Journey into Paris
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I stepped off the plane and walked into the airport terminal when it hit me. I was here – finally – after all these years of dreaming about it. The airport was bustling with people going in every direction. Apparently everyone knew where they were going except me. I looked around at the different signs – ”Guichet”… “Douane”…. I went up to the counter where the sign said, “Renseignements”. Using the French I had been practicing for the past few months, I asked the woman behind the Information counter where I could find the Hôtel Ibis Cambronne.

The woman told me to go to platform eight and take the RER to St. Michel Notre-Dame. From there I would have to take a taxi or the métro – which was the subway. Sounded easy enough. I gave the driver my suitcases, showed him my ticket and sat down to enjoy the ride. This was my first look at Paris – the city I had dreamed of going to since I was a little girl.

Paris was a very busy city. There were cars coming from every direction. Some of the streets were cobblestone and weren’t divided into lanes, so cars and buses just drove wherever they wanted. Sometimes there were two cars side by side, forming two lanes; other times there were three cars fighting over an area that was only big enough for two. Parisians didn’t seem to have any patience, whether they were in their cars fighting over lanes, or fighting to be the first one on the bus. They didn’t believe in doing anything in a single file.

Despite the traffic, the city was the most beautiful city in the world to me. There were all sorts of buildings, decorated with gold, that were built four, and even five or six hundred years ago. The bridges going over the Seine River each had its own individual style. One had a gold angelic figure on the face of it. With the early morning sun coming up just behind it, it looked like I was entering heaven.

As I was looking out the window of the bus, it suddenly dawned on me that I had no idea where my stop was. I got out my “Useful French Phrases” book and looked up “Transportation”. I went to great lengths trying to memorize the phrase, “Can you tell me when my stop is?” I finally gave up trying to memorize it, figuring I would come out with the wrong words anyway. There was no sense trying to disguise myself as a true Parisian when I was just a tourist. So I took the book with me to the front of the bus and held it open in front of me, and asked, “Vous pouvez me dire que quand mon arrêt est?”

“Second stop,” the driver responded in perfect English. That would be one thing I would remember for the rest of my journey: Most French people, especially those catering to tourists, could speak my language better than I could speak theirs.

So I got off the bus at the second stop. The driver unloaded my bags and I stared around in dismay.

"Pour que cherchez-vous?" asked a man who just got off the same bus.

Cherchez, that meant searching, but I couldn't figure out what he was asking me.

"What are you searching for?" he repeated in English. A woman –probably his wife – was standing beside him staring at me inquisitively.

"Oh, I need to get to l’Hôtel Ibis Cambronne. It's at the Cambronne métro stop."

"You can take a taxi – there is one over there – but the taxi is cher – expensive. You should take the métro." His wife nodded in agreement.

Thinking of my inexperience with the subway system in Toronto, I thought I should just spend the money and take the taxi. I walked across the park to where the man had pointed and asked the taxi driver to take me to l’Hôtel Ibis Cambronne.

After a minute of being in the taxi, I realized this was a mistake. If the drivers in Paris had their own rules, taxi drivers were the ones to break them. I looked out the window, trying to get my bearings as the driver weaved in and out of traffic, fighting over lanes as if I was in labour and he was trying to prevent me from delivering the baby in his cab.

We drove passed the Eiffel Tower, which was the symbol of Paris for most tourists. Its size was overwhelming. As the driver drove down one street, then turned onto another, I was able to get different views of it. There were people lined up at each corner of the Tower. They looked like ants lined up around a tree, taking turns going up the tree in small groups to see what the view was like at the top.

After we passed the Tower, I felt sick to my stomach from all of the weaving and swerving. I spotted a métro sign and thought maybe the metro might be a better idea after all. I asked the driver to pull over. “Excuse-moi, monsieur. Arrêtez-vous ici, s’il vous plait?”

“Ici?” The driver looked at me incredulously, swerved across two lanes of traffic, while a car in the lane that we swerved into slammed on its brakes and yelled something in French. The driver took my bags out of the trunk. I attempted to pay him the fare plus tip, but I guess the tip was not enough because he took another ten francs out of my hand, showed me what he took, and then said, “Merci.”

I pulled my bags into the métro station, walked up to the man in the booth and asked, “Parlez-vous anglais?” I figured I might as well ask if he spoke English before I made him suffer through my French, only to get a response in French that I wouldn’t understand anyway.

“Yes,” he responded.

“How do I get to the Cambronne métro stop?”

“Take the number six. Go toward Charles de Gaulle – Étoile. Cambronne is the third stop.”

It took some effort to get my bags through the turnstile, and no one bothered to help when I ended up on the other side of the turnstile and couldn’t get my bag to follow me. After that I learned the art of pushing the bag through first.

While in the métro, I sat close to the door. I noticed the doors didn’t open automatically as they did in the Toronto subway system. I watched to see what other passengers were doing in order to open the doors, but I couldn’t get a close enough look; the area was always crowded. In true Parisian-style, the passengers were in a hurry to get on and off the train and continue their lives.

Finally it was my turn. As I stood in front of the door, I noticed there was a handle and a green circle with an arrow on it. I tried pressing the green circle and pulling at the handle desperately, realizing that I only had about 30 seconds to open the door and pull my bags out before the metro would continue on its journey.

An impatient Frenchman dressed in a business suit and carrying a briefcase pushed his way passed me, muttering something in French. The experienced subway rider was able to pull up the handle and miraculously open the door. I followed him out and some other people pushed their way passed me, frustrated with my ignorance of subway doors that didn’t open automatically.

I walked into the station and got directions from yet another person. I pulled my bags down two flights of stairs and out onto the street. I could smell the roses as I walked by a beautiful public garden that I promised myself I would come back to later. The air in Paris smelled fresher. The trees and grass seemed greener.

As I walked to the street my hotel was on, I noticed there was a café on one corner and a fruit stand on the other. I could smell the strawberries they were selling and decided that would make a good breakfast. After I made my purchase, I continued to my hotel and checked in.

The Ibis Cambronne was a big, modern hotel – in complete contrast to the other buildings I had passed earlier that were centuries old. A popular American song was playing in the elevator. It was unusual to hear English music when everyone around me was speaking French. I wondered if they understood the lyrics.

My room had a single bed, no dresser and no closet. But I had my own bathroom and a few hooks on the wall with hangers for hanging up outfits.

I left my bags in my room and walked across the street to the café on the corner. While drinking a café au lait, I took it all in. I had finally made my journey into Paris.

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