Here is everything I know about France: Madeline and Amélie and Moulin Rouge.– Stephanie Perkins
Suitcase, check! Walkman and cassettes, check! American gifts for my French host family, check! Passport, check! Traveler’s checks, check! It was the summer of 1995 and it would be the second time for me going abroad at the ripe age of sixteen when novelty seems to enviably pounce on our chords of memory. In my green JanSport backpack I carried my trip itinerary, the list of other teenage students on my program, and a photograph of the French family members I would be staying with in the Loire Valley– Alain, Françoise, Nicolas, Chloé. So French! They lived in a small town next to the city of Blois – pronounced “Blah” by my American friends (or probably ‘friend’, singular. I had one). Everything was in order. I wasn’t nervous; my mom usurped that feeling.
That summer, I set off to Paris from LAX, but had to stop in Boston to meet the rest of the students also participating in the French cultural program. Having facial hair since I was two years old, when I arrived at Boston Logan, everyone thought I was one of the counselors rather than a student. I handed my passport to the woman at the check-in counter, she picked it up, looked at it briefly and slid it right back to me. “This is an expired passport,” she said.
I thought she was joking, so, I laughed. She didn’t laugh. With deadpan eyes and an obnoxious voice she flipped my passport over to show me two, increasingly obvious, holes punched through the back cover, letting me know that meant EXPIRED. I left my then current passport at home, in California, which meant I had to stay in Boston at the airport Ramada over night as I waited for it to arrive the next day. Was this a sign? Was this God telling me I shouldn’t be leaving my family and that this trip would be a disaster? I told my friend a week before “I can’t believe I’ll be in Paris exactly one week from now.” I jinxed it! I walked to the nearest payphone and called home. My mom answered and the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “Mom, big booboo.”
Why did I say “big booboo”? That word, if it was a word, wasn’t even in my lexicon, at least not since I was four. When my mother repeated, “big booboo?” in her indefinable Middle Eastern accent, I heard the roar of laughter from my sister and brother – laughing at my word choice, laughing at my mother’s accented use of that word choice, and laughing at that fact that all the details in planning this trip were quickly diminished by forgetting that small, yet necessary rectangular detail.
My mother, to say the least, freaked out. I wasn’t sure if she was worried about me being stranded in Boston alone for a night or if she was disappointed at herself for handing me the wrong passport after carefully making sure everything went smoothly for me. It didn’t matter either way because the group of students I was supposed to go with to Paris left without me. I had to meet them the next day.
Slowly but surely the next day arrived, I received my passport and finally took off to Paris. In a daze, I had no idea what to expect. I was picked up by a Parisian man with near perfect English despite his failed attempts to not overextend his nasally American ‘r’. We took the RER from Charles de Gaulles Airport to the center of Paris and then hopped into a taxi directly to the Notre Dame Cathedral, where my group was visiting at that time. I saw Paris for the first time in a rush, but even then, I was taken aback. Speeding towards the Notre Dame, I looked out the window of the taxi and with my parallax view took in the warm summer afternoon light glaring down the Seine. Tinged with fatigue, I absorbed the light between the whoosh of the trees. Even the sun seemed French, the way it shined on the hundreds, if not thousands, of people sitting, eating, drinking along the river’s banks. Dragging my heavy bags, I ran inside the cathedral to meet up with the group. I was too tired and hurried to be nervous around these new faces. When you’re in a rush there’s no time for unfamiliarity. As if I had lived there all my life, I digested the magnificence surrounding me, without absorbing it. I just wanted to sleep. Thankfully, we left the Notre Dame as quickly as I had entered it.
I finally arrived at the hotel (probably motel) we were staying at near the metro stop Châtelet. With my youthful, naïve eyes, I thought, how quaint, how cute, how French! Now looking back, I think, how shabby, how tiny, how moldy! No elevators of course, I dragged my two-hundred pound bag up four flights of winding stairs, unlocked the door which brushed the side of the bed as it creaked open, squeezed my bag, then myself inside and collapsed on the thin, crusty, moulin rouge-tinted blanket. I slept the way most teenagers sleep – profoundly. I woke up in the early evening having missed all the group activities of that day, so I decided to go for a walk – an activity Paris is known for.
