This year I had a perfect and perfectly normal Christmas and New Year’s. And by “this year” I mean 2013, because that is how long it’s taken me to finish this post. Back in the safe familiarity of Philadelphia, I was able to reunite with all three of my sisters, as well as my best-friend who is now living in Hong Kong, and my good friend Xiane, now a resident of St. Louis. I got to sing with my enormous extended family and drink store-bought eggnog and I spent New Year’s Eve playing Pounce with my sisters, all of which I missed extraordinarily last year.
Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to start writing about the rest of my year abroad was that I was very busy finishing my last semester here at home. Any free time I had was to be spent reading or doing homework, which conveniently helped me avoid the more pressing issue, which is that I didn’t want to think about the time I spent in England or France. It hurts too much to think about the ways I misspent my time. I have all the time in the world to dream about ways I could have done things differently, however, and my real memories are slipping away. Last December began with a trip to another little flea market/vintage event on the Unthank Road. My then-boyfriend Pepper bought me a very cute cat sweater, and to my deep regret, I ended up ditching it when I left England:
Afterwards we mulled some wine, which I had only done in the form of making glogg before, and we made fish tacos, which Pepper had never had. In Pennsylvania you can’t even buy wine in a grocery store, so the convenience of being able to buy both the wine and the mulling spices prompted nightly wine mulling sessions throughout the winter.
My other diversions from school were mostly provided from my friend H, who would take me out for all-you-can-eat sushi at Norwich’s only vaguely authentic sushi bar, Shiki.
Shiki, nestled in a tiny corner of Tombland at the bottom of Elm Hill. Photo credit to http://shikirestaurant.blogspot.com/
Norwich’s blindling whiteness provided the perfect setting ripe for bland chain restaurants like Nando’s, Bella Italia, and Yo!Sushi, making Shiki one of the few places to eat in Norwich that had fresh anything. It shouldn’t have been so surprising that H and I would try to stroll in on a Wednesday night with no reservation and be told that we couldn’t be seated. Despite our incredulity that they were actually full up, H and I kept coming back. It was essentially like asking a girl to prom only to be told she was washing her hair that week. SURE YOU ARE, LADY. But also are you maybe free Friday? They’d sometimes have great specials like okonomiyaki and they had a decent selection of Japanese whiskey. H and I often ordered their Tuesday All You Can Eat Special, and there really wasn’t much to complain about, though that didn’t stop us. Philadelphia has one of the Japanese Iron Chef’s restaurants. Norwich has Jamie Oliver’s Shove Some Ravioli In Your Sad Face Why Don’t You FUCK. It’s not fair to compare the two.
One thing Norwich had that Philadelphia certainly doesn’t was the chance to see live owls fly around a real medieval castle, accompanied by the tunes of the ubiquitous DJ Jazzlord, who seemed to show up at every worthwhile event in Norwich. The combination of mulled wine, castle, and live owls was too much for me to resist. I’m only human. I bleed Harry Potter fantasies like the rest of us.
The owls were surrounded by a large crowd of undeserving children who prevented me from getting closer and convincing the owls to come live with me in my dorm room. Those children had no way of appreciating owls the way I do. I bet they didn’t even know the word “plumage” and I bet they’ll never have the internet’s #4 owl vore fansite. The rest of the event mainly comprised craft tables with vendors offering soap for humans, soap for dogs, octopus pendant necklaces, chef’s hats for dogs, knitted socks, rubik’s cubes for dogs, and briefcases for dogs. It was an evening which was more compelling in its distillation– “I drank mulled wine at a castle with live owls!”– than in the living of it. When I write it that way, it sounds like the owls could have also been drinking mulled wine. I won’t correct you if you were already picturing that.
The weeks between the end of the winter semester and Christmas were spent worrying about a hastily planned trip to Paris. Sometime in early October, before I had attached myself to anyone, I had purchased a Eurostar ticket, figuring that spending Christmastime alone in my dorm room would be too depressing to contemplate. A visit from a young French dude shortly after I bought the ticket led me to believe I might have friends to see after all while visiting Paris, but that didn’t end up being the case. No wonder the English hate the French. They’re very unreliable and they bring ham, two different wines, and cheese to your dorm room and take up too much space in your tiny bed. That is the real cause of the Hundred Years War.
