Monday, April 17, 2006

"Paris, Where Is The Love?"

Although it’s somewhat embarrassing to admit, I came to the “City of Lights” with the hopes of falling in love.
I was on the homestretch of my backpacking voyage throughout Europe, a trip that had seen me through long lost friends and relatives and some nine countries so far. But Paris, to me, was the cream of the crop, the jewel in the crown of Europe. A city I was bound to find love in. Sure, by this point I had been enamored with Vienna, utterly bewitched by Venice and charmed by Barcelona, but Paris to me was this city I had put on a pedestal ever since Audrey Hepburn waxed on about it in Sabrina. On the speedy train from Bordeaux to the Paris, I had even taken to reciting Audrey’s advice to Humphrey Bogart. Never carry an umbrella in Paris, and always rain on the first day. Peering out the window at the yellow fields and the robin’s egg sky that whipped past me at nauseating speed, I knew that rain was out of the question. But at least I wasn’t carrying an umbrella.
I had also been prepared to not let my expectations get too high. In fact, it was only the other day, when I was roasting in the heat in a hostel outside the Pyrenees, that a surly British fellow told me how he absolutely detested Paris.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” he wagged his finger at me as if I were George, the hostel’s dog. “Paris is what it is, don’t expect anything more. And watch where you step.”
I decided to combine that advice with Audrey’s, perhaps then I would find a match. Rain the first day, never carry an umbrella and always watch where you step.
Of course, my first impressions of Paris were nothing like I thought they would be. I remember staring absently at photographs of the Eiffel Tower back at home in Canada, telling myself how excited I would be to finally see it in the flesh, or steel in this case. But when it actually happened, I wasn’t excited. I was relieved. I was wandering around the 7th arrondissement and searching for my little hotel, armed with a shoulder-gouging backpack and the merciless June heat.
Of course I had no map and had no idea where the hotel was except for the name of the street, which I forgot every time I read another street name off of the buildings. All around me were crowding buildings that successfully blocked out all views and any chance of recognizing where I was. All I knew was that I had to head Northeast of the tower. When I finally saw it poke its stately head over an impromptu park, I realized I was walking away from my hotel, not towards it.
Later on that night, I ran into the sweaty streets in search of a payphone. As I talked to my mother, to let her know I was safe in Paris, that my hotel was simple but nice and that I thought I had seen Kate Bosworth and Orlando Bloom walking down the street, she asked me what I thought of the city. To be honest, I didn’t know how I felt. It would take until the end of my stay before I knew how I did.
The problem with Paris is that not only is it a city of lights but a city of love. Blame it on the French or whoever you want, but you truly cannot go anywhere in the city without having it rubbed in your face. This is not just a product of silky-lensed romantic films, or sweeping literature about fatalistic passions. It’s a real commodity and it’s everywhere you go. And I, being a single young female, was subject to this every moment of every day.
There were the couples that would stroll hand in hand through the narrow streets, the couples that would laze languidly on the dusky grass beneath the Eiffel Tower, the couples that spoon-fed each other whipped cream at outdoor cafes. They would stare at statues together at the Louvre and sit on each other’s laps on the metro. It was like an epidemic and I was the only one not affected by it.
Of course, I did have my chances. One day, as I was resting my feet beneath the Eiffel Tower, a shady-looking man with a six-pack of beer sat suspiciously close to me. I pretended to not notice him until it was beyond obvious that his eyes were boring holes into my head. I looked up for a split second and instantly regretted it. He took that as some sort of sign to approach me.
“Excuse me,” he said in broken English (what was it about me that screamed “not French”?).
I gave him a withering stare, which had no effect.
He continued, “Why are your arms so big?”
Did he just say what I thought he said?
“Excuse me?” I spat out.
He pointed at my arms then grabbed his own for effect.
“Your arms. They are huge. Why are they so big? Are you a body-builder?”
I looked down at my arms, the one part of my body that I hated more than anything. And they were big, not from muscle but from fat. I knew that even if I lost a million pounds, I would still have large arms, something I was hell bent on making piece with. Until this jerk showed up, that is.
I got up and gathered my things as quickly as I could. Here beneath the Eiffel Tower of all places, I was being insulted on the very thing that made me want to rip my arms off. Paris, I wanted to scream, where is the love?
