly amused smile.
Continuing on, I saw a police car stopped at the side of the road and thought, This is my chance! This is perfect. Thank goodness they’re here. I told the two police officers standing outside the car which street I was trying to get to. One of them looked on his device for the street while the other one told me, Madame, it’s very dangerous here. After a few minutes, they said that they didn’t know where the street was. They emphasized again that it was very dangerous to be here at night.
Then they got in their car and drove away.
I called my friend and tried to describe to her husband where I was (“Next to the woods… there are trees… and bushes…”). Thankfully, he found me and picked me up. The various shrubbery might have looked the same to me, but there weren’t any other people that looked like me standing on the forest periphery.
Back at their apartment, he said to me, You know there are prostitutes in the Bois de Boulogne at night, right? They’re often transvestites.
I exclaimed, struck with a realization.
That’s why those women at the bus stop were so tall.