Because I always need to have a regular coffee shop, I went back to CoffeeWorks Project in the morning. Again, I ordered an Americano and the lemon curd muffin that made me feel a little bit sick the previous day and found a spot where I could sit and use the internet. Though I’d been planning on this trip to London for months, I hadn’t actually planned out what I was going to do. I had written down about fifty things on a single sheet of a legal pad while I was at work, folded it up, and stuffed it in my backpack before I left. I took it out while I was waiting for my coffee and looked it over.
The first two items on my list were the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. Katie had mentioned an exhibit that was “on” at the V&A about wedding dresses that was supposed to be good and I like portraits in general, so I decided those two museums would do for my first day and figured out a route using an app called Tube Map.
On the Tube, I people-watched. An older man wearing a green velvet suit with a pink shirt and bow tie who I tried and failed to photograph. Two couples on holiday together, husbands guffawing at their own crude jokes, wives clinging to their husbands faux leather jackets in an attempt to avoid the germs on the pole that I was holding with my bare hands. Several different women with the same schoolmarmish look, their hair pulled back tightly in low buns, wearing high-necked blouses under blazers too thin for the weather.
sculpture hall at the v&a
I walked through a long tunnel from the Tube stop to the V&A. And then I walked into the museum, smiled at a security woman and entered a long hall full of sculptures. There was no ticket line, no one asking to look inside my purse, only a plexiglass box with a suggested donation printed on the side. I walked slowly through the sculpture hall, wondering where I might find a map or a sign to point me in any direction. I eventually found a kiosk outside of the Constable exhibition, where the attendant allowed me to buy a ticket to the Wedding Dresses exhibition and gave me a map, which I think I shoved in my bag and never looked at again.
I walked back through the sculpture hall and found the entrance to the Wedding Dresses exhibition. It was surrounded by some sort of permanent UK-fashion-through-the-ages collection, which I inspected alongside other women, on day trips with their girlfriends or daughters or yawning husbands. Both in this exhibit and inside the cylindrical structure that held the Wedding Dresses, I heard at least fifteen comments about which clothing items people might have worn in Jane Austen’s time.
1920s wedding dress
The Wedding Dresses exhibition turned out to be more about the evolution of our treatment of clothing than weddings, which was a relief. Women went from wearing their best Sunday dresses to the local church in the eighteenth century to commissioning wearable art for their ceremonies in the twentieth and twenty-first. I liked the idea that women used to alter the dresses that they wore on their wedding days in order to wear them again in less formal situations. Of course, there wasn’t a single dress from David’s Bridal or its UK equivalent on display among the contemporary dresses, but I do think that the idea that a wedding dress should be special and one-of-a-kind – even if it’s actually not – has been prevalent for so long that showing a dress a middle class woman would wear today as part of this exhibit alongside couture would be pointless.
There’s a lot to see at the V&A. I walked through as much as I could in the hour after I left the wedding dresses. I’m not sure how, but I kept ending up in the Japanese collection in front of a woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi titled “Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre.”
It was past lunchtime and I didn’t feel like finding a place to eat, so I went to the V&A cafe. I bought a sandwich and salad and carried them to an empty table on an adorable tray. I attempted, with varying degrees of success, to eat and read Renata Adler’s Speedboat at the same time. I’ve always found some comfort in at least looking busy while eating alone. It makes the actually being alone part a bit more tolerable. Two sixties-ish women, who I deemed to be academics even though I can’t remember them actually saying anything about academia, sat at the table next to me with pastries and a pot of tea between them. One of them spoke with an American accent. Her occasional British inflections told me that she’d been living in or around London for sometime, but she also could have been there for a week for all I actually knew. I’m no Sherlock Holmes and I’ve met plenty of assholes who’ve come back from a summer abroad with an unintelligible accent. The women gossiped about a mutual acquaintance who’d gone crazy and left her husband who’d cheated on her for years for a much younger man. I tried to write down the details of the story in my phone but I worried they suspected that’s what I was doing, so I stopped. Distracted, I looked at the same page of Speedboat for so long that I got annoyed with myself and put it away. A V&A employee sat on the other side of me with her baby, who pawed at my sweater until I smiled at him. I packed up my things, reluctantly left my tray and plate on the table for someone else to clean up, and left the museum through the sculpture hall, where an older gentleman sketched a larger statue of what was probably a Greek god while surrounded by a crowd of schoolchildren.
me and my hero
The National Portrait Gallery begins on the top floor, but I didn’t know that. I started on the bottom floor, where the contemporary portrait exhibit begins with a portrait of Kate Middleton, which is flanked by signs prohibiting photography. I walked right past it, toward a large, mostly white canvas. Finding myself alone in that section, I took a selfie in front of it. I thought for a few seconds about how I would caption it on Instagram before settling on “Kicking it with Dame Judi Dench.”
Once I figured out that the oldest portraits were on the third floor, I took the escalator upstairs and wound my way down through the rest of the museum. Many of the portraits were of people who aren’t of much importance to us now, but they were important or rich enough during their lifetimes to have portraits painted of them. For two hours, I briefly considered hundreds of individual lives. I was drawn mostly to the women, who were actresses and wives and mistresses and scientists and queens and writers and daughters of wealthy men. I was reminded of a book I had when I was a girl that had short biographies of each First Lady of the United States, with one page devoted to their life story and one to their portrait. I read it over and over again and am still able to recall most of their full names, small details from their childhoods, and what they wore in their portraits.
I hurried back to Chris and Katie’s, where I met Chris so that we could take the bus together to meet Katie at her office. On the way there, I heard about Chris’s trip to Japan, from which he’d just returned. I thought about how much more traveling I have left to do in my lifetime.