After writing some terrible coursework about Pynchon and Baldwin, which was marked with the appropriately low grades, my last order of business in Norwich before my trip to Paris was my choir’s concert. Poor, long-suffering H helped me look for all-black clothing (so festive!) in Primark and then I was all set to sing Christmas carols at the beautiful Victorian Neo-Gothic Norwich Cathedral (the RC one, not the Norman one) (that’s its full title).
I felt too shy to go for drinks with the rest of the choir at Eaton Cottage afterwards, and I heartily regret that, because a dog lives there, Murphy the Pub Dog. We could have been such good friends. My shyness in this particular instance was ridiculous, because at the very least I had a passion for music in common with everyone. Instead I went home and made myself a disgusting breakfast burrito and probably– I’m just guessing here– probably cried.
The next night H took me out for a going-away-for-a-week dinner at the Reindeer, the only restaurant in Norwich with a Michelin-star-rated chef maybe. Does it sound like I know what I’m talking about? Those are words that came out of H’s mouth in some order several months ago so I’m only reassembling them to the best of my ability now. We drank more mulled cider, and had a feast of duck hearts on toast, roast pigeon with beets, potted rabbit, game pie, haunch of venison, and chestnut pannacotta. That dinner fueled an obsession with gamey meats, a desire which I cannot adequately quell here in these United States. It was lucky I ate so much that night because I barely ate anything while in Paris. The next night I made homemade eggnog with Pepper, who had never had it before, and kept his housemates up by singing along with my family over Skype. Seeing every single member of my family all together in the house I knew I would never get to live in again was the single most powerful moment of homesickness I had while I was there. It was a melancholy that didn’t retreat but only became more complex in the coming week.
H very kindly drove me to Norwich Rail Station, and I took a train to King’s Cross. THEN OFF TO HOGWARTS. From London I took the Eurostar to Paris and I was surprised at the ease of this under-sea travel. Before I knew it I had arrived at Gare du Nord and had to figure out how to get to my hostel, which was in Noisy le Sec. I went up to the ticket counter and requested “un visite”, a pass that provides rail travel for a week. It was my first ever transaction in French, a language that I only studied for a month in sixth grade. I took the RER E to Noisy, and stumbled around in the dark for an hour, too afraid to ask anyone for directions and unable to use Google Maps because I didn’t have data in France. The route I got to know involved walking up to Noisy’s main road, passing a charcuterie shop, two bakeries, a grocery store, and a Chinese restaurant before finally turning on to a little side street. OPEN Hostel was run by a woman who impressively spoke at least one dialect of Chinese, French, and English. She showed me to a small co-ed room outfitted with only two sets of bunk beds. On the bed she placed a pillow that was about the size and thickness of my hand, which I supplemented with my bathtowel.
French pillows were the first thing I hated about Paris
My only roommate for the night was a young man named Olivier, an accounting teacher who was very competent at speaking English and who was living in the hostel temporarily. Olivier didn’t have any plans for the evening so he offered to take me out and show me the City of Light at night, and thinking he seemed ok, I took him up on what seemed like a very appealing night out. We took the RER to Boulevard Hausmann, and the first I saw of Paris was the extraordinary Christmas window displays that Chanel and Dior made for the department stores. We walked to the Opera, where a young gentleman yelled something at me.
Haha who thinks it’s ok to dress like this? NOT THE FRENCH.
“He said he liked your tights,” Olivier explained.
“Oh, I would’ve told him thank you if I had known.”
“No, he meant it in a joking way,” Olivier clarified. “Is that how they dress in England? Is it ok there?”
“No, it’s not ok there either.”
From the Rue Auber we went to the Place Vendome, where Olivier started getting too chummy, and was repeatedly attempting to link his arms with mine.
“How do you say, ‘I have a boyfriend’ in French?” I asked him.
“‘J’ai un ami’,” he told me, again grabbing my hand.
“Ok, that. J’ai un ami.”
“But he is in England.” I didn’t have the gumption to ask him what the French was for “Geography doesn’t make him less my boyfriend and you more.” I would be utterly lost in the middle of my first night in Paris if I made him angry and he left, so I chalked it up to platonic friendship being more touchy-feely in France and dropped the subject. Valentino and Issey Miyake weren’t open at 10 o’clock at night, so I had to settle for seeing the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower at night. What is French for “disappointing” and “pedestrian” and “maybe you should have learned French before you went there, idiot”?
