Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Paris, Je Te...

Last night, as I was getting ready to go to bed, I was suddenly struck by the urge to have une infusion and some Speculoos to dip in it. As the smell of the hot tea's steam mixed with spicy cookie crumbs wafted toward my nose, a Proustian involuntary memory suddenly leaped into my mind, one of many evenings spent in a similar manner huddling in the kitchen of my 18th-century French apartment, trying to shut out the cold damp winds of a rainy Brittany winter. 

As I was remembering things past in France, my mind wandered and I got to thinking about how at precisely this time three years ago I was there, gaining a new perspective, not on Brittany (which I dearly love), but on one of my least favorite parts of the country.

It was Valentine's weekend. Because Spain is amazing and people there work to live rather than vice versa, I had a couple of days off for Carnaval, and I was very excited. Being that I was a weary singleton, I wanted to escape the lovey-dovey couples all around me and go on an "I love you, self" getaway. So since I am a masochist I had a burning desire to see the timbered houses of Strasbourg, I of course booked a budget flight to the most romantic of all cities--Paris. 

After arriving in Paris late on a Friday evening and basically just crashing, the next day I used my brand-new first-ever douze vingt-cinq SNCF train card to get over to Strasbourg for much less money than anticipated. But freezing my bum off for an unexpectedly snowy two days in the timbered city pushed me to decide to cut my trip short. 

Strasbourg's Petite France looked like something out of Harry Potter, but wet frozen feet combined with happy couples everywhere had me feeling pretty crummy! 

So I soon found myself back in Paris again with a few days to kill before my flight back to Vigo, knowing no one and having no real plans. For many people and most francophiles in particular, an unexpected couple of days in Paris sounds like a dream come true. 

Not me, though. Ever the aberrant, I have to admit: I've never really liked Paris


Sure, as a kid before I'd ever been there I used to dream of café au lait in bohemian cafés along the Seine, strolling the Champs-Élysées in chic outfits, having a picnic in front of the Eiffel Tower. 

And then at sixteen, I went and I got rudely bumped on the sidewalk, saw a fire in the street, and told that my accent in French was horrible et incompréhensible. (This was probably true, at least when I was in high school and had never actually spoken to a real live French person before). I went again several years later and was given counterfeit Euros, slept in a hostel with bedbugs, narrowly avoided being pickpocketed, and witnessed a scary accident in front of l'Arc de Triomphe. Just last year, I got caught in terribly stressful rush hour traffic with my parents, then was propositioned marriage in a gas station by a clerk who still refused to take my American non-chip credit card. (How rude, amirite!?)

In fact, my second-scariest moment as a single female traveler happened in Paris (a story I'd tell, if it didn't make me queasy just thinking about what could have happened to me--thank god nothing did). 

My plethora of icky memories of dirty smelly rude old Paris is only vindicated by the overabundance of non-parisien French people I've met who share my opinions (including nearly all my breton students)!

But still, on this particular Valentine's weekend, I tried to give Paris another chance to charm me, at the very least because I was stuck there for a couple of days and had nothing better to do. So I booked a room at a cute little Montmartre hostel whose name I don't remember and set out on a walk. 

I was in great luck, because just as I was gravitating towards the Moulin Rouge, the Baz Luhrmann film about which first inspired me to study French back in 2001, I saw a group of people congregating by a young man holding up an orange sign that said "Free Montmartre Tour!" 

Intrigued, broke, and bored, I moved closer and hastily decided to join them just as they were about to leave. 

The guide, it turns out, was an American with a French mother who had recently decided to rediscover his roots and had come to study at the American University of Paris. As he took us around the most interesting spots of Montmartre, he regaled us with stories of feeling strange in Paris because the French he spoke was only suitable for talking to little old ladies, and how he felt lost amongst his peers, who used verlan and peppered their speech with Arabic words and SMS abbreviations. I could relate, having learned formal French from textbooks and teachers who had studied abroad there decades ago. 

Not only were the guy's stories interesting, he took us to places in Montmartre that I hadn't come across in my previous visits and told us about the history of the village, which I'd never heard before. As we moved from the market behind the Sacré-Cœur to the original pre-19th-century mills that gave the Moulin Rouge nightclub its name, from Van Gogh's old apartment to the café where Amélie worked, I began to remember what it was about Paris that had attracted me in the first place.

Actually, it wasn't "Paris" at all, but that little village nearby on la butte that was once the center of la vie bohème, and still houses the best view I've ever had of all of the city (even if the locals do think that the Sacré-Cœur is an eyesore). 

