Taking Off the Rose-Colored Glasses

I arrived in Paris on a weekday afternoon. This time I was here on vacation, my first trip back after having moved my life and luggage out of the City of Lights.

Excuse me while I râle:

I was sorely disappointed by almost no one offering to help me with the suitcase I was clearly struggling with up and down the many metro staircases. So many able jeunes français passed me by. Only one man helped me, at the end of my trajet. And no, I did not have the closed off, unapproachable face we sometimes make on public transportation. I was sending out the open-faced, help me vibes of someone who hadn’t realized how difficult lugging around a suitcase and full hand carry would be.

It made me think: Should I have been surprised or not? I didn’t remember this from my previous years in Paris. On the other hand, I lived on the train line that went straight to the airport, so I only had to go down one escalator and never needed help. Second question: Were people in the NY subway any more helpful? Is that why I expected aid? Well, not necessarily—at home I offer to help people with big suitcases or strollers, but that is because I notice that often no one else around is making a move to offer assistance. And what is true is that we don’t notice whether people have a tendency to help if we don’t need it. It’s when we need it that we realize whether people offer it.

When I told friends who live in Paris about my experience in the metro, one said, What do you expect, that’s the way Parisians are! Another was more surprised and said that people offer to help her. I don’t know. To people who have called Parisians rude or cold, I have always insisted that they are not so bad. I still stand by my statement that there are some really nice, warm people there, but my defense of the general population will be less staunch next time. I was tempted to give them a second chance, but after my experience the first day, I unhesitatingly booked a SuperShuttle to the airport for my departure day from Paris.

On the people who volunteer to help:

That same day, after getting through the metro; rendering speechless the young man at Orange with my ability to speak French after he had gone on his spiel in English about their “holiday” phone plan (while his colleague who could tell I spoke French chuckled the whole time and finally burst out laughing when I responded in French); meeting the friend I was going to stay with outside his building and catching up in his apartment—after all that—I headed out into the early evening to the soup kitchen I used to volunteer at every week.

I had told one of the volunteers there that I was planning on coming, but I still surprised her by sneaking up on her and exclaiming, “Hello!” in English. She made all the fuss we make when seeing a friend after a long time, then asked about my trip over. I started telling her about it in French, to which she responded with a big smile that my accent “New Jersey” had come back since my time away. Gee, thanks! She is one of the warmest people of the group and a wonderful presence for both the volunteers and the people who come to eat, so I knew her ribbing was good-natured even though I think she was serious about my American accent being more pronounced than before (though I can’t explain that?? I still speak French daily in my current life!).

I did the ‘bise’ with the other volunteers, who greeted me in slightly wide-eyed recognition. I didn’t chat with them that much, save for a woman with whom I had kept in touch after moving to the States. I had always enjoyed the work itself; after the repas came the socializing.

I made a beeline to claim what used to be my usual post—the table with hot food. Donning one pair of latex gloves and sticking a pair in my back pocket for later, stacking plastic bowls, breaking open the packet of spoons, deciding with the volunteer next to me who would serve the protein and/or vegetable and who would serve the grain. Gladly letting her choose the bulgur because she wanted to avoid the smell and splash of fish sauce because it meant I didn’t have to say bulgur (there ain’t no persnickety French ‘r’s in poisson). Saying “Bonsoir” and smiling hundreds of times. Once in a while, telling someone who tried to cut the line that “Il faut faire la file d’attente.” Responding in English to the occasional immigrant who didn’t speak French. Directing people to where they could find soup and coffee. It felt like home.

After serving the food and picking up trash, there was always a lull before the nearby boulangerie’s unsold bread, pastries, and sandwiches were picked up and distributed. This was the time that I loved shooting the breeze with the people who came to eat. A main reason I had come was actually to see how one of the bénéficiares was doing. I sidled up next to a volunteer who was still serving cereal and asked her, “Where is he??” As I scanned the area and felt dismayed over missing him, she pointed him out. He had just arrived. Of course. I forgot that he usually showed up late, after the main meal had been served. It seemed like he came more to chat than to get food.

I greeted him, and we had an enthusiastic reunion. “How is California?” he exclaimed. I laughed. “Wrong coast.” No offense taken. In the beginning of our friendship, it had taken him weeks to remember my name, though he associated me with Mickey Mouse. He also asked me multiple weeks in a row if I was Chinese and then asked me if I knew anything about qi (he sure did). There were key identifiers that somehow took a long time to imprint on his brain, so I was tickled but not shocked that he had missed by a long shot where in the United States I had moved to. And yet, on this night, he asked, “Où est ton pantalon rose?” I was surprised. I had completely forgotten that I used to wear my pink pants a lot to the soup kitchen during a period of time.