I had my first views of Notre Dame and the Seine at night, at an ideal time unspoiled by the masses of tourists. It was wonderfully romantic and I felt terrible pangs of regret that I was experiencing it with some aggressive stranger whose room I’d have to stay in for a week.
We got crepes from a street vendor, and the December weather did not deter others from forming a line behind us. I was starting to enjoy practicing ordering things in French. Late night food in England is almost uniformly kebab or pizza oriented, so it surprised me that drunk person food in France was actually delicious. After scarfing our meals down on the street, Olivier took me to a jazz club called Le Baiser Sale (the “salty kiss”. Ew.) and offered to buy me a drink. Even though I didn’t have the expendable income for frivolous non-macaron things, I ended up paying for myself because I didn’t want to give him the impression that I could be bought with a 9 euro neon cocktail. That was my mistake, because instead of getting a free drink, I probably just made him think, “That’s convenient! She pays for her own drinks AND she’s going to sleep with me!” The jazz club had an impressive roster of hot, beardy keyboardists, and a jazz trio that played a rollicking version of “Blame It On the Boogie”, which is the song I would have requested if I had the nerve to go on stage when they asked if anyone in the audience wanted to sub in.
Olivier and I set off towards home after one drink, and before we went into the hostel he grabbed me by the neck and tried to kiss me. “NON, J’AI UN AMI,” I said as I tried to squirm out of his hold, feeling this was probably the appropriate time to press the matter. He managed to land a kiss on the cheek before I was able to withdraw myself from his grasp. We went up to our room and I immediately turned the wifi on my phone so I could send WhatsApp messages to Pepper and try to ignore Olivier. But Olivier thought it was very important that I watch Caribbean music videos all night, pestered me into showing him my music, and then told me my singing was just ok. “I really have to go to bed,” I told him. I intended to show Paris who was boss in the morning. I thought it couldn’t be all tiny pillows and aggressive roommates.
But it was so much more! It was also lost debit cards at the very worst possible time! On my way out to the city the next morning I realized my debit card must have fallen out of my wallet when I was buying my metro tickets. I had taken some cash out and converted it to Euros before I left for Paris, but I wasn’t sure if it would last the week, and I also didn’t know if perhaps someone had gotten ahold of my card. I had to spend the first part of my morning making an international call to my bank to cancel my debit card, and they informed me they could only send a replacement to my university housing, which would take approximately forever. I had finally taken H’s advice about opening a UK bank account right before I left for Paris, but hadn’t yet received my UK debit card. I let Pepper and my mom know about my circumstances, and they both told me they’d think of a solution, and that in the meantime I should get on with seeing Paris. It was lucky that Olivier was hanging out in my hostel room, because it helped me resist the temptation of just crying in the room instead of sightseeing.
I had downloaded tripadvisor’s Paris walking tours to my phone and chose one at random before I set out. I took the RER to Gare du Nord, and immediately became confused about which metro line and stop I wanted. I learned an important lesson that day which I should have remembered for the future: Never just sit/stand around Gare du Nord. I don’t know if it was my hair, my giant idiot doe eyes, or the general look of stupidity surely indelible on my face, but it was becoming apparent to me that I was prey. While trying to figure out the trains, a man came up to me, introducing himself as Jacques. He offered to help me find where I was going, but in order to do that he insisted on physically maneuvering me and kissing my hand. He did help me find the correct Metro line but was annoyed that I did not want to spend the day with him, and abruptly left me at the correct Metro station. I appreciated his help but was annoyed that it required being touched.
Without the aid of any helpful Jacques or Jules or Jim, I had to rely on my own faulty sense of direction for the rest of the day. I wandered around Marais because the description on TripAdvisor appealed to the medieval nerd in me, as it was supposed to be the location of the best-maintained medieval streets in the city. My first stop was the Hotel Sully, which wasn’t open yet, and which I didn’t end up making my way back to.
The gardens at Hotel Sully, a 17th century urban palace
Marais somehow disappointed me, as it must inevitably disappoint every American tourist who does not want to see a cluster of art galleries and expects the real Marie Antoinette to be walking around in Rococo garb for their entertainment. I ambled down cobbled streets, frequently losing my way, until I got to the Hotel Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris.
