“And you think of all of the things you’ve seen, And you wish that you could live in-between And you’re back again only different than before… After the sky.” -Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods I can’t stop time traveling, its … Continue reading
“Drink wine. This is life eternal. This is all that youth will give you. It is the season for wine, roses and drunken friends. Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” ~Omar Khayyam
What is your first memory of being alive?
I was about two years old and we lived in the blue house on St. Louis. My Mother was bringing me in the back door, she took me by both hands and swung me up the stairs. She smiled as she lifted me up.
That was the first time I was aware of my own existence, the first time I remember being alive. Since then, there have been dazzling moments, onstage or traveling, where I was profoundly aware. Last weekend, I experienced four whole days of that feeling.
My AuPair friend Mari invited me to go along with a group of French friends to a beach house in Royan. Three of the boys picked us up from the RER and we began the five-hour car ride to our destination. After giving each one la bise and introducing myself, I realized I was in for a full weekend of French language immersion. The laughter started almost immediately when they tried to pronounce my name with their heavy accents.
While I quietly listened and tried to follow the fast French slang being flung through the car, Mari shined. In animated, almost fluent french she cracked jokes and put everyone at ease. My French is good enough now that I can follow the conversation, even if I can’t really inject my own ideas. When I understand a joke, I laugh that much louder. At one point, I was able to explain the rules of Flippy Cup. My Father must be so proud.
As we go along, we all chat about school, places we’ve been, places we’d like to go. Whenever Mari or I describe something we like we say “Oh San Fransisco is amazing!” “Yea Amsterdam is awesome!” The french do not speak so emphatically about what they like so this over-enthusiasm sounds strange to them. By the end of the car ride they are imitating our high voices “Ooooh, thats amaaaazing!”. After five hours in the car we are approaching our destination, I catch a glimpse of a big top and shout “Oh look the circus!” The car erupts in laughter and more imitations “The circus! Amazing! A house! Amazing!”
Finally the sea is before us. Royan is located along the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Gironde Estuary. After unpacking we head into town to eat dinner at “Chez Bob”. Sitting outside, just a few feet away from the beach we watch the spectacular sunset. I drink my beer, devour a delicious pot of mussels and watch the stars pop out. How many different shades of blue and green can there be? Mari reminds me to ask our artist friend about colors, she can talk about them for hours. As the sun slips away a green light pulses across the bay. I see the green light et au contre Gastby, my count of enchanted objects is increased by one. Before it was just a symbol in a book, and now it’s before me, lighting up the horizon, etched in this moment which will soon be a memory.
Back at the house we play Circle of Death (or whatever the french call it). As the only one who doesn’t speak French, I find the game a bit difficult. At one point they tell me I don’t have to participate in the memory round, but I insist. “Je vas essayer! Alors, dans ma valise, j’ai du baskets, j’ai un coca, j’ai rouge à lèvres et….um, Putain! Oh! J’ai les oreilles!”
They clap and laugh, “non, c’est ‘le oreiller!”.
Around 5 AM the ten of us trudge to the beach. Wrapped in a blue blanket, my shoes fill deliciously with sand. Instead of climbing the cement steps to sit on the ledge, a few of our company take a running start and run up the 6 foot steep hill. I toss someone ma covourture and make two attempts that fail, much to the amusement of mes amis before I give up and take les escaliers. One of the boys takes off his shirt and heads into la mer. We hoot and holler as he disappears into the inky blackness.
Our little life in Royan revolves mainly around a large table set up on the terrace. As the French contingency continually roll cigarettes, we sit and talk. I am picking up more slang in 24 hours than I’ve learned in my previous 8 months in France. There is a particular form of slang, called “Verlan” in which the syllables of a word are inverted. For example français becomes cèfran, and femme becomes meuf. As if learning French wasn’t hard enough, now I literally have to learn it backwards.
The second night we inflate like balloons. Suddenly the music is louder, colors brighter and the laughter hysterical. I realize that if I have a one-on-one conversation, most of the people present can speak English, so I am my bright out-going self again. Instead of worrying about my French, I just say whatever I want in a melange of Franglish and know that no one will think less of me. Two of our party are DJ’s, and the music is carrying us onto a higher level. A friend asks me for his drink, when I hand it to him he says “Cimer.”
“Sea-mer?” I repeat, confused.
“Air-reen, écoute-moi bien…Ci-mer!”
“Sea-mer? Ci-mer? OH! MERCI!” Cheers and laughter follow my Verlan epiphany.
“Its good for me to see you like this.” Says our host. “You are timid this morning, but now you are having fun.”
From this point on the whole weekend is a blur of music and laughter. We dance all night at the local bar. In the morning I strum my ukulele over coffee and sunshine. We have develop inside jokes that no re-telling could do justice to. Another barbecue yields delicious food. At the beach I wade into the ocean and feel the le soleil freckle my sunscreen covered skin. We all drink too much and play a hilarious game of beach-dogeball. That night I nap in my room, listening to the laughter in le séjour rise and fall like waves. With my favorite I talk until the sun comes up. It feels like the party might go on forever.
