Today: Jun 17, 2024

Tales of an American Parisienne

Alexandra LabonteSpecial to the Southern News

It’s a strange thing, traveling to a foreign country, a different continent. I traveled for 8 hours in a massive metal cylinder, breathing in stale circulated air, and I arrived. Lugging my overweight luggage around the airport, I searched for a door and escaped. I took in the French air with an amplified breath hoping I’d feel the difference. Smelled like home, not in a sentimental way–more like a disappointing one. 

Determined as I was, and my return ticket not good for another 49 days, I nervously found a taxi all alone and headed for the 13th arrondissement á Paris.

Along the timeline of events that made up my two month stay on Île-de-France, the moment I started to love Paris would be my first ride sur la Metro. Appropriately wearing a black and white stripe sweater and American blue jeans, I headed out to untangled the colorful intertwined lines that represent the Paris Metro Map.

Every morning at 8am, I blazed my way down the block, stopping at the bakery for breakfast (pain au chocolat), and continuing on to my Metro station. “Olympiades” was the name of my home for the 7 weeks, the name I would scan the map for when I was lost or leading everyone home after too much food and wine–though it was most appealing alone. I found confidence sitting on the frayed-nylon seats next to the true inhabitants.

My main objective on my trip was to silently blend in with the city, to become apart of the sidewalks, the cafés, the tabacs, the bakeries, and the people. Walking in the scattered flow of traffic or riding the metro, I wanted nothing more than to be–taken as–a French girl.

I would dart my eyes from passenger to passenger, looking like a guilty Ping-Pong observant longing to be apart of the game. No one spoke much, besides the occasional “Pardon” to get past one another. It was here that it was clear this was a foreign place. Even when excessively packed to capacity and pressed up against the person in front of you, eyes stayed straight. Many people read, many people slept, listened to music–a perfectly silent place not to be noticed as an American.

When ascending the metro stairs into the world of Paris, the light blinded you long enough to prepare you for the transition; movement and color much grander than below. I watched kids trail behind their parents, trusted and more confident than myself in this urban, French jungle. I quickly assimilated in the ways I knew best: upping the cigarette count from un peu to beaucoup, drinking wine at lunch with my teachers in between classes, eating dinner at what used to be my bedtime, and, as I’d been warned, not smiling to anyone unless you’re asking for it.

With classes going and my French friends building my vocabulary and confidence, I was falling in love with Paris. It wasn’t the Mona Lisa or the Eiffel Tower or the Champs-Elysées, although those did help. It was the culture, it was the foreignness. It was being forgotten about at a café by your careless waiter. It was not being expected to tip said waiter. It was adjusting to every store being closed on Sundays and receiving funny looks when you tried your best to say “Je voudrais un soup l’oignon s’il vous plaît ” or dirty looks when you laughed a little too hard at an English-spoken dirty joke on the metro filled with French people who speak fluent English.

So it was nearing the end when I was in H&M in the Marais waiting in a long line to try on a dress. I was standing behind an impatient Parisienne when a young girl walked by and plopped all her rejected items on the sales woman’s counter, very rudely and messily, and walked away quickly. The woman in front of me turns to me to commiserate in French how disgusting that girl was–I don’t know, I’m assuming. None of that is the point though, this women turned to me. Me.  She spoke to me because she thought I was like her, that I spoke her language from birth, or she could have easily said it to the wall, it doesn’t matter. A light filled my eyes, colors were richer, and music played in my mind while my pulse raced a bit, hoping she would leave our moment at that so my secret would remain concealed. So I smiled and nodded in agreement. The ball had been hit to me and I gracefully–and barely–hit it back but it was safe and I was now in the game.

I bought that dress and walked out of the store feeling happier than a girl who is already walking down the streets of Paris. So like any truly happy Parisienne, I wiped off any remnants of a smile, lit a cigarette, and walked towards the Metro.

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