The flight to Paris had been, to put it mildly, uncomfortable. I had drawn the short straw during the boarding group lottery and thus was the lucky winner of a middle seat in a row of three. Maybe it could have been worse if I had been stuck in the dead middle of a string of five seats, but—even though I dodged that scenario—I’ve still spent the last eight hours trying to figure out ways to give my arms some relief on tiny fractions of skinny armrests.
I was sitting in between two women who were both very pretty and, for me, this made the game of finding room for my elbows even more uncomfortable. Call it left over Pentecostal guilt, if there is such a thing, but I got nervous and even a little hot in the face every time one of them brushed my arm. While I didn’t apologize for each instance that there was physical contact, for some reason, I felt like I needed to. Back when I had boarded the plane and saw how pretty both of the women were I immediately started to miss my wife. Yes, this is before I had even left the US.
We had been making our decent for a least twenty minutes now and there I was, hanging in the air above France, in between two attractive women, with a sore back from trying to avoid contact with them, altogether feeling a little bit anxious about landing in a new country. The air in the cabin of the aircraft still felt like the air that we had brought with us from Atlanta and all of these strangers felt like people that I knew from back home. However, I knew that once the door opened that I would be inhaling foreign air and my company would be that of strangers and, to me at least, foreigners. When I left the plane everything would be different: different language, different food, different customs. I know that I am making it sound like I am terrified to leave the plane but I honestly found all of these feelings exhilarating.
As the plane flew closer Charles de Gaulle Airport I couldn’t see anything but gray outside of the window. It was too cloudy to make anything out from the middle of seat and I didn’t have a clue about how far away we were from the ground. There was no view of anything resembling France, and I had no idea if I should let myself get excited about my first visit to Paris or just savor this last bit of time that I didn’t have my backpack on my back.
It took another fifteen minutes, but when the clouds finally did part, it was sudden and we were much closer to the ground that I thought we would be upon emerging from the sky.
Much like every other airport that I’ve landed at, the grounds around it contained steel warehouses, large trucks, and wide highways. I’m not sure what I expected to see but this didn’t look much like the picture of France that I had in my head. Even still, I was relieved to see the ground. My back hurt, my feet were asleep, and my legs needed a stretch. I was deliriously tired, not having slept for more than an hour of the eight hour flight. I needed to move. I was ready to be on my feet and after a few more moments the plane landed and it was time to do just that.
The chaos of deplaning from an international flight always amuses me as it ends up being a great time to practice a little bit of patience in return for an all-too-revealing display of human nature. Everyone is antsy from having been seated for such a long length of time and, as such, everyone wants to stand up at once. The really clever ones try to anticipate the moment that the pilot turns off the fasten seatbelt light and stand up early, saving themselves an extra few seconds of sitting while of us all of us law-abiding schmucks have to endure sitting in our cushioned seats for a few extra moments. Also, no one has slept well. How could you? So we’re all a bit grumpy. And the locals of the country you just landed in no longer feel the need to speak the language of the departing country they just flew from. Not only that, now that they are on the ground in their home country they develop an intolerance toward anyone who can’t speak the language of where we just landed. I like to let everyone have their spats, be as rude as they want, and wait my turn.
I only brought a backpack with me on this trip so once the crowd had mostly cleared from the plane it took me no time at all to collect my things, get off of the plane, and head towards customs.
Sometimes going through customs takes hours and other times you breeze through it. Thankfully this time it was the latter and once I was through passport control I situated and assembled my backpack, got my coat on, and found my way to the RER B train that I was to take into the city. I had done a bit of reading about the Metro and had learned that it can be difficult to use the automated kiosks with American credit cards. So instead of fighting with a machine I bought my ticket à Paris at a ticket window with a human using some Euros that I had brought with me. After I had my ticket I got on board my train.
I was in the company of sleepy commuters on the RER train as it traveled through the outskirts of Paris through scenery that still looked no different to me than the other places that I’ve been. In fact, what I was seeing reminded me a bit of the outer boroughs of New York City. After a while the train eventually sunk down below the streets leaving me with nothing but the wall of the subway tunnel to look at.
I had a stack of note cards tucked into a small pouch that was attached the right strap of my backpack. Before I left home I had try my best to figure out how to get from the airport to the apartment that I had rented and scribbled my findings on some heavy-stock cards. Instead of bringing my phone to help me navigate around I decided it would be fun (or at least cheaper) to rely on careful planning instead of modern conveniences. Now that this plan was in motion—with no way of turning back—I was beginning to wonder if it was as good of a idea as it seemed back home. Fifteen minutes or so after we sunk below the surface we came to a stop at a station with a sign that read Châtelet Les Halles, which, according to my note card, was my cue to exit the train a find the next one.
As I weaved through the crowds of people, through the tunnels of walking paths that snaked below the street, I started to get a feeling that I was heading in the wrong direction. Was I understanding the signs correctly? I was looking for the 4 train and there were plenty of signs posted with such a number, circled in pink. But I would follow a sign with an arrow toward the left for a few steps and around a corner, but then I would come to another sign that with an arrow pointing down, telling me to head the direction I came. It took five minutes of back and forth with these signs, all the while bumping into Parisians with the extra girth the backpack added to me, until I realized that in France that they don’t use an up arrow to symbolize that what is on the sign is up ahead, like we do in US. Rather, the signs are hung up high and point downward as if to say “keep going this way, below this sign”.
I eventually found my way to the train with a white number 4 engulfed in a pink circle. I bought a ticket at an automated kiosk, this one accepted cash, and then got on board. We rode past a few stations to Réaumur Sébastopol where I got off the train and exited the Metro.
Emerging out onto the street after being in a subway is always jarring but having never been to Paris before and having no sense of where the various landmarks are around the city it was especially so. It took me five or six paces back and forth across the block to get an understanding of where I was on the map that I had brought and which way I needed to head. My plan of not bringing my phone and writing down directions was starting to seem a bit silly. But I eventually found a street whose name I recognized and made my way down the thin passage it created between the buildings.
I went up the block, through another narrow street, and onto the one that my apartment was on. Up ahead I noticed a group of middle-aged women wearing black coats congregating. Each one of them was trying to make eye contact with me. My first thought was do I really look that much like a tourist? but remembered the giant billboard on my back labeling me as such. I quickly realized that there gaze was expectant, like they were waiting for me to do something. A quick glance at the number on the building across the street from where I was told me that I needed to keep walking up the street a bit further.
I was getting close to the women and their eyes were still fishing to meet mine. As I passed them I ducked my head down. Looking at the ground to avoid close-quarters eye contact I mumbled my best excusez-moi all the while being careful not to bump into any of them with my backpack and thus require me to utter more broken French.
When I got to the end of the block, I looked up at the building on the corner only to find that I had somehow past the building that I was staying in. This meant that I needed to go back towards the group of women. I spun around and was greeted by the women’s stares again, this time even more expectant looking. As I approached them again I didn’t look down to dodge their gaze, I looked up, and in doing so I saw that the building they were standing in front of was the building I was looking for. At this point I had no choice but to look them in the eye and walk past them to the door.
They seemed confused as I nudged through their crowd but they let me through. There was a woman standing in the entryway of the building, against door. I used the keypad near her and entered in a code that I had written on my note card. The door made a loud beep and the woman moved out of the way. I pull on the door, all of the women watching me intently, but it didn’t move. I tried it again. Then the woman that had been standing in front of the door pushed it open for me and said voilà. As I stepped through the door I offered her my best merci. She nodded her head and smiled at me through the window of the door while it closed itself shut and I made my way up the old stairway to find my apartment.