After a long clean-up and a longer ride home I am back in Paris. The weekend couldn’t have gone better, and I am left with a permanent smile. I wasn’t expecting to smile this weekend, not considering what day it was.
Throughout the weekend, in the back of my mind I thought about it. A few times Mari, who understands better than anyone, asked me how I was doing. This weekend getaway happens to coincide with the eight year anniversary of my Mother’s death. Life has brought me so many places since then. As always, I thought about her, remembered her, and felt the love she left in me. Reflecting on her death only makes me more resolved to feel alive. To experience all I can and keep chasing the next adventure. For this weekend I was alive in every sense, surrounded by good people, laughter, food, music and joy. To me, everything really is amazing.
Traveling makes everything extraordinary and bittersweet. In moments like these I am aware of how short our time is, and how we must make the most of each opportunity. Death will come for me too one day, maybe it will be a tunnel of light, maybe nothing at all. Or maybe it will be my Mother’s hands reaching out to lift me up, just as she did when I was a child. Until then, I am going to live.
“Let the moment go, don’t forget it for a moment though…” Stephen Sondhiem, Into the Woods
“Because I know there are people who say all these things don’t happen. And there are people who forget what it’s like to be sixteen when they turn seventeen. I know these will all be stories some day, and our pictures will become old photographs. We all become somebody’s mom or dad. But right now, these moments are not stories. This is happening. I am here, and I am looking at her. And she is so beautiful. I can see it. This one moment when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive. And you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you’re listening to that song, and that drive with the people who you love most in this world. And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.”
― Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The morning sun is starting to warm the chilly Amsterdam air. Yellow leaves float past my bench and disappear under a bridge. Locals ride by on their bikes, coffee shops are starting to open. Out of habit, I wrap one strap of my backpack around my foot so no one can snatch it from me. It’s a relief to sit and give my feet and back a break, I’ve been carrying the bag for a couple of hours now. I scribble away in my journal about the beauty of this new city, of the sense of accomplishment I feel just for finding a way to get myself here. For a moment I can savor the adventure I’m on. My thoughts are interrupted by a stranger.
“Excuse me. I am sorry to bother you.” He stutters. Quickly I do the thing women do when approached by strange men and assess the threat level. He is about my age and looks breathlessly nervous. He seems harmless so I smile to make him feel comfortable. He is holding a large camera.
“I saw you sitting here on the bench and I took a picture. I think it turned out well. Here is my e-mail in case you would like to see it.” He finishes quickly.
“Oh, that would be great, thank you!” I say accepting his card. Without another word he turns on his heel and rushes away. I am impressed with the courage. I’m sure he worried he might seem like a creep, but I am grateful he took the risk and approached me. I would love to have a picture of this moment. This beautiful moment sitting next to a canal in Amsterdam watching the leaves float by and thanking the Universe for this part of my adventure. It would be unique to have a truly candid photo.
So often I see young people, especially women, taking very staged “candid” shots. I too, am absolutely guilty of this. Once while picnicking at Versailles I watched a girl dressed to the nines, spend a half hour directing her friend get the perfect iPhone shot of her gazing off across the grounds. I am sure it turned out beautifully, but those pictures aren’t the kinds of things I want to remember.
I have some great pictures from Paris. 12 girlfriends all squished into my tiny flat. About 100 pictures of the Eiffel Tower from various perspectives. But none of these pictures encapsulate what I love about this place. There are other moments I wish I could capture and keep in a glass box forever. Like later that night in Amsterdam when I stood in front of one of Van Gogh’s portraits and was so moved I openly wept.
Or waking up at 5 AM in the Jardin de Tuileries with girls I didn’t yet know would become my best friends.
Riding the train to Volksfest with a dozen new German friends, singing and drinking and having the time of my life.
Opening the windows at midnight on Christmas eve after a beautiful meal with my parents, listening to the church bells ring and watching the Eiffel Tower sparkle in the distance.
Walking home by myself New Years morning. Down the Champs-Élysées, through Place de la Concorde, across Pont Alexandre III and past Les Invalides. Feeling the crisp air and the feeling of a new year and a clean slate.
Singing le Marseilles in Place de la Republique with more than million other people.
Sitting on the steps of Sacre Couer and watching the sunset with Penny on her last night before leaving Paris.
Some of these moments have pictures, but not ones that really capture what was happening. No picture can show how much being here has healed me. No selfie can show how I’ve come to value myself in a way I never did before. Even in my best dress, a picture wouldn’t show you how my self-respect grows with each new day and each conversation in French.
When I returned from Amsterdam I e-mailed the young man. He replied that the film had been ruined when he opened the camera, and the picture was lost. So that moment in Amsterdam will remain mine alone, not to be shared. Added to the list of beautiful moments that no picture could really do justice to anyway.
“Erin, you need to Elle Woods yourself.”
“What, you mean montage?” I laughed through my tears.
