I can’t imagine a New Zealand police officer saying that, but this is my first time in France, and maybe things work differently here. “Thanks”, I reply, and quickly catch up to the group. It takes me a while to realise that “Vous êtes doux” (You are sweet) rhymes with “Vous êtes d’où?” (Where are you from?). It’s not the last faux pas I make, but it’s the last time I make that one. The encounter with the policeman had been in Tours, about four days after arriving in Paris.
It hadn’t been quite the start I had imagined. The group has already paired up and I’m at the front of the bus, by myself, looking in vain for familiar landmarks. Nothing. Getting on the bus from Orly I had never felt cold like that either. And is that grey cloud or smog? For some reason I thought the suburbs would be filled with buildings that would be instantly recognizable as Paris, but the drive manages to avoid these. This isn’t what the guidebooks promised. The view doesn’t improve as we approach the city, and the soulless residential buildings are replaced by anonymous office blocks. Apparently they don’t all live on the Champs Elysées. I don’t really mind that I’m sitting by myself at the front, because no-one can see the grin on my face. It seems like I’ve been waiting a long time for this day.
I’ve left school the previous year, and 1987 is my first year at the University of Auckland. My plans are to do an Arts degree in French, German and probably Spanish, and a Commerce degree in Accounting.
I have no idea why I like French, but I discovered by accident at school that it was a lot easier to pass exams in French than in Physics and Chemistry. Languages were my thing – the list of subjects that weren’t my thing was somewhat longer. There’s no French connection in my family, just an unexplained fascination.
Around half-way through 1987, two friends at University, Jen and Nicola, take to reminding me frequently how they’ll be spending Christmas and New Years Eve in France. They’re taking a month-long study abroad course, while staying with a family in Bordeaux. For me December would probably include a holiday job and summer weekends on a cricket field sweltering in long white pants. They suggest a couple of times that I join them on the trip, but it all seems a little extravagant and far too spontaneous. As a prospective Accountant, extravagance and spontaneity aren’t part of the daily routine, so I don’t give it serious thought.
After a few more months of controlling my envy while hearing about their planned excursions, I realise that I’ll probably be majoring in French, and the idea of joining them on this one-sided exchange trip might be quite a sensible one, and a lot of fun. “Why?” becomes “Why not?” and at the end of a class, I mention to the lecturer who would be escorting the trip that I’d like to come along too. It’s my 19th birthday when I sign up for my first trip outside the Pacific, and my first to a country where English wasn’t the first language.
It makes for a busy few days – on Saturday 28 November I have a David Bowie concert, and I fly out on Monday 30 November. Many of the group have left on the Saturday on a different flight, and I’ll be meeting them at the hotel in Paris.
The trip is like flying over an atlas, and I don’t want to miss anything. The flight leaves Auckland at 3.30pm and I have spectacular views of the Great Barrier Reef, Indonesia, Singapore, India, Dubai, the Red Sea, and the coast of Italy. The tarmac in Rome is the final stop before the flight to Paris. We’re not allowed out of the plane, but I can see the sun rising on my first day in Europe. I haven’t had a moment of sleep for the last 38 hours, and I’m almost there.
It’s all a bit surreal in Orly airport, where we’re surrounded by genuine French people who don’t seem to share the appreciation I have for anything with French writing on it. Is there anything more exotic than the Arrivals board in a Paris airport? I didn’t know it at the time, but yes – the Paris Metro! But that still awaits me.
We finally arrive at the Air France offices in the city centre, where I can see the dome at the far end of the Esplanade des Invalides. This is where we are due to meet our leader, whom I’ll call Pierre. For a number of reasons Pierre and I don’t see eye to eye. Partially because he’s about a meter shorter than me, but I suspect mainly because I corrected his French in front of the class – arguably not a smart move. I’d love to go for a quick wander by myself, but I don’t dare leave the offices, because I’m sure he’d take great pleasure in leaving without me. It seems slightly cruel to have Paris that close, but still not close enough.
Pierre arrives, and the team share taxis to the hotel, but there is not quite enough room for everybody, or for all the luggage. It’s decided that Pierre and I will take the metro and I’ll carry my bag. I’m not sure if this is meant as a punishment for pointing out that irregular verb months earlier, but I’m about to have a moment that I’ll never forget. My first metro ride is wonderful – riding the Paris metro is far better than reading the boards at Orly. I read every poster trying not to look ridiculously happy. I’m going for arrogant yet nonchalant. I probably just look pale and confused.
But without warning, as I exit the Metro, I find myself immediately confronted with the Eiffel Tower. It’s enormous, and despite having seen it in so many photos, looks spectacular. I no longer care about dodging dog pooh.