Bienvenue en France. The destination may be considered “glamorous” but my first stop after landing isn’t—I need to go to the restroom. I assure you, it doesn’t smell of Chanel No. 5 around les toilettes.
I glance at my reflection in the dirty mirror. After the overnight flight, I have typical “airplane face”, a strange mix of oily yet dry skin because of the low air pressure in the cabin. It’s nothing that a ghetto facial won’t fix, for which I need water, soap and a paper towel.
A few drops of tepid water dribble out of the tap, there is hardly any water pressure. I look around. No soap. No paper towel. I sigh and grab a few sheets of pink single-ply toilet paper, the same industrial-use brand we had in middle school, the very reason why I made a policy of never using toilets at school. Despite its cute colour, this toilet paper feels like sandpaper.
I had forgotten that French bathrooms aren’t as well outfitted as any public restroom in North America. For a second, I consider complaining out loud because that’s what French do, they complain. However, I also realize that French are used to shitty public restrooms, pun intended. It’s quite a miracle when washrooms are free, when toilets are flushing and when there isn’t an angry homeless woman sleeping inside a stall. So, like other female passengers trying to emerge from the plane looking fresh-faced, I use a soap sample I keep in my handbag, I dry my hands with my own Kleenex and I walk out with my chin high.
My second stop is at the Relais H, a ubiquitous chain of convenience stores in airports and train stations selling newspapers, cigarettes, snacks and drinks. I grab a magazine. And a second one. They are cheap, less than two euro each. I need to catch up on stars I don’t know, movies I’ve never heard of, scandals that never made their way across the Atlantic Ocean. I need a drink too. Coke bottles are slimmer and more expensive than in Canada. I add a pack of American cigarettes to the total. No one asks for ID—in France, if you’re old enough to say “un paquet de Camel”, you’re old enough to smoke.
I fumble in my pockets for euro coins. I always keep foreign currencies in my travel bag, it saves me the hassle of withdrawing money as soon as I land. Most ATMs in French airports are out of cash or out of service. Besides, I have to use a BNP Paribas ATMs if I want to skip the “convenience” fee charged at foreign ATMs because Scotiabank has a partnership with the French bank.
The employee waits patiently as I count my change. Anywhere else in France, he would sigh impatiently. But airport employees are used to stupid foreigners who don’t master the European currency. For a few more hours, I can pretend I wasn’t born and raised in France.
I don’t have the exact change so I hand out a fifty-euro bill. This is not a small mom-and-pop shop but a chain of stores that sell two-euro Kinder Bueno chocolate bars. I’m sure they can break a fifty.
I hang around the bakery, a Paul franchises. I haven’t seen French sandwiches in a long time, they look exotic to me. Butter, ham and cheese instead of a bun with a beef patty and copious amount of mystery sauce and ketchup. Fancy panini on specialty bread instead of a soft bun with a sausage topped with radish, mustard, and ketchup. Desserts that aren’t a cookie—chocolate chips or peanut butter—but fruit tarts, éclairs and buttery viennoiseries.
And this is “just a franchise” for most French, nothing special about it. Some may even call the products “bland” and “industrial”. But in France, even “junk food” looks fancy.
I don’t buy anything yet.
My mum always asks me what I crave, but I can’t picture French food unless I’m in France. Well, I can’t picture it, I guess, but I forgot what it tastes like, what it smells like. For me, “French food” in Ottawa is these few imported products I can buy easily, like Vache qui rit cheese, LU cookies or Bonne Maman jam. This is strange, I noticed I completely forget what local specialties taste like as soon as I leave the country.
Finally, we step out of the terminal and officially walk on French soil. I look around and feel like I’m a character in one of Mark’s Lego sets because everything is so small and so narrow. One, two, three. That’s it, I’ve just crossed the street. In Canada, I have to run across Merivale Road if I want to make it to the other side before the light turns red again.
I light up a cigarette. Eh, don’t judge. At least, I was Canadian enough to refrain from smoking inside the airport, where it’s prohibited but signs are often ignored.
I see familiar faces. A year has gone by but I generally don’t find anyone changed. I don’t know whether I changed. I don’t ask. Unlike Chinese, French don’t spend half an hour commenting on the weight you gain, the noticeable white hair or whatever physical “flaw” you may display.
I mean, French probably do it behind your back to spare your feelings.
The official verdict is always the same: Mark grew up so much, I look tired and Feng still doesn’t speak French. It’s been too long, we won’t stay long enough, we hug, we kiss. There is always someone to ask when we left, local time, and what time it is across the Atlantic and I can’t remember or won’t do the math. Time up in the air just doesn’t exist, it’s irrelevant. You board a plane and hopefully land somewhere, that’s all.
France has been through a lot since our last visit. It feels like catching up with an old friend who hit a rough patch, got divorced or was laid-off. There is this awkward moment when you both sit down and want to address the elephant in the room—“so…” I feel the same landing in France. There were the terrorist attacks in November, then floods in the spring, months-long protests and strikes over labour law changes, and now another terror attack a few days ago, in Nice.
Pauvre France… Long time no see. Let’s spend a bit of time together, shall we?