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April in Paris

As a fashion fanatic and wine enthusiast, Paris has always been the foreign city I have longed most to see. My affinity for the glamorous City of Lights grew with each story I devoured on the setting, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited”(made into a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor called “The Last Time I Saw Paris”), and the film “Midnight in Paris.” I never thought I’d be able to make it there so soon; I have my dear sister to thank, who suggested we add it as a second leg of our European journey.

“If we’re going to London, we may as well go to Paris,” she reasoned.

I couldn’t argue with that logic.

The most affordable Eurostar trains departed from London at the earliest and latest hours of the day, so we selected the 7:01 a.m. train, scheduled to arrive in Paris at 10:26 a.m. Monday. We were advised to get there a couple of hours early and had to take a taxi to the St. Pancras International station, so we woke up at about 4 a.m. Needless to say, we were quite tired when we arrived in Paris; my sister caught a bit of sleep on the train but I was too excited to even close my eyes for a moment. I wanted to see the French countryside through the train window as we sped by and catch the first glimpse of the city I had always dreamt of visiting.

In London, we had been shameless tourists. In Paris, we decided months before our trip, we would be Parisian sipping coffee and wine as we gazed at passersby from our table outside of a cafe, perusing the wares at countless little boutiques, eating croissants, chocolat and fromage (cheese) while wearing berets.

‘CHARGE IT TO THE GAME’

We struggled to find our footing during our first moments in Paris. As we sleepily dragged our suitcases down the very long stretch from the train to the Gare du Nord’s exit, we both couldn’t wait to get to our hotel, leave our bags behind (check-in wasn’t until later in the afternoon) and start exploring the city. Beleaguered by my burdensome suitcase, I could hardly wait to part with it. The wheels could barely accommodate its weight as I dragged it down the seemingly endless corridor.

When the exit was finally in sight, we approached a gaggle of people waiting for arrivals, mostly drivers holding signs with names on them.

My sister (who was several steps ahead with her easily-managed luggage, since she actually packed light) helpfully called back to me, “Hey, this lady asked if we needed a taxi. Let’s go!”

She was an average, if somewhat weathered, looking woman, probably in her 40s, in casual clothing, with hair that hadn’t seen a brush lately, if ever. The woman began to gather up our luggage and insisted that we follow her to the taxi, which she claimed was outside; we were still too far away to clearly see the street. I felt uncertain – however, it’s not like a taxi driver is wont to wear a uniform and a badge clearly stating her profession. She was probably a taxi driver right? Maybe? But maybe not.

“Hilary, I don’t know about this,” I whispered to her as we walked briskly with the woman to our alleged cab. “There’s something off about it. It seems too easy.”

“I think it’s fine,” she assured me.

“I’m not so sure,” I said worriedly, but I simultaneously felt extremely relieved that I didn’t have to carry my painfully heavy suitcase any further. “What if there is no taxi? What if she’s selling us into prostitution or stealing our bags or something?”

Hilary shrugged as we hurried along. The lady’s pace quickened with each step, as did our anxiety. Faster and faster we went, not knowing if a taxi would actually be outside on the street. I am told that this is basically how the movie “Taken” begins.

Finally, as we emerged from the station, we saw the taxis and breathed a sigh of relief. The woman said something to the taxi driver in French then loaded our bags into the trunk of the cab. My sister asked the driver if he could take us to the Hotel de la Bretonnerie, and he agreed; maybe this would turn out OK after all.

As we were about to get in the cab, the woman demanded, “Ten Euro, for me.”

What?! For carrying our luggage and putting the bags in the taxi? (In American dollars, that’s nearly $13). My sister, defeated, sheepishly handed her the cash and we got in the cab. We both sensed that this woman would fly off the handle if we put up a fuss, and we didn’t want to spend our first moments in Paris entangled in a knife fight with some Parisian hustler, or potentially have our luggage stolen. Yes, we had been swindled. We agreed that we had learned something valuable and would focus on the general awesomeness of our arrival instead as we gazed at Paris through the taxi windows.

“What are you gonna do?” Hilary said. “My boyfriend has a phrase he uses for situations like this: ‘Charge it to the game.'”

And so we did. This was not the only scam artist we encountered in Paris, which I’ll get to later; by then, we were hardened, wary travelers, not to be tussled with.

FAUX PAS

One tip that I read while conducting my extensive pre-trip research was that visitors to Paris should always lead with French instead of bombarding Parisians with English and demanding that they understand. Some Americans consider the French to be unfriendly, but I don’t blame the French for feeling miffed when certain Americans insist on being brash and remaining ignorant. I did my best to learn as much French as I could in the weeks leading up to the trip but my skills were limited; if only I hadn’t switched to Spanish lessons from French after four frustrating days in eighth grade.