Chris and Katie and I ate at a restaurant in Shepherd’s Bush called The Bird in Hand. The menu was full of modern takes on classic British fare, which is, I think, true of many menus in London. We had a scotch egg and foie gras and something called ale soup and the first of many pizzas that I would unexpectedly eat during my trip.
at bush hall
We saw our friend Will’s band, Delta Spirit, play at Bush Hall. The chandeliers and the ornate moldings in the main hall made me imagine one of those choreographed dances you see in a BBC costume drama having taken place there centuries ago. However, upon consulting Wikipedia, I discovered that Bush Hall had been built in 1903. During the show, I drank two Jack & Cokes. I don’t really like whiskey, which I forget all the time. I watched people dancing in the crowd. Two women on the older end of middle-aged shook their butts together. Two men in natty business casual wear nodded their heads and pumped their fists. A young man with a leg injury waved his right crutch in the air near the stage. After the show, as the audience was filing out of the hall, I took a photo of Chris with a girl who had recognized him from his band. She introduced herself to both of us and as I shook her hand and told her my name I thought about saying something like, “I’m not important,” but then I thought it better to say nothing like that at all.
Thoughts and experiences from my first day traveling to/in London in November 2014.
jetlagged/maybe still asleep after my first flight, but drinking coffee anyway
Somehow, I survived my first flight – from New York to Iceland – and then my second flight – from Iceland to London – and found the Heathrow Express, which would take me from Heathrow to Paddington Station, where I would have to find and board an Underground train that would get me to Islington, where I would have to find my friends’ house. The only things I’d consumed since leaving New York were two Nyquil caplets, seltzer and two cups of coffee. My phone was about to die. I charged it on the train using an adaptor I’d purchased at the airport for some amount of Icelandic money I hadn’t bothered converting to US dollars because, I thought, fuck it I’m on vacation.
I have all of these people on my Gchat list – most of whom I don’t speak to on a regular basis or, actually, ever – whose “status” is always their location. Not the location in which they live, of course, but places they’re traveling. There’s never an explanation. Just, simply, “Buenos Aires.” Or on occasion, something like “Lima -> Vancouver -> NYC.” I have mixed feelings about this practice because, on the one hand, I think it’s pretty pretentious. But, on the other hand, if I had the opportunity to travel a lot, I’d probably be an asshole about it too.
Walking from the Angel tube station to Chris and Katie’s house was one of the most terrifying short journeys of my life. There were two reasons for this. The first was that I was using precious international data to Google map my walk. The second was that I was completely unable to cross any street without imagining myself getting hit by a car because I had looked the wrong way.
Once I found the house, which was not as difficult as I’d imagined it would be, I let myself in with a key that Katie had hidden for me in an exhaust pipe. I had about four hours to kill until Katie got home – Chris was on a trip and returning the next day – so I took my time getting settled, which took a lot less time than I’d anticipated. After I’d showered and dressed, I turned on the TV. I watched an episode of Gilmore Girls, feeling a little guilty that it was two seasons ahead of where I’d left off in my Netflix binge and also that I was watching Gilmore Girls on vacation. The only thing that forced me off the couch was the fact that the internet at the house wasn’t working.
I felt very at home at CoffeeWorks Project. The name was dumb, but it reminded me of the coffee shop I’d recently had to stop frequenting at home. It had a limited menu of espresso drinks and tea. There was also a selection of whimsically flavored baked goods for sale. The space was modern and airy and the furniture was mismatched and rustic. It really did feel like it could have been in Brooklyn, which was both comforting and disappointing.
casually took two photos of this little tableau before getting embarrassed for myself and picking up my book again
I found the only unoccupied corner, where I drank an Americano and ate a raspberry muffin filled with lemon curd as I used the internet for all sorts of things on my phone. I checked Instagram, where I was still getting likes on the selfie I took in the airport in Iceland. I used Viber to text my mom and Vincent, to let them know I had gotten to London safely. I deleted about 65 shopping emails and read and responded to the only two real emails I’d received. Then I wrote an email to my dad, who was celebrating his birthday.
It was getting dark outside, which was a relief because that meant Katie would be getting back from work soon. I’d killed more time getting to the coffee shop than I’d even meant to, as I realized I’d left my debit and credit cards at the house when I got to the bank to take out cash and had to go back. I read some of my book – Renata Adler’s Speedboat – until I realized I felt kind of sick, probably from the lemon curd in the muffin. I took a different route back to Chris and Katie’s, down an alley-like street where vendors were breaking down their market stalls.
When Katie got home, I felt insane. I was happy to see her, of course, but I also was so jetlagged that I had no idea if the words that I thought I was speaking were actually coming out of my mouth. She asked me if I wanted to go out to dinner or just rest and order in. It was Guy Fawkes Night – or Bonfire Night, or whatever they call it – and we could already hear quite a lot of fireworks going off.
“Let’s go out,” I said. “I’ll just fall asleep if we sit here.”
Katie took me to a pub called The Scolt Head which, despite its blunt-seeming name, was warm and had a lovely little garden that I would have liked to sit in if it had been warm out. We caught up over a bottle of wine and I ate chicken and bacon pie, which I thought about not ordering until I remembered that I was on vacation. After dinner, we walked back to the house, unable to hear each other very well over the explosions. We stayed up a little later talking, but Katie had to go to work in the morning and I hadn’t actually slept in like two days, so we said goodnight. I slept for 11 hours, which I felt very proud of in the morning.
This is the fourth part in a series about studying abroad in Paris in the fall of 2007. You can read the first part here and the second part here and the third part here.
Eventually things really picked up and it felt as though my time in Paris was turning into a series of visits and trips. People visiting Paris, me going other places. I was finally, for the most part, happy. Time moved so slowly for me there that I never felt a disruption in my schedule or that anything was necessarily a distraction. The experience itself was a distraction.
