I was in advanced French in high school, a very green sixteen, when I told my French teacher I was going to live in Paris one day. She looked down her square rimmed glasses and asked why. Because I love it there, I answered in text book français. Have you ever been before? Mais, non! Then how do you know you will love it? I just will, I responded stubbornly.
My first trip to France was later that year, an optional school trip. I’d saved the money to go by tele-canvassing for the liver foundation and working a retail job part time. When my father found out I was holding down two jobs in my final year of high school, he was so outraged, he coughed up whatever money I was missing.
La Belle France did not disappoint. The shops were beautiful; all the designers I’d memorized from Vogue were to be seen (but not bought). I bought a cheap vintage trench coat, wore tortoise shell glasses, and hunted down a black beret near Sacre Coeur. My totally romantic- everything was perfect- pastry is awesome- trip was all I hoped it to be.
I went back three years later. Five days, this time all by myself. No organized itinerary or bossy Madame Bird or ten girls from another high school who just wanted to go to the discotheque. If the first trip was an awakening, the second was an initiation into a brave new independence. When I arrived, none of the bank machines would take my bank card; I had no francs. I was convinced someone had stolen my wallet on the metro (turned out it was hiding in my handbag). I spent eight hours in the Louvre, six in the D’Orsay. I braved eating alone in a café, ordering the dish of the day, an indigestible fish mash thing, which I have yet to identify. I slept with 20 backpackers at a hostel and found a group of random Argentinians; we ended up at the softly illuminated Eiffel tower at midnight dancing to some Rastafarian’s drum beats.
My third trip to Paris, I was 20 and in love. I had a boyfriend-oh la la! Together with some friends we spent three days being merry. We ate croissants under that same Eiffel tower. We had a ritual of opening Baci chocolates and reading amorous quotes to one another. There was good drama too because some Finnish boy who said he loved me was actually sharing the hotel room my friend and I had booked. (The boyfriend was sharing with another couple). But how can you love a guy who thinks you can sprint through Versailles and drags you to Hemingway’s hangout for a coca cola and then insists on McDonald’s for dinner? One night we (minus the Finn) stayed out so late the metro stopped and the taxis hid, and we had to march back to our hotel. It took at least two hours. To keep ourselves awake, we all sang songs, our voices loud and bawdy as we trudged through the City of Lights.
Once I started working, trips to France became shorter but just as monumental: now living with the boyfriend in Belgium, he looked at me one day and said, how about we drive to Paris for lunch? Two hours, no passport. It was the first time I understood I’d really left Canada. I took my family to Paris, escorting them from sight to sight, from Notre Dame to my favorite fountain at Pompidou, listening to their cagey French. Paris is where I learned my father shared the same interests as me (let’s just walk around!), that my mother didn’t like Impressionism. I remember my stepmother running for the train while trying to eat an enormous nutella filled crepe, waiting an hour while my dad tried to set up a night shot of the Eiffel tower (it twinkles every hour now); chastising a waiter for being rude to my sister. Eventually I even went to France for work, organizing an event for 200 real Parisians. It was my first time taking a French taxi. I was driven all the way to Deauville for a conference once and ordered sole meunière from a chic hotel and saw the gray Brittany coast. No more hostels, no more worries about rejected credit cards. My husband (that boyfriend) and I have taken his parents on holiday to France (good karma!), had our share of weekend getaways in dimly lit bistros.
Over time I’ve learned France is not always la vie en rose. Like all desirable mistresses, France can be fickle and cruel. I’ve come to accept humiliation is part of our affair. I’ve butchered sentences, mispronounced words, made a fool of myself, if only to myself. I once racked up 100$ on a café bill because I was scared they’d kick me out otherwise. I’ve been felt up by a stranger while crossing the road, made fun of for being Asian by French people. Eight years ago, while my husband biked the Mount Ventoux– the beast of the Tour de France, I thought it’d be a swell idea to just walk up. Several terrifying hours later, up a steep peak of shale, there can be no better manifestation of what can happen to me in France; a case of biting off more than one can chew.
What is it about France? At first, it was a naïve fascination with fashion and art and sophistication, of a world very different than my middle class suburb. That delicate language that sounded like little kisses. Now, in spite of how gritty my experience has sometimes been, and maybe even because of it, France is an attitude, a way of being. When I go, I no longer sight see, it doesn’t matter to me the name of that church. I’m more interested in just being around it. Snippets of conversation. The secrets of living there, fitting in. If before France was to be admired from afar, now I am constantly looking for infiltration.
And then there’s food. I knew nothing about food when I first showed up in France. Who knew you scraped the pepper off the steak au poivre? Now, a lot of my French memories are now marked by its gastronomic delights. That fish mush of innocence. An ingénue, her croissant, and her grand amour. Lavender ice cream. Some miraculous fattening thing called aligot. Jam. Don’t get me started on jam. A trip to France now, and I become a walking epicerie. And of course, those beautiful macarons.
Eighteen years after insisting I would live in France, last year I got a one month job teaching in Paris. Finally, I could legitimately say I lived there. And for the first time, I had to solve real problems, other people’s problems too, in my still not perfect French. I had to buy twenty flashlights an hour before the shops closed. Explain to a train master, while on the train to Lyon, why our professors had not validated the tickets and had bought one ticket too few. Exchange French IT talk in order to rig a room for an audio visual slide show (the French word for remote control?). Discuss campus security with a man who had a hotline to the mayor of Paris, who told me these girls in miniskirts they’re just asking for trouble, tu comprends? Never mind trying to explain to the Americans why the threat of litigation doesn’t work on the French. Or reminding the French, the Americans expect someone to be accountable for a problem (a word that in French does not really exist). Not a lot of room for parlez- vous anglais? After a month, I was sick of macarons, knew how to order a baguette properly, had adapted to the force of a café crème, and found a café to call my own, sparring with its waiters. A woman bought me a glass of champagne when I told her she must go to the Rocky Mountains as she has always dreamed. I gave a woman the chocolate that came with my coffee after we discussed the metaphor of the millefeuille I was eating in light of the fact I was a writer. And my food moment? Being able to buy 180 euros worth of Pierre Hermé pastry for a school event. What we all admitted was the taste of heaven.
I like to think that everyone has a place where they return to once and a while and realize how far they’ve come in life, where in one big whoosh, we are reminded about time and youth and mistakes, and where gratitude or awe come into play when we think about what’s ahead. Maybe it’s an old oak tree, a lake, one’s childhood bedroom, or the narrow halls of one’s high school. Mine, just happens to be France. I come often enough to have great love for her but infrequently enough there’s always something new and different in the way we embrace one other.
As I write this, I am in Provence, in the south of France on holiday. I’m trying to work on my book. My in-laws were here for a few days. My dog is here. We took her to eat at Paul Bocuse. My husband keeps dreaming about getting up that mountain again. I sit in this stone house nestled in the Dentelle mountains, considering fans of lavender and the basket of blushing apricots left by the man who we rent the house from. And I wonder what magic memory, what milestone is unraveling this very minute, what delightful vignette will sneak up on me the next time I cross the French border. How will life be different? How will I be different?
I’m already looking forward to finding out.
Do you have a place that reminds you of you?