Thursday, January 21, 2016

Stories From France

During my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to travel to Paris, Provence, Monaco, and Nice. I had taken French all four years of high school, was hesitant about speaking with ease with any native French speaker, and nervously elated to travel abroad with a group of my classmates and chaperones.

As much as I would love to be like David Sedaris, who has written hilarious and insightful essays on his time spent in France, I was 18, and only there for 11 days. The whole time I carried around a hot-pink satchel with a picture of the EIFFEL TOWER on it that my mom bought me from JC Penney’s.

However, I remember important moments of this adventure, how I was able to briefly experience another place, and how I really believe (at the risk of sounding dramatic) that it helped influence and change my life. So, here are some short stories.

Note: I tried an embarrassingly long time to put in all of the proper accents for the French words, and could seriously not figure out how to add them. So, hopefully this doesn’t offend anyone, or make anybody flench who speaks French. I am truly sorry and yes, it bugs me too.

2 Days Before Departure

My dad, like other dads before him, loves action films. You know, the ones where a white collar business man goes rogue and sets out to avenge the random, violent deaths of his wife and children? Add some explosions, car chases, and a banana in a tailpipe, and you have his dream movie.

A couple of nights before I left for France, he asked me if I wanted to watch Taken. I shrugged, always down to hang out with my dad and watch a movie on his prized big-screen TV, and hobbled down to the basement in pajama pants and a too-big t-shirt to sit cross legged on the same green leather couch we’ve had for 18 years and watch it with him. I knew nothing about the movie.

For those of us who missed 2009, Taken, starring Liam Neeson, is about a retired CIA agent who travels across Europe to rescue his daughter, who was kidnapped in Paris and became a victim of human trafficking. Neeson uses his “special skills” to retrieve her in a horrifying and traumatic movie that basically scared young women into never wanting to travel to Europe.

As the ending credits rolled, I sat wide-eyed.

“Now you know that you have to be careful” my dad nodded to me. “Don’t talk to anyone. Even if it is a cute boy. Don’t go out anywhere with your friends at night. Stay with the group. Don’t trust anybody.”

I slid off of the couch until my bare feet touched the carpet, and went upstairs to finish packing.

The Flashmob

I had an awesome French teacher that really focused on French pop culture. We watched classic French movies, musicals, and listened to current French musicians. I learned that French people love Aretha Franklin, and became obsessed with Edith Piaf after watching La Vie en rose.

During class while listening to popular French music, our teacher played a timeless French song called Cette Annee La, by Claude Francois. Claude Francois was a vocalist who took popular American melodies and changed the words to create French hits. Cette Annee La, translated to “That Year”, used the song “Oh What A Night” by The Four Seasons. The 1976 video was iconic, featuring Claude and a group of women doing a boppy little dance while they sang. According to our teacher, the dance was super popular in France, like Americans moving their arms to Y-M-C-A.

“For those of us going to France,” my teacher began, “We will be doing a flashmob to Cette Annee La.” The class purred with excitement.

“They will LOVE it,” he continued. “They will appreciate that we took the time to learn their culture. This will be really fun.”

So, for months, we had lunchtime and afternoon practices to learn the dance moves to Cette Annee La. We were a group of 30, very white and happy high schoolers grape-vining in the choir room with the door closed and Claude Francois’ voice echoing off the padded walls. We were going to rock it.

Joe’s Shoulder

There weren’t any direct flights from Columbus to Europe, so on the day that we left, we took a four hour bus ride to Detroit. From Detroit, we could fly to Frankfurt, Germany. From Frankfurt, it would be another shorter flight to Paris.

The flight from Detroit to Germany was long, with a fair amount of turbulence. I was impressed because the seats in front of us had little televisions on them, so that each seat could watch whatever they wanted. My friends luckily sat together on another part of the plane, while I was placed next to my classmate, Joe.

Joe had always been genial, but we never really hung out. Throughout the flight, we exchanged small talk when we weren’t watching movies on the small screens or listening to music, but mostly just sat in silence. We didn’t have much to say.

As we flew across the Atlantic and the sun was beginning to set, the flight staff decided that it was time for us to go to sleep. They turned off the lights, instructed us to shut our windows, and a calm voice came over the PA system to gently tell us “Goodnight and sleep well”.

It was honestly really weird.