My friend Edmund came to France on business. He flew into Charles de Gaulle, rented a car and drove to Paris for a brief visit before he had to go on to Rouen. He picked me up and drove us around the city as I pointed out landmarks. Eventually we parked and went to a cafe, where we sat for a while just talking about our lives. I don’t remember what I did or didn’t share with him, but I’m sure I had a lot to tell. I remember that he told me about his new girlfriend, whom he’d met after moving into his new apartment in Chicago. He seemed happy. In love, even. For some reason, listening to him talk about her was comforting.
This was one of my favorite days.
My friend and college roommate Annie was studying in Madrid and came to Paris the weekend of Halloween, along with a few friends. Annie stayed with me at Liz’s apartment. Our friend Jacob stayed with Stephanie, who had to keep that secret from her host family, who had gone on vacation and I think had maybe prohibited her from having overnight guests. We’d scheduled a few days of sightseeing and socializing and I was happy to be so busy.
I don’t remember a real sequence of events that weekend. Just flashes of things. I know that on their first day in town, I went to a cafe to meet Annie, Jacob and two fellow-Northwestern kids they’d become friends with at a cafe. I couldn’t tell you where the cafe was. Maybe it was in the 15th, because I definitely walked there from school. I remember that walk really well because it was the first time I listened to Beirut’s The Flying Club Cup in its entirety and enjoyed it. It felt like the perfect soundtrack for walking around Paris in the fall and I couldn’t believe it had taken me weeks to figure that out.
I think the first night we had dinner with Liz and then went out to meet everyone at a cafe. I know for sure we were sitting outside at a little table and just drinking and people-watching when one of the few Parisians who was super-psyched for Halloween – and wearing a rubber mask – walked up behind me and scared me.
annie, me & steph
One night, I took Annie, Jacob, Steph and another friend to Le Cristal. I recall several things about that night. First, Stephanie and Jacob had eaten a fancy steak dinner beforehand. Second, I hadn’t showered that day and went out with greasy hair pulled back into a ponytail, which was and still is very unlike me, but being in Paris does crazy things to you. Third, we drank an astounding number of pitchers of beer. And then the order in which things happened gets a little hazy. Jacob was having a conversation with someone in Spanish. We were taking a ton of pictures. Stephanie eventually went outside to talk to her boyfriend on the phone. (Did that happen? It might not have.) Eventually, she came back outside and told us that she’d thrown up on a car. (Was it on a car? Also, did that happen?) She and Jacob went home and left me and Annie to drink another full pitcher of beer by ourselves, which was an amazing idea because by the time we finished, we were so drunk that I decided I would lead us home on foot, using the light at the top of the Montparnasse Tower to guide us. I don’t remember our walk home, but I do remember waking up at 1 PM the next day.
We went to the Eiffel Tower. By that point, I was really fucking sick of the Eiffel Tower.
We did some more sightseeing at night. Champs Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur.
me, jacob & annie
On their last night, we all met up with Annie and Jacob’s friends with whom they’d traveled to Paris. They were staying in a hostel in the Latin Quarter, where I usually refused to go, but it was one of the girls’ birthdays. We ended up at a horrid, overpriced but dingy piano bar that someone who worked at the hostel had suggested. I probably complained about it and I hope now that it wasn’t too obvious.
I had fallen into a routine. Class Monday through Thursday. Sometimes I went on field trips on Fridays for my History and Art History classes. They weren’t field trips so much as they were like, really long, specific walking tours of Paris. My History professor, who walked with a cane and often had to miss class because he couldn’t get to Paris on the commuter rail from Versailles, took us on a tour of the Marais. My Art History professor showed us Notre Dame and a few other churches. Then I think I had to see Notre Dame again as part of a History trip. Of course, I was interested in what they had to say, but three hours of walking around in a group was a little much for me. (For the record, my favorite trip was our Art Nouveau architecture tour.)
I looked forward to the weekends when I had solid plans. And I really looked forward to the weekends when I was traveling.
The second big trip I took with Jill was to Berlin. It was our first time on an overnight train and I was really excited. We brought beer and some snacks along for our nine-hour journey. Once we were settled in our car, we started talking to one of our fellow travelers, who was named Hannelore. (God, why do I remember that?) She shared our beer and told us about what she did in Dijon – she was an academic, maybe – and why she was traveling back to her native Germany. I stayed up later than I should have and was rather tired when I woke up, just as we were stopping outside of Berlin.
Jill and I got off at the right stop and somehow found our way to our hostel, which was hands down the best hostel I booked Europe. It was called The Circus. I think I found it in a New York Time Travel article. Anyway, it was great, even though we were on top bunks in a huge dorm room and I was too afraid to use the shower or change my clothes. (But seriously, it was super clean, they had excellent amenities including a bar, and the staff gave us an amazing recommendation for a walking tour.)
We immediately put our stuff in a locker and signed up for an eight-hour walking tour, which we figured would be a good way to see a lot of the city in the limited amount of time we had. We were right. We covered a lot. Our tour guide, an old man who wore a tweed cap and was maybe English – I forget – picked us and a few other tourists at the hostel. I think the hostel was technically in the East Berlin section of Mitte and he showed us a lot of little particularly East Berlin things on our way to the New Synagogue, where we would meet up with the rest of the tour group. While we were walking, I texted my parents to tell them that I’d arrived safely. My dad responded, “Achtung Baby!”
