Paris started off with a “warm” welcome by the French border control police.
Feng, Mark and I queued in the “non-EU passport holders” line—I travel with my Canadian passport—and when our turn came, the three of us walked up to the booth and I presented the documents.
“Not him. He can wait in line,” the border officer said in French, pointing to Feng.
“But it’s my husband, we’re travelling as a family!” I protested, also in French.
“Good for you, I don’t care.”
Feng shrugged. I was seething with anger. Seriously, what the fuck?
Since nothing says “welcome to France” like a long series of inefficient and disorganized queues, we lined up to pick up our backpacks, then to buy RER (express train) tickets. Of course, the SNCF vending machine only takes coins and the change machine was broken—Parisian logic.
Deep down, I’m pretty sure Paris-CDG Airport is managed by a disgruntled French person who hates tourists and tries to discourage them from landing in France’s busiest airport.
We took the RER B, then transferred to the métro, transferred to another line and walked to the hotel.
“Good to know we should be safe,” Feng pointed out when we discovered it was right in front of a—
“Hôtel de police? The police is staying at the hotel?”
“That’s French for ‘police station’”, I explained.
The guys decided to nap, I decided to go out. I usually take a shower as soon as possible to get rid of the “eau de voyage” but I was that dirty, I rationalized, and Paris is—may as well just enjoy the afternoon. I washed up a bit and went out.
I had missions, plural. I needed to buy a French SIM card, a sandwich for dinner and possibly some French Aspirin because I had a headache. I don’t know Paris that well, it had been a while since our last trip, but I was pretty sure I could find Montparnasse train station—the tall Montparnasse Tower would help if needed.
I walked a couple of blocks in what I figured should be the right direction and it suddenly it hit me.
I was in France. I was in Paris. I was in this other world of mine I know well, but exhausted and still very Canadian, this world looked…
It looked so French.
I felt like I was in one of these “now the character is in France” movies. Everything around me was a complete cliché—small Renault cars, stylish women, old buildings…
Here are a few other oh-so-French things I noted:
So many independent pharmacies with their unmissable green neon signs! French love their little remedies and cheap over-the-counter drugs. And by the way, pharmacies don’t sell chips, lottery tickets and candy bars around here—people just buy, you know, drugs, cosmetics and skincare products.
There are entire streets of Chinese “traiteurs,” the French twist on Chinese food—generic and often tasteless French-Chinese cuisine like fried rice with eggs and green peas sold by weight or by portion size, quickly warmed up in a microwave if you eat in. Feng isn’t a big fan of them—“Chinese food is supposed to be fresh and made to order!” “Japanese” restaurants—usually Chinese owned, yes, I can hear you speaking Mandarin…—also seem popular in Paris.
“Oh, people eating, drinking, chatting and enjoying life, how refreshing!” I thought walking by cafés and restaurants. Then I checked my watch—wait, is there anyone working in France on a Monday afternoon at 3 p.m.? Apparently not. Ah bon.
On a related note, I saw plenty of small businesses closed. Damn French epicureans! “On holiday from July 1 to July 31,” a handwritten sign informs customers. “Off until August.” “See you back in September!” Coming from the land of “a three-day weekend counts as a vacation,” this reminder that it’s normal to take (paid) time off made me smile.
I love small reminders that show how North Americans and Europeans understand time differently. “Founded in 2012,” “proudly serving customers since 1965” signs say in Canada. Oh yeah? How about “founded in 1821”? Look at the old blue plate on some buildings, “gaz à tous les étages.” In the 19th century, it was proudly displayed on buildings equipped to deliver gas to all floors. It was a new luxury because the alternative was to use coal or wood to cook.
I came back to the hotel without a phone SIM card, a sandwich or Aspirin but I had fun rediscovering France alone for a few hours.
And it was time for another mission…