After five flights of stairs, I was finally on the top floor of the building where my apartment was. There were two doors up on the landing and I had been instructed to knock on the door numbed 27 in order to be let into the door opposite of it. I did so and then heard a few muttered words in French from the other side. Another few moments passed while I listened to some stomps and shuffling. Then the door creaked opened with a smiling, young, Frenchman greeting me warmly on the other side.
The man introduced himself as Jean-François and reached out to shake my hand. Surprising me, he cursed in French and moved his foot in front of the doorway. I looked down to see that there was a small kitten that he was trying to prevent from escaping his apartment and into the stairway. Giving me an embarrassed smile, he reached for my hand again.
He asked if I’d been to the city before which I responded with an English yes and a little-too-eager handshake. I was excited that this interaction was going to be easier than the one I had with the group of women on the street. Thankfully, Jean-François spoke English very well. When I mentioned that to him he smiled proudly and then told me that he was, in fact, a translator. This put me at ease as I had already exhausted my French vocabulary on the journey from the airport and, being sleep deprived, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to follow his instructions on how to lock up. He showed me around the small apartment, explaining how to work the appliances, the lights, the shower, and so on. He gave me a few ideas of things to do in the neighborhood and then left me to get settled in.
The apartment was small but seemed to have everything that I needed. It consisted of a large main room with a couch, a desk, and a Murphy bed—which I was told not to fold up. There was a ladder that climbed up into the gable of the building to a platform with a bookshelf and some cabinets. There was a minuscule kitchen with a fridge that was smaller than the one I kept in my dorm during college, a sink, and a two-burner electric stove. Also, like any European kitchen that I’ve ever been in, it had an electric hot water kettle and a stash of Nescafe. There was a bathroom the size of a coat closet with a toilet, a sink as large as a soup bowl, and shower smaller than a phone booth.
Once I had unpacked a few of things from my backpack, I heated some water in the electric kettle and dumped a couple of packets of instant coffee granules into a mug, and then sipped on a liquid that I would barely call coffee. My mind was still a bit cloudy from the flight but I was hoping the caffeine would help me get my wits back. After finishing the warm liquid in my cup, I decide not waste any time and exited the apartment to explore the streets of Paris. I grabbed my hat and my camera then turned off the lights before I left the apartment.
As I walked down the old stairway again I met one of the women from the street making her way up the stairs with a middle-aged man. The man had a very odd grin on his face and refused to meet my eye. The woman from the street did but quickly looked away, not maintaining eye contact with me like she did on the street. I smiled anyways and nodded. She noticed me recognizing her and her face lit up ever so slightly as she kept climbing the stairs with the man. The man never once looked my way. I continue to the bottom of the stairway, out the front door, and through the group of huddled women. The all gave curt nods as I mutter bonjour again.
I realized as soon as I got through the crowd that there was a stairway to the Metro station immediately outside of the door. Had I realized this when I arrived it would have saved me some wandering around. I didn’t bother going down to the trains though, as my legs we still a bit stiff from the plane ride and I figured that they would appreciate a walk. So instead I headed through the buildings toward the sound of the busy street and once there I headed down Boulevard de Sébastopol. I had glanced at a map of Paris back in the apartment I knew that if I followed the boulevard it would bring me to the river Seine. As I strolled down the busy street I was again struck by how much Paris, or at least this part of the city, reminded me of many other multicultural cities that I’ve been in. Walking south I passed by the same discount gadget stores, the same bookstores, and the same fast food Mediterranean places that I would have in Chicago, Dublin, or New York City. In fact, if anyone kept their eyes on the street I think they could have mistaken Sébastopol for 9th Avenue. The giveaway was when you let your eyes’ climb above the streets to see the Mansard roofs topping the building. That’s when it looked like Paris. But it still didn’t feel like what I thought Paris would feel like.
I headed down the boulevard toward the direction I thought Notre-Dame was. After walking for a short while, I finally came across something that finally shouted at me “you’re in Europe.” When I first spotted the corner of the structure I thought that maybe I had crossed the Seine without realizing it and had come upon Notre-Dame. A few more steps and I could see that it wasn’t an entire building, rather, it a large tower or a monument surrounded by a small park. This was an ornate structure complete with Gothic arches and gargoyles.
I looked down at my watch to see that it was two in the afternoon. Although it was cold, there were a surprising number of Parisians sitting on benches around the tower talking to one another or reading the paper. The clouds were still as heavy as when I landed, which means there wasn’t great light for photography. Even still, I took a few photos and then I made my way around the tower. I could see that I was, in fact, at a bridge crossing the river and after I failed to get a decent shot of the monument, I walked over to the bridge that crossed the river.
I weaved through a few buildings once I was across the bridge and then came upon the cathedral. My journey to Notre-Dame was leisurely and enjoyable but as soon as I stepped onto the cathedral grounds the mood in the air shifted drastically. The city itself seemed to fall silent as its noise was overtaken by the sounds of tour bus motors and herds of people. My ears robbed my eyes of the enjoyment of my first glance at the famous structure. I simply could not tune out the crowd. My first visit to Notre-Dame will always be tainted by the fact that this was the first place that I ever saw someone use a selfie-stick.
I walked around the front of the cathedral grounds and made my way to the side of the building. It was much quieter there and I joined some others that also seemed to be seeking some solitude from the tourists. I shared a few nods with people that were looking at the architecture. Most of the people on the side of the church had anxious and exhausted looks on their faces and I realized that my probably looked the same. I took a few photos of the rosetta and the flying buttresses and circled around the back of the church and then up to the front again. The line to enter Notre-Dame was now massive. It seemed to had gotten longer than when I first walked onto the grounds and, just then, a few more tour buses roared through the buildings surrounding the cathedral and dropped off more groups of people. I couldn’t bring myself to stand in the line to view the inside. It didn’t seem worth it as there are plenty of other things to see in Paris.