We merged with another group at the New Synagogue, where we were greeted by our new tour guide, an American guy with a curly ponytail wearing a fedora. I wish I remembered his name. Anyway, he was really fucking excited about being a tour guide. He moved to Berlin without knowing any German at all. His only reason was because…he knew that he wanted to live there. It was possible he was a student, but I think he was just real live weirdo. He did know a lot about German history and kept assuring us that German was an easy language to learn, showing off his skills by chatting up anyone – well, mostly young girls – who happened to stop close to our group on the street.
in front of the brandenburg gate
I feel like we saw…everything. You name it, we saw it! And it was very cool to do all of that on that particular day because…it was November 9th! A really important day in German history! There were so many things I was excited about seeing – the Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Wall, the Reichstag. And even though I wasn’t necessarily excited, I was interested in seeing the Holocaust Memorial with my own eyes. (Readers, I think you know by now that I’m an enormous German history nerd.) But there was one thing that I didn’t know we would see and therefore didn’t expect to be affected by. And that was the parking lot that’s now over Hitler’s Bunker.
berlin wall art installation
Six hours into the tour, it started raining and we took refuge in a Doner kebab shop. Jill and I decided we’d had enough for the day, so we headed back to the hostel and dried off. That evening, we went to a restaurant near the hostel that our tour guide had suggested. It was a quiet, candlelit place on a side street that served traditional German food and it was perfect. We were tired and opted to just go back to the bar in the hostel, have a drink and get to bed.
In the morning, we dry shampooed our hair and I think maybe wore the clothes we had worn the day before. And then we were off to see more things. I think we did Checkpoint Charlie and went to a museum where we saw some sort of Egyptian temple thing. Jill asked me to take her picture at the top and told me that I needed to stop putting her in the middle of the frame every time, which is the best photography advice I’ve ever received.
We went to a Christmas market outside which was still charming despite being in what looked like a parking lot. I ate a sausage and bought a really small leather purse. It started snowing. On our walk back to the hostel, everything we passed made me look twice. I think it was around then that I decided I loved Berlin.
Back in Paris, I’d started babysitting for our upstairs neighbor, Sylvie. Her daughter was three years-old. She was usually a delight and after she got used to me, we were great pals. Her father was English and lived in London so I was supposed to speak English to her. She didn’t speak any English, really, except for simple words. My mom had brought over a few books in English for me to read to her, which I would do before she went to bed. It was really low-key compared to my previous Parisian babysitting experience.
After she went to bed, I would try to find stuff to watch on cable. By far, my favorite thing on late-night French cable: Shake Ton Booty, which was a dance program on MTV that I really only kept on in the background because I enjoyed when the words “SHAKE TON BOOTY” would flash across the screen.
The weekend after Berlin, Jill and I went to Amsterdam. The trip started out…poorly. For me, at least. I hadn’t left myself too much time to get from my apartment to Gare du Nord and as I was transferring Metro lines, I realized I’d forgotten my Eurail pass. I had two choices: turn around and get my pass at the apartment and probably miss the train or buy a new ticket on the train. I didn’t want to leave Jill hanging, so I decided to buy a new ticket on the train for 100 euros, which seemed like a million dollars to me at the time. I was so upset.
The train took about five hours and when we got to Amsterdam, it was pouring. I honestly have no idea how we figured out how to get from the train station to our hostel, which was on the outskirts of the city. This hostel also had a bar, where we grabbed a drink on our first night. I remember being very excited to hear them play this song:
We shared a room with a bunch of Spanish girls for at least the first night we were there. I remember them being loud, but not much else.
me, with all of the things we associate with amsterdam, i think
The two days we were there are sort of blended together in my mind. I think we did the Van Gogh Museum the first day, which was definitely one of the worst museum experiences of my life. It’s not like I spend ages in front of paintings when I go to a museum, but I do enjoy being able to look at something for more than 5 seconds before a crowd sweeps me away and on to the next one. On our second and last day, we went to the Anne Frank House. I, like many humans, was very taken with Anne Frank’s story as a child. (I went on to become so obsessed with the Holocaust that I ran out of library books to read on the subject, which is probably less common.) I thought the museum was excellent. Sad, but excellent. (Though it would be kind of hard for them – in the house where Anne Frank, her family and friends hid – to screw up bringing history to life, wouldn’t it?)
somewhere along a canal in amsterdam
I was worried about money the whole time we were there, even though I still had plenty and had been very frugal during my time in Europe. I felt sick over having to buy the extra ticket. I just kept telling myself that there was nothing I could really do about it and that I had to try to enjoy myself.
On our second night we ended up in the hostel bar again because our hostel was so far away from anything and we were really tired. We made some friends that evening, including a large and very Nordic-looking woman. Her blond hair was in braids and she was wearing a Nordic print sweater. (So again, just super Nordic-looking.) She told us she was from the Frisian Islands in the North Sea. What it’s like there I can’t even imagine. We also met an American dude who told us he had eaten bad mushrooms earlier and had spent the whole day in bed in the hostel. He was a pizza delivery guy from central Illinois and he had saved up his money for four years in order to take an epic trip through Europe. However, he planned probably the weirdest Eurotrip ever: like 15 cities in Germany and then Amsterdam and then back to Illinois. Maybe he went to Austria also? There was definitely another German-speaking country in there. Anyway, I thought it kind of a waste to save up money for FOUR years to travel and only hit two or three countries, but who am I to judge?
I know what you’re all thinking right now. Where are the drugs? (Right, Mom? You’re definitely thinking this, I know.) Everyone goes to Amsterdam to do drugs. Well, my partner-in-crime wasn’t super into the idea of spending our two days there in coffee shops and I was on board with just sightseeing. But with mere hours left in Amsterdam… I won’t say any more here, on the internet, but if I know you personally, just ask me and I’ll tell you a story that involves not one but two paranoia-induced panic attacks in a train station, Dutch bagels, a doppelganger, a can of Pringles that wouldn’t open, and listening to Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love on repeat for five hours.
My friend Katherine and her then-boyfriend (now-husband) James came to Paris for a weekend. I met up with them someplace, I don’t remember where exactly, on a Saturday. We ate a late lunch at a Turkish restaurant and after that, I went home because Katherine and James were going to a rugby match and Liz was having a party for Nick’s birthday. I hung out while Liz, Nick and John prepared for the party. Then the guests, a motley crew from the international agency where Nick and Liz worked, started arriving. I was planning on meeting Katherine and James after they were out of the rugby match but then. Then. THEN. I began really not feeling well. I was sitting at Liz’s bar, talking to one of her colleagues, when it seemed like all of the spanikopita I had just eaten transformed itself into knives and stabbed me in my stomach. I excused myself and violently threw up in the tiny bathroom, hanging on the string you pulled from the ceiling to flush the toilet for support.