“Yes. Take the bunny suit off, buy yourself a new Mac and get to work.” ~Advice from my big sister Leenie.
I sat on my bed and dried my tears. Wiping away the crumbs from the baguette I ate whole, I contemplated my sister’s advice. It had been a bad two weeks, and I had become a prime example of Murphy’s law. From getting pick pocketed to locking myself out to loosing my iPhone in a cab to it felt like I was doing everything wrong. In addition to these material losses, some old emotional wounds that had just started to heal were ripped back open. I was feeling lonely and defeated, but Leenie was right. I needed to take my bunny suit off and pull myself together.
When I first arrived in Paris, I was warned that November is the hardest month. The days become short, grey and rainy. My French is progressing, but not as fast as I’d like. I’ve realized that the friends I made in the first week are not nesecarily going to be my friends for the duration of my stay in France. Things like boulangeries, scooters and the Eiffel Tower are commonplace, and it no longer feels like a vacation. Everyday obligations like bills and work are compounded with language barriers and homesickness. It will be months before I can hug my sisters or have a drink with my best friend. To top it all off, loosing my phone left me feeling more isolated than ever.
These sound like superficial setbacks, but to me all this disorder was a symptom of a larger issue. Its part bad luck, and part internal chaos manifesting itself and demanding attention. I was starting to realize that I arrived in Paris with more baggage than just my suitcase and backpack. I carried with me a lot of pain, resentment and disappointment and I was dragging it around, unpacked. Some of my problems quite literally followed me to Paris. All of this quiet and self-reflection has brought some major issues to light, and now I have the time and space to confront them.
I’ve been reluctant to write about my first world problems like homesickness, lingering heartbreak or loosing my phone for fear of sounding ungrateful. There are plenty of people who would love for their biggest problem to be that they are IN PARIS, but Paris isn’t the problem. Living abroad creates intense highs and lows. What you see on social media is true, but its all the fun parts with the loneliness cropped out. Despite how my instagram looks, it’s not all La Vie en Rose. From now on I won’t be afraid to write about challenging things, because it’s a necessary part of the journey. Pain can be useful, it tells you were you need attention and healing. It can also illuminate that which is wonderful in your life.
So today in honor of Thanksgiving, I am most grateful for the challenges of living abroad. I can’t be with my family, but I can be grateful for my amazing host family who have welcomed me so warmly into their lives. I won’t see my life-long friends, but I can give thanks for the small army of Au Pairs I belong to. Brilliant, witty, brave girls from around the world I am so happy to share this experience with. I am thankful for the knowledge that I can do perfectly well without a phone for several weeks. I am grateful for every stilted conversation I struggle through in broken French, because I am challenging myself and improving every day. I am grateful for all the warm wishes and messages from home, reminding me that I am loved from an ocean away. Happy Thanksgiving!
“You do not need to be loved, not at the cost of yourself. The single relationship that is truly central and crucial in a life is the relationship to the self. Of all the people you will know in a lifetime, you are the only one you will never lose.” – Jo Coudert
I set my grocery bags down on the table in my little Parisian studio, open the window and let in the crisp evening air. It’s been a week full of noise and chaos. Tonight, all I want to do is have a quiet dinner by myself.
At home in Chicago I rarely cooked. Since college my habit has been to come home from work or class, shove some cold brown rice and chicken down my throat as I made my way to rehearsal for the evening. I ate enough, but I never gave it much thought. I approached food the way you fill up a gas tank; its required to keep going, but you don’t necessarily enjoy stopping at a gas station. Tonight however, I am eating in the way my host-family eats. Slowly, purposefully, and with great pleasure.
First I tidy my apartment and prepare to cook. I light candles as Ella Fitzgerlad, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong serenade me from my computer. My mind begins to unwind and my shoulders relax as a cut up a fresh baguette from the Boulangiere on the corner, letting is scent fill up my tiny room. Once the pasta is cooked, I add cheese, vegetables, drizzle oil and sprinkle pepper. My meal is simple but delicious. I have a single glass of wine. For once the goal isn’t to get tipsy, but to enhance my meal. Savoring every bite I listen to Cole Porter and watch the searchlight from the Eiffel Tower make its rotation over the rooftops outside my window.
The main course finished, I get a new plate for the cheese and fruit course. Fresh, fat Italian grapes sit in a glass bowl on my table. I slice a piece of Chabichou du Poitou and carefully cut away the rhine. Spreading it across the bread I spit out a seed from my juicy grapes. The cheese is delicious. I think it will keep for another day, so I wrap the rest in paper when I am done. Finally for dessert I open a cup of yogurt and add a spoonful of sugar. When it’s over, I am full and satisfied without feeling bloated. I wash my dishes and make myself a cup of herbal tea. There are letters to write home. I’ll probably read and play a bit of ukulele before bed tonight.
Before I came to Paris, I knew I would often be alone. I was worried isolation would oppress me. On the contrary, I find the silence peaceful and liberating. At home I have a habit of filling my life with noise. The noise helped me ignore the questions that were always lurking in my mind. “Why don’t I have a boyfriend?”, “Should I get a ‘real’ job and stop kidding myself about acting?”, “Am I falling behind everyone else?”.
