Audrey Hepburn said, “Paris is always a good idea.”
Audrey Hepburn was right.
Except when she wasn’t.
March 6, 2014: I leave, alone, for my second-ever trip to France.
March 16, 2015: I’m still freaking out about it.
I booked the tickets. I reserved the apartment. I dealt with the bank’s fraud department to assure them my information had not been stolen. Bags packed. On the road. Anxiety.
It is not exactly common knowledge that I am an anxious traveler. Not just flying. Not just leaving the country. Sometimes getting in my car to go get milk makes me nervous. But this trip was so much more than that, in so many ways.
This trip was the first time I had ever traveled alone by plane. It was the first time I had ever left the country by myself. It was the first time I had asked for no help from anyone, barring Gabriel, the friend who went with me, because it was his trip, too. I haven’t written about the experience yet. I’m not sure that I’m ready to now. But it’s been a year since I’ve been home, and I think it’s time.
I worked overnight the night before my flight out, and ended up getting stuck behind for over an hour because my relieving coworker was late. My manager had come in early and asked if I could stay, and because I never said no when something was asked of me, I did. I tried to sleep for the few hours I knew I had before my friend Cat picked me up to drive me the one hour north to the airport. I couldn’t. In my mind I kept going over the things I had packed, the times my three flights departed and arrived, the route I had researched from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, to Gare du Nord, to the metro line which stopped three blocks from our Airbnb rental. I don’t know what I thought this would accomplish, but I did it anyway, just to be sure.
Cat pulled up in the driveway just before 1pm. I got my coat and scarf, pulled on my shoes, my carry-on, and my suitcase, and loaded into her car. We spent a good portion of the drive not talking. I gave her a copy of my flight schedule, told her about some details I had left at work for her to accomplish in my absence, and before long we were down the street from the airport. We arrived earlier than I had planned for, so we drove around for an hour to kill the extra time before she dropped me off at the terminal.
I went inside and an agent helped me check in for the flight, gave me my boarding passes, and checked my bag. I found a place to sit and thumbed halfheartedly through an abridged paperback edition of Les Miserables, which belonged to Gabe. I sent a few last-minute text messages. Eventually I meandered through to security, which finally opened its line half an hour before takeoff.
There were maybe a dozen people on the flight, a local connection to Detroit, including an elderly man and a single mother with her 3-year-old daughter who seemed to be hitting it off. I managed to set the metal detector off three separate times, which should have been my first indication of the way the rest of the journey would pan out. Once for my watch, once for my phone, and once for just, somehow, being too close to the sensors. I was embarrassed, but no one else seemed to have noticed my predicament. I regathered my belongings and went to sit.
The agents at the desk informed us that the return flight ahead of us from Detroit was running behind by about fifteen minutes. Second clue.
Our landing in Detroit was still on time, regardless of the short delay in takeoff. When we reached the gate, however, the jetway was broken, and took another 15 minutes to repair. Sign number three.
I asked the agent at the gate we landed in which direction to head for my next flight, to London. He pointed me down the hall and assured me I would find the place I was looking for. (If I couldn’t have, I may have had a problem. The Detroit airport terminal is basically one long hallway with gates and shops punctuated along either side.) I rode nearly all of the moving pathways along the corridor, and it still felt like a 15- to 20-minute trek to the next gate, which I did, eventually, find without incident. I found a seat near a group of students and tried to entertain myself through various means as we waited for the flight to begin boarding.
“Detroit, Gate A28 – 8:32pm
Lights from overhead are interesting. Individual ones are like sparks, or campfires, maybe. Cities – Detroit – are infernos, pools of flame swallowing the black of the surrounding landscape. But highways are best – rivers of gold, comprised entirely of humanity, unsuspecting. It’s beautiful in a way that I had not quite expected, or perhaps recalled.”
Once on the plane, I found myself in an aisle seat next to an older Englishman, who said exactly one word to me: “Hello.”
Dinner was served. I tried to sleep, again with little success. I ended up instead watching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which was entirely too long a film. Toward the end of it I was feeling a little queasy, which I was unsure whether to attribute to the air pressure inside the plane, sleep deprivation, or nerves. I pushed it down as long as I could stand, choked down only the tea biscuits and juice from the breakfast tray, and entirely too late decided to stand from my seat and make my way toward a lavatory. There was a line to the ones behind, so I turned and headed for the ones at the front of the section. Both were occupied. I ended up vomiting twice in the trash dolly which was parked behind a partition and thankfully away from the other passengers. I then locked myself in a now-conveniently-unoccupied stall for several minutes, hoping that I could get – and keep – my shit together. Or rather, I suppose, my guts.