I had never had food poisoning before, but I knew that that’s what was going on. From that fucking Turkish restaurant. I asked Liz for some cleaning supplies so that I could clean the toilet. And then I got in bed.
The party was still going on. It sounded like it was kind of raging actually. I watched Pushing Daisies, which I had been streaming illegally since it started that fall,in my room. My stomach continued to rebel against me. I heard some people go through Liz’s room to the balcony, which you could also access from my room. There was some loud conversation about how much of the city you could see, what excellent views the apartment had, when suddenly something burst into my room and crashed into the TV. It was Delphine, one of Liz and Nick’s colleagues, with whom I had spoken earlier in the living room. I could hear John hissing from the hallway, telling her that she was in the wrong room. She apologized to me and walked through my room and out onto the balcony anyway.
The next day, Liz gave me a suppository – my first – to help with my stomach, I think. Now that I think about it, it was probably a laxative. I honestly don’t even know what it was supposed to do for me – I mean, I do, but I just don’t see how it would have been helpful – but I took it anyway. Liz was really surprised when I told her that, to my knowledge, I had never before stuck medication in my rectum before.
My friend Chris’s band came back to Paris, this time to open for The Shins at a much larger venue. This time, there was no wild night out. I think it was a weeknight. We ran into Chris and a few of his friends from college before the show, when I was sitting outside of a McDonald’s waiting for Stephanie to go to the bathroom inside.
At the venue, Stephanie stood kind of off to the side. Chris came out and watched The Shins with us. I really liked The Shins in high school, but at that time I was very into protecting my image when it came to music – I worked on a rock radio show at my college radio station, which specifically sought to play underrepresented music – so I acted very whatever about seeing them.
Jill and I had decided to spend Thanksgiving in Rome. We booked our train tickets. Two sixteen-hour trips. We were nervous about spending a total of thirty-two hours on trains in one weekend, but excited for the adventure.
Because I wasn’t going to be in Paris for Thanksgiving, John and I thought that it would be a good idea to make a little Thanksgiving dinner the day before I left. Roles were assigned for what everyone was to make. I was in charge of the cranberry sauce. I ended up having to go to Picard – which, if you don’t know it, is a spectacular frozen food emporium that I wish we had in the U.S. – to find frozen cranberries. It was my first time really making a recipe using the metric system, but it turned out well enough.
My friends Peter and Molly joined me, Liz, John and Nick for dinner. Even though Liz encouraged me to invite people over all the time, I didn’t. Not because I didn’t want to, but it was usually just easier to meet up with my friends individually elsewhere in the city. Also, everyone was busy. Maybe they just didn’t want to come over. I don’t know. But Peter and Molly came over and we had a nice time.
I remember only two things from that night, specifically. One thing was that when Peter rang the doorbell, I was petting the nicest cat, Crevette, on the couch. Unfortunately, when I stood up, her claw got stuck in my dress, so she sunk her claws from her other paw into my thigh. I unhooked her and answered the door, bleeding. The other thing that I remember was talking almost constantly about the Italian transportation strike that had been announced earlier that week. I was hoping that it would end before my train left the following day so that I could get to Rome as planned.
It didn’t. My train was canceled. Jill and I ended up frantically rebooking our trip for a few weeks later, during what would be our last weekend in Paris. I ended up spending Thanksgiving eating Thanksgiving leftovers with Liz, our neighbor Sylvie and her daughter, as well as Sylvie’s friend and the friend’s boyfriend and daughter. The little girls ran around the apartment like wild animals and I ended up spending most of the evening answering Sylvie’s friend’s boyfriend’s questions about New York City, which culminated with me drawing him a map of the five boroughs on a cocktail napkin.
I was determined to be depressed that weekend about missing Thanksgiving at home and I think I succeeded. I don’t remember anything about it.
This is the third part in a series about studying abroad in Paris in the fall of 2007. You can read the first part here and the second part here.
Settling in had to happen eventually. Once I accepted that I was in Paris for a semester and that nothing could change that, I began to build a (temporary) life. It was both difficult and not. Everyday things fell into place: friends, regular activities, classes. But I still remained anxious enough that I was always looking forward to what was coming next: outings, visitors, trips to other countries.
I had five professors. Art history was taught by a small, patient woman named Anne-Catherine. The History of Paris was taught by a 70-something year-old man who I think was named Claude. He walked with a cane, had poor health and took the train in from Versailles. I took Architecture of Paris with a frizzy-haired woman whose name I don’t remember, though I called her The Owl because she wore round glasses. French, of course, I took with Sabrina, who I mentioned previously. She was young and her class was not as boring as the others, probably because it required a bit of participation.
The fifth professor was a priest. He was middle-aged guy with tousled hair and prominent teeth. He taught a Buddhism class that I signed up for at the Institut Catholique de Paris. I don’t think I ever paid attention in his class, not that I went very often. At most, I went every other week. Our only requirement for the semester was a paper, due just before we left. I figured I would catch up on all of the reading eventually.
I had originally signed up to take six classes. I dropped the French Cinema class because the professor required us to go to some film library every week to watch a movie. Also, everyone taking it seemed like a huge asshole.
Our program organized outings for us. We had to choose two out of a possible four: Giverny, Versailles, Fontainebleau or Normandy. The Normandy trip was an overnight and required writing an essay, so obviously I didn’t put that on my list. I chose Giverny and Versailles because I wanted to see both of those things anyway. I figured that I’d get to Normandy eventually, though I didn’t care if it happened during this time in Europe or not.