The travel websites and books I read advised that greeting with a friendly “Bonjour” and bidding farewell with an “Au revoir” while entering and exiting a business would go a long way toward establishing positive Parisian relations. In our experience, it really did; on the only occasions we failed to do so, the results were regrettable.

Hilary, usually quite levelheaded and an adept French speaker, was understandably ruffled by our experience with the taxi hustler when we arrived at our hotel. All a fluster, she asked the clerk at the desk several questions hurriedly in English about when check-in time was and where we should leave our bags. He stared at her blankly in response, then said, “Bonjour.”

Hilary had to start all over again. We eventually were informed that check-in was at 1:30 p.m. and instructed to leave our bags in some closet that didn’t appear to be locked. Ah, well. It was a sunny day in Paris, a much-welcome change from our frigid London days of rain and snow, so we shrugged off our awkward first encounter and decided to find our first French cafe. We had passed countless cafes on our way to the hotel so it shouldn’t be hard to locate one.

I should note that my sister and I were both without any cell phone service for our entire trip. When I first discovered my phone was a European no-go while in London (thanks again, Verizon), I was stressed that we’d end up lost in Paris without working mobiles due to the language barrier and the absence of a fantastic tour guide. How easy it was to get around London with the help of our friend Reetika and the city’s wonderful public transportation system! Not only did I get over the lack of cell service, but I relished being disconnected for one glorious week no texting, no Facebook, no Instagram or Twitter! I could never understand why people spend an exorbitant amount of time posting about how much they’re enjoying their vacation, including a myriad of photos and “checking in” to various locations, instead of, you know, actually enjoying their vacation.

We would be kicking it like it was 1999, living luxuriously off the grid. So adventurous we were! We would use landmarks to figure out where we were and how to get back to our hotel. We would ask for directions if we needed to. We would take a cab if the destination wasn’t within walking distance or if we ended up hopelessly lost. Also, the hotel had a computer in the lobby we could use, with a French keyboard (some keys were in a different order than ours, which made typing take 10 times as long); we used it to print out directions in French a few times and send a few emails back home to let our parents know we were alive.

The first, and what turned out to be the most useful, landmark we noted was a pet boutique called “Moustaches,” around the corner from our hotel.

This was easy to remember, because, how fun and absurd! A pet store called “Moustaches!” (I looked it up when I got home and I still cannot find a cultural link between a moustache – spelled “mustache” in American English and a dog or a cat). There was always a dish of water outside Moustaches, presumably for dogs, but I liked to think of it as being for anyone who was thirsty. During the sole occasion we saw the dish being utilized, a dog was lapping up the water like it hadn’t had a drink in years.

We happened upon a cafe on the rue des Archives less than two blocks from Moustaches. We hoped to fulfill our French fantasy of sitting at an outdoor table on the streets of Paris. We were both starving, Hilary was desperate for a coffee, I felt plenty chipper already and wanted an inaugural Parisian glass of wine. It appeared that many of the cafes were just beginning to open for lunch. My sister and I spotted an employee behind the bar, went inside and approached him. Hilary asked him, in French, if they were open.

The man, immersed in a text message, sort of grumbled in response; the gist we gleaned was that they were sort of open, but also not really, and if we wanted something we had to have it at the bar. Hilary and I nervously exchanged glances. She ordered “un cafe” and I attempted to use my rudimentary French to ask for “vin rouge, s’il vous plait” (red wine, please). The guy brusquely brought Hilary’s coffee, ignored me completely, and went back to texting on his phone.

We found ourselves in yet another awkward social situation. Hilary and I desperately wanted to leave but we were already stuck. As she slammed her coffee (Hilary’s habit of hoisting her coffee, mentioned in part un, “The London Olympians,” was really coming in handy!), accepting that we had floundered once again, I hastily snapped a couple of commemorative photos of our gauche attempt to be Parisian at this cafe. She paid and we fled.

At another cafe right across the street called La Frond, several patrons were enjoying lunch at outdoor tables. We decided to give our Parisian lunch another shot. This time, there were no faux pas and the staff was friendly. Hilary and I both had delicious croque monsieur (a grilled ham and cheese sandwich), with wine and bread, basking in the warmth of the sunshine. We had truly arrived.

We will always remember La Frond as the first place that accepted us as functioning members of Parisian society.

Next week: the third and final part of ‘My European journey.’

Send comments on this column to adiodato@observertoday.com