We landed in Heathrow without incident. I got in the small line to the security checkpoint as one of few passengers who were boarding another connection. I forgot I had been wearing my watch, and again set off the metal detectors. This time, I got the full TSA experience – well DFT (Department for Transportation) experience, as the UK refers to their security personnel. A female agent directed me into a body scanner, wherein I “assumed the position” – feet shoulder-width apart, hands above the head, elbows bent, palms out. Once complete, the agent then completed the required patdown, explaining to me where she was checking and why before she touched me. Once cleared, I was directed to the end of the security line, where another agent had detained my container of belongings. He took my iPad, for a reason I still am not exactly sure of, and ran it through a small machine, which deemed it clear, and asked if I had any liquids or other notable items. Once he was through he handed me my shoes and thanked me for my patience with the process. I retreated with my things into the terminal to wait for my final flight.
“London, Terminal 4, 11:29am
Travel by the numbers
32 – approximate hours awake
4 – metal detectors set off
3 – hours spent hating my existence
2 – times vomited, Detroit -> London
1 – security patdown
45 – minutes until gate opens
1.75 – hours until landed in Paris
0 – number of fucks left about anything except sleep and food”
On board my final flight to Paris, I sat next to a young man – still several years older than me – who seemed to notice I was not having the best travel experience. He asked if I had flown into London, how it had been, if Paris was my final destination, and informed me that at least I wouldn’t be getting on any more planes that day – he still had one or two more connections left in his journey. The flight passed quickly, and then we were queued to pass border control at Charles de Gaulle.
The agent I approached said to me, “Bonjour. Are you visiting for business or pleasure?”
“C’est bon. Bon voyage, Lynd-say.” He stamped my passport with a flourish, and that was it. I found my way to baggage claim, collected my bag, stopped at an ATM which gave me €50 bills, and marched immediately to the information desk. The clerk there was very patient, answered all of my questions, and gave me a map on which she circled both the airport and Gare du Nord, my next destination. I went downstairs and purchased a ticket for the train between the airport and the station, and went to the platform to wait. The man who sat across from me for the journey looked like a young version of Bob Saget.
It was Gare du Nord which gave me the most trouble of the entire trip, and which I still feel my blood pressure spike when I think about. I wandered through the maze of tracks and levels for about 30 minutes and successfully boarded (and then, thankfully, exited) one incorrect train before I finally got up the courage (or perhaps had the presence of mind) to go to the information booth. A man there directed me back downstairs, and I found myself lost again. I returned to find a woman inside who gave me clearer instructions which I still did not process correctly in my exhaustion and anxiety. I went back to her more flustered and speaking more quickly than I intended, which made her flustered as well, but she very calmly and slowly explained again where to go to find the metro line I needed to take to get to the apartment. The third time was the charm, and I found my way down a long hall and onto the metro platform. At this point, I was concerned about getting to the apartment at all, because I was much later than I had estimated to Gabriel that I would be. All told, I spent about an hour wandering through Gare du Nord.
But I got on metro line 2, my suitcase clamped tight between my feet as I held the upright rail, and made it to the Villiers stop. Here I searched for a wi-fi connection to send Gabriel an apology and a “Come get me,” but none were to be found. I crossed the street to the main entrance of the metro and waited for a bit, concerned that he may have become tired of waiting and retreated to the apartment instead. Eventually I dragged my suitcase down the side streets in the direction I knew the apartment lay, past the Monoprix at the corner of Rue des Dames, and the next left onto Rue de Sassure.
This is a part of the story I’m not sure Gabriel knows.
I approached a middle-aged Indian woman on the sidewalk outside of the building I thought I was supposed to be going to, asking if she could help me because I was supposed to meet a friend at the metro who was not there when I arrived. I told her the name of the man we were “staying with,” and although she did not recognize it, she invited me inside the foyer to look at the names on the mailboxes. When I did not find it, she rang the landlady – a sweet elderly woman who looked genuinely concerned and piteous of me when the Indian woman explained my situation to her – who said that there had been only one tenant by that first name in the building recently, and he had moved out several months prior. She apologized for not being able to help. I thanked her profusely.