Others surrounding us put on eye masks and pulled out small pillows for sleep. Well this is strange, I thought, feeling like I was in the television show Dollhouse, but snuggled up with a blanket that I packed anyway.

A few hours later, I stirred awake, realizing that we were still on the plane. I also noticed that I had been accidentally sleeping on Joe’s shoulder. I shot up, embarrassed and my neck cramping (although probably not as bad as it could have been, thanks to my impromptu pillow).

“Oh, wow, I am really sorry!” I started.
“It’s okay, don’t worry about it,” Joe smiled. “I was asleep anyway.”

Joe and I didn’t really speak for the rest of the trip or in years since, but I will always remember how cool he was to let me sleep on him. Thanks, Joe. What a guy.


The Rue de la Place Man

I cannot even accurately describe the beauty of Paris at night time. Some things are so lovely, and so breathtaking, that they should only be detailed through poetry.

Our group had migrated back to the Eiffel Tower, after having seen it earlier in the daylight for ample photo opportunities. This time, we had the chance to go all the way to the top of the tower if we wished. After having an actual panic attack from riding The Tower of Terror about a year earlier (It ended with my mom pulling me into the nearest restroom and dunking my head under a sink to calm me down..I was 17 years old) I didn’t think that I would be too keen on experiencing Paris from up above.

My friends wanted to climb to the top, and I said that I would wait for them to be finished. However, a familiar little voice in my brain told me But what if you regret it? and the adrenaline convinced me to give it a shot. (A friend later described this as a symptom of FOMO-Fear Of Missing Out. I have really strong FOMO. I am not sure who coined this but whoever you are, thank you).

So, we waited in line and purchased our tickets. Then, we began to climb the tower (This sounds like we tackled it King Kong style, which actually would have been hilarious and really awesome. We also would have a cool “Hey, I got arrested in Paris” story.) with a combination of stairs and elevators as my extremities began to feel like they were weightless and being pricked by small needles.

At The Eiffel Tower, there are technically two tops. You can go to the top of the tower, and then you can also take a small stairway to the VERY top, where you truly cannot go much higher, unless you like, climb the pointy thing that sticks out the top. (Again, King Konging it).

We were waiting to get to the first top, which required an elevator. I was standing in the line to board, trying not to think about The Tower of Terror, when I heard a loud, booming voice coming from an American man in front of us.

“Okay, okay listen. We are staying on this street,” he held up a map for his wife and two daughters to see. The man was wearing a pale blue button up shirt, khaki shorts, and a fishing hat. His family was dressed similarly.

“So we just gotta get out of here, and walk this way, and look for Roo day law Playce and our hotel” he continued to speak way too loud. It was obvious at this point that he wanted to sound like he knew what he was talking about to impress Parisians, fellow tourists, and his eager family.

I shuddered at his gross mispronunciation. My French accent was far from perfect, but he was so confident and obnoxious in his want for everyone to think that he was important, intelligent, and in charge, that I couldn’t help but be embarrassed.

Oh great, I thought, trying to make myself smaller and blend in with my friends. I pulled my hot pink satchel close, hiding the obvious Francophile imagery. No wonder Europeans aren’t fans of Americans. People like him, who feel the need to establish themselves and be big in a culture that isn’t their own, made us look ignorant and obnoxious. You don’t have to command attention and take up space to be important.

The elevator finally arrived as we all started ushering in close. And what do you know, we ended up on the same trip as Roo day law Playce man and his family.
“Girls! Look at that!” he pointed an exaggerated hand at the metal gears that turned the elevator, allowing it to be pulled upward. “Here we go!” he bellowed, like a man on a rickety state fair roller coaster. His family was eating it up. I was clenching my teeth and hoping that I could pass as being a Parisian who liked to go to the top of The Eiffel Tower for kicks on the weekend.

Thankfully, once the elevator arrived, we filed out and lost Rue day law Playce in the crowd. I didn’t see him again for the remainder of my time in The Eiffel Tower, but I always knew that one day I would write about him.

Oh, and the view from the top? Gorgeous. You could feel your insides all rising to your throat, and the wind was cold and dangerous, but the dancing of lights and toy cars below made it worth it. To become a piece of the structure withstanding time and breathing in the art and music from hundreds of years from the highest place that you have ever stood. I would do it all again, many times.

