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Ottawa, Montreal… and Paris!

Paris doesn’t change but Paris must have changed.

It’s been 18 years since I graduated from high school and followed a few of my classmates to Paris, one of the only French cities where we could pursue a degree in Chinese, a language we had been studying since grade 6. We were broke and inexperienced but we had the innocent enthusiasm of fresh grads. Paris, the most exciting place in France—and quite possible in the world—was a new beginning.

Except that finding your place and mostly a place to live in the French capital was already very, very hard in 2001. We all started with a long list of requirements—a nice view, a fun neighbourhood—to end up joining the queue of potential tenants visiting 10-square-meter studio apartments with toilets in the hallway for €600/month. Well, my friends did. I didn’t like Paris and I didn’t try hard, if at all, to settle there. Instead, I found an internship in Hong Kong, ironically, another city with a high cost of living with an expensive housing market—what the hell was I thinking?

I travelled regularly between Nantes and Paris until I graduated in 2005. I had an informal distance learning agreement with the university but I still had to pick up course materials—not delivered online back then and there are very, very few textbooks for Chinese studies—and take the finals every year for four years. I slept in the TGV, at the train station, under a desk or in a friend’s single bed with two other friends also looking for shelter in the city of light. Going to Paris was stressful—exams, nowhere to stay, no money to spend. “Went to Paris again today,” I’d tell Feng over the phone. “Ah, lucky you!” he’d say from Canada.

It’s been 10 years since my last visit with Feng. I didn’t have good memories of Paris but to Feng was seeing it as an exciting city to explore. We went in late February the first time. For some reason, I had forgotten how damp, cold and grey winter was in France. The second trip the following year was better, yet I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be—a French provinciale with a disdain for Parisian life or a Canadian traveller taking picture of antique subway cars? Eventually, I realized that Paris was more fun as a tourist. The key was to see the city with brand new eyes.

It’s been almost six years since we last landed in Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport. Mark was a baby and we had decided to spend Christmas in France, with my family. “You’re in Paris, Mark!” Mark didn’t care. He wanted a bottle, a diaper change or his pacifier. On the way back Feng didn’t care either, he was in pain. I remember buying a classic butter, ham and cheese sandwich just for the sake of it, as a weird souvenir of our stopover in Paris—I ate it at the gate, waiting to board the plane.

Since then, Paris suffered a few major terrorist attacks. The government changed and changed again, French are getting poorer, protests are growing stronger or maybe that’s just North American media propaganda—CNN loves to show a single tire burning in the middle of the street and caption the footage “urban riots in the French capital.”

“When am I going to see the Eiffel Tower?”


“Tomorrow? But that’s crazy! Tonight we’re in Canada and tomorrow we’ll be in France?”

I know. Sounds crazy to me too.

I surveyed friends and other immigrants travelling back “home” during the summer holiday—100% of them hadn’t packed yet the night before the trip because “meh, we’re used to it, no big deal.” Of course, the last few hours before the flight are a mad rush. Does everything fit in the backpack? Why are there so many holes in said backpack? What do we take on board, what time the flight is already, do you have your passport?

As usual, for us, the trip started with an Ottawa-Montreal Greyhound ride.

“How many hours until the flight?”

“Like… six.”

“What? That’s—”

“Yes, crazy, I know. But you know how it works, Mark, time goes by fast at the airport.”

It did. Dropping off the bags, getting the boarding pass, grabbing something to eat, going through security, last-minute duty-free purchases—oh shit, we’re at Gate 63, that’s across the airport!

Everybody must have boarded super early because we were among the last passengers at the gate and it was only 9:10 p.m. for a flight scheduled at 9:50 p.m.

I didn’t remember Air Transat planes were so tight. The aisles, the seats, everything seemed to have shrunk again.

As usual, we didn’t really have a chance to sleep. Why don’t airlines just turn the lights off and encourage people to just doze off? It’s not just us, everybody was frustrated—announcements, duty free, drink service, food service, breakfast service… all that for nothing, the food is barely edible anyway and portions are tiny, most travellers eat before the flight or bring their own snacks.

Paris, Terminal 3.

“Don’t get up yet, it’ going to take forever… we have to take a shuttle bus.”

Been there, done that.

Luggage pickup, border control, a quick overpriced cup of coffee to go, queuing to get train tickets, RER B…

Been there, done that.

I swear the Eiffel Tower is around, Mark. Just be patient. Look, the train!

RER B, Paris, July 15, 2019
RER B, Paris, July 15, 2019
RER B, Paris, July 15, 2019
RER B, Paris, July 15, 2019

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