The questions that hounded me at home don’t seem very important here. I find that I enjoy my own company. I don’t eat dinner wishing I had a boyfriend to share it with and wondering why I don’t. I just enjoy the abundance in front of me. I don’t worry about still not knowing what I want to be when I grow up. Instead of obsessing and comparing, I quietly work on memorizing new verb conjugations. I plan trips to beautiful new places. I get to know the extraordinary friends I’ve made since arriving.
In the two months I’ve been in Paris I’ve learned many things. Some conversational French. How to make ratatouille and pick out a good cheese. Which Metro lines to take and where the cheap cafés in my neighborhood are. How to cuff my pants and drape my scarf so that even Parisians stop me for directions, not realizing I’m American. The most important thing I’m learning is how to quiet my insecurities and be comfortable with myself. That life is unfolding as it should, and the best I can do is work on myself while the answers come in their own time.
While I wait, I’m going to enjoy this meal.
When I finally arrived in Paris after zig-zagging across Germany I dropped my bags on the floor and collapsed into my bed. I let out a sigh of relief, I was finally home.
Then it hit me, home.
I’ve moved around a lot in the last ten years, and there is always an initial period of adjustment. Eventually, without even realizing it, your new place starts to feel like home. I no longer have to give myself a pep talk before leaving my flat, or tremble with fear before asking an attendant a question in French. In the last two weeks I’ve found myself comfortably settled into my new life in Paris.
My day starts with my regular morning routine; music, a little yoga, tea, some breakfast. At 8:30 I leave for two hours of French lessons. My class is exclusively Au Pairs, and just as in high school I enjoy being in a class with only women. Unlike high school, I have applied myself to my studies wholeheartedly. I do not let my mind wander, or doodle on unfinished homework. I do the most important thing you can do while trying to speak in a new language, I listen.
Listening is a skill that takes concentration and patience. Many times since I arrived in France, I’ve been grateful I learned to listen while studying theatre. The way I listen to a Shakespeare play is the way I listen to French. You’re not hearing normal dialogue, so the ear has to be especially tuned in. If you allow your ear to adjust, like your eyes eventually adjust to darkness, you begin to understand. You hear the patterns and the poetry, and it starts to unravel like a riddle. It’s ironic that the greatest English writer of all time is the one who gave me the tools to learn French.
After class I have a few hours to myself. Sometimes I visit a cafè with my classmates, sometimes meet a friend to explore a museum or park. In the afternoon, I pick up Petite Fille from school (a half hour walk each way). Next I fetch Petit Garçon from daycare, give him a bath and his dinner. I may see les filles off to their after-school activities. I make sure they have done their homework, taken their baths and that the house is tidy. Grande Fille is enthusiastically learning to play the ukulele, which is fun for both of us. There is no TV in my host family’s home, so we often play cards or a board game. When the parents come home we all eat dinner together.
On the weekends I have the freedom to explore the city. Going out on the weekends usually involves prinking* with the Au Pairs (*pre-gaming for the Americans). We drink cheap wine to avoid paying for overpriced cocktails when we go to the bars. Many of my friends live in the suburbs and are unable to return after the métro closes at midnight. Happily, I have a trundle-bed and can offer them a place to crash. We can fit up to four girls in my tiny studio comfortably, with two girls in each bed sleeping head to toe. Waking up late on Sunday morning surround by girls in last nights make up is the status quo.
The biggest adjustment, other than the language, is acclimatizing myself to my new financial circumstances. As an Au Pair room and board is provided for me, as well as a small amount of weekly pocket-money. My arrangement is standard, even generous considering I have my own flat, but there is very little money for entertainment. Paris is a city of overwhelming wealth and desperate poverty. Whenever I feel frustrated that I can’t eat in restaurants or buy new clothes, I remind myself how fortunate I am. I adore my host-family, I have my own centrally located flat, and my school is a short walk away. For me, this experience isn’t about fashionable clothes or chic restaurants. It’s about skills I am gaining and memories I am making.
Already I’ve collected stories I’ll tell the rest of my life; sleeping outside the Grand Palais, getting stranded in Germany, riding a donkey and catching frogs in Normandy. It’s the small things, however, that make up my happy life in Paris. Its the sound of my heels striking cobblestones at midnight. It’s the way chimney stacks are arranged as if huddle together for warmth. Its having a whole conversation in French without even realizing it. As cliché as it sounds, its standing in line at the boulangerie every day for my family’s bread, or sipping wine next to the Seine. My tolerance for both wine and rats has increased immensely.
It’s not that there aren’t hard days. I miss my family, I miss the familiarity of hearing English. Paris is a just a city, not a fairytale kingdom. The days are getting shorter and colder. There are still long hours to work and bills to pay. I need a haircut that I can barely afford. Despite these facts, the reality of Paris is far better than any daydream I had before I came. It’s not one particular thing, it’s that life in Paris is becoming my life in Paris.
