Monday, July 20, 2009

The First Time

There was a time when I didn't love Paris. In 2003, 26 years old and several weeks in to a backpacking (not a Louis Vuitton packing) trip around western Europe I met Paris for the first time. And it wasn't love at first sight.

I wanted my first glimpse of Paris to look like a Taschen coffee table book -- all crisp monuments and quaint street scenes, shot from romantic angles, familiar and iconic. Instead I found myself arriving at Paris Beauvais airport, humping my giant backpack across the tarmac and boarding a bus out of sheer lack of other options. And then the longest bus ride of my life as I waited for the Paris of my dreams to come into view. The French countryside, admittedly beautiful, rolled on and on until without warning we came to drive along endless streets of grey: grey cars, grey buildings, grey trees, until finally a giant, gray parking lot. Not even a bus station, but a barely-paved parking lot.

All of the bus passengers started grabbing their luggage and rushing down the bus steps into the parking lot. It was as if they had all planned to start their Paris vacation in the middle of a parking lot and as they disappeared into the greyness I was left standing there trying to look as though I had somewhere to go. When all I had was the voice in my head saying, "this can't possibly be Paris."

It went from bad to worse. I panicked and randomly selected a city bus without knowing the destination - it didn't say "centre ville" or "opera" or "tour eiffel" or anything even remotely suggested by my Lonely Planet travel guide - and then panicked again and randomly got off. Randomly got off in the Paris ghetto, surrounded by cracked sidewalks, mangy dogs (Paris street rats?!), old men wearing stained undershirts and eating their food from packages. I felt like I was back in Mexico but only it wasn't charming and authentic because I was supposed to be in beautiful, bloody PARIS.

It was then that I looked up and was saved by the blinking green lights of a well-placed Holiday Inn. I couldn't afford the Holiday Inn so I did what any self-respecting, 26 year old woman would do - I phoned home to Mom and cried on the phone. I think I even told her she was a negligent mother for letting her 26 year old daughter leave her secure job, leave her cozy apartment, and leave her cat for the mean streets of western Europe. I got a lot of long distance sympathy and I got money wired to pay for the $200 Holiday Inn hotel bill. The next morning, invigorated after a bath, sleep and my first bottle of delicious French wine, I found the metro and set out to make sure that Paris was really Paris.

What happened next was the moment that made me fall in love with Paris. It was the moment where I began to feel Paris settle in my mind and in my soul; it was the moment where I knew I would spend the rest of my life trying to get back to Paris; and, it was moment where I knew that other cities would never live up to Paris. And it happened as I came up the steps of a metro stop on the Champs Elysees. There from the vantage point of the top step, the Paris of my dreams stretched out before me and around me. To my right was the the arc de triomphe, to my left was place de la concorde and les jardins tulieres and le tour eiffel was massive in the distance, creating a shadow from across la seine. (A great friend, and a hugely talented writer, wrote about my experience in his magazine's Paris Issue, Five Dials, An Interruption from the Editors: )

From that moment I settled easily into Paris and the rest of my first trip in 2003 went much as expected with the requisite tourist activities: nights spent at the hostel with loud Americans, cheese-sharing Canadians, and randy Australians; wine drunk from a paper bag at the top of le tour eiffel on a starlit night; Chinese food in Montmatre; first gaufre; the beginning of my love affair with abricots; and the now familiar overwhelming sadness when I left.

Now whenever I visit Paris, I always make sure to visit that metro stop, to stand on that step, and to look out at the Paris I fell in love with. You never want to forget the first moment you fell in love.