What I did remember was that for the first weeks that I knew him, I assumed that he was from a foreign country because of his accent when speaking French. I was taken aback when I finally asked him where he from and he responded “Toulouse.” I guess I had never heard a toulousain accent before. And I remember periodically moving a few inches away from him while we talked because he was taller than me and my neck was strained from looking up at him, and not understanding why he kept moving closer, until one day I realized that his eyesight was very poor.

I remember never questioning why some days, his hair was disheveled and his clothes were scrappy, and then once or twice he came wearing a suit and his hair neatly tied back.

I clearly remember opening up about my own stresses while I was looking for a job and seeing him really thinking about how to help and suggesting ideas. For the first months we had known each other, I had let him do most of the talking because I figured that was what I was there for. To be a listening ear, not even about his problems, just about whatever he wanted to talk about—tai chi, how food is cooked, cultures, what was going on in the city, anything. He is a very smart person and often knew things that were new to me.

It was only when I started talking more about what was going on in my own life that I realized how good it felt to talk to someone who really cared and who would ruminate over how I might solve a problem I had. Where I didn’t feel like we had to move on from the topic because it was a downer, but that he was completely engaged in the conversation and came up with ideas specific to my situation.

I remember the last night I had volunteered there before moving back to the States. I spent longer than usual chatting with him after the other volunteers had moved on to the nearby bar we frequented every week. Then we parted and I was completely touched again as I arrived at the bar and the volunteer organizer presented the tarte aux pommes he had been waiting to take out, along with a thank you card for me.

You can see why I have a soft spot for the residents of Paris, who are human, after all.

Another person who greeted me warmly for my return was the long-haired, gentle Peruvian man who regularly came to eat. On my last day volunteering a couple of years ago, we somehow struck up a conversation for the first time after having seen each other for about a year. I told him that I was actually leaving France soon, and surprised by the timing, he said he was glad that he had talked to me then, that he had wanted to say hi for a while but somehow was timide to approach me (as someone who in some situations can be timide myself, I have never understood that someone might see me as in any way intimidating).

I’m not sure there is anything better in life than being embraced by good people. You can see why I fought back my travel fatigue to go dish up some fish and conversation.

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Straight to the Heart

Let me start from the end. My last day in Paris this past vacation found me sitting at the bottom of the long staircase at Montmartre, crying my eyes out with the beautiful Sacré-Coeur Basilica in view at the top of the hill.

When I recounted this story to my friend a week later, back in our routine of Tuesday lunch in New York, he laughed and said, “That’s so Parisian!”

I had to laugh. I know he didn’t mean it in an unsympathetic way, and I wasn’t in an emotional state at that point. I guess it was quite an image. I hadn’t seen it from his perspective since I could hardly see through my own tears while living it.

No, I hadn’t fallen down the stairs of the Sacré-Coeur. I had had an unexpected negative interaction with a close friend, and in that moment, it knocked the wind out of me and seemed to put a damper on my whole trip, which upon reflection during my flight back to the States, had actually been full of beautiful and fun and pleasant moments in addition to the disappointing and frustrating ones.

Some vacation, eh?

I have traveled quite a bit, and I realize that my experience on this trip was due in part to my ties in France, which have loosened from being away but are still rooted. Ever evolving and changing but still existent. I was coming back to a place where I have history, a place that I love where people I love live, but once in a while who and what you love can hurt you.

From what I’ve seen, most expats and immigrants have a multifaceted relationship with their adopted country. It is enriching and spectacular and difficult and challenging to make one’s life in another culture. I admire those who do so to escape a precarious political situation, for their safety, or for a better life. When I moved to France, it was just for myself, and indeed there were still hard moments. I know that I was lucky in that despite the frustrations of applying for visas and getting paperwork through and dealing with administrative systems, I had a country to come back to where I have citizenship and the right to work.

Let’s go back to the bottom of the staircase. I thought of calling someone to talk to. Who would be available back in the States? Mon copain ? I considered. I wasn’t going to call my friends in France, who would be at work. As I sat there, lo and behold, a French friend called me to ask how my trip was going. The poor guy, who was probably expecting me to tell him I was gallivanting around Paris eating pastries, got a blubbering explanation of my tears. He gave me some words of strength and insight and comfort, and after patiently listening to me a little more, kindly told me that he had to get back to his meeting and that he would call me that night. He had phoned me during a break and they were waiting for him.

I contemplated what to do next. Nearby, a girl started to play the piano that was set up at the base of the staircase. It was composer Yann Tiersen’s song from “Amélie.”

