Not far from the heart of Paris, Shakespeare and Company juts out of the cobblestones, offering a brief refuge from the crowded art museums. Gummy fingers pluck through stacks of literature in the discount corrals. Inside, books bulge from the walls; patrons climb ladders. A wishing well, dug out of delicate tile, is filled with shiny coins. In the back, next to a staircase, sits an old piano with a taped piece of paper on its side. “Play Me,” it says.
On Sunday afternoons, George Whitman, the 95-year old owner, who lives above the bookstore, opens his messy, chaotic home to host a tea party. Old tin pots lined with tea bags and a bowl full of Madeleine cookies quell the manic hands and mouths of world travelers as they cluster around his rickety table, indulging each other with their tourist tales.
In the summer of 2007, I was one of these travelers, sitting amidst newspapers, books and strangers, slowly sipping tea. I was in Paris for a five-week writing course at the Paris American Academy. Armed with high school French, my journals, my camera and a morbid curiosity for everything Francaise, I was thirsty for adventure.
Each morning, I would wake and walk the short stint to Club Jean de Beauvais, where the memberships were too much, but the atmosphere was decidedly French. People stared at my muscular arms, as I looped old wooden sticks through cables and came up with creative exercises for their antiquated machines.
On Rue St. Jacques, the oldest street in Paris, I walked back to my apartment, where I would hurriedly shower in the decrepit bathroom with the mold and duct tape, grab my computer and books and then head off to Royal St. Jacques, which quickly became my favorite coffee shop in Paris.
Perhaps it was due to the meticulous care the proprietor took in making my cappuccino everyday. Five minutes, and out it came, looking like something from a photograph. Thick mounds of foam, bitter coffee and hot milk, all arranged in a black mug with a dusting of cinnamon and chocolate. The moment it hit my lips, my toes curled. My early morning fog was obliterated. I instantly wanted another. But, at the equivalent of eight American dollars, I stuck to one. I glanced at the shop dog at my feet, who was looking up at me expectantly, waiting for scraps.
Here, I would write for forty-five minutes before my first class, sometimes joined by a few of my classmates. As we nibbled our croissants and sipped our coffees, it would dawn on us: “Do you realize we are writing and having breakfast in Paris? How did we get here?” I said Paris like it was the cure for cancer; but wasn’t it? It was a cure for my dismal marriage, my not yet flourishing career, my uncertainty, my lack of risk taking over the past few years. Here, I was anonymous. I was important. I was a writer.
My friend, Jenna, who I instantly bonded with over a love of food, introduced me to the best falafel on earth. “Lenny Kravitz has an article next to the stand,” she said. “It’s in the Marais.” It was L’as Du Falafel, a nondescript stand you could walk up to and order from or eat inside. For just over four euros, you could get a bursting pita pocket of perfection. Large, fried chickpeas, sautéed eggplant, slaw and a tangy sauce exploded in my mouth in a cacophony of flavors.
Once I thought I’d reached my pleasure peak, Jenna introduced me to La Grand Epicerie, which is the super bowl of grocery stores. The Mecca. The Holy Grail. Rows of every meat, every vegetable, every pastry, every wine, every cheese, every bread you could fathom stretched out in beautiful crates and rows – delicacies from all over the world. We stocked up on baguettes, pastries, cheese and wine and walked and ate. I’d never been happier.
When I thought I had done everything a girl could do in Paris, my other friend, Jenny, invited me on a two-day bike trip to Tours, France. Filled with visions of rolling hills and stunning views, we took the short train ride south and exited in what looked like any other dingy town. We shacked up in a cheap hostel with bunk beds and went and rented our hybrids from a charming gentleman, Simon, who spoke little English.
We spoke little French, so it was a labor of love to get us fitted, armed with maps and on our way across the city of Tours. Fueled with coffee and croissants, our French map and steady legs, we filled our panniers full of necessities: almonds, chocolate, water, journals, cameras, lip balm.
We took off down the bumpy roads and wound to the bike path. A beautiful lake glistened to the right and rows of trees and corn fields fanned in front of us. Little did we know what would soon blossom: castles, sunflower fields, poppies, rolling meadows, France. Everywhere, France.
We rode and rode, the miles gaining momentum under our pedals, our feet spinning away ten miles, then twenty, thirty, forty, fifty and beyond. We stopped every few miles to take pictures. “Oh my God,” was our constant mantra. “We will never see anything like this again. Ever.”
We rode into little towns, dismounted and chained up our bikes, bought up all the pastries and baguettes we could find and took them down by the water to devour them. There, in a soft pasture of lush grass, with my sweating, fatigued limbs, with the fresh dough making its way into my system and the world at our fingertips, I felt a satisfaction incomparable to anything I’d yet to experience.
After touring an ancient cemetery, we lost our way on a charming road with rows of French homes. We sought out a little old man on a ladder. He was painting his shutters blue.
“Pardon, Monsieur,” I said in my unsteady French. “Nous sommes… perdus?”
Jenny took over, pointing to her map. I watched this exchange with pride. Here we were, two women in France, getting directions from a local. He led us in the right direction, and off we went, past more uncharted territory.
We toured castles, we drank espresso, and in some quaint town, we ate a dessert so delicious, I ordered two. It was so good, in fact, that I left my journal – the journal that housed my entire five-week Parisian adventure – in the patisserie; so overcome was I by the sugary pastries, the chocolate tarts, the heavenly smells, that I left it somewhere in the shop. Only when we returned, exhausted and hungry, almost a hundred miles later, did I realize my mistake. Yet, I had no idea of the town or place; I had no idea exactly when I’d lost it. The bike rental guy looked at me and explained that he’d lost a journal backpacking through Europe as well.
“It is a death, no?”
I nodded, keeping my tears at bay. Everything was in that journal. If it was gone, it was like my trip hadn’t existed. I could not recapture all the firsts of this European adventure. I wanted to die. Simon got out the phonebook. He called each town we’d been to, winding his thin finger down the curves of the map. We described the dessert. He called the patisserie. The woman, after several minutes, found my journal, sitting by the trashcan.
“Tres bien!” Simon exclaimed. He somehow convinced her to mail it to my apartment in Paris. And she did. I wrote him a letter in French upon my return – I had never been so grateful for such a small act of kindness.
The rest of the trip brought many surprises and wonders: the opera, a riverboat cruise for Bastille Day, a party in the middle of Paris at a Fireman’s Ball, reading in front of Shakespeare and Company, being alone for the first time in years, walking six, seven miles a day, standing in front of A Starry Night, letting my dreams rule the day.
At the end of it all, I realized I had fallen madly, deeply in love with Paris. I had never felt anything like it. Like so many other foreigners, I had fallen prey to the cliché of loving this romantic city.
Perhaps it was when I was sitting in my crappy apartment on a Sunday, while it rained, with my French windows thrust open, Edith Piaf blasting, that I realized I was capable. Perhaps it was because even though I had a basic knowledge of the language, I often reverted to gestures more than speaking.
Because of that, I learned to listen, and I suffered a million humiliations every single day. I learned to be a true observer, to shut my mouth, to look up, to stand still. And above all, I realized that I could survive, that I could be happy, that I had found a place, all on my own, which felt like home.
Photo credits: Shakespeare and Company by wallyg on Flickr, All others by Rea Frey