I’ve got three minutes to find my train platform. The itineraries I was given when I bought my replacement ticket don’t match, so I have to pick one and hope. My backpack bounces against my spine as I dash for platform 4, taking the stairs two at a time. When I see the sign for Strasbourg with no accompanying train, I feel my stomach drop. It’s not possible I’ve done this twice in one day? The train was supposed to leave at 14:00, and its 14:02. I’m in a town I’ve never heard of somewhere in Germany and I spent the last of my money on a ticket for a train I can’t find. I guess it’s not a real European adventure until your stranded in a train station with nothing but a backpack and a passport.
The trip out of Paris was far less eventful. I arrived in the bustling Stuttgart train station on Friday morning and marvelled at the difference a few hundred miles makes. The fluidity of the French language is replaced by heavy German. My black boots didn’t seem out-of-place this morning in Paris, but now they seem at odds with the casual dress (not to mention my backpack). It’s only a few minutes before I see a familiar pair of Aqua blue eyes. J-Mo and I greet each other in the hugging-high pitched way girls tend to greet one another after a long separation.
Though originally from the Midwest, J-Mo has moved to Germany to be with her long-time boyfriend. They live together in his hometown Ellwagen, an hour train ride outside of Stuttgart. Its been two months since her move and I am the first friend to visit.
We walk around Stuttgart and chat about the old days in college. I recall with fondness how we used to get ready together on Friday nights, build forts in her living room during snow days and spent one entire Sunday watching a marathon of Hoarders. Old jokes come back and we are both glad to see someone from home. It’s marvelous to have the experience of picking up and old friendship as if no time has gone by.
We have a low-key Friday. Shopping in Stuttgart, a quick tour of Ellwagen. We visit Tobi’s family farm, home to 700 cows, several cats, and a Schnaps brewery in the basement. Tobi’s friends and family greet me with wide inviting smiles, and even lend me a Dirndl to wear to the festival on Saturday. The three of us cook a delicious dinner before walking into town for a Radler (lager beer mixed with sprite, very popular in Germany).
Being in the company of such happy couple fills me with joy and optimism. It is daunting to move to another country and learn a new language, but when I see how Tobi’s family has embraced J-Mo I understand why she made the move. It is abundantly clear how deeply he cares for her and wants her to be happy. Tobi also takes great care to make sure I am comfortable and welcome in his home town. His slap stick humor is at odds with his dry German accent, so his jokes often catch me off guard making them that much funnier. Tobi is the kind of guy who not only makes a great partner for your girlfriend, but also gives you hope that someone as wonderful could be out there for you. (Also in this category Zach, Sean, Craig, Ben and Luke!)
On Saturday morning I can barely contain my excitement. I have an excuse to do two of my favorite things; wear a costume and drink lots of beer. As we dress, J-Mo assures me that my Dirndl is not too low-cut. I’ll admit some feminine smoke and mirrors were used to enhance my charms, but I was pleased with the end result. She insists that ALL the women in Dirndls wear them in this bawdy fashion. I hear a voice in my head ask “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” On this particular Saturday morning I think to myself “Depends, would I get to wear an awesome Dirndl that makes my boobs look huge? Then yes.”
The festival we are attending is called Volksfest and takes places in Stuttgart. J-Mo and I want to get the full experience, so we decide to take an early train. Tobi warns us that we would be on the same train as those attending the soccer match, and being American we had NO IDEA how much that would matter. It wasn’t until we were standing on the platform and heard the roar of the soccer fans as they approached that we started to understand. Strutting around the corner are a dozen or so young men. They are wearing soccer jerseys and Lederhosen, and carrying about sixty beers on cardboard flats. They are shouting a cheer in German as they greet Tobi and Jamie. One of them is introduced to me and asks “Have you seen the movie Beerfest? This is a documentary about Germany.” He is joking, but as I eye the beer and lederhosen, I think it may be closer to the truth than I thought.
The train from Ellwagen to Stuttgart is about 1:25 minutes. Please don’t think I am exaggerating when I say these guys cheered the entire time. When they ran out of cheers they started singing BackStreetBoy Songs. The other passengers joined in occasionally. We stomped our feet and clapped our hands and shouted back in broken German. Click to my instagram if you’d like to see some video from what I will always remember as the most fun train ride of my entire life. By the time we arrive in Stuttgart Jamie and I are two beers in, and positively giddy.
Volksfest is something of a cross between Great America and Milwaukee Irish Fest. There are roller coasters, games, festival food and music. The majority of people present are in either Dirndls or Lederhosen. I am amazed that the two story wooden tents and rides are only temporary. We pass the afternoon in one of the tents sipping beer from massive steins, eating pretzels and enjoying the live music. Before we find a seat we pass through rows of long tables and benches. We make for a small opening where it seems we’ll be able to get a seat but stop when we see why no one is standing there- fresh red blood is splattered over the table, bench and floor. I don’t know if someone fell or there was a fight but we avoided it anyway.