The day we went to Giverny was cold and rainy. I walked around with my friend Lindsay. It was beautiful but, like many things in France, full of tourists. I was one of them. I thought about Linnea in Monet’s Garden, which I had loved when I was a little girl. I took a lot of pictures. Pictures of the pond. Pictures of a little rowboat. Pictures of weeping willows. I was happy when we went back to the gift shop, where it was warmer.
katie, molly & me taking a picture in the reflection of some modern art in the gardens of versailles
The day we went to Versailles was warm. We took the tour of the palace in a large group. Again, I took a lot of pictures. This time, they were mostly of chandeliers. I walked around the grounds with Katie and Molly. They were both talking about how much they had loved the film Marie Antoinette. I hadn’t seen it because I had read some bad reviews. It was the first time I really, really felt like I had friends in my program. I remember I was wearing a blue velvet blazer and jeans over my tall brown boots and I was sweating.
I walked to school every morning. I liked waking up every day, making some coffee in the French press and eating cereal, and then setting off for school with my headphones on. In the early days, I think I listened to one song on repeat, which was the RAC remix of “Each Year”.
Then, in October, when I finally had internet, I was able to download some new music. All at once, I had three new albums that I was very into: Jens Lekman’s Night Falls Over the Kortedala, The Fiery Furnaces’ Widow City and Beirut’s The Flying ClubCup. I still think of these albums as my Parisian soundtrack. The French-themed The Flying Club Cup was particularly perfect.
I walked as much as I possibly could. After school, with nothing to do, I would walk from school or the apartment to the center of Montparnasse, up the Rue de Rennes, until I got to the Boulevard Saint-Germain, just where the Cafe de Flore, Brasserie Lipp and Les Deux Magots are located. The route was busy and very commercial. I would stop in stores along the way. Zara was of particular interest, where I would wander through the racks of clothing. Out on the street, I liked feeling lost in the crowds of people, pushing my way through packs of tough teenage girls, walking alongside young mothers, who guided baby carriages with plastic coverings with one hand, smoking with the other. It was easier to be anonymous among so many people I would never know.
I planned to meet up with Katie, Molly and Jill one night at a bar they had discovered in the fifteenth, called Le Cristal. While I was waiting for all of them outside the bar, Jill texted to say she couldn’t make it because of dinner with her host family. Eventually, Katie, who I knew less well than the other two, appeared without Molly, who also wasn’t able to make it for some reason. So, Katie and I proceeded to drink three 11 euro pitchers of 1664 by ourselves. And we have been good friends ever since.
Liz set me up with a babysitting job. Her friend needed someone to take care of her children – a nine year-old boy and a two year-old girl – occasionally in the afternoons. I said yes, even though I was terrified. But, I figured, speaking French with children would probably be good for me. The friend – we’ll call her Marie – was very warm. She wore a black motorcycle jacket and had that kind of artfully messy, thick, dark hair that American women just can’t ever have.
She took me to pick up her daughter, Viviane, at her nursery school. She told the teacher I would be picking her up on the weekdays, which was not something I thought I had agreed to. Anyway, I went with it. We then picked up her son, Pierre, at his grade school. When we got back to their apartment, she showed me around and that was it. I would go back a few days later to watch them after school. The kids were cute and happy. It seemed like it would be easy enough.
Later that week, I stayed with them for about three hours while Marie went out, until her partner returned home from work. Those three hours turned out to be some of the longest in my life. First of all, Viviane was cranky. Pierre, who was as good a little helper as any I’d seen in all of my years of babysitting, helped me take her outside, where we were going to play some games. However, she immediately fell down on the concrete in the courtyard and scraped her knee. She cried for roughly an hour after that. We fixed up her knee and I tried calming her down while Pierre went to do his homework. I put on a video, which apparently was the worst thing to do, because she started crying louder and shouting something unintelligible. I got Pierre from his room and asked him what she was saying. It turned out that she had been waiting for her “Three Little Pigs” video, but she spoke with a lisp, so it sounded like “Les Thwois Pethits Cothons”. I had trouble enough understanding French in general, let alone Baby French.
Pierre put on the video. He asked me if we could practice English, which I was happy to do.
“I like Pierre,” he said.
“Me too,” I said.
He looked confused. “I like Pierre,” he said again, this time pointing to himself.
“Oh,” I said. “No, ‘I am Pierre.'”
He grinned and repeated after me. He had established that I did indeed know English, so then it was time for him to ask me – in French – all of his questions about America, of which there were many. First: “Tu connais Hollywood?” Yes, I was familiar with Hollywood. Oh, man. He loved action movies. Actually, he loved America! He wanted to go there because people liked to surf. He loved surfing! He and his father surfed on France’s western coast, but he wanted to go surfing in California. Also, he wanted to know, were les Converses popular in America? He had two pairs, gray and green. His mom also had two pairs. I told him that I had two pairs, in black and white, and he cheered. Also, was my belt made out of vrai cuir? Yes, it was real leather.
I made them grilled cheese for dinner, which he thought was hilarious. I couldn’t figure out how to work the stove, so Pierre helped me. He also soothed Viviane the whole time, who went between crying and acting silently afraid of me. Basically, Pierre was the babysitter and I was just there to make sure that neither of them died. When their father came home, we talked a bit – he also wanted to practice his English – and paid me. I hadn’t made plans with Marie for the next date.
When she eventually called me, I must have been in class, so she left a message. She wanted me to come on Thursday afternoons. I had just learned that that was when my Buddhism class was happening – the day had changed from Tuesdays – so I could no longer babysit for them. I left her a stuttering message. I never saw them again.
Even though I had become friends with Katie, Molly and Jill, I was still figuring out if I could become friends with anyone else. A group of three girls invited me to go out with them one Friday night and I said yes. They all lived in the student apartments, which were on the periphery of the fourteenth arrondissement. I went to their apartment to drink before we went out. Liz gave me some orange juice to bring with me for a mixer. I walked from her apartment, which took me much longer than I’d expected. The three of them were all very nice, though I liked one girl, who I thought was more sophisticated, the best.