I suppose that was the drawback of traveling alone. You attracted all the wrong company and none of the right company. From my creaky hotel window I could watch people from my hotel sit on the steps below and plan their days and nights. I had no one to make plans with, except myself. Of course, if I was a little more adventurous, a little less self-conscious, I too could have joined them and struck up a conversation. But I wasn’t and I didn’t. Instead, I decided to do something slightly embarrassing and totally left field.
For the longest time I had been trading emails with a young fellow from Paris. His name was Alex and he was studying Environmental Law or some tree-hugging kind of degree. He knew I was coming to Paris and had suggested weeks earlier that we meet up at one point. I had told him I would think about it, always fully knowing that there was no way I would go on a blind date with a guy I had met on the Internet. It didn’t matter how normal he seemed, or how cute he looked in his photographs (probably wasn’t him anyway), or that he professed a love for my hometown of Vancouver. I had made up my mind that our “relationship” was going to be purely on the face of a computer screen.
At least, that’s how I felt about it until I actually arrived in Paris. Now that I was here and was surrounded by people who made me feel more and more alone, I decided to wing it. I hurried through the heat of the streets to the nearest Internet cafĂ© and wrote him an email. Yes, I said, I would love to meet up with you.
A few days later, after I had abused my three-day museum pass to maximum and had feet that felt like they were about to fall off, I had gotten the email. Meet me at seven on Saturday night at the metro stop outside the Luxemburg Gardens. Giddy with prospect, I hit the reply button and told him I would be there.
Saturday night came and I was a wreck. I had spent the day trying to get into the Notre Dame, only to be accosted by an old Tunisian man who asked if I was a lesbian when I shot down his advances. I was hot, sweaty and in no mood to go out. But I couldn’t stand the poor guy up. So, I put on my best clothes, a long skirt I had picked up at a Finnish Zara and a cleavage-inducing top, and set out towards the gardens of Luxemburg.
Sitting on the metro as it hurled through the darkness, I was sure that people were staring at me, reading “blind date” on my face. I must have looked as nervous as I felt, as bouts of nausea caused beads of sweat to drip down my forehead. But at the same time there was a little voice inside of me, whispering sweet nothings. What if he is the man of your dreams? What if you spend your last week in Paris together, taking in the sights, cruising lazily down the Seine, hand in hand. By the time I got off at the Luxemburg stop, my anxiety was peppered with fantasy.
I didn’t realize I had a problem until I emerged at street level. I was beneath the metro sign like I said I would be but he was nowhere in sight. Then I realized that I didn’t actually know what Alex looked like. Sure, I had seen the pictures, but maybe he was one of those people, like me, that looked better in photographs than they did in real life. I brought out a Raymond Chandler novel that I pretended to read while me eyes scoured the area. I couldn’t have looked less suspicious if I tried.
Then I noticed something. Across the street, right by the gardens, was another metro stop. I hadn’t planned on there being two of them. What if he expected me to meet him at the other one?
I searched the area around the metro stop, looking for a dark-haired French guy. There were a lot of people milling about, staring at a photographic exhibit that was displayed on the garden’s outer wall. He could have been anyone of those people, only everyone there seemed to be in a group. Surely, Alex would be alone, looking around the place as I was.
I contemplated crossing the road and going to the other side, but then what would happen if he showed up on my side. So I stayed put, leaned against the metro stop and pretended to read my book again.
Five minutes later I was approached by a hefty old man with an ivory moustache that was ripe for finger twirling. Oh God, please don’t let this be him, I thought.
The man smiled politely at me and asked if I was lost. I shook my head and told him in my broken French that I was waiting for someone. He had a pitiful look on his face and stepped closer to me. I eyed him warily, the encounter with the Tunisian man still fresh in my mind.
“Are you happy?” he asked in English. What the hell kind of question was that?
I nodded, bewildered, “I’m fine, just waiting for someone.”
The look in his eyes told me he didn’t believe me, but he gave me a short wave and left just the same.
I sighed, shaking my head and wondering what was next. I looked down at my watch and saw that it was 7:30. Across the road, I noticed a guy loitering around the metro sign. I narrowed my eyes at him, not caring if people thought I had a staring problem. Could this be him? From a distance, his face looked like it could have been his, but everything else didn’t match up. For one, the guy was wearing all white and had dark shoes. The French didn’t dress like that, did they? The guy was also short, shorter than me. I never actually knew how tall this Alex guy was, but surely he couldn’t be that short. No, I told myself, you wouldn’t want to go out with a short guy anyway. It couldn’t have been him.