In the evening we join our friends in the beer garden where Tobi cleverly manages to snag us a table. We spend the time chatting with strangers, drinking raddlers and enjoying the atmosphere. The sun sets and we make our way back to Ellwagen. After a full day and a long train ride, we stop at the hotel for a meal. No one bats an eye at our apparel, its not out of the ordinary for them. For the first time in my life I eat Schnitzel, which to my delight is both delicious and satisfying.
On Sunday morning Tobi goes to work for a few hours at the farm, while Jamie and I see the sights in town and enjoy each others company. We visit the Ellwagen Basilica and Castle (See instagram for photos!). J-Mo tells me she is still not used to the German “drop in” as we arrive unannounced at Tobi’s friend’s home. To my surprise we find the house full of Sunday callers. Again, I am touched by how warmly Jamie is accepted by everyone. She is far from home, but she is well-loved. What more could you want for a friend?
In the afternoon the three of us drive to neighboring Bavaria to see a town called Dinkelsbühl. It was spared from bombing during WWII and retains its quaint charm and beauty. We eat at a pub where weather old German men gather to solve the worlds problems over Pils every Sunday. I enjoy listening to them argue though I don’t understand the words. Strolling around the perimeter of the town, my head is full of stories. I imagine the people who have walked this path, what their lives were like, who they loved? What would it be like to come across someone in these woods from 100 years ago? What would they think of us?
That night J-Mo and I, exhausted from the weekends activities, indulge in one of our favorite guilty pleasures. Bad reality TV. Let me tell you, you haven’t watched “I Wanna Marry Harry” until you’ve watched it in German. That night we take care of some business at the farm, and Tobi gives me a sample of the Schnaps. His Mother even gives me a bottle to take back for my host-family. We purchase my train ticket back to Stuttgart in the evening so there is little chance anything can go wrong.
And then the next morning everything goes wrong.
The train to Stuttgart has one transfer. Over the weekend we simply walked across the platform to the next train, but this morning I had to walk from platform 5 to 2. I walked just a little too far and came up on 1. When I dashed for the next platform, I made it just in time to see my train pull away. I tried to swallow the sickening feeling, but I know that theres no way I’ll catch my train to Paris now. Once I reach Stuttgart, I use the last of my money to purchase a ticket home. I have four connections with just minutes in between, and I won’t get back until two hours after I am supposed to be at work.
So there I was, standing on a train platform in Offenburg at 14:02 when I see my salvation. The train is running uncharacteristically behind schedule, (by a whole five minutes) and it hasn’t arrived yet. I thank every deity I can think of for my luck. On Monday I travelled from Ellwagen to Suttgart to Karlsruhe to Offenburg to Strasbourg to Paris. (And then the M4 to the M10). When the announcements change from German to French, I feel a wave of relief. Not for the first time I muse that if there is such a place as heaven, surely the angels speak French.
Monday was an expensive and stressful nightmare, but I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. My weekend in Germany was some of the most fun, enlightening and enjoyable time I’ve had in recent memory. And my boobs looked good. Thank you to Jamie and Tobi for being such excellent hosts. I promise to return the favor when they visit Paris!
“Its OK not to know, its not OK not to try.” Erwan Sorel, CEO/Instructor at L’École Française
To illustrate what its like to live in a country where you don’t speak the language, I am going to share a story with you. I had an experience while working as an actor in Chicago that was so humiliating, I didn’t even write about it on the blog I created to write about humiliating things that happened to me as an actor in Chicago.
I was invited to a dance call with Chicago Shakespeare Theatre for their production of Timon of Athens. I had previously made it through several rounds of call backs for the chorus of Follies, and though I didn’t end up booking the job I was encouraged by the experince. Naturally I was thrilled to be invited back for another shot. The audition invitation made it very clear they were looking for dancers with a strong ballet background.
I should have realized what I was in for from the start. The audition was run by Nicolas Blanc, ballet master at the Joffery Ballet, many of the auditionees were his students. I’ve always thought of myself as an actor who dances, but would never dream of putting myself in the same category as professional ballerinas. Either way, I found myself in the midst of them trying to survive the most demanding dance audition I’ve ever experienced.
During barre work I could get by, but once we moved to the floor I was completely lost. The instructions were coming quickly with very little demonstration as I tried desperately to follow the other girls. I might as well have been spinning in circles singing “The hills are alive!” for all I was accomplishing. After a few terrible passes I was humiliated and couldn’t look anyone in the face. A pee-wee foot ball player in the super bowl is less out of his league than I was at that audition. I seriously considered quietly slipping out the door, getting into my car, and never auditioning for anything ever again. It seemed unprofessional to leave in the middle of an audition that wasn’t going well, so I bit my lip and waited for the cut. When Blanc mercifully gave me the nod that told me I was free to leave, I went into my car and had the good cry I needed. Its difficult to think about it even now, three years later.
