The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.

--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History

Monday, December 6, 2010

Paris Stories Take One: Packing Lightly

I went to Paris this summer with my Australian wife, D, and had a few experiences as one is wont to do when one travels to that city. I meant to post a few of these earlier, but didn't really have a chance what with moving and being bitter and all. So here they are now in small increments.

[a few of you have already read this one, but the others will be new to you--and most likely new to me since the trip happened months ago]

Having traveled a wee bit in our lives, getting to Paris was simple. As was the transfer from airport to train into the City of Light. We could read the signs (I have a rudimentary French background and D is fairly fluent though she'll modestly argue that point), could understand instructions, and since metro systems don't really vary from country to country all that much, knew how to move around in the underground warren of trains. At this point, both my traveling companion and I were operating on 20+ hours of being awake. But sleepiness fled as we entered the bustle and energy of the metro station. We were here! Not just a sterile airport, but the metro that natives used in their day to day lives! We were listening to French being spoken by real live French people en masse! And understanding it! We looked fairly sassy despite our flight! And if we kept our mouths shut and looked purposeful, we would pass for fellow Europeans (though most likely not French Europeans)!

The excitement kept building as we quietly discussed our plans for the day so that no one could overhear our nasal English (wine, wine, and more wine, then maybe some rich and fatty food followed by even more wine). D and I could feel the gathering strength of our travel mojo. This high on life feeling was going to last us the entire week, we were certain. The adrenaline rush you can get when you travel is amazing and being in Paris makes that rush even more so, especially when, suddenly, you get your large and distinctly American luggage firmly and irrevocably wedged into the metro turnstile. All that adrenaline soars and shifts magnificently into a fight or flight mode. Or in our cases, flight or flight.

Both D and I are no strangers to the myth of the American-hating French. Both of us also had on good authority that Paris is the epicenter of such fomenting disdain. In fact, we were hoping to get through this trip with exciting as little of that sentiment as possible. So, needless to say, both of our hearts sunk into our practical yet fashionable heels. She and I exchanged looks of panic in which I swear I saw in her eyes a momentary thought of grabbing her perfectly-petite and European carry-on and making a break for the nearest cafe. I don't blame her. I would have cut my clothing losses and ran too if it weren't for the fact that I had also managed to entangle in the handle of my much too-large luggage my purse strap and slightly smaller (just acceptable as such, really) carry-on and, further, was trapped physically in a strangle hold by the web of straps. Everything I owned in Paris was twined around the handle of the turnstile including me; I couldn't get back or forward. It appeared my bag was permanently wedged and I would be spending the rest of my life in the Pasteur stop of the metro.

[side note: I am still amazed at how much D can pack in such a tiny bag. She got books, dresses, boots, heels, a laptop, hair straightener, adapters, and toiletries into her tiny bag of great magic. I, on the other hand, needed about five times the space to accomplish the same thing. And I still borrowed clothes from her! Was it the pillow I brought? Or the German cell phone that doesn't work in France? Or the 15 books?]

Remember, we are in a metro station. A bustling metro station. Not once, even during D's and my eye-locking moment, did people stop rushing around and, literally, into me. The susurrate sound of their passing perfectly complemented by the disgusted hissing noise they would make when they realized that a perfectly good turnstile was being blocked by a very obvious (the luggage, the expletives, the wide ass) American. The volume of the hissing was proportionate to whether the person had seen my predicament from a distance and moved to another turnstile or had noticed my lack of forward motion only after ineffectively pushing into my luggage and finding his way barred. To the sound of hissing, I pushed and pulled and groaned. But my bags stayed fast (at this point I had disentangled my body from the web of straps and could move freely around my bag). D pulled from one side, I pushed from the other, both feeding our tickets again and again into the turnstile to trigger the handle's moving freely (it didn't). My bags were the mountain. They could not be moved.

Finally, a kind gentleman (I don't really remember what he looked like, but the image that comes to mind is the cranky painter in Amelie) called from a gate that allows handicapped people into the metro (and Americans with lard-ass luggage), "Utiliser ceci."

"Je ne peux pas," I wailed. “Aidez-moi ici, s'il vous plait.”

[Yes, I know, not good French, but I do not claim to speak good French.] With an untranslatable grunt, the man realized that my condition was less that I needed a larger entrance and more that I needed the jaws of life to free my possessions from their metal prison. Somehow (French magic, I guess), he managed to use his brute force to pull my bag through. I profusely Merci Beaucoup’d him, but he left with no response other than an equally untranslatable cough. I am not sure if he helped me because he was nice or just fed up with my ineptitude. At least he didn't hiss.

On the move again, I quietly vowed to get me an my embarrassment of luggage to our hotel as quickly as possible without calling further attention to myself. A short-lived vow as D and I encountered the steep flight of stairs for the metro exit.


Went my bag and I until a petite French woman in a cream suit and work heels that put my "sassy" heels to shame, without missing a beat, bent down and grabbed the bottom of my bag, propelling me and it to the top. She graciously acknowledged my thanks, releasing my bag and continuing on her way until we reached the next set of stairs. After my first "bump" up the step, she reversed her direction and returned to the bottom of the flight to help me with my bag again. I said thanks, again. She gave a slight farewell smile, again. We parted ways, again.

Then I came to the third flight of stairs. The woman, again, helped me up. This time with a pained look of embarrassment on her face for me and my ridiculous situation. As soon as we reached the top of the steps into the square of the Pasteur stop, she quickly set the bag down and disappeared into the crowd without waiting for my (third) thanks.