How magical.

If you’ve watched “Amélie” starring Audrey Tautou, you will know why. There is a scene in this classic film where a character runs up this very staircase. We are held in suspense along with him as he darts up to the top, wondering and hoping to find what he is seeking. I love this song in general, and to hear it here—well, I hope you can imagine. It was the stuff of dreams.

Paris, what you do to me.

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The Delights of Anticipation

In a few weeks I plan to return to France for a couple of weeks. For work? some have asked me. Purely for pleasure, I respond gleefully.

I bet you can’t wait, my colleague says. I can, I say, I’m enjoying the anticipation.

You must be excited, my friend tells me over lunch. I’m so excited to planifer my train trips, I nod. He laughs. You’re excited to planifier? he says, emphasizing the last word and implying that that’s not what he thought I’d be excited about.

I was never in a rush to move away from my family and go to college. To be of legal drinking age and go to bars. To graduate from college. To get to second base. To start the weekend (except that time I hated my job).

Don’t get me wrong, I looked forward to these things. I was ready for them when they came, and I dove right into the next stage with oomph. But I didn’t wish for them to come quicker. The way I see it, we live in a moment and then it passes, and we won’t get it back, so I don’t want to live for the weekend if it means I’m not enjoying my weekdays.

What this post is really about, though, is something I picked up from Anne of Green Gables. I must thank my uncle and aunt for sending my sister and me the movie based on the book by Lucy Maud Montgomery. The story is about a young orphaned girl named Anne who ends up living with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, who are sister and brother and quite a bit older than Anne’s birth parents would have been. Anne is a chatterbox and dramatic and, well, a kid. Marilla is a stern, no-nonsense figure who tries to rein in Anne.

The scene in the story that stuck with me was a conversation between Anne and Marilla. Anne is wildly excited about an upcoming picnic. She must go! What can she bring? What can she wear? She has only ever dreamed of going to a picnic! She goes on and on about it.

“You set your heart too much on things, Anne,” said Marilla, with a sigh. “I’m afraid there’ll be a great many disappointments in store for you through life.”

“Oh, Marilla, looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them,” exclaimed Anne. “You mayn’t get the things themselves; but nothing can prevent you from having the fun of looking forward to them. Mrs. Lynde says, `Blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed.’ But I think it would be worse to expect nothing than to be disappointed.”

I have always remembered that line: Looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them.

I was only a kid, but the concept resonated with me.

I’m so excited to go back to France. I remember vividly the flight to move to Paris several years ago; it was nighttime, and the future seemed to be as black a void as the sky outside. In a good way. A blank slate with unknown adventures to be had. No apartment secured, a job that could very well turn out to be ill suited for me, and only a friend, an acquaintance, and a former host family as ties.

This time I am going back after having created a history in Paris. Friends, lovers, and colleagues, current and former, will be roaming around the city. Every park and metro line has a memory. I have a long list of people I want to see, food and drink to enjoy, and places to revisit. This is by no means a written itinerary or a crazy schedule; it mostly consists of sitting along the Seine with fondant au chocolat and cidre rosé and people who love me and whom I love.

I can’t wait. But I can.

Night Lights

After my Spanish class last week, I walked through Herald Square on my way home. The temperature was freezing (literally), but I stopped and took in the scene. I crossed the street, then turned to look again and take a picture, then walked a few steps, then stopped one more time before continuing on my way. A passerby would have thought I was a tourist in New York for the first time or a resident New Yorker on her last night before moving to a new city. I’m neither, of course. I can walk here whenever I want, and I do, at least once a week after my class.

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I’ve passed through this touristy area many times, but for some reason the atmosphere of colored lights and city night reminded me of certain evenings near the Opéra Garnier in Paris. Some Monday nights, one or two British girl friends and I would meet at the same café for a slice of quiche or a hot chocolate. I’d walk there from work, when it was almost dusk, and by the time we emerged from our chats, it was nighttime. I’d turn the corner to walk to my bus stop, pass lit up commercial stores and theatres, and there would be the Opéra Garnier. Like Herald Square, it was a normally busy area that cleared out on cold nights but kept its buildings aglow.

I think I just realized why I like Hopper paintings. Or do I feel myself expand in these real life scenes because I like Hopper? Rhetorical questions. Words rarely encompass feelings.

I’m not as head in the clouds as my writing makes me out to be. Not all the time, anyway. If anything, my feet are firmly planted on the ground, looking at what’s around us.

Do you get those moments
in between all the running around and responsibilities and worries
too?