The First Flashmob

It was our second day in Paris, and we were ready to spring our well rehearsed flashmob on anyone who was lucky enough to be around. Our tour guide coincidentally directed and taped documentaries, so he was on board to film us any time we did the flashmob.

We all stood around a popular open area that was a prime place for taking pictures of the surrounding infrastructure. We talked amongst ourselves, acting like it was any normal day hanging out by the Eiffel Tower.

The music started from a small boombox that our teacher brought with us, and Ezra, our classmate and leader of the flashmob, walked around mouthing the beginning words of Cette Annee La in an animated way. Onlookers stared in confusion, and gave him some space.

Row by row, we filled in, also mouthing the words and dancing along. The crowd laughed and cheered, taking pictures and videos of our efforts. My heart was heavily beating, but it was exhilarating.

Thinking back on it now, as silly and entertaining as it was, I laugh at the humor of it all. That I can be one of those people who sits back in a conversation, crosses their arms, draws in their breath and says “Eh, I was in a flashmob once”.

And the lights dim as the curtain closes.

The Mona Lisa?

I absolutely loved the Louvre. We learned that it could take 75 days to get through the whole museum if you look at each piece of art for 60 seconds, during 8 hour periods. I sincerely wish that we had 75 days.
After wandering through the galleries and halls, my friends and I finally approached the room that housed the Mona Lisa. I could think back to elementary school, when we first learned about Leonardo da Vinci and tried to replicate the Mona Lisa’s likeness for a grade while watching Sesame Street’s Don’t Eat The Pictures. (Elementary school art class totally shaped me as a person.)

My palms were sweating as I ran my fingers through my bag for my camera. As we finally got through the hordes of tourists who were walking inch by inch on tiptoe, I saw her. Or did I? It was sort of hard to tell.

The Mona Lisa was small. Very small. There is ample space surrounding her, and ropes in front so that people couldn’t get too close. I could only manage to see her from about 20 feet away. My pictures came out blurry, but at least I have the mental image..and know that I am probably three times bigger than the famous Mona Lisa.

Ca va Jordan? Ca va?

While taking a lunch break in between our sight-seeing, our chaperones granted us permission to walk around the area without supervision. My friends and I took off down a side street, and soon saw a cafe that offered pizza.

I wasn’t going to eat, so after the three others ordered their food and went to grab a seat, I stood alone at the counter, eyeing the hot chocolate on the menu.

The man taking the orders was probably close to 40, and had dark features. Tan skin that had seen a lot of sunlight, black hair, a prominent nose and knitted eyebrows that made small x’s across his forehead.

I requested a hot chocolate while fishing for my money, and he continued to speak to me in French and English.
“What is your name?” he asked. “Comment t’appelles-tu?”
I smiled, figuring he was being friendly. “Je m’appelle Jordan,” I answered confidently, looking forward to the opportunity to practice my French.

“You are very beautiful,” he began, “Tu es tres belle. I wish I had a camera right now, you know why?” he asked playfully.

I was slightly flattered at the nice compliment, for Europeans do tend to be more affectionate, and I thought that he was going to make a joke, like a sweet uncle that tried really hard to be your friend. “Pourqoui?” I lifted my eyebrows. “Why?”

“So that I could take your picture. And then when I wake up every day, I could look at it and be reminded of how beautiful you are.”

My smile dropped. I became nervous. Certainly that wasn’t a normal thing to say to someone. Was he hitting on me, or was I being paranoid?

“Where are you staying?” he asked again, sensing my hesitation. I told him that I didn’t remember, even though I definitely did. “How long are you here?” he asked again. I lied and said we were leaving that day, when we were really staying another two days. I thought of Taken. I thought of Liam Neeson’s character’s daughter, and I began to shake.

“What’s wrong Jordan, do you not like me?” he chuckled as he got my hot chocolate and set it down in front of me. I could see his smirk through the steam.

I gave him a small smile and walked to the table with my friends, spilling hot liquid over the side of the cup and onto my hands as I hurried. I sat down next to them, and they instantly asked what was wrong with me. My face was white and trembling. I began to cry.

My friends hugged me as I whispered what happened. They assured me that I wasn’t overreacting, and quickly ate their pizza so that we could leave.

As we attempted to finish, the man came back, sweeping around our small table, watching me cry and shake. He laughed.

“Ca va, Jordan?” he sang while I avoided his eyes. Are you okay, Jordan? How is it going? He walked behind me, paused, and went away again. “Ca va?”


