Paris 2014: Arrival

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The moment had come for our train to slow and screech and stop bringing us, finally to Paris. We’d eaten waffles in Brussels, listening to the sound of the music festival float in through the open window of our hotel room, and watched as fireworks were cast into the sky over the flower carpet festival in the square. We’d then spent a weekend running around Aachen with my sister, enjoying 1 Euro ice cream and currywurst and ultimately trying to experience what a weekend would truly be like living in Germany. I didn’t know what to expect as we stepped off the train, dragging all of our heavy bags down the steep steps. It had been years since we’d run around the city in 4 hours on our honeymoon. It had been even longer since Julie and I had visited with my parents back in 2000 (or was it 2001, I can never remember these days).

Would I love the city as I had before? Would it be as majestic? And as we stepped onto the street, deciding that we should walk the few blocks, as Ben put it, to our Airbnb, it didn’t feel majestic at all. It didn’t feel anything like what I thought it would feel. Clouds streaked an otherwise sunny morning sky. The air felt warm until a breeze came through that would chill me to the bone. The suitcases felt heavy on each of my arms as I dragged them, bumping and thudding behind me across streets filled with impatient drivers and got stuck on the edge of several curbs. I felt greasy and caked in a layer of dirt as one does on a travel day. I felt tired and puffy, as one does when they’ve stayed up way too late talking and catching up with one’s sister.

“How much farther, Ben?” I asked at the corner of yet another street we’d just crossed. A few blocks should have taken a few minutes, but it felt like we’d been walking for hours. My feet were already starting to hurt and I could feel callouses beginning to form on my palms from where I was gripping the handle to my roller bag. My shoulders were very much wishing I would have invested in a real backpack rather than an open one-shoulder tote bag filled to the brim with my book, a journal, some water, and whatever else I felt the need to keep under my armpit.

“Just a few more blocks,” Ben said, glancing at the downloaded map on his phone. Only Julie had any kind of cell service, and I was unsure that Ben knew where he was going. We were supposed to be close to Republique, and I thought I would have recognized the canal, the statue, the skateboarders who I’d seen doing tricks off the side of sculptures back in 2011. This was where we had stayed that one night on our honeymoon. I remembered it feeling like a cozy little back street, a quiet place of young, smartly dressed people enjoying lunch on benches under shady green trees that swayed gently in the wind. But none of it looked right. The way the light was hitting the sides of buildings, the lack of trees on the streets we’d chosen to walk down, the empty cafe chairs save for a few possible tourists with their pre-lunch glasses of wine were all giving me a pit in my stomach. The air smelled of diesel and roasted chicken, and I couldn’t find the excitement within myself that I thought would be there. I was overwhelmed and unsure about why I even wanted to come back here.

But now we were rounding the corner to our Airbnb. There was a Halal shop across from us with rotisserie chickens going round and round in the window. There was a small market under an awning right next door. This was not a part of Paris I’d ever seen before. I felt uncomfortable. I felt like I’d walked into a neighborhood I wasn’t welcome in. Ben found the code for the door on his phone and we scrambled inside, up and over the metal piece that separated the street from the opening. And for some reason, it suddenly hit me that the door from the street wouldn’t lead us straight into our Airbnb, but instead, it led us into the courtyard. The door swung shut behind us, and suddenly the street noises dampened. There was a child’s bicycle leaning against a wall. There were plants in the courtyard and mailboxes in front of us. This was a place where families lived, real people lived. After trying to figure out how to get the key to our unit, climbing the spiral staircases, remembering that le premier ├ętage is actually the floor above the ground floor, we entered the cute place we’d be sharing for the week. It had herringbone floors, white walls, a view of the quintessential Parisian rooftops surrounding us, a kitchen so narrow you had to squeeze by the person standing next to you, and a balcony chock-full of plants.

The next time we went out, only a few minutes later, the light had changed, the street was filled with people shopping for food and walking to lunch. We headed to the nearest grocery store, and my perception of the people around us was different. They weren’t intimidating anymore. They were real, hardworking people. This was their neighborhood. They were living and working, and we were just visitors, there to observe and enjoy. I had just needed to relax a little and let myself see them.

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