“Wait. Is this normal?!” I asked my husband, voice trembling and wide-eyed. “Yes, don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal.” His confidence did comfort me a little, but the bouncing steadily grew worse. Suddenly, the no smoking sign went on overhead and the stewardess asked everyone to please return to their seats, all en Français. Slowly and rather nonchalantly the passengers of over half the plane took their seats, many with lit cigarettes in their hands or hanging dangerously from their lips. For some reason their blasé attitude towards the bouncing 747 relaxed me, so I released my claw-hold from Tony’s arm. I still felt nauseous however, from the non-stop cigarette smoke I’d inhaled over the past 12 hours, but I knew we’d be landing soon. Plus, the face washing and tooth brushing I just executed greatly revived me. Weeks before we got on this Corsair charter to Paris I’d read a travel article in Mademoiselle or somewhere that said, “Before landing a girl should always freshen up in the restroom, remembering to use bottled water.”
Another reason I was feeling good, despite the fact that my tendrils of long brown hair smelled of cigarette butts, was that we were able to sleep during most the flight – thanks to Valium. Still, it was so smoky in the cabin that we had to lay damp bandanas on our faces while we slept. Once, when I got up to use le toilette, I rinsed out my bandana and light brown liquid squeezed out. No joke. Now of course smoking is no longer allowed on international flights, but this was 1996; before ten year-olds were writing reports on the evils of second-hand smoke. In a way, all that smoking on the plane prepared me for how it was going to be in Paris, because Parisians smoke anytime, anywhere, anyhow: In quaint little cafes, swanky restaurants, le Louvre Musée – even in elevators, which are small closets. It’s wildly amusing.
Another good piece of advice that I got from that travel article, was to change your clothes from the comfy ones you wore on the plane to smart, weather appropriate attire. This I did not do, but wished I had. I was fine when we landed, went through customs and retrieved our luggage, because I was excited and it was warm inside. When we stepped outside and hopped into the taxi however, I realized how foolishly I’d packed.
I was a California girl who’d never set a toenail out of the United States and I’d only been out of state twice. The summer I turned fifteen, I accompanied my mom to a family reunion in Missouri; she was to meet her father for the first time, he never showed. The other time, I was twenty-one and flew to Texas for a two-day pharmaceutical convention on behalf of my boss; no fun either. All my life I heard the term Indian summer – October was when temperatures rose to their highest. Now I was in Northern France in October to celebrate our one-year wedding anniversary, and I was freezing. With chattering teeth I asked our taxi driver if he could turn up the heater, “s’il vous plaît,” but he didn’t seem to understand me. My husband gave it a shot and the man nodded and cranked the heat.
This was to happen the entire two weeks we were in France. I, who knew very little French (only a handful of phrases I learned in Let’s Go Paris), but more than my husband, was rarely understood. While my husband, who lived in Rouen (where Joan d’Arc was burned) during the summers with his father, never tried to speak French other than, “Je ne sais pas,” “Non,” and “Whea,” all with attitude and an irreverent tone of voice, yet he always got results. He had it down pat – the whole Parisian attitude, and I loved it. I was too humble to ever force myself on anyone, and lacked the confidence my husband acquired as a man of the world. Instead I was overly friendly, eager to learn, and genuinely in awe of the people and the country. After a few days of this, those we encountered on a daily basis began to melt, and my husband watched in wonder as I charmed the crankiest Parisians into giving me whatever I wanted, even directions – en Anglais.
Our first two days in Paris were a Noir-ish blur. Week’s prior, I responsibly reserved a room for our first couple of nights. I figured if we didn’t like the hotel, we could upgrade somewhere else (which is exactly what we did). Classic scenario: When we clamored into the hotel from the airport, they didn’t have our reservation. “Je suis desole Monsieur et Mademoiselle.” Luckily, I had the name of the person I spoke with so they relented, giving us the only room they had left, which normally cost 500 francs ($100 American) at the rate I was quoted – 250 francs. Sweet! The concierge kept saying something over and over to us en Français, but we were so tired we just nodded in agreement without understanding.
Our room was on the 5th floor, and after trying to cram ourselves into le petit elevator like sardines, my husband sent me up alone with the luggage while he hoofed it up the stairs. We both made it to the 5th floor about the same time. After sloppily unpacking all over the room, we took long needed showers then, instead of heading out to explore Paris, we fell asleep in each other’s arms. It was 3pm but it felt like 3am, and no one ever advised us to adapt to the current time zone NO MATTER WHAT. So we slept…until 2am.
When we awoke, our stomachs were growling ferociously. We were like vampires in serious need of blood. So, after putting on almost every article of clothing I brought, and my husband his fedora, we headed out in search of food. I had in hand the names of two restaurants that were open late, according to Let’s Go Paris. We were staying in the 2nd arrondissement, which was one of the “cheaper” districts in Paris that’s still within walking distance to many of the sights.
When we hit the streets it was straight out of a Noir film. People lurking in the shadows, street lights flickering, the city landscape – a menacing silhouette; a man threw a bottle at us from across the street, and nothing was open. Not a single cheerful crepe stand, no smoky cafe, nor any of the restaurants listed in my travel book. As we walked under a bridge near the River Seine, I felt like the night was closing in on us. Then I heard it, the faint sound of a Jazz trumpet playing. “Hear that?” I asked. For the first time Tony had a glimmer of hope in his eye. “Let’s check it out!”
What we found was a bistro that was vaguely styled after a 1950’s American diner. We laughed at the irony. Inside were several finely dressed couples quietly huddling around their tables. They must have come from l’Opéra de Paris Garnier, which was near by. The jukebox was playing an odd combination of American jazz and 80’s hits, and the only food being served was alcohol. “We’ll have two chocolate milkshakes?” I ordered uncertainly. Our server just looked at me and then walked away. What she brought was literally chocolate milk shaken-up and poured into two small fluted glasses. As we laughed over our first Paris meal and our nighttime adventure, I started to shiver from cold and excitement. Our waitress must have noticed, because she came over and asked if we wanted something to warm us up, or at least that’s what we deduced. “That would be great,” my husband said nodding. She brought us two half-filled glasses of whisky.
Now I was warm. Two more whisky shots and we were back at our hotel, breathless and feeling giddy. After we played around a little we fell asleep, two lovers in Paris. Only to awaken three hours later to the angry yells of the Concierge. “Go! You must go! Remember?” He managed to say en Anglais. “Wha? Why?” My husband said sleepily into the phone. “You move to room you reserve!” He said angrily. “OH, Deco,” (or d’accord, which means OK) my husband said, still asleep. “What did he say?” I murmured from beneath my pillow. He never answered, and we fell back into a deep sleep.
An hour later there was a pounding on our door…