Graffiti

Sometimes when I see graffiti, I think of:

– The day one of best friends and I rented bikes and took them along the Canal Saint-Martin far out of Paris. This was before I signed up for the cost-effective annual Vélib subscription, so he and I were racking up a fee, but I think we’d both say it was worth it.

– Sitting along an isolated part of the canal on a warm day having a conversation with a Right Bank mec I knew. It started drizzling, and we skedaddled to find cover. Where did we go? A bar? Was that the day he taught me how to play pétanque? I don’t recall, but I remember the grinning cat graffiti across the water.

I guess there is a lot of graffiti along parts of the canal.

Somehow they hold for me pleasant memories of unrushed afternoons en français.

When I Said À Bientôt to Paris

Last year I said goodbye to the people I knew in Paris. I remember in the weeks leading up to my departure, people asked me how I felt, and I felt really fine because I had lived every moment during my time in France and it was my own choice to move back to the States. I already felt lucky to have soaked in every nighttime golden bridge, both with others and by myself. I had doubts about what the transition would be like since there were uncertainties in my immediate future, but I accepted that as a necessary part of changement.

My last night, as I parted with a friend across the street from Invalides after our ride on the bateaux mouches, I was confused by a sudden feeling of sickness that overcame me. I hadn’t eaten anything in the past few hours, so it wasn’t that kind of nausea. It wasn’t that I was hungry, either. I didn’t believe it was post-seasickness, if that is even a thing. It took a few minutes of me standing there and descending to walk a bit along the Seine in the direction of home to realize that my body was catching up to the knowledge that I was leaving and reacting in its own involuntary way. Perhaps I was fine in the weeks and hours prior and would be fine later that night, but I didn’t feel so in that moment.

During my stroll past the people enjoying the summertime air on the berges, a friend called me. We had already had our “goodbye for now” a couple of months prior since he lives in another part of France, so we didn’t have to have one now. He was just calling to see how it was going and to wish me off well. I was feeling better at that point and was further bolstered by his comforting and encouraging words.

The next day, a good friend came over to say goodbye before my SuperShuttle to the airport. We had meant to meet up the day before after an afternoon party I attended, but due to my usual lingering at events, by the time I headed to the bateaux mouches that friend was on his way to another get-together with his friends, and we missed each other.

Luck was on my side, because he offered to stop by my place midday before going to his office. Lucky because everyone else I knew was working since it was a Monday, but his schedule that day permitted him to come by. Lucky because we were then able to open a nice bottle of champagne that one of my bosses had given me and that I would have otherwise left behind. It went well with my last opéra pastry that I offered to split with him but that he declined, leaving me to eat the whole thing by myself (pas de souci).

Half an hour later, as I gazed out the window of the shuttle van during the ride to the airport, I was glad that we had sipped a little champagne. I have a low tolerance, so even the light bubbly made everything just hazy enough so that I didn’t think think think during this bonus tour of the city, but dreamily observed neighborhood after neighborhood, each containing memories made and absorbed into my being.

Side by Side

In New York recently, I looked skyward before crossing the street, and I saw an old and new building side by side that reminded me of two buildings I snapped a photo of years ago in Paris.

I love the long boulevards of Haussmanian buildings in Paris. I find them intricate and beautiful and harmonious. I am struck by the towering skyscrapers in New York that seem part of the same animal when night falls. People, places, and things have a large impact when they are uniform and numerous, as demonstrated by the Santa Clauses I saw near the Eiffel Tower and the Rockettes, known for their Christmas spectacular where a long line of identically dressed female dancers kick their legs in unison.

And yet diversity draws the eye as well. It’s why we may look a little longer at couples who seem mismatched to our perspective, at a tall man riding a small bicycle, or at a woman wearing clashing prints. I find it fascinating to observe older and newer buildings that exist next to each other on the same city block. A common sight in New York is a small church smack up against a soaring office building that was obviously built years after the church, which must have once been surrounded by structures that resembled its proportions more closely.

Diversity makes the world go round, I say.

Toto, I Think We’re Not in Paris Anymore

There is a huge Christmas tree, lighted angels, and a menorah on a football field.

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We must be in a New Jersey suburb!

Next stop is Macy’s.

This is the most iconic store in the city of New York, and there are fake squirrels with swishing tails on tree trunks as Christmas decorations. And yet it makes so much sense. Everyone, most especially tourists, is regularly surprised and delighted by the city squirrels in spite of the fact that they sometimes perch on trash cans. As I was taking these pictures, a boy excitedly pointed out the furry creatures to his parents.

What could the main department store in Paris, or any other city, do as an equivalent? Maybe a line of bateaux mouches chugging up the tree under the extravagant dome in Galeries Lafayette?