I have wanted to go to Paris since I started learning French in eighth grade, so it has always been a high priority on my travel wishlist. We decided to go over the winter break since we could combine our vacation time for maximum effect and stay for two weeks. I also thought that since I had a heavy schedule of museum visiting planned, the winter weather might not detract from the trip. At some point, we decided to add in Brussels and Amsterdam. I had visited Amsterdam and a few other cities in the Netherlands in high school, but this would be Mike’s first time in Europe outside of the U.K.
We flew from Philly overnight to Amsterdam, and from there took the high-speed train to Paris. Our airport taxi driver in Philly had been to Paris, and he told us to forget about going to any museums and just sit in the cafes all day and eat. He said that is what he wants to do when he goes back to Paris. I didn’t mention that we are vegetarians, which ended up having a big effect on our food options in Paris.
I actually managed to sleep a little on this flight, due to a combination of Tylenol P.M., an eyemask, and noise-cancelling headphones. Usually I can’t sleep much at all, and I was worried about being tired since we then had to take the train and find our way to the hotel in Paris. Getting a little bit of sleep on the flight helped, but I was still kind of a zombie that first day.
I had booked the train later than our arrival time, on the theory that it would be better in case the flight was late. As it turned out, the flight took an hour less than it was supposed to, and we ended up with even more time to kill in Schiphol Airport. I remembered landing and flying out of Schiphol as a teenager, but seeing it again this time, nothing was like I remembered it. I don’t know if it has changed that much in the meantime, or if I don’t have as good of a memory as I thought I did.
While waiting, we had our first servings of frites, mine with mayonnaise, which I converted Mike to by the end of the trip. This first time, he still got ketchup. Then we took a table at a juice bar and got tea and croissants, marveled at the “smoking closet” where people could sit and smoke (do they charge to use it?), and listened to a roaming barbershop quartet sing American oldies (Elvis Presley) and Christmas carols. By this time we were in a sleep-deprived stupor, and we sat there until it was time to catch the train.
I had booked our train tickets far enough in advance that it was not much more to get first-class tickets, and we were so tired that it was nice to have the cushier seats and snack service. Mike fell asleep on the train, but I mostly watched the scenery and worried about speaking French. I studied French for about seven years total, from middle school through college, but I was very shy about speaking it. When we went to Montreal about ten years ago, although I could understand the French speakers and translate all the signs, I would respond to everyone in English. This does not make you friends in Montreal, and I was pretty sure it wouldn’t work as well in France.
In first class, you get a taxi request form so you can have a driver waiting for you at the train station, and I did this instead of trying to figure out how to get a taxi or take the Metro in my sleep-deprived state. When we arrived in Paris, the driver was there holding a sign with my name on it, and we followed him around the building and down a ramp into someplace that looked like a loading dock, and I started to be afraid that we were about to be kidnapped. But we found the taxi, I gave him the address, and we drove through Paris. On the taxi ride, I remember most that sense of disorientation that comes from being surrounded by a foreign language. This was even more intense than Montreal, and I momentarily thought I had made a mistake coming to Paris. It had been about ten years since I had taken a French class and it’s not like I made any effort to practice in the meantime.
Then our taxi passed the hotel, and I timidly spoke up to the driver, in the first of many incomplete sentences followed by pointing: “Je pense que….,” pointing behind us. He got the message and said something I didn’t understand, and started to back down the street in reverse which made me so nervous I spoke up again. “Il ne faut pas…,” I trailed off, and by then he clearly had realized the limits of my communication potential. “A pied?,” he said, and, grateful that I had managed to understand that, I said “Oui!” and even managed to pay with a “merci.”
I had practiced asking about our reservation, but the hotel desk clerk spoke perfect English and she switched right away once I gave my name. We made it up to our room, and went to bed without dinner. I woke up in the middle of the night to fret some more about how we were going to manage with my limited and Mike’s non-existent language skills. Then I fell back asleep and didn’t wake up until morning.