Posted April 25, 2014 by Cooper Point Journal in Features

From France, With Love



The sirens blared as they loaded the woman onto the ambulance. The twisted wreckage of her moped lay to the side, still making dying noises, while the woman herself made no noises at all. I could not tell for certain that she was dead, but with the way her body had been spat out behind the car, I didn’t see how survival was possible.

I thought back on how I’d ended up here: jet lagged, starving, and drunk, 10 minutes into my Parisian experience. A little over 24 hours before, I’d boarded a plane in Seattle. Some friends offered to take me to the airport, but not before they’d overseen that large quantities of tequila found its way down my gullet. Security was a blur, but I managed to chat my way into early boarding, safe (first class) storage for my guitar, and an unending supply of free in-flight Jack Daniels. The mother and daughter next to me requested postcards from Paris, and insisted that I take money for postage. The man I’d met in the New York airport bar was returning from Tokyo to Miami, where he’d moved from Paris just a few years before. He’d given me advice on where to go, where to avoid—it had promptly been forgotten between whiskeys three and four. I did not, after all, want to arrive in Paris hungover at six in the morning; such things would not do.

Except that now, lost in a new city whose size I’d grossly underestimated, I was, for the first time, unsure of this decision. I had a classmate to meet somewhere in this city of over 2 million. I had a phone that did not work outside the U.S. I had an overstuffed backpack, my guitar, and a bag of suits. I wasn’t going to show up in Paris totally unprepared.

Once the shock of seeing the woman’s broken body carted off began to subside and without any better plan, I simply started to walk.

For three hours I meandered, up and down La Rue de this and Le Boulevard du that. When I finally found the hostel, I wanted nothing more than a shower and a nap. But it was, of course, a hostel at 13:00 and, as such, was closed for “cleaning.” This “cleaning” was done daily with complete disregard for dust or bug-ridden bedsheets.

The other thing about staying in a hostel is that while you may well meet many fine, interesting folks, it is all but certain that none of them will be from the place you are visiting. Thus, that first night, my classmate and I ventured out into the Paris darkness with my bunk-mate, a Londoner named Sam, who was bicycling to Spain to join a commune, and an American girl named… Danielle? Daniella? Deborah? Janet? I’m over 80 percent sure she had a name. Anyway, we heard tell of a free lesbian night club that came with a modicum of recommendation, and we decided to stop by. First, however, we purchased several bottles of red wine and with feet dangling over the Seine, we sipped it in the shadow of a bridge. We traded stories of what brought us there.

For me, it was the Dark Romantics class at Evergreen, a year-long program on 18th and 19th century literature, poetry, history, and art. It culminated in this spring quarter trip through France, where I would soon be met by the hoard of 40 other Greeners. Thinking back to my days in World Civ., I was fairly confident that this would suffice. The class started in a few days, and would entail three weeks in the northern city of Rennes, two weeks back in grand old Paris, and two weeks of being blown wherever the European winds would take us, as long as that place was Lon for our final stay.

But none of that mattered on this warm evening. It was enough to have made it, and we were going to celebrate. Once the wine was drained (and we’d stuffed the bottles with scribbled lines and sent them hurling back, a few poet’s offerings to the Seine) we continued on our way.

We went out that night in search of dancing; we found it, if not quite in the way we expected. As we marched along the river banks, we heard guitars, flutes, and accordions calling us along. Into view came one, two, three hundred locals having themselves a fine Wednesday night. They played traditional music and danced old Bretonian dances under the smog-hazed moon. We sat and watched, buying one-euro Heinekens from the young men who came around with ice filled bags and bottle openers. When the older crowd wandered home sometime in the early morning hours, the younger folk pulled out battered guitars of their own and we passed them around. I was immensely pleased at their rendition of “Sympathy for the Devil” (Peeaase ahloow meehh tag intra-dooose mah-seeelf/Ahm ah naan off waleth ann beans…).

They shouted at one another in slurred phrases that even they couldn’t have understood, cheered us when we sang out of key, and taught us the fine French tradition of peeing any-damn-where you please. As we stumbled home in the false dawn light, I knew that this would be, as they say, a long, strange trip.