There is something exhilarating about crossing to the Arc de Triomphe at night, while a squadron of blaring Citroëns and Renaults bears down upon you. The initial observation that French headlights are a different colour to those in New Zealand is rapidly replaced by the realisation that they are also approaching at a greater speed than those in New Zealand. I haven’t slept for over 50 hours now, and I’ve never been more awake.
I’m sharing this experience with Jodie, also part of the exchange group and who was on the same flight from Auckland. It’s Jodie’s first day in Paris as well, and we just want to keep going; there’s so much to explore, and sleep seems a waste of the few days that we have in Paris. We decide to take a late night stroll on the Champs-Élysées, but rather than take the footpath, we take the median strip up the centre of the Avenue. It’s further than it looks, but we gradually make our way uphill towards the Arch, pausing at every traffic island for a closer version of the same photo.
Finally we reach the edge of the Place de l’Étoile, the star-shaped minefield that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe. The antipodean instinct to look right for traffic doesn’t help; Jodie almost makes her first day in Paris her last. After a number of false starts, we make it across to the centre. We’ve survived! At that point we notice the underpaths from the footpaths for those pedestrians less eager to risk their lives.
Looking back towards the Obelisk and the Place de la Concorde, I can now relax and savour the moment. I love everything about this place. Eventually we decide to head back to the Hotel – this time taking the underpath and avoiding any further conflict with Parisian drivers. My feet are getting heavy and I finally fall asleep standing up, leaning against a pole in a metro carriage. It’s a fitting way to finish day one.
Paris, Day Two
It’s my first morning in Paris. In the space of one very long flight, everything has changed. This is the largest city I’ve ever been to, and history confronts me from every direction – but mostly from above. Every building seems ornate, as well as huge, and I’m permanently gazing skyward. With New Zealand having such a young history, this is all very unfamiliar. I’m sure that the locals must take this all for granted. Being my first city of this size, it’s probably one of the dirtiest cities I’ve ever seen, but I barely notice that. It’s also my first encounter with Arabic, North African and South American cultures, none of which existed in Auckland in 1987.
The more we explore the city, the more we discover some of the rules governing life in Paris. For example – always walk on the right side of the footpath. In France, you drive on the right, so that’s where you walk. If you walk on the left, you will be expected to give way, and if you’re a recent arrival still looking skyward, you won’t get a lot of warning. Similarly on escalators – never stand two abreast; always stand on the right. If you need to have a conversation, one of you can always face backwards. Just leave that left lane open for Parisians in a hurry.
Some people find Paris an unfriendly city, but perhaps they didn’t follow the store greeting rule. Whenever you enter a shop, always say “Bonjour”. It greatly increases the likelihood of eye contact, and possibly even service. If they don’t reply, you probably can’t afford anything, so you are free to leave without feeling guilty. A quick “Merci” on your way out helps deal with the rejection.
We notice other differences to home as we continue to wander – like the grates in the streets with hot air gushing from the metro below. A few of the girls fancy a Marilyn Monroe moment, but it’s not the same in jeans.
Given the speed of drivers in Paris, and the time it takes our group to look left instead of right when crossing the road, the little green people in the pedestrian crossing signs take on added significance. Even these figures have a very Parisian poise.
It seems that everyone in Paris smokes – man, woman, child and probably a few poodles. As a non-smoker I’m definitely in the minority, but I get used to it quite quickly. And as with most things, French women make even smoking look glamorous.
But what is with these squatties? You cannot tell me that Brigitte Bardot or Catherine Deneuve ever used one of these things. If Paris is showing us the future of toilet fashion, I’m really hoping this is a fad that will die with my Nomads. It does seem strange to be relearning technique at my age, but the group is united in conquering this challenge. Strategies are devised. If we are to embrace Paris, we must also embrace the squattie, and then wash our hands very thoroughly.
Back to the street. All day I have been observing these effortlessly immaculate Parisians and hearing their excessively sexy accents. I accept the fact that no French family is looking to adopt a 19 year-old New Zealander, and I consider my options. Would it be possible to walk the streets of Paris and be treated as a local? Something is screaming “tourist!!” way before I open my mouth.
I decide to have another go at the look. Arrogance wasn’t quite working, and I’m still very pale, while most French seem to have olive skin. They probably don’t appreciate their good fortune there either. Maybe I’m smiling too much; I consider a crooked half-smile at nothing in particular. I’m aiming for enigmatic but I look like I’ve had a stroke. Maybe it’s in the walk? Perhaps I should walk more quickly – after all, I have places to be in this city. Or maybe I should be walking more slowly – because let’s face it, apart from the 8am train to Versailles tomorrow, I have no place to be.
I keep walking and decide to ditch the moneybelt (not literally – it has my passport in it). It’s digging into my stomach and affecting my non-committal intensity. It’s also hard to stare into the middle distance while deep in thought about something extremely significant but known only to me, while also looking up at the next architectural marvel, left for traffic, and down for dog pooh.
Nothing seems to be working. Whenever I greet anyone in French, the reply always comes back in English. Even if I dressed as a combination of Napolean, Marcel Marceau and Jacques Cousteau, they’d still be asking me what part of Australia I’m from. I admit defeat. I am a New Zealander, yes, that country below Australia. No we don’t have kangaroos. We’re the All Blacks and sheep one.