In Paris, the riverbanks look like little parks (at least during daylight and twilight hours), with people gathering to eat picnics, drink wine, sing songs (like the warbled Bob Marley "Satisfy My Soul" rendition that some French teens were belting out as we passed, or the kids who were humming the beginning notes of the Shins' "New Slang" on the Bateaux Mouches). Lovers kiss. Children roam and play. Tourists gawk and take pictures that are probably blurry or have people in them that they don't know. Ancient monuments hold the sky up.
I'll be honest: Paris scared me. I haven't been here for more than 20 years and I was a teenager in French Club when I was here the last time. I was in love and in love with love. I was crazy and stayed out too late and my French teacher (a short guy from Dallas) tried to reprimand me, but he was too nice to follow through. I lived in Italy at the time, a hedonistic and primitive place compared to the sophistication of Paris, and it never occurred to me that eating at McDonald's and wearing a red beret were lame choices. I remember being treated so rudely by a French waiter near the Musee d'Orsay, even though I spoke reasonable French with a fairly good Parisian accent. I didn't see the Louvre because it was closed (they were constructing the famous pyramids for the welcome pavilion). I went to Versailles but was bored to tears as we roamed aimlessly around the grounds. I almost didn't climb the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre because my boyfriend didn't (but I did do it and it was one of the highlights of my trip). Ahh... seventeen. So young. So naive. So long.
This time, my trip is vastly different and I am no longer living in Europe, so I was worried that it would be harder. I worried about my French being so rusty that we'd be scorned publicly, so Raf and I took French lessons last year (until my French teacher, a strict Quebecoise, made me feel inferior for not speaking the language 100% of the time with her). I fretted over my wardrobe and hoped that navy and white stripes would not be considered gauche or too cliche. I packed way too many pairs of heels. I read a little too much in my Rick Steves guidebook. I was about-to-vomit nervous in Toulouse before we left the airport.
The big reveal? It's positively the most wonderful part of our trip. I am in heaven. EVERY girl and woman (and man) that we pass on the street is both stylish AND wearing navy and white striped shirts... and many of them (women AND men, straight AND gay) are wearing slim-cut denim with the cuffs folded up twice just above their ankles. French words and phrases are coming back to me; I can communicate with nearly everyone and my accent is at least understandable enough to order food, shop, get directions. My high heels have been surprisingly comfortable on the cobblestone streets (and cute, too). Although it's been incredibly helpful, I've also found that I'm reaching beyond what Rick Steves can show me. My nervous stomach was gone as soon as our kind driver Fabrice met us at the airport and began to encourage me to speak French as much as possible. "Your accent is not as bad as many I've heard," he said. That was enough for me.
We're staying at the Citadines Apart'Hotel in the St. Germain-de-Pres area, which is in the middle of EVERYTHING we want to see. Not only is it conveniently located (just off the Seine on the Left Bank, two blocks from the St. Michel metro station, a bridge walk and a block or two from the Louvre on one side and the same distance from Notre Dame on the other side), but it's a one-bedroom apartment with a fully-equipped kitchenette and plenty of space for our cinq personne family. That may not seem like a big deal, but we were able to walk to a supermarche on the first afternoon and then come home and cook veggies for our kids (the first they'd had in nearly two weeks). There's a laundry room downstairs, free coffee in the lobby 24/7 and free internet in each room. Heaven.
Raf had told me that I had nothing to worry about, except maybe someone mistaking me for a local and asking me for directions, which I scoffed at. And then it happened last night. We were leaving the supermarche Carrefour in the Latin Quarter with the kids around 10:45 pm (I know, we're living on Euro time), baguette in hand, and watching a few street performers break dancing. Two young French girls approached me with a map asking for help in finding the St. Michel station. I answered them in Franglish, even though I knew the words in French - I was scared to send them in the wrong direction, which I think I may have anyway (but where better to be lost than in the 6th arrondisement in Paris?). Just go toward the Rue des Grands Augustins, I advised. Find the Seine and go right. St. Michel is just a few blocks down. Can't miss it.
"See?" Raf said. "I told you."
And so he did. I could get used to this city.