Back in 1993/94 I spent seven months in Aix-en-Provence, France, drinking red wine, eating les Calissons and attempting to learn some French. When I got home I wrote about the experience. Thought it might be fun to post a few excerpts here. Here’s Part Two:
It was still dark when we made the coast of Ireland. The captain had said we might be able to make out some of the Emerald Isle but that wasn’t the case. Too dark and too much cloud cover. We carried on and by the shores of France it had begun to lighten up a tad. But still I couldn’t really see anything for the clouds. It wasn’t until we began our descent that I finally caught a glimpse of France.
When we came out of the clouds I saw that it was going to be a bleak day. Drizzly. I saw French countryside and scattered farmhouses. I felt nothing save a dull curiousity. What was going to happen? This initial look at France told me little; so far it looked pretty much the same as Canada. We touched down and I exchanged goodbyes with my young French friend.
I was kind of curious what would happen with French customs. This was my first flight overseas and I figured there would be a big to-do over passports and what you were bringing into the country and so on. But all that happened was I stood in a line for a while, a young man in a booth cursorily examined each of our passports, stamped it, and we were past customs and free to go. I thought, boy, you must be able to bring anything into this country. I would imagine there were officials on the lookout for suspicious looking characters but maybe not. In any case I had passed muster.
I collected my bags. They had carts sitting around that anyone could use so I grabbed one. I thought it was considerate that you didn’t even have to pay for one. I saw my French seatmate greeting his family. I was pretty sure he saw me, and wondered if he might call me over to greet his family, but of course that was silly. What would he say? Hey folks, I’d like you to meet this guy here that I don’t even really know! But I sat beside him for a little while so I thought maybe you should meet him.
I chuckled and shook my head at myself and left the arrivals area of the Charles de Gaulle airport.
I was nervous about this part of the trip. How to find my way downtown to my hotel. I figured I could take a taxi or an airport limo, but that would cost a fortune. Instead I made my way to an information desk. A friendly looking woman greeted me in French. I asked her if she spoke English and she replied that she did and told me how to get downtown. I thought, well this is good if lots of people speak English (I would change my mind about that later).
A shuttle bus took me from de Gaulle to the RER line, which is something like the Go train in Toronto. From there I could connect with the Paris Metro. I took a few minutes there to collect my thoughts and sort out my baggage. I stared for about ten minutes at various maps until I felt there was a possibility I wouldn’t become irrevocably lost.
Having simply lugged my baggage with me onto the shuttle bus because it hadn’t been far to walk, I realized now that I had better get my big backpack set to wear. I knelt down and examined my friend Ron’s handiwork from before my departure. It was a veritable work of art. There wasn’t a hint of a loose strap anywhere. All loose ends were neatly knotted and tucked away. It took me about fifteen minutes of cussing and perspiration to get the damn thing completely undone.
I bought my ticket for the RER. I said, “One,” holding one finger up. The ticket guy muttered something, I have no idea what, so I just shoved him something like fifty French francs. It sounded like a lot to me and under the pressure of the situation I found myself completely unable to translate French money into Canadian funds to get a frame of reference. I got a ticket and a wad of French francs back so I was happy. I checked my change and it seemed to me the ticket had cost a fair bit. This concerned me a bit because of my financial situation.
I had plenty of money on me, in French francs and traveller’s cheques, or so it seemed to me. Nevertheless I had this gnawing fear that for some reason I would run out and wind up stuck. Never mind that I also had access to a credit card with a two thousand dollar Canadian limit. I thought, sure I have the credit card, but what if it doesn’t work here in France? I had a bank draft from the Royal Bank of Canada for the sum of eight thousand, four hundred and twenty six dollars (or something like that), which I was told I simply had to deposit into a bank somewhere. But what if banks refused to accept it in France? And what if the credit card didn’t work? And I ran out of my supply of French francs and travellers cheques? These were my perhaps silly but nevertheless real fears.
Toronto time it was now about four in the morning, and I hadn’t managed to sleep much on the plane, so I wasn’t at my absolute best.
Casting my nagging concerns aside, I carried on. Despite my fears I was enjoying myself, a bit. A little tense, but pretty sure everything would work out okay.
The train station (or RER) was quite busy. I saw a few others with backpacks and wondered who they were and where they were going. I looked for Canadian flags sewn on the backs of the backpacks, a practice almost universal amongst Canadians, it seems, but I didn’t see any. I hefted my backpack with my Canadian flag onto my back and entered the RER.
I took up a lot of room in the train but no one seemed to mind. I sat in a seat with a map of the route beside me on the wall and soon was satisfied that I was headed in the right direction. A lot of the route on this train was above ground, so I was constantly looking out the window, taking in my first glimpses of Paris. I kept hoping the Eiffel Tower would turn up, but it didn’t.
I managed my connection from the RER to the Metro easily enough. I was lugging a lot of bags but it didn’t seem to be a problem. The weather was still overcast and drizzly but this didn’t bother me. It was warm enough and I actually kind of like rainy days. It dates back to when I was a kid. I liked to read a lot, and while my mother appreciated this, she still liked to see me get outside to play. So often I would be reading, immersed and enjoying myself, when suddenly my well-meaning mother would unceremoniously shove me outside. This never happened on rainy days, so I came to appreciate that sort of weather, and is why I considered it a good sign that my first day in France was rainy.