This room was called “Le Shitty Baffling Accidental Panorama”
Though many of the exhibits lacked English translations, I enjoyed that the Hotel Carnavalet didn’t just revel in the aristocratic excess of Paris with its carefully arranged rooms. It also emphasized the bloodshed of the revolution, successfully combining temporal historical transitions with spatial ones throughout the house. I visited the Marches des Enfant Rouges, but I felt too shy to order any food in French, and because of my digestive disorder, I felt that a meal might put a stop to the day’s activities. It wasn’t as bustling or diverse as Reading Terminal at home in Philadelphia, so I took to wandering again. I stumbled around the Place des Vosges, the gorgeous courtyard home to very expensive apartments and very exclusive boutiques. I attempted to find the Picasso museum, and learned that it was closed. I attempted to visit the Hotel de Soubise, which houses the Museum of French History, and I danced around the entrance a bit before an attendant beckoned me inside. “We’re closed,” she said again and again in French, until I got the idea. It took me a while because of the whole door being open and attendant being there thing.
Paris, city of closed museums.
I was fed up with Marais, but I spent the last few hours of my day salivating over yummy-looking kosher food in the city’s historically Jewish district and browsing vintage shops, being tempted to buy all sorts of fancy hats. I hadn’t eaten all day, so I forced myself to take a break and sit on a bench a while. I wasn’t managing myself properly and I felt exhausted and disheartened.
Once back at the hostel, I had to deal with Olivier’s insistence on sitting on my bed and photobombing the pictures I was sending to Pepper. Rather than putting up with that all night, I decided to turn out the lights and pretend to sleep for hours because I didn’t feel like watching more music videos or putting up with anymore attempted kisses.
Excitement overcame my anxiety at the prospect of the next morning’s destination, the Catacombs of Paris. In the late 18th century, Paris’s Les Innocents cemetery was overflowing into its public market, and everyone knew that was weird and disgusting, so the reasonable answer to this problem was to systematically stack the skulls and femurs underground so disrespectful assholes could gawp at them for the next 15 eons. I took my disrespectful ass there and wished that it was structured like a haunted house, where they space out visits so you never had anyone directly in front of or behind you. I know Americans are famously loud, but there was a disproportionate number of screaming Australians everywhere I went in Paris. The discrepancy was most notable in an enclosed underground space. People of all nations and creeds ignored the sign that said not to take flash photography with their shitty cell phones. I’m a compulsive rule follower to the point of near-fascism, so I was annoyed that I had to take horrible non-flash photos while all the rule-breaking nerds took their slightly less horrible flash photos while screaming the entire time.
The famous sign at the entrance to the Catacombs, which says, “Keep out if you’re gonna be a jerk, for fuck’s sake”
The Catacombs were the first place I really enjoyed myself in Paris. A guard greeted me and was very patient with my poor French, and kindly attempted to have a conversation with me. It ended up being the only time someone in Paris anyone talked to me to be nice and not just to take my ticket or harass me. It’s a very peaceful place, and though morbidity has to be the central ambience, it also felt very peaceful during the moments I allowed the larger tour groups to pass me. It was hard to reconcile the skeletal fixtures that comprised the walls with the idea that they were living people once who were loud and disrespectful themselves 300 years ago. There were plaques along each wall but my French was too poor to read most of them.
It seemed like they made an effort to group the bones based on what section of the cemetery they were taken from or if they happened to be victims of a single event. For an underground maze of real human bones open to the public, it did not seem like a sideshow or very exploitative, just a closer than usual meeting with death.
Being disrespectful but not particularly loud
My next stop was the Tour Montparnasse, and I want to say I went to Montparnasse because it’s where Sontag and Sartre are buried, or because it’s where Beckett and Faulkner used to cry into their drinks, but it was really just the Tripadvisor tour closest to where I already was. On my way to the tower, I stopped at a bakery for my first meal of the day, and the most important meal of anyone’s day: macarons. I cannot resist a macaron, even if I know it’s not the best macaron or even a good macaron. I chose a pack of six from an independent bakery and made my way to the Tour Montparnasse. It’s a big black tower in the middle of the city, but for some reason it took me forever to find it. “That tower’s not black enough! That’s not really a tower– hey, a public bathroom!” Paris’s port-a-potties (pronounced “poor-a-potay”) are operated by stern robot lady voices and seem to rotate while you are inside them. I don’t know why we don’t have them everywhere. I’ve never been on the rides at Disneyland but I am guessing the experience is the same.