Living in a country where you don’t speak the language well is a little bit like being at that audition again. The people around me all seem to be part of a beautiful dance, and I am trying desperately to keep up. Today I had to visit the bank, the post office and a locksmith. Simple errands at home, but here they require an hour of preperation. I have to translate what I need to say, record it in my little notebook for reference and practice saying it until its memorized.
Parisians, I feel, have gotten a bad rap. Since my arrival the Parisians I’ve encountered have been overwhelmingly kind and helpful. The man at the bank spoke French with me until I had exhausted my knowledge, then was happy to transition to English. The locksmith and postal worker didn’t speak a work of English, but they smiled at my remedial French and pantomimed until we understood one another. I think their behavoir is in part because its obvious I’ve made an effort to preapre myself for these interactions.
The people of France aren’t scoffing or demanding I leave or learn French right away, the same way the choreographer at that audition didn’t demand I leave or single me out by cutting me early. I feel now that when the choregrapher nodded to me, he was not only releasing me, but acknowledging my effort.
French is like ballet, it is painfully beautiful, achingly etherial, and incredibly difficult to master. Unfortunately I’ll never be a ballerina as I once dreamed, but I can make my dream of learning French come true. So when things go bad you don’t leave, you don’t cry, you do the best you can and stick it out because thats how you learn.
If you live in the Chicago area and are interested in learning French, please visit L’École Française. The instructor creates a fun and safe learning enviornment. Classes are convenient, enjoyable and afforardable!
The ground is cold underneath me. My pristine white peplum top that I took such care not to spill red wine on a few hours ago, is pressed firmly against the grass. In my exhaustion it doesn’t occur to me to try and protect it. My head is resting on the deflated inner tube I’ve been carrying around for the last two hours. I roll to one side and see my companions. No one has spoken for a while, we must have dozed off after we laid down. Small wonder, as its 5 AM. Less than 50 yards away Palais de Louvre stands, gloriously looming over us.
Why did I end up sleeping in a park on a deflated inner tube outside the Palais de Louvre at 5 AM you ask? Because Paris. And weight restrictions for luggage. I’ll explain.
The night started out beautifully. I finished babysitting, said goodnight to my host family and rushed to meet up with my one girlfriend in Paris. She’s a midwestern girl who has been Au Pair-ing here since last year. We met through Facebook, had one lunch and now I was on my way to meet her and some friends in front of Notre Dame. After two weeks of getting adjusted and settling in, I was excited to spend time with people my own age. Most of all I hoped I was about to make some friends.
I find my new friend sitting on the base of the Charlemagne statue in front of Notre Dame. She is in the midst of about seven or eight young women. I learn that the group is comprised of Au Pairs, mostly British. Each of the women have their own bottles of wine, and are taking slugs straight from the bottle. Au Pairs don’t have much spending money, so luxuries like plastic glasses are done without. We are getting to know one another, comparing host-families and accommodations, and absolutely gushing over Paris. Though we all come from different places, we share a collective obsession with Paris. We discuss the things we’ve seen so far, the trips we plan to take, and our favorite parts of the city. My friend graciously offers me a few sips from her bottle, as I have not brought one of my own. The sense of adventure and excitement is palpable as we sit, drink wine and laugh.
The bar we go to next is the kind of place that you have to be in the right mood for, and I am in exactly the right mood. The music is loud, the bar is packed shoulder to shoulder, and everyone is dancing. Cheap palm trees and dozens of inflatables hang as decoration for tonights “Beach Party” theme. As I sip my beer and dance with my group, I can’t stop smiling. I’ve only had a few sips of wine and a pint of beer, but I feel as light as a hot air balloon. I leave the group to take a trip to the bathroom and buy another pint. When I return, I check my pockets and realize my wallet is missing.
Systematically I retrace my steps to see if its fallen. The bar is so crowded it would be easy to take it from my pocket. I curse myself for not bringing my purse, then curse myself for being such an idiot about packing when I flew over two weeks ago. You see after bragging that I was moving to Paris with just one suitcase and a backpack, I had to repack my overweight suitcase at the airport. At the last minute I had to remove ten lb. to make weight, so some special books and all of my purses stayed behind in Chicago. As a result, I’ve been using one large black purse since I arrived. Not wanting to tote the bulky bag all night, I slipped my key into my wallet, and kept them in my pants pocket.
After searching for about a half hour, asking two bartenders, a bouncer and the coat room attendant, I give up. My wallet, with debit card, metro pass, drivers license and the key to my apartment is nowhere to be found. The group is extremely sympathetic. My friend gets me another pint and we come up with a plan. Most of the girls present live in suburbs outside of Paris. Their plan is to stay out until the first trains start running around 6 AM. Thats only a few hours away, so I decide to stay with them until I can call my host family in the morning and use the spare key.