The Indian woman suggested to me to return to the metro station, that if that was where my friend said he would meet me, that it was probably the best place to wait. I thanked her for the help she had offered and dragged my suitcase, noisy against the cobblestones, back down the street.
By this time it had gotten dark, and I stood on the street corner above the entrance to the metro trying to decipher bits and pieces of the conversation that a group of teenagers were having next to me, between cigarettes. I remember thinking about how I had learned that “French beauty” was very natural, that most French women did not wear much makeup, or left it neutral if they did, and finding it amusing that the two girls in the group of teens were wearing heavy black eyeliner. Within 15 minutes, however, Gabriel appeared, in a navy pea coat and plaid trapper hat, and was the best thing I had seen all day. I felt all of the anxiety of being alone – and late – in an unfamiliar city melt off of me as he hugged me there on the street. He told me that he had waited for me there for over an hour before succumbing to the cold and returning to the apartment for a mug of hot tea. I didn’t care for the explanation. He took my suitcase and I carried my bag back through the narrow side streets of the 17th arrondissement. He led me to a building immediately across the street from the one at which I had stopped, punched in the door code, and took me inside, through the first building, into a small courtyard, and to a second building behind. One flight up the curving stairs, he unlocked the first door on the left, and I collapsed inside on the sofa.
Gabriel told me about our host, Julien, who he had met to tour the small flat. Julien explained the heaters, the television, and the washing machine tucked under the kitchen counter, left the key, and said to email or text if we needed anything. He also expressed satisfaction at the length of our stay – nine days – which he thought was just right to get to explore the city properly. Julien, also, apparently, was rather attractive and wore a smart suit. I still do not know what exactly his profession was. I never got to meet him.
Both exhausted from the trip, neither Gabriel nor I had anything for dinner that night, choosing instead to collapse into the somehow outrageously comfortable bed in the fourth small room of the flat.
Immediately inside the door was a small entry with a single window and bookshelf stacked with volumes in various languages which Julien’s previous renters had left behind, as well as a few paperback French classics. The front side of this entry – which was perpetually cold even if we left the doors between rooms open and ran the heaters – had a second door which opened to a small water closet housing the toilet, sink, water heater, and medicine cabinet. There was another window here which looked over a small section of roof.
To the right of the front door was the living area, which was about the size of my bedroom back at home. To the left there was a small sink, a two-burner electric stovetop, a washing machine, mini-fridge adorned with small magnets from around the world, which we assumed to be gifts from renters, and countertop for cooking, along with two small pantry cabinets underneath. Julien also had a toaster, microwave, and electric kettle, which we used more often than anything to make instant coffee for breakfast. To the right was a tall cabinet which was home to the dishes and utensils as well as miscellaneous other storage, a short L-shaped sofa, which was also unnaturally comfortable, and upon the long arm of which the television and cable box had been placed, and a square red coffee table with casters mounted underneath. A modest stereo system and another closet, full of cleaning supplies and shoes, sat just behind the television. A double window looked out into the courtyard.
The bedroom was through the last door next to the kitchen countertop, simply decorated with a full-sized bed, a row of mirror-fronted closets, a chrome floor lamp, which was the only light in the room, and the shower. This was an odd configuration at first, but turned out to be perfect, as we could close the bedroom door, adjust the lamp to shine into the mirrored closet doors, which would illuminate the small shower stall, and bathe and dress with privacy. (The shower, notably, had remarkable pressure and was a dream to step into after a long day, despite being rather cramped in size.)
It was a beautiful flat, in the wonderfully quiet Monceau section of the 17th arrondisement. Two streets north was a small street market, which we only passed through once, and quite on accident, and a ten-minute walk south was Parc Monceau, which we sat in several times to enjoy the consistent sun and 70-degree weather.
I have rarely been so at ease and simultaneously eager to wake up and begin the day as I was in Paris. If there was ever a feeling of being truly in tune with a place, truly alive, I believe it is this. I will never like myself or enjoy life as much as I do in this ancient modern beauty.
I think this is what it’s like to be in love.
all photos in this post were taken by me