The helpful travel agency guy in Canada had instructed me to get off at Place d’Italie station in downtown Paris. I had been led to believe that my hotel would be located just around the corner. I had a map on which the travel agency guy had drawn a small circle, suggesting that my hotel would be located somewhere within that circle.
Emerging from the Place d’Italie station, I surveyed the situation. I was in a busy area. Lots of people about, wide streets replete with noisy automobiles, and tons of large stone buildings hulking over all the goings on. Many of these buildings were hotels, but the one I was looking for was not amongst them. They looked pretty pricey. Mine was located along a side street somewhere, no doubt.
I wandered along a bit, enjoying the foreignness of the place. When the drizzle became more of a pelting rain I took shelter under a colourful canopy in front of a small canteen. I stood there a while, keeping dry enough and checking out the people going by. They didn’t look that different from North Americans to me.
When the rain slowed up a bit I set out again. It soon became clear that relying on luck to find my hotel was not the answer. I set down my bags and re-examined my map. This time I did what I should have done before I even left the airport: I looked for the location of the street the hotel was located on, which was rue Barrault. It was silly not to have done this earlier and I really don’t know why I didn’t. I suppose I’d had a lot of things to think about and I had trusted that the travel agency guy had indicated the correct location of the hotel on my map.
Naturally I discovered that rue Barrault was in a completely different quadrant. My friendly neighbourhood travel agency guy wasn’t completely off but I would have been better served getting off at a different Metro stop. So, just to make things even stupider, I decided I could walk there just the same, never mind that my luggage was starting to feel awfully heavy, and it was now six in the morning Joe time.
Well, I couldn’t find the damn place. I got to the point where I couldn’t carry all my bags together more than about two hundred feet at a time.
A woman saw me poring over the map and stopped to help me. She gave me directions in pretty good English. I was impressed. I had been led to believe that Parisiens were generally rude, especially to Anglophones.
Somehow I STILL couldn’t find the hotel. Finally I was just so tired that I did what I should just have done right from the beginning. I flagged a cab.
The cab driver said, “But eetz just right over zere, monsieur.”
I said, “I don’t care, just take me there!”
I was pretty happy when I got in the lobby of the place. I was all cheerful to the front desk clerk. I had decided that the best thing to do to ensure that people were friendly to me was to attempt to speak French at first. I had heard that this was appreciated. Then when they heard you abominate their beautiful language, they were more than happy to speak to you in yours.
So I said to the clerk, “Est-ce que vous parlez Anglais?”
It was pretty much all I knew, although I did have a little Berlitz book of commonly used phrases that I could resort to if required. But that one line was all I really needed. Everyone I encountered in Paris spoke English. In fact, as I was to discover later, the trouble with trying to learn French in France is trying to get the French to stop speaking English to you!
Unfortunately the clerk, although she was more than happy to speak English, was less than happy to see me.
“I’m sorry sir, there is a slight problem with your room. We are checking with another hotel to see if perhaps they have a room for you.”
I was slightly aghast, but figured that so long as there was a room somewhere it was all right. When the clerk got off the phone to the other hotel she gave me her best hangdog look and informed me that unfortunately there were no other rooms available at any other hotels either. Obviously she only meant within her chain of hotels, the Timhotel chain, but I didn’t relish the thought of hitting the pavement again to look elsewhere. Also, since I’d had a reservation, the onus seemed to be on the hotel to accommodate me somehow.
Well, it turned out they did have a room available, it was just not the room I had originally reserved. I wanted a big room with a shower. All they had was a tiny closet of a thing with no shower. Glad to have at least some place to lay my head, I somehow summoned up enough energy to bargain for something else I felt I desperately required, a shower. I told the clerk that I didn’t mind about the mix-up, but would it be possible to dip into another room not yet taken for the day just to grab a shower? I would do it quickly and the future guest would never know the difference. At first the clerk resisted but probably my body odour swayed her and soon I was scrubbing merrily away in somebody else’s room.
When I returned the key, the clerk handed me a card and informed me that I now had a free night anytime I chose at their fine establishment, if I cared to return after such a mix-up. Happy I’d been allowed to shower, I told them sure, I’d be back, and the clerk seemed happy that all had worked out in the end.
I checked into my own room and was somewhat dismayed at the size of it. I remembered some old joke about sticking the key in the door and breaking the window on the other side of the room. But it had a bed and a washroom and that was all I needed.
That, and sleep. I was now very tired. I wasn’t hungry at all because my nervousness about this whole venture had returned with a vengeance.
I took off my clothes and climbed into the clean but diminutive bed. I couldn’t get to sleep, even tired as I was. I got up to use the washroom time and time again. The more I lay there and thought, the more nervous I became. My fears about money returned. I worried about finding a hotel in Aix, as I had not made a reservation. It was October 2 and I figured it would be pretty cold even in Aix at night, that time of year. Someone had told me that it might be hard to get a hotel in Aix what with school starting in October. I questioned the wisdom of leaving it to chance. I visualized toughing it out on the streets at night, worst case scenario.
I had expressed these fears to Joram before leaving, half in jest, and he had simply laughed at me. The bottom line was, I was an inexperienced traveller. I didn’t know what fears were realistic and which weren’t. I hoped that Joram was right and my fears were unjustified.
But I remained nervous.