I take account of my situation and decide things could be much worse. If there was a theft, at least I have not been physically hurt or threatened. I still have my phone, I am not alone, and in the morning with only some minor personal inconvenience I can replace what I’ve lost. For now, I try to laugh it off and continue bonding with my new friends. I’ve been joking all night about taking one of the inflatables as a souvenir. One of the girls manages to get an inner tube off of the wall and puts it on me. I deflate it to make it easier to smuggle out, and tuck it under my arm. I may not have my key or wallet, but gosh darn it I’ve got a floatie.
With a few more hours to kill before dawn, we leave the bar. For a while we sit in a cafe right on the Seine, and watch the late night crowd coming and going. After that we start walking down the left bank in the general direction of the Eiffel Tower, and eventually some of the girls have to use the bathroom. Something I’ve noticed about Paris, it either smells like flowers, fresh bread, cigarette smoke or piss. Though there are a few passable public toilettes, it seems that many people prefer to find a dark spot along the river or crouch in alleys. Before the night is over, I find myself joining their ranks.
Eventually we stumble across a bridge and onto the park behind the Grand Palais de Louvre. Here we rest on the soft grass and doze off for a few minutes. I consider re-inflating the innertube to rest my head on, but decide its not worth the effort. Its getting near dawn. I can see the giant clocks on the side of the Musée d’Orsay across the river. I know my way home from here.
Around six AM I am standing in front of my host-family’s building with no wallet or keys, grass stains on my shirt, still holding the stupid inner tube. I’ve been laughing it off but now I feel like a complete fool. The first night I go out I wind up loosing my key and sleeping in a park. I’ve texted Madame and Monsuier that I am locked out and know they will be up shortly. Instead of knocking on their door like a normal person, I hid the inntertube in a backyard closet and sit on the staircase inside their building. I tell myself I am sparing the family by waiting until they wake, but really I am just embarrassed and trying to delay the inevitable.
At some point I doze off on the stairs, and just after seven Madame calls me and brings me inside. The family could not be more sympathetic or considerate. “You should have knocked on the door! Its doesn’t matter!” Madame insists. They have given me every reason to believe the would be more than happy to help me no matter what time of day or night, so I feel doubly foolish for not contacting them sooner.
After collecting the spare key, I go back to my studio and collapse into bed. Around noon when I wake, I call the bar to ask if my wallet was found and voilà it was! It must have fallen out of my pocket and someone turned it in. The cash is gone but my cards are all there. I am so grateful to whoever turned it in (even if they took a little cash reward) and amazed at my luck.
My first night out on the town in Paris was an experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget. As for loosing my wallet and everything that happened after, its embarrassing. Its a lesson I shouldn’t have had to relearn at age 26. On the upside, I recovered my wallet and did meet some potential new friends. And the kind of girls who will help you out of a tough spot, smuggle an inner tube and sleep in a park with you are exactly the kind of friends I want.
I feel bad for born and bred Parisians, they never get to experience Paris for the first time. I’m sure they can appreciate the charm and magnificence of the city, but they never have an inaugural car ride from the airport. Zooming past the Arc de Triomphe, feeling their breath catch as they see the Eiffel Tower from a distance. Parisians, for all their confidence and effortless style, never experience being fundamentally blown away by their city for the first time.
On the other end of the spectrum is me. Though I lack their chic clothes and old world grace, I have the good fortune to be able to intrude on their city for one year. Smiling like an idiot at the Hausman facades, standing in awe at the top of Notre Dame, I am soaking up every bit of this glorious city from a tourists perspective, because thats what I am.
The content for Paris tourists is obbsessively dominated by one subect; “How Not to Look Like a Tourist.” In no other city are travelers as preoccupied with pretending to be locals. The French are so intimidatingly confident and the language so difficult for beginners that its natural to want some tips on how to blend. Parisians have a reputation for being cold and unfriendly, but I have yet to experience such a person. I’ve found that after following a few simple rules, (always say ‘Bonjour’ when entering a store, speak as much French as you can before using English, take some pride in your appearance) that Parisians are friendly, warm and helpful. I think its silly to try to be Parisian when I am so plainly not. I plan to embrace my expat status and enjoy Paris as what I am: a (courteous) visitor.
Paris is thrilling and thouroughly maddening. I feel like a magent whose polarization has been reversed. At home, I seemed to repell everything I wanted, in Paris I find I am surrounded by abundance and new experiences. So far I’ve only dipped my toe into what Paris has to offer. I’ve seen the city from the top of Notre Dame, I’ve watched the Eiffel Tower glitter at night, I have eaten more cheese in the last eleven days than in the previous eleven years. I’ve fallen in love about 50 times (and by fallen in love I mean noticed a handsome man, vehemently avoided eye contact and hurried past). I spent a glorious weekend at my host-familiy’s weekend home in Normandie where I rode a donkey, hiked through the forrest, caught frogs with my bare hands and heard a gosh darned rooster crow at dawn. The country house in Nomandie is where the family breeds and raises race horses. My inner 12 year old self was almost as excited as my 26 year old self.
So much to cover. The difficulties with language, my wonderful host family, my struggle to make friends, but there is plenty of time to cover all of it. Well, there is one year.
Thanks for joining me on this adventure!