Paris sets her free
I would love to be able to say that I have loved Paris since childhood and studied French religiously from an early age. That is not the case.
I would love to be able to say that as a youngster my family traveled extensively throughout Europe and that my father’s job required that we live in Paris for a year… or three. That is not the case.
My love of Paris is attached to my love of history and food. The more I read about France, food and culture, the more determined I became to see Paris at least once in my life.
And when one of my buddies from work told me about how he had lived in Paris for six months, I was impressed. Particularly when he got to the part about how he slept on the metro for a week before landing a position as an au pair.
It was 16 years ago when I took myself on a solo trip to Paris. The month was July and the occasion was my birthday (I won‘t say which one). This trip was to have been with my then-boyfriend but he had a pattern of dropping out of planned vacations at the last minute.
This time when he said we would have to postpone our trip I went to plan-B. I was not going to let him ruin my B-I-G birthday and Paris, too. No way; no how.
I can still see the expression on his face when I said I was going without him. He wanted it to be a joke and was hoping my plans would fall through up until the day my plane took flight out of JFK. I wasn’t joking. I had a round trip ticket and an inexpensive room at Hotel Observetoire Luxembourg on Blvd St. Michel.
That trip was the beginning of something that I have never been able to explain. Paris came to mean more to me than architecture, art, cheese and wine. And that’s saying a lot.
Paris meant freedom. I was a woman, alone in a foreign land. I didn’t speak the language and I didn’t care. I still don’t.
16 years ago I learned that my feathers are not so easily ruffled. So what if my boyfriend bailed on my dream vacation. I was going to have fun without him.
I grew up riding the New York subway so getting to my hotel from Orly was a cinch. So what if my room wasn’t ready upon arrival. It was early morning so I had a pain au chocolat and coffee in the brasserie downstairs; then went for a walk.
Somewhere on Blvd St. Germaine, a man grabbed me by the arm and dragged me across the street into the lobby of a building. He was busy fondling himself the entire time. When I heard the words massage and 50 francs, I knew what time it was and got out of that lobby in a New York minute!
Of course, he had nothing on the Algerian guy that followed me through the Tuilleries insisting that he wanted to have sex with me because I am beautiful. He said it was cruel of me not to accommodate him this one wish. I guess I should have been insulted but he seemed so sincere all I could do is laugh.
I remember thinking that this type of thing only happens tourists, not savvy New Yorkers. The funny thing is that I didn’t care; I was in Paris so what did it matter?
16 years ago I decided Bastille Day was all about me. After all, it is the day before my birthday. So why not. All I know is Bastille Day 1995, I danced with new friends and enjoyed all kinds of foods purchased from street vendors on the Champs Elysees and at the Eiffel Tower.
I definitely went one peppery kabob too far because at 1:30 the following morning, the morning of my birthday, I was in an ambulance on my way to the hospital. But what did I care? My doctor was handsome, funny, and did Satchmo impersonations. We even performed a duet of Hello Dolly!
To this day I always tell my friends that Paris is the place to get sick if one must get sick at all.
Ah, Paris. Even the sour experiences were sweet.
Upon returning to New York, I found my then-but-soon-to-be-ex- boyfriend waiting for me at the gate. He seemed small and inconsequential to me then. I was not the same woman he had bailed on. I had journeyed to Paris unescorted and unencumbered, had the time of my life, and had begun an intimate affair with a place that would never, ever let me down.All Images © Cynthia Stewart