For some reason, I hadn’t put on my sweater when I left the apartment and I was getting rather cold in just my coat. I used this as my excuse to head back to the apartment again for some solitude. I retraced my steps back to along Boulevard de Sébastopol, down the narrow street that the apartment was on, nodding again at the women outside of the building door, and up the old stairway again. I started the electric water kettle once again, tore open the small plastic Nescafe bag and dumped its contents into the first mug I could find. I sat down at the small desk in the apartment with my cup of instant coffee and enjoyed the silence of the top floor.
It was still early but even with the coffee, I was very tired, having not slept much on the plane. I could tell I wasn’t going to last much longer before I needed to sleep. I also realized that I hadn’t eaten since the meal they served me on the plane and two cups of instant coffee was not doing me any favors on my empty stomach. So after I rested and warmed up for thirty minutes or so I decided I needed to eat a proper meal before I fell asleep for the evening. I knew the French took their meals seriously and I couldn’t imagine that they would appreciate someone falling asleep in their coq au vin. It was only four o’clock in the afternoon but I hoped that I’d be able to find a restaurant open to serve me. I made sure to put on my sweater this time before going out, then I grabbed my hat, and headed out the door again.
As I passed the group of women again, this time their smiles a bit warmer — they were starting to recognize me—I realized that I needed some cash. I hadn’t brought much money with me and I’d already spent a good deal of it on the train ride into town. I looked in my wallet and saw that had thirty-five Euros left. I needed to find an ATM.
I made my way through the Le Halles area, keeping an eye out for a place to eat, and I ended up finding a bank with an ATM inside. I felt better going inside of a bank to withdraw money, rather than using a machine on the street as I still hadn’t picked up the vibe of where I was at and whether it was a safe neighborhood. I entered the building and greeted the man working there as best as I could with a bonjour monsieur. It was convincing enough that he quickly spoke in French to me, apparently assuming that I would understand him. I gave him a very embarrassed parlez-vous Anglais which he responded with a nervous nod. I got out my debit card and ask if American cards work in the machine. He inspected the card and then confirmed oui. I thanked him with a merci and then crossed the lobby to use the machine. I gave the machine my card and it asked for my PIN number. I’m not sure if was the jet lagged or if I was just having some stage fright, being in another country, but the four digit number was not clear in my head. I thought that I knew it, but I wasn’t positive. I entered my best guess. I was wrong. I was getting nervous. Had I just pressed a number incorrectly? I tried it again. Wrong. My anxiety instantly peaked but I still I took a big breath to clear my mind. I tried a different number but the machine ejected out my card, telling me I had too many failed attempts. Dammit. I put the card into the machine again but it immediately spit it out without even attempting to authenticate. Getting money out this evening was futile. I was going to have to eat with the money that I had on me.
I was defeated. I rounded the corner of the block that the bank was on and came across a small restaurant with foie gras written on the window. I probably could have wandered around longer to find a place not quite so cliché to eat at but the more I thought about how hungry I was the more it seemed entirely appropriate for my first meal in France. More importantly, a rich meal of goose liver sounded like just the thing that I needed to brighten my spirits. However, there was the question of whether I could eat there with the limited money that I had. Also, if I ordered a meal and then could not pay for it, what would I do? I was hungry enough to take the risk and entered the restaurant.
I told the woman at the door une personne and she seated me on a dark-stained wooden bench near the window. The restaurant was small, with fifteen or so tables to sit at. There was a deep, amber hue to the light inside which made the dark, rainy scene outside seem especially gray and blue. There were old advertisements hung on the wall as decoration selling what my guess was for canned foie gras. A group of four Parisians sat across the restaurant from me, sometimes taking but mostly reading separately, either a newspaper or a book.
The woman who had seated me came over and asked me what I wanted in English. Apparently, the broken French I had spoken to her when I entered the restaurant did not fool her. I ordered a glass of the restaurant’s Chinon—a red wine from a valley southwest from Paris—and a bowl of foie gras stuffed ravioli in a white truffle sauce. She nodded and then returned with a glass of wine and a basket of bread. I sipped on the wine, eager for the alcohol to hamper the caffeine-fueled anxiety that was building after my debacle at the ATM. It did help. And so I just gnawed on the bread while watching the scene of strolling people holding their umbrellas.
After ten minutes or so the woman arrived with my food and I dug in, probably a little too eagerly but, being so hungry, I couldn’t help it. The bomb of savory flavors seemed appropriate for such a gloomy day. And you know what? It finally eased my nerve. Maybe this is French comfort food.
A few more groups of people were starting to come in and the restaurant was starting to acquire a dull hum of French conversations. An Asian couple sat down near me and looked as out of place I felt. I heard them fumble through the menu just as I did and once the waitress had left they looked at each other and smiled. At that point, I was very aware that I was eating alone and how nice it would have been to have someone to laugh with about how bad my French is. The couple’s food arrived and at that, they both withdrew huge SLR cameras to take photos of what was on their plates. That was my cue to leave as I didn’t wish to repeat the scene from Notre-Dame and get my tourist-induced anxiety going again.
I walked over the cash register and asked if I could pay my bill, hoping that I had done the math correctly in my head for the total. Thankfully the bill only came to nine Euros—a steal for a meal that like — and after the woman gave me my change and I rounded up my belongings I headed back toward the apartment for the night.
When I got there I nodded at the group of women outside of the apartment building, walked up the stairs, and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.