Is this it? What does that even mean?
The Tour Montparnasse turned out to be the only giant black skyscraper on the road I was walking on, and as soon as I figured out where the entrance was, I bought a ticket and made my way in. “Did you dye your hair like that for Christmas?” the attendants asked cheerily. “What?” “Your hair is blue. For Christmas?” “Oh, um, no. Just for fun.” The attendants’ faces fell, as apparently that answer was much less reasonable than dyeing my hair for Jesus’s birthday, like any NORMAL person would do.
The Tour Montparnasse is the best place to see the far more famous Tour Eiffel. I never made my way to the Eiffel Tower because I manage crowds very poorly and I figured it’d be harder to take a perspective picture of a macaron knocking it over if I were right in front of it.
THE WHOLE CITY IS IN DANGER
From the top of the tower I could see the Louvre, the Tuilleries, the Jardin du Luxembourgs, and naturally the Eiffel Tower. Maybe it’s because I was by myself and surrounded by couples taking photos together, but I couldn’t muster up much of an emotional response. I didn’t feel like I had earned my trip to the top the way I had when I struggled up the narrow steps of York Minster. It was cold up there and macarons are not really a meal, so I had enough of distant views of a city that wasn’t treating me very well so far.
I meant to find my way to Montparnasse Cimitiere but it was raining pretty hard, and although that would set the scene perfectly, I didn’t want to add pneumonia to the list of Parisian ills I experienced. It’s consumption or nothing in the city of La Boheme. Instead, I ducked into the Montparnasse Cafe, which was as pleasant yet non-descript as any other cafe I visited in Paris. In fact, the cafe culture of Paris is heavily populated by what may as well be Pret-a-Mangers, for all the care taken to differentiate themselves. My timid approach did not prevent the waiter from greeting and seating me with a jovial, “HELLO! LADY! SIT HERE!” I was taken to a cushy leather black booth, surrounded by a giant, non-functional clock and other large pieces of kitsch.
I ordered some escargot, trying to fill my quota of French stereotypes in one visit, as I can’t drink coffee and I can only eat cheese when I have 3 days alone to myself. An actual human being with a long goatee and a jaunty beret walked in, perhaps using his human agency to direct him towards a meal, but I believe he was actually sent by god to lighten the mood of my trip, at least for a moment. Service in Paris is extremely slow, perhaps because they don’t rely on tips to make a living wage, or more likely because every guide to Paris written for Americans advises us that a COOL CHEAP PARIS TIP is to sit in one cafe for 14 hours sipping at one espresso the entire time and leering at the locals, and the waitstaff figures if you order a drink you won’t mind waiting 6 hours.
I was finally brought my snails by my affable waiter, who continued to sing, “LADY LADY LADY” to me as he served my food. I was particularly glad at this point that tipping is non-standard in Paris. It was only my second time having escargot, and the conclusion I came to is that most things can be palatable if covered in enough butter and garlic.
In the morning I headed out to try to resolve my financial situation. Under the basis of a faulty assumption that the Barclay’s banks in the UK and France were connected, Pepper had very kindly deposited some money into my Barclay’s account that we thought I could withdraw by visiting a branch in town. The first challenge of the day was to even find a Barclay’s without the aid of a map or a smart phone. Very predictably, I spent more than an hour trying to find a Barclay’s, and walking around looking like the helpless idiot I was attracted a “helper”, a young man who apparently had nothing better to do than follow me around. His first language was neither French nor English but he spoke both well enough that he insisted on asking passersby what street the Barclay’s bank was on when he realized what my mission was. When he finally got an answer he took me by the hand.
“I can find it myself, thank you!” I said, even though that wasn’t remotely true.
“No, no, no, I will help you!” We walked back and forth down a street where an art college had just let out, trying to look for the sidestreet that the bank was on. The students ignored me as my voice got louder and louder. “I don’t need your help, thank you!” My helper grabbed me by the neck and tried to kiss me, only managing to get my cheek as I struggled out of his hold. I wondered if I was going to leave Paris with my head still on my shoulders. I wondered if I wanted to.
“I have a boyfriend! I really need to do this by myself but thank you for your help!” Eventually he took off. The students still ignored me.
Without his help I found the Barclay’s bank. When I got in, the greeter didn’t speak English, so she found someone for me who did. She gently explained to me that the UK and French Barclay’s were not connected so I could not withdraw money. I waited until I was outside again to cry and headed back to Gare du Nord so that I could go back to my hostel.