After a brief stint in Paris, the next morning I took a train to meet and stay with my host family. I was exhausted, again. How can I be friendly, practice my French, and respect the sanctity of cultural exchange when I just want to sleep? Why did I have to kiss each person in the family and their friends four times each? The role play activities in my French textbook between Josephine and Pierre sitting at the café never taught me that. Why was the toilet in a separate room from the shower? And why did my host brother Nicolas ask me if I hated marshmallows as he pointed to the mushrooms I didn’t eat in the dinner salad? Despite the years learning French in high school, I still resorted to answering “oui” to everything. Delirious after my first dinner with my host family, I went straight to bed – but not before one last bite of that crunchy, buoyant baguette!
The next few days, I had attempted to explain to my host family, with creative contortions of my mouth, eyes, and hands, the misadventures of my journey getting to Paris. They felt bad for me and so decided to organize a family day trip back to Paris so that I could see the beautiful capital properly. Only an hour and half away, my host family took the time to show me the Paris of my dreams: the Louvre, the Sacré Coeur, the cafés, the cobblestoned streets, and of course, La Tour Eiffel! All I needed was a baguette and beret in hand to complete the picture (I secretly wanted a beret like the one Rusty had in the movie European Vacation). Despite being cramped in a tiny, baby blue Peugeot with the entire family, as the mother and son took turns smoking their cigarettes, I was having the time of my life. We stayed late in Paris before heading back to “Blah” but the parents decided to make one more stop.
We drove slowly along a street next to a park (what I now could assume to maybe be Bois de Boulogne) and rolled slowly by in the car as we passed a line of men scattered along the road. My host family periodically stopped, rolled down the window, chatted with one man, then sped up to do the same with another man. Why was my host family talking to these people? Were they friends of the family? Why were they laughing? What were they saying to these men? It was so dark outside, why were we not on our way back to the comforts of Gallic suburbia? This was not very French of them! Where is my beret! Merde!
Late to the party as usual, I eventually understood that part of my host family’s humor was to chat up male Brazilian prostitutes in Paris and pretend to be interested in hiring one of them. Initially, I thought I should be disturbed by this but I quickly realized the most memorable part of that trip was not the iconic tower of Eiffel but what anthropologist Mary Douglas would call, “matter out of place” – that relationship each society has with the different, the anomalous, the disorderly, the dangerous. We all want those typical cultural experiences – the ones emblematic of a particular place. But what we truly seek are the unexpected experiences, those that occur by chance, those that turn a little bit of your world upside down. My re-enchantment of Paris became not the Brazilian prostitutes themselves but the redefining of what I thought French culture should be. This “out of place” experience, albeit bizarre, was a jolt to my senses, but as a cultural experience, these Brazilian male prostitutes, just like the Louvre, were not out of place at all. These prostitutes were obviously not on my radar when I signed up for a high school summer abroad in France but they unexpectedly became a part of how I understood true cultural experiences. Of course, we never want ‘to be in danger’ as we travel but we secretly hope for a date with disorder.
My transformational journey, however, started not when I arrived in Paris but the booboos and mishaps along the way that led to my encounter (I use that word loosely – the puns don’t stop!) with prostitutes in Paris. I was not supposed to see Paris that way, but by chance and luck, I did. This begs for further questions: what does it really mean to partake in transformational travel? What does it mean to have an authentic cultural experience? How do we open spaces for chance encounters and experiences while traveling? As Carrie Bradshaw might have asked: if travel is meant to transform you, then are we meant to transform travel? Just like Carrie herself, this probably doesn’t make sense at all, but whether or not this was a true French cultural experience is moot; my mind was forever transformed.