When a young man in a Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back t-shirt tells you not to loathe yourself for being a tourist, you try to listen. It turns out all it takes is six days abroad to consider the fact that–plot-twist!–you might have been an asshole this whole time.
As the sun bore down on the day, I breezed into Les Bonnes Soeurs in hopes of sustenance and caffeine. My waiter approached with his white tennis shoes and arm tattoos. He gave me the benefit of the doubt in his greeting, as they all do: “Bonjour! [insert polite question here].” For the same reason I dread Halloween, I avoided volleying back in anything other than my native tongue; there was no joy in pretending to be someone else. He switched hastily to English before presenting me with raspberry pancakes. Whether it was his smile or the shirt, I found myself comfortable enough to stop him when he brought the check.
Me: So how much do people here hate me for speaking English with them?
Him: Oh, no one hates you. We don’t expect you to speak French.
Him: Do Americans think the French are not…sympathetic?
Me: Oh, no, we think you’re nice. I don’t think the French are rude or unfriendly, it’s just…you’re…intimidating.
Him: That’s excellent!
Me: In a good way, of course.
Him: You’re visiting? You’re on holiday?
Him: Who did you come with?
Me: Oh, no one. I’ve wanted to come here for like ten years and no one wanted to come with me, so I just said fuck it and came by myself. I like your shirt by the way.
Him: Oh yeah, Darth Vader!
After the Tour de France, the Australians mocked American tourists until the sun had long set. “Oh my god, really?” one went, practicing his best accent. “Do you speak American?” another asked, adding a lisp for some reason. “And the bags,” a third jumped in. “They all have big bags. Always bigger in America.”
When the creme brulee was delivered, I kept silent as to not reveal my nationality, instead opting for a smile to show gratitude. Anywhere else it might have been enough, anywhere else my politeness might not have been so lost in translation. Sinking low in my seat, I felt certain that in this city I had adored from afar for years, I was being merely tolerated by its residents. Here, my “merci”s were lacking or lackluster, and at the end of each meal, I had the urge to assure the waiter that I was not, in fact, heartless–I had only meant well.
Just then a man sporting a white beard stumbled into my table, jostling my pen on paper.
Man: Nice place. Tres bien.
Man: You English?
Me: American, yes.
Man: I’m sorry.
Man: You write.
Man: Every hour of the day, no matter what, you always write.
Me: Oh, pretty much…
Man: You happy?
Me: I think so. Well, sometimes…sure.
He thought I was though, his smile told me so. The old man moved on to the next table and I lingered in the cafe garden to finish doodles of water carafes with speech bubbles telling me to stop feeling sorry for myself.
Back in Boston, on the eve of his graduation from college, a friend leaned across a pint of beer to grab my shoulders, give them a shake, and beg me to answer: ”What should I do with my life?”
My nervous laughter was all he got.
Two years later, I leaned across a champagne coupe to catch his sleeve, tug it close, and ask the same of him.
“Have you ever seen the movie Midnight in Paris?” was all I got.
By midnight, I was someone else.
Behind us, “WANDERLUST” flashed on a screen where the crowd was dancing in and around glass huts, their arms flailing under an optimistic moon. We had gathered around a railing in the back of the club at the Seine’s edge, where we passed around a bottle of Rose and swapped commentary on French politics.
My female companions slipped in a quick culture lesson.
Them: The girls in New York, they are always so put together.
Them: French girls though, the less of an effort you make, the better.
Them: Everyone here smokes cigarettes.
Them: Yes, lung cancer is a French thing!
The wind whipped through my hair and I shivered—every Parisian had flocked here, a sanctuary from tourists, or so they thought. This lone duck, shrouded in the protection of locals she had only met an hour prior, couldn’t picture herself anywhere else, or so she thought. The rest of Europe had siren songs too.
At three, we set off in search of a green-lit cab. Guillaume abandoned his cohorts to join our quest.
Guillaume: Where are you from?
Me: New York.
Guillaume: What do you do?
Me: I write, I…uh, copy, marketing?
My new friend did not understand these words.
In high school French class, I hadn’t bothered to memorize terms for professions because I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. I only knew how I wanted to be. So I remembered the translation for “happy”–and “hungry,” “tired,” “alone,” because life at least guarantees these.
In thirteen hours, New York would have me again, so I returned to Les Bonnes Soeurs for one last moment of reflection. At the bottom of my wine glass, I was finding thoughts previously brushed aside: Fulfilling a dream on my terms, far from home and with no witnesses, I could have been anyone I wanted to be. And I chose the same old, goddamn thing. Even Paris had gotten the best of me. No, the worst. Or rather, the mediocre, the worst-than-worst, the just okay. “That’s just it. It’s just okay,” I had been told. “I want better, I want the best.”
The waiter with the white tennis shoes and arm tattoos approached with the check once again. This time he stopped me.
“Listen, I never do this but…I saw you here last week–I mean weekend–and I think you’re really pretty, so here’s my number if you want to get coffee or…”
My heart swelled, then sank. I had to tell him I was going to the airport in half an hour. I had to tell him I had messed up the timing, I had done this all wrong.
The sky was dark over Marais as I walked back to retrieve my bags from the hotel. Navigating the narrow side streets with newfound ease, I encountered the city’s timely, gracious goodbye: The heavy air enveloped my strides with sudden acceptance and peace. Paris had melted away in the heat to reveal a natural habitat. More than tolerated, I felt wanted.
It wasn’t until after the rain had arrived, after the last of my Euros had been spent, after I’d gotten on the RER to Charles de Gaulle, that I thought again about the advice given in the Boston bar: “Have you ever seen Midnight in Paris?” I hadn’t asked what I should do with one evening or one vacation, I had asked what to do with my life. Maybe I wasn’t being advised to get caught up in a plot point, but rather, to make a decision of film finale proportions. On screen, didn’t they stay, didn’t they miss that flight, didn’t they get off the plane?
I got on the plane.
Back in Manhattan, I passed by Grand Central, barely registering its dull glow, and recalled my second night in Paris: After leaving a bar by the Louvre, I had made a decision (with the full support of absinthe) to forgo public transportation and return to my hotel in the Latin Quarter by foot. The path was unchartered and made more adventurous by the absence of daylight. My plan was to find the Seine, cross, and follow it to the Notre Dame, where I hoped I might find familiar boulevards. “You’ll figure it out,” my mind coached. “Just keep going and it will work out.” Around me, couples were locking love and cyclists were breaking traffic laws–we were all keeping the faith. Then, as the cathedral came into view, I looked right to find the warm welcome of St. Michel. What a strange city this was, where things worked out even when they shouldn’t. Later, curled up in cool sheets, I thought I had been taught such a dangerous lesson: No matter how far from myself I roamed, I could always find the way back on my own.
Postcards would land in the States days after I did, and they would say this: We return unchanged–no less weak, no more self-assured–but we did not wish that Paris would change us, only that our flaws would not get in our way. If the city had kept us longer, we might have fully adapted. Instead, we only borrowed time and space. No matter. We will set flight many times over, settling into potential homes across the globe. We will translate our travels until we have learned all our lessons.
We will be better, we will be the best.