At Gare du Nord I got in touch with Pepper to tell him the bad news. Pepper very, very calmly and very quickly devised an alternative solution and very, very kindly wired money to me through Western Union. While I tried to find the closest Western Union to Gare du Nord on my phone, another young man sat down next to me and started whispering in my ear and rubbing his head against my neck as if he were a cat. All I could hear was “cherie” and “bebe” over and over. He sprayed perfume on me and I wondered if he was just trying to sell some to me. At first I thought it was funny and would make a good story later but I was distraught and trying to figure out how to finally fix the stupid situation I put myself in.
I got up from the bench I had camped out on to set out to find Western Union and the man followed me. “Non, non, non”, I repeated to him. I didn’t want him to follow me. I didn’t want whatever he was asking me for.
The funny thing about the street harassers in Paris was that they all did help me get where I needed to go. I tried to get away from him but when he saw I was walking in the wrong direction he physically pulled me in the direction of the Western Union. I felt stupid and numb. “Arrete, arrete, arrete.” He kept a running commentary in French, “cherie”, “bebe”, over and over. “Je ne comprends pas”, I repeated, but it didn’t bother him. He helped me find the Western Union and he followed me inside. I took a number and I sat to wait. He sat down next to me. The room was absolutely full of people, and they all looked away as I started sobbing and said over and over, “Stop. I don’t speak French. Please. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop.” I didn’t know if he had followed me because he wanted to take the money I was about to receive. When it was finally my turn, the transaction went quickly. I tried to stifle my tears as I asked the girl at the window, “PLEASE, will you call the police? This man has been following me for an hour. Please.” My cell phone service didn’t work in Paris.
“There’s a police station down the street,” the girl said indifferently.
I looked up “I’ll go to the police” in my translation app and said it to the man, and he got angry and finally left.
I can imagine the reactions people might have when reading this.
First of all, I’m fat. How is it remotely plausible that all these French men would be chasing me down and trying to physically maneuver me into kissing them? Why didn’t I say I would go to the police sooner? Why would I let him go into Western Union with me? If these guys helped me get to the places I needed to go, they can’t have been THAT bad or scary.
In Norwich I lived a completely street-harassment-free life. Not only that, I was and am reminded all the time of how undesirable I am constantly. Fat women are told they’re lucky to be raped. I thought that if I could internalize what I had been told over and over, that nobody could possibly want me, that I could be protected by the truth of it.
I thought that my low self-esteem could save me. I actually could not believe what was happening to me was really happening because it was impossible. I also had never experienced street harassment of that degree and frequency ever in my life. Being repeatedly grabbed by the neck eroded my sense of personal agency. I didn’t feel human and I didn’t feel like I was worth protecting. I was grateful that Pepper had saved the day but I was extremely tempted to just use the money to buy a ticket back to Norwich and spend Christmas on my own.
Me on the way to Montmartre
I took myself to Montmartre, famous for the community of artists that once made their homes and livelihoods there. Montmartre still embraces its artistic history by being host to very pushy street caricaturists. The rain fell to match my mood as I made way up the steps to the Basilica du Sacre Coeur, which is apparently the highest point of the city of Paris.
The approach to Sacre Coeur
They didn’t allow photos in the Basilica, and I didn’t spend much time there. I’m not religious anymore but I sort of hoped that the concept of sanctuary might provide me some peace in the moment. It was smaller inside than I had imagined, and full of tourists, so I only spent a moment inside. Outside there was a Christmas market where I was pleased to find French mulled wine, vin chaud, to warm me up and calm my nerves.
I surveyed the city from its highest point and was starting to feel a little more centered when a man started making conversation with me, asking if I was alone. I was so tired and so on edge that I didn’t even want to wait around to see what his intentions were. I wondered if men in Paris had jobs other than waiting around to see if they could get particularly stupid and vulnerable tourists to sleep with them. Any part of the city where I was easily identified as a tourist seemed to be a hazard for me, so I went to explore the rest of the quarter.
The streets of Montmartre are, I think, what people imagine when they think of Paris: quaint, charming, cobbled, easily replicable in franchise format.
To cheer myself I tried some beautiful macarons from Biscuiterie Montmartre, my favorites being the rhubarb and blueberry. I