I turned my attention back to my book. When I looked up later, the short fellow was gone. I suppose I was about to be gone too.
I sighed, put my book away and looked around me one last time. I had to admit it. I had been stood up. In Paris, of all places.
I walked around the outer rim of the Luxemburg gardens anyway, pretending that this was my original plan and took feigned interest in the photographic exhibit, all the while chiding myself for being stood up. An episode of Friends ran through my head, the one where Ross was stood up on a blind date and Joey asks him if he thought that she had taken one look at him and run away.
Could that have happened to me? Did Alex take one look at me and get back on the metro? I knew I had arms the size of a truck and the hot, sticky weather had melted all my makeup off, but surely he wouldn’t run off, would he? I contemplated that as I headed back to the hotel, getting lost a few times before I finally found myself alone, in my sad room, drinking wine straight out of the bottle.
The next day I checked myself out of the hotel, and the 7th arrondissement, and booked a bed in a recommended hostel on the other side of the Seine, in the fabled area of Montmartre.
The hotel manager wagged his finger at me, “You be careful in Montmartre and watch your purse. Lots of weirdoes up there.”
Great, that’s just what I needed. But I was in no mood to care. I was still bitter about being stood up and decided I needed to be around other backpackers. The thugs of Montmartre could harass me all they wanted, but if I didn’t get to talk to someone other than the hotel manager, I was going to explode.
It turned out that booking the hostel was the best decision I had made that week. I ended up sharing a cramped and filthy room with a vivacious South African girl, a Taiwanese girl who was studying at Princeton and two girls from Wisconsin. By the time night rolled around I had made new friends and was drinking bottles of two Euro wines and nibbling fresh Brie on the steps beneath the hostel. The girls laughed at my story of being stood up and told me about their adventures in Belgium. Although the hostel wasn’t as clean as some of the other places I’ve stayed in, what it provided in company more than made up for it.
There was a group of jovial guys from San Francisco that had joined our little stairwell powwow as well as a group of English-speaking girls from Montreal who all had the same long, dark hair, a few, loud, freckled Australian girls and a shy guy from Istanbul, whom we called “Turkey.” Because there was no common area inside the hostel, it seemed that everyone in the hostel had gathered on the endless, gray steps, eating sausage rolls from the nearby bakery and taking turns swigging wine and Pelican Beer.
It soon grew dark and we grew louder and by the time the neighbors leaned out of the adjacent apartment buildings to tell us to shut up, we had decided to go on a walk up to the Sacre Coeur. One girl who was an American but living in Paris, knew the way and led us up the windy, cobblestoned streets of Montmartre until the white walls of the Sacre Coeur glowed in the night before us. We weren’t the only ones with this idea though, as scores of other tourists and locals had descended on the steep grassy planes beneath the church.
Someone had a guitar and started playing Jack Johnson. Bottles of cheap French wine were passed around as we settled on the steep slopes, watching the city of Paris, the city of lights unfold beneath us. I drank the warm wine out of mugs smuggled from the hostel and listened to the people around me laugh and trade stories in the darkness. At one point the Eiffel Tower lit up and sparkled as if it were covered in a million diamonds.
The memories of the tactless guy with the arm fetish, the creepy Tunisian, being stood up and drinking wine alone in my room, seemed distant and unimportant. The love that I had been seeking in Paris was no longer a priority for me, because by the time I left Paris, five days later, I was in love. Not with the quiet “Turkey” or Mike, one of the San Francisco boys or with the “Pink Man” who rode around the hostel on a unicycle, dressed in pink spandex, or even with Alex who had sent me apologetic emails telling me he how sorry he was that we had missed each other (he really was the tiny guy in the white). No, I wasn’t in love with anyone but the city of Paris itself.
Like most loves, it sprung from a rocky start, overwrought with expectations and sprinkled with times of desolation and confusion. But I now read over my diary entries as if they were love letters and stare at my photographs the way one stares at their beloved. And unlike most love affairs, I have the security that it will always be there. It doesn’t care if I have huge arms, or that I was stood up or that I have a penchant for cheap wine. Paris will always embrace me with open arms, like one of those great love stories you read about in the city of lights.