Today, I am Paris bound!
I am up at the crack of dawn to catch a taxi to Waterloo Station where the Eurostar will carry me to the Gare du Nord. I try to sleep on the train, but it’s hard. There is a gaggle of teenagers in Carriage 3 and while I cannot place where they are from, boisterous behavior knows no language and requires no further understanding. They have clearly come from some bonding event, like summer camp. Before long, they are singing at the top of their lungs. I think again of the businessman I met on the train to York. That line seems to follow me everywhere I go.
After a few disorienting moments at the station, I find a cash machine and the kiosk that offers tourist information. I buy everything that occurs to me, but should have made a list. I get a 6-day Paris Museum Pass and a ticket for the l’Open bus tour. I forget all about the “forfait loisirs” for Versailles from the RATP counter, a critical mistake that will follow me later.
As I contemplate all of the French signs around me, I feel my courage wane. I won’t try the RER just yet. I’ll get a cab to the hotel instead.
I am staying at the Hôtel des Grands Hommes in a “superior” room facing the Panthéon. I booked it months in advance on the hotel’s website at a special summer rate. Seeing it now, I cannot believe my good fortune. It’s stunning! My room is small, but it’s exquisitely decorated with fine furniture, an open beam ceiling, and upholstered walls in a Toile de Jouy fabric. This is a boutique hotel in the truest sense of the word. There is none of the bland and uniform decoration typically found in chain hotels. As I look around, the daze that descended on my brain at the Gare du Nord suddenly lifts and I realize truly that I am in Paris!
For the rest of the afternoon I sit on the top deck of the l’Open bus and snap pictures of places I have long known but never seen—Notre Dame and the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. I stop at an Orange shop by the Madeleine and buy a French SIM card for my mobile phone. I’m traveling solo and am aching to call home to share this with someone.
I eat dinner at “Le Luxembourg,” a brasserie on the Boulevard St. Michel near the Luxembourg Gardens. By now I feel more relaxed and take my best stab at speaking French, something beyond the obligatory “bonjour” and “merci.” Granted, it’s not much beyond, but the waiter seems to recognize that I mean well.
For dessert, I stop at Dalloyau next door and buy my first pistachio “macaron.” It’s like sheer heaven in cookie form. I wonder if I could make these at home, but I know the answer to that question. Not in a million years would they taste this good.
On the way back to the hotel for the night, I gather up my courage one last time and ask for a Carte Orange at the Luxembourg RER station. I printed out the text months ago. I even downloaded the pronunciation from the AT&T speech lab on the internet. I want to get it right. And, buoyed by my relative success at dinner, I do. But I never thought about what would happen next. The gentleman behind the counter asks me a question. I panic. I don’t understand what he says and do my best to explain, in French, that I do not speak the language well. He becomes frustrated with me and starts saying “finis, finis” over and over again. At first I think he is finished with me, that he has run out of patience and wants me gone, but I gradually realize that he is trying to explain something about the Carte Orange. It’s ending soon. He doesn’t think I should buy it. I want to explain to him that I need it for just one week, but that’s beyond by abilities. I nod appreciatively at him and hope he understands. It must be a difficult job, dealing with tourists all day.