Tuesday, June 4, 2002

"Hallo," Juliette greeted me as she walked into the kitchen. Her face was flushed and she was a little out of breath from riding her bicycle home from school.

"Hallo," I returned, "welcome home." I turned off the faucet and began to dry my hands on my shirt. "What's up?" I asked, noticing a glint in her eye.

"Guess what? I have no school the rest of the week." It was Wednesday afternoon. "No school" for Juliette is when the classes don't have compulsory attendance.

"Great," I replied, catching her drift. "Where should we go?"

"Merci beaucoup," Juliette waved to the driver before shutting the door. He smiled and pulled back into the busy traffic of the Parisian expressway.

It was nearly 24 hours since we'd left Freiburg in Germany. It's less than six hours to Paris by car, but it took us a city bus, seven cars, and two cargo trucks.

We had a layover in Strasbourg, a nice little French city on the German border, with a big cathedral and more than a few drunk tourists. While we were waiting for a ride, a handful of gypsy men happened by. They indicated that we would look nice in a photograph, and each one asked if we had a cigarette. As they continued on their way, I noticed absent-mindedly that one carried a small axe. Half an hour later, by which time we'd been asked for six or eight more cigarettes, the gypsies returned in pairs, carrying fresh cut logs for their camp fire.

Failing to get a lift, that night we slept with the escargot in the grass behind rented gardens.

My first coffee shop in Paris. It didn't take long; we'd only arrived fifteen minutes before. Coffee comes in three prices in this town, depending how far from the espresso machine you drink it; standing at the bar is cheapest, and sitting at one of the tables on the sidewalk is most expensive. The difference is about a dollar, establishing a rate of roughly two cents for each step the waitperson has to take in order to serve you. Juliette and I had chosen the middle path (which, although consistent with our philosophical ideals, was somewhat anomolous in matters of finance), sitting at the table inside.

"Un, deux, trois," I repeated, learning to count.

"Deux," Juliette corrected me.

"Deux," I mimicked.

"No, deux" she repeated, exactly the same way.

"Deux," I said again stubbornly.

"D-e-u-x," she said slowly, emphasizing the "oo". She seemed to be getting frustrated at my obvious diregard for all subtlety of language.

"Deux," I tried again.

"Yes, deux!" she affirmed, a proud smile beginning to appear on her previously vexed countenance.

"Deux?" I asked to make sure I knew what I'd done right.

"No, deux!"

I wonder how our conversation would sound to a French person. I guess something like this:

Juliette: "Two."

Ult: "Toe."

J: "No, two."

U: "Taw."

J: "Two."

U: "Tao."

Oy vey. No wonder French people think Americans are so dumb.

I wouldn't be lost, exactly, without Juliette, but I would be having a much different experience. She does nearly all the talking, as she's fluent in both German and French. I don't learn as much that way, but it makes everything that happens seem like magic.

She lived in Paris for many years growing up, making her an excellent guide. We were also lucky to be able to stay with friends of her family, so really I couldn't have asked for a nicer introduction to the city.

Picasso, Rodin, Notre Dame, the Louvre, crepes, croissants -- okay okay, a really amazing city. With the beauty of the ubiquitous art nuveau architechture, endless parks and gathering places, and a culture that is alive and eager to experience its own richness, it felt like it would be a challenge to go somewhere that wasn't nice. With Juliette leading the way, I constantly had the feeling of stumbling into some new marvel.

Couples having picnics on the banks of the Sienne with corkscrews in hand; large African women in colorful frocks singing together on the Metro; entire shops dedicated to cheese (and wine, of course); a cafe, coffee shop, brasserie, bistro, restaurant, tabac, or creperie never more than a few steps away; and everywhere french fries, french toast, french dressing, and french kissing.

In a few short days Paris charmed its way to the top of my list of favorite cities. Now if I could only speak the language.

Travel Trivia

For returning from Paris to Freiburg, we shared a ride with someone we found on the internet. Germany has a centralized ride-sharing database, called Mitfahrzentrale. There's another one called Mitfahrgelegenheit. Both sites are entirely in German, but the drivers and passengers usually speak english. We used the same service to find a ride back from Budapest. It's cheaper than a train, it allows you to meet some people (and be stuck in a car with them for hours) and I suppose ride-sharing is better for the environment, since the cars would go whether the seats were full or not.