We took the Metro somewhere, I forget where, and ended up at a crowded bar. Then two other crowded bars. Eventually one of the girls, the sophisticated one, saw some people from her college. She left us for them. The two other girls and I went to some crepe place and sat at a table, very drunk, dejectedly eating crepes. We got on the night bus, which people told me to never take home. I got so nervous that I was on the bus that I got off way before I should have. I ended up trying to walk home until I realized that I didn’t actually know where I was. I looked for a cab for a really long time, but eventually I found one. When I woke up in the morning, I was scared thinking about what could have happened. I never went out with those girls again.
My mom and grandma came to visit in the middle of October. My mom had been to Paris before, but only for weekends while she lived in London. My grandmother had never been and was excited to take her first trip to France at the age of 77. She even bought a new raincoat for the occasion. I had been looking forward to their arrival since the day that I got off the plane. I knew they would be my first visitors.
They stayed at a hotel in Saint-Germain. I had reserved the room for them and I was very pleased to see, when I got there, that it was basically the cutest, Frenchest place ever. The interior was decorated beautifully. The staff was actually delightful. It had what I think they call an “old world charm”. Anyway, I wish I could remember the name, but I can’t so my mom and I will have to look back in our records.
They came during the big transportation strike, which meant that we walked everywhere during the four days they were there. One day, I dragged them all the way from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame to my apartment in the fifteenth. When we got there, John, Nick and Liz had a lamb dinner waiting for us. “You let your grandmother walk from the Eiffel Tower to here?” John asked. I said that it had taken us all day and that we made plenty of stops along the way, She said she didn’t mind. I’m sure she was a little pissed though. She loves nothing more than taking her time, window-shopping her way along streets. I’m a New Yorker. A rusher. Every time she stopped to look at something, I would walk up alongside her and give her a little nudge, hurrying her along.
My grandmother only had one unusual thing that she wanted to see while she was in Paris. The Shrine of the Miraculous Medal on the Rue du Bac. It took us forever to find it, on the first morning they were there. The shrine was on the interior of this little courtyard. There was Catholic paraphernalia everywhere. Little things for sale. We went into the church and said a prayer. I don’t remember being particularly moved.
I only went to Mass once while I was in France and that was the week that my mom and grandma were there. We went to St-Germain-des-Prés, one of Paris’s oldest churches. It looked, indeed, super old. The Mass was in French. I understood…most of it. My mom and grandma, nothing.
Being in France, away from most of what was familiar to me, that was the first time that I really didn’t feel any guilt about not going to church.
My grandma and mom were on a mission to buy a gift for my cousin’s baby, who was a few months old at the time. I’d say that, in total, we probably went to ten different baby stores with the most beautiful clothing. We went to one store where the shopkeeper didn’t speak English and I had to translate for my mom. Both she and my grandma were very impressed.
Each night they were there, we had a different dinner plan. We ate with Peter and his roommate at a dark bistro, where my grandma was in awe of the little crèmes brûlées in a tall pastry case near our table. We had dinner with Liz, John and Nick after our trek across the city. We had a lovely evening with them and I was happy that they all got along.
On their second to last night, we had dinner with Stephanie at a little pizza restaurant near Odéon. We had a fun time, except I think my mom unintentionally insulted Stephanie when she said that she was surprised that she didn’t have an accent, because Steph’s parents are from Romania. (She was born and raised in LA). Then, after we left the restaurant, we were crossing the street and my grandma fell on her face. My mom and I immediately started hysterically laughing and could barely make it across the street ourselves. I think my mom might have peed her pants a little. My grandma can’t go anywhere without falling. Steph was horrified. My grandma was more worried about whether she had ripped her raincoat than any potential injuries sustained. Both she and the raincoat were fine.
By that point, in the middle of October, I’d exchanged a few emails with my ex-boyfriend. They were fine enough, though I wasn’t telling him much about how I really felt for fear that it would scare him away further. The night of his birthday, I got really drunk. I had debated all day whether or not to wish him a happy birthday. Finally, I dialed his number on my French cell phone. The reception was bad. It rang and rang and finally went to voicemail. I left a message. He never said anything about it.
The first trip that Jill and I planned with our Eurail passes was to Geneva. Neither of us had been to Switzerland before. We were only going for a night,
I was excited for my first European train journey. We settled in our seats, taking out our snacks and our books, chatting away.
“We don’t need our passports, right?” Jill asked.
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
“But we’re traveling within the European Union,” she said.
“Actually,” I said, “Switzerland isn’t part of the European Union. And you need your passport anyway to validate your Eurail pass.”
So, that’s how we ended up freaking out for five hours about what was going to happen once we got to the Swiss border. Jill, who is still one of the smartest, savviest people I have ever met, ended up getting sent back to France by the Swiss border police because she didn’t have her passport. Molly and I couldn’t contact her once we were in Switzerland. We changed our money, checked into our hostel, and set out to walk around the city.
Geneva was beautiful during the day. It was warm and sunny and I took lots of pictures, most of which were terrible.
geneva (i actually had to edit this because it was really, really terrible)
After a long day of sightseeing, we had dinner and looked for a bar where we could have a drink. We found nothing except a bunch of leering men and closed up shops. I guess we just didn’t know where to go. We ended up going back to the hostel. In the morning, I woke up and made my way to the train station alone. (Molly hadn’t been able to get a ticket on that train). I read my book the whole way back and returned to Paris in time to meet my friend Chris in the afternoon.
My friend Chris’s band was playing a show that Saturday I returned from Geneva. I met him in a Metro station. I was super late because I accidentally took the longest route possible and I felt really badly about that. We found a little cafe where we caught up. I told him about how homesick I’d been. He told me about how the tour had been going so far. We parted ways when it was time for him to get ready for the show.