I ended up meeting some fellow travelers on that Montmartre tour who took me first to an art show in a warehouse, then to some of their favorite Parisian spots for dinner later in the evening. The whole night was such a positive experience that, eager to compound it, I decided to join the full Paris tour with the same company the next day, which ended up being private because no one else showed up! 

That Valentine's weekend is, to date, the only time I've ever felt anything approaching love for Paris. It's amazing what one tiny good experience can do to your feelings! 

Still, you'll have to excuse me for not jumping to proclaim ‹‹Paris, je t'aime!›› That one weekend helped my opinions change from ‹‹Paris, je te déteste›› to ‹‹Paris je te...(je ne sais pas.)›› I feel apathetic about the city now more than anything else, and it's still probably my least favorite part of France in general. It's better than outright hate, but I don't see Paris ever being on my favorite worldwide cities list.

However, in the spirit of verité, beauté, liberté et amour, I have no qualms whatsoever about shouting over the rooftops ‹‹Montmartre, je t'aime!››

...And hey, since it IS on a hill, it shouldn't be too hard to get myself back there one day to do exactly that! 


But Montmartre, my love, I'm certain that we will meet again one day. You're worth the effort, even if I do have to brave yucky old Paris to get to you.

Mon valentin, Montmartre

By the way, in case you all were wondering, the orange-signed tour company's name is Culturefish, and I'd highly recommend their free tours of both Montmartre and central Paris. And no, they have no idea that I'm writing this...I just took their tours three years ago and have been meaning to promote them to people ever since! Timely, I know. ;-)

Monday, February 8, 2016

In Defense of Being Boring

For the past several years, this was the time of year that the anxiety started. When the probing questions began pouring in. "So what are your plans for next year? What are you going to do after your contract ends?" And being that I never had the slightest clue, I felt panic. Some people are good at and even enjoy flying by the seat of their pants, not planning out their lives in advance.

I'm not one of them.

I like the idea of security, of knowing what's next. I really like to have a solid plan in place.

This personality trait doesn't mesh so well with being a nomad, as you might imagine. So every year around this time, as fear of the future crept up on me and I stared that great wide unknown right in the face, my panic would turn verbal and I would begin to muse aloud to all the people close to me about my possibilities, the pros and cons of each, and what they thought I should do. (This sounds really annoying, but luckily the majority of my vagabond friends were going through the same thing, so I like to think I lent an ear just as much as I abused theirs!)

Last year, one day when I was moaning about the difficulty of having to make an enormous life choice EVERY SINGLE YEAR, one of my friends said I should remember that, although I had to make these big choices once a year, other people were choosing every single day to be boring and not do anything with their lives. At least I was out there seeing the world while going through these yearly crises!

I'm not really sure what exactly she meant by "boring," and I wouldn't presume to speak for her on the subject. But I know exactly what it meant to me.

Those "boring" people went to the same 9-5 job every day and sat around watching TV at night. They went to the same restaurants over and over, and they got enormously overexcited about unimpressive things like home improvements and the occasional night out with friends.

In short, they were living a life remarkably similar to the one I lead right now. Boring.

The life I have right now is exactly the one I was afraid of having this time a year ago. I worked so hard every year to find a way to stay abroad, partially because of the fun I was having there, but also because I was afraid of what would happen if I came back. I had based my identity around being "better" than all the people who had never left my home country. I perceived myself as more interesting than them because I was abroad, seeing the world and having adventures. And if I came back, if I became one of the "boring," then how would I be able to maintain that perception of myself as superior?

I think in the travel community, this is a common misapprehension. "We travel the world, so we are more interesting than you. Quit your day job, and you too can become interesting and therefore happy!"

But I've noticed lately there is true contentment to be found, not in making life exciting (though some of that is nice too), but in appreciating the good parts of life exactly the way it is. Noticing those tiny amazing moments of every day.

This weekend, for example, was a great weekend, even though I did nothing particularly exciting. I worked on a surprise present for my dad's 70th birthday (a sneak preview of which is on my Instagram, but Dad if you're reading this please don't look!), I hung around a little with my cute nephews, I went swing dancing with a friend, I went running in the wonderfully mild 0ºC weather, I had a lovely extended stretching session, I sat around in the warm sunshine watching the clouds go by, and I wrote a nice long letter to someone I care about back in Europe.

To the me of a year ago, I guess that would have been dull because it didn't involve a whirlwind weekend trip to a foreign country. But right now I'm really appreciating all the things I can only do because I'm here at home, close to those I love, choosing every day to be uninteresting and no more special than anyone else.

I faced my big fear; I came back and became one of the boring. And in reality, it's really not so bad. I may not view myself as "superior" to other people anymore, but I do feel more comfortable just being myself, and I think that's what's more important in the end.