A Picnic In Provence

As we moved to Provence (the most beautiful and wonderful place that I have ever been in my life), we stopped at a supermarche to pick out lunch items for a roadside picnic.

We had limited time, and were busy trying to navigate through the store and collect our items, so our spoils ended up being some crackers, fruit, and a giant jar of Nutella.

Our bus pulled up to a countryside, overlooking a more attractive stretch of grass and hills down below. It was the most green that I had ever seen all in one place. We all sat on the ground in our groups, and ate with our hands. We dipped our fingers into the nutella and looked toward the sun, smiling at the thousands of swaying blades of grass below.

That moment will forever be one of my favorite memories, and the first picnic that I didn’t totally hate (because bugs ruin everything).

N(ice) Cream

“I want to warn you ladies to stay in groups, and try not to talk to anyone at night when you walk around” my French teacher warned us on the bus intercom. “Men here are more aggressive, and I don’t want anything to happen to any of you, or for anyone to get pickpocketed.”

I thought back to the man at the cafe in Paris and shuddered. We all silently agreed to be careful, and when night came, most of us headed out in a large group. Our tour guide had told us of a wonderful gelato place (Nice is comprised of French and Italian influences) and we were curious.

We walked up to the gelato stand in a small courtyard, surrounded by colorful buildings, the moon and streetlights glinting off the top of the icy treats. From what I can remember, there were about 60 different flavors. I excitedly ordered dark chocolate and nutella, and it was amazing. Another friend of mine got lavendar, and it surprisingly tasted like lace and afternoon naps with candles. It truly was the best gelato I had ever, and probably will ever, have.

We were in Nice for three nights. And we went to the gelato stand three times. I would honestly go every day for the rest of my life if I could. Each night, we would sit on the ground laughing and taking pictures. We even met a stray dog that joined in our inevitable flashmob.

Skinny Dipping In The Mediterranean

During our last night in Nice, a group of seniors planned to sneak out of the hotel and go skinny dipping in the Mediterranean Sea. We had a strict curfew, but they figured that they could sneak out and in without anyone ever knowing.

They told me and my other friend about it in case we wanted to join. I was embarrassingly good in high school and absolutely refused, assuming that they would get caught.

The night came and gone, and we asked them about their adventure the next morning. They told us that they went down to the beach (which was actually full of rocks, and not sand..it was cruel and horrible) and jumped into the water, but it was so cold that they ran out and went back to the hotel.

Years later, I brought it up to my mom. “And you didn’t go?” she asked. I was taken aback. “You only get to be young and crazy once” she told me.

And honestly, I have regretted it ever since. It would have made a much cooler story than me telling you about a group of cool kids that took off their clothes in the middle of the night and jumped in the sea.

Monaco

Monaco was a soothing palette of pastel paints. I am convinced that it is a real-life combination of any tropical themed postcard that has ever existed.

Upon arrival, we went to the cathedral to see where Grace Kelly was buried.

And well, they had moved her. She definitely wasn’t there. But a sign was, apologizing for Grace temporarily being removed for renovations. So, we are still not sure where they were keeping her.

We tried to do the flashmob in front of the cathedral, but the police stopped us and told our whole group that we had to leave.

The Orange

Almost all of our meals were prearranged. The restaraunts knew beforehand that we were coming, and had prepared three course dinners for us to eat together.

For a confusing 6 years of my life, I thought that I had Celiac Disease. Yes, I know that it is rare, and yes, I am very educated on it because I was told that I HAD it from a doctor, but it turns out after a later blood test that I am Celiac Free. So, during this trip, I didn’t eat gluten, and all of the restaraunts knew that previously. They were aware of all of the group’s dietary needs.

When it came time for dessert, a delicious looking piece of chocolate cake was set before me. I sighed, wanting it so badly, but told the server that I could not eat the cake.

He apologized, and told me that they made a mistake and that they had something for me. I patiently waited, hoping for ice cream or a creme brulee.

My server came back, and set in front of me a small plate with an orange in the middle. He smiled, and swiftly walked away, leaving me with my produce surprise.

Evidence

For anyone who wants to see the spectacle of our brilliant flashmob, please see the video below.



Can you spot me? Bonus if you notice the cute stray dog that we made friends with in Nice by the gelato stand.