I met up with Molly and Katie and we traveled together to the concert venue – La Maroquinerie – in the twentieth, where I had never been before. Jill met us at the venue and told us her horror story of getting back to Paris the day before while we waited for the band to go on. She’d waited at the first train station inside the border for hours and was in bad shape when she got to Paris, where Katie met her at Le Cristal for drinks.
at la maroquinerie (photo credit: katie)
The show was a lot of fun and the Parisian crowd eventually got into the band, which I was happy to see. Afterward, we all (minus Jill, who wanted to get home before the Metro stopped running) piled in the tour van with the band and this guy who worked for a – depending on what scene you’re in – pretty famous blog based in Paris. This dude was going to take us out around Paris. The band’s British tour manager was driving. Immediately, we got stuck in a bunch of traffic, on our way to wherever we were going. A bottle of Jack and some pizza were being passed around the van. Molly said she felt sick.
“I need to go home,” she said. She opened the door to the van and got out, in the middle of traffic, running into the Metro station across the street.
“Where is she going? Where is Molly?” asked our French tour guide.
Katie and I tried texting her, but she was already out of reach.
“Where is Molly?” became the theme of the night. Everywhere we went, someone would cry out, “Where is Molly?” I got very drunk. Drunker than I expected. We went to some sort of dance party at the bottom of what I thought was a museum. I actually have no idea if it was a museum. It could have been a hotel. Also, it wasn’t really a dance party. It was more like three Swedish-looking DJs and a couple of random people. One of the guys in the band started a dance circle. Everyone took turns dancing in the middle. Well, I didn’t. But that’s because I still am a little bit self-conscious even when I’m drunk.
We ended up at some cafe, where I had another beer that I didn’t need. We said goodbye to Chris across the street from Père Lachaise. Katie and I shared a cab back to her apartment. I slept on the floor with a coat for a blanket. In the morning, I let myself out of Katie and Molly’s room and walked home.
Today I am taking a break from writing about Paris to write a tiny little bit about another city – London, which I have visited exactly one time, when I was twelve. Even at that age, I was an Anglophile. On the plane ride over, when I wasn’t watching Stuart Little or slapping away my mom, who sunk her nails into my arm every time we hit turbulence, I was happily reading Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII and literally freaking out inside my little brain because I was finally, finally going to London.
text from my dad: “view from restaurant where we are having lunch – looking down on leadenhall market”
My parents lived in London for about a year after they got married and moved back to New York about two months before I was born. My dad still traveled to London a good deal when I was a kid. I don’t want to say a lot because I don’t want to make it sound like my dad wasn’t around when I was growing up, but in my memory it feels like he was there a lot, probably because his trips sometimes lasted for weeks. I remember when I was very young, about four or five, my dad brought me back a Siberian tiger stuffed animal from London. I loved it so much, because I loved stuffed animals and my dad gave it to me and I got to say that it was from London, which was very exciting. I bring this up because that was also probably one of the last times that I wasn’t absolutely terrified every time my dad flew to London for business. Before I flew overseas myself, I cried every time I knew my dad was leaving because I was convinced his plane would crash. My dad would console me by telling me that flying was safer than driving, which was also terrifying because then I would think about how I got in a car every day. Anyway. By the time I was twelve, I had gotten over this fear of flying – but only sort of because I totally sat with rosary beads on my lap for the entire flight to London – and I was super excited to be seeing a city that had loomed so large in my imagination for my whole life.
The week was a dream come true. My parents and I stayed in a fancy hotel. My mom and I saw the sights during the day and I was in awe of every landmark. Every afternoon, we rested and had tea and scones in our hotel room. Then, at night, we would go out to dinner with my dad and friends. We took a ride on the brand new London Eye. We saw Mamma Mia before it came to Broadway. I remember a lot of middle aged women dancing in the aisles. I caught this renewed ABBA fever pretty hard. My parents bought me the soundtrack and I listened to it on my Walkman before I went to bed. We also saw The King and I with Elaine Paige, who was probably too old to be playing Anna, but she was still really, really awesome. My dad’s wallet got stolen on our last day, though the thief curiously took the cash and dumped it in a garbage can in a tube station and he got it back. By the end of the trip, I was sad to go home. Now, I am sad that I haven’t been back.
text from my dad: “they call this new building in the background “the shard”, as in “shard of glass”.
I was thinking about all of this for two reasons. First, I read Sarah Lyall’s piece in the New York Times last week, “Lessons From Living in London”. The city is much different from the London I visited in 2000 and worlds away from the London my parents experienced in the 1980s. I had always wanted to live there myself, though as an American with zero marketable skills, that will probably remain a difficult, if not impossible, thing to cross off my list.
Secondly, my dad just returned from a business trip to London. He doesn’t go as often any more. As a kid, his trips were mysterious to me. I didn’t know any more about what he did there than what he told me over the phone. But these days, thanks to technology, my siblings and I get updates via group text, my dad narrating his cab rides and lunches, sending photos of things he thinks are cool or has noticed have changed since the last time he visited. I know it’s kind of lame to be like “WHOA, technology!” but…this wasn’t a thing that could have happened a few years ago. (I mean, it could have, I guess, but my dad didn’t have an iPhone until this year and we all know how terrible Blackberrys were for this kind of thing.)
text from my dad: “say hello to the queen! that’s buckingham palace in back of the queen victoria monument. wonder if anyone every called her tori? taken out window of cab on way to airport. be home soon!”
I’d like to visit London very soon as good friends of mine just moved there for a definite, but substantial, amount of time. I’m trying to save up some money for this since, well, airfare and London, in general, are expensive. However, I think it will be worth it. I’m looking forward to reminiscing some more about my first trip, of course. But I’m also excited to have an altogether different experience, as an adult, seeing this city that has changed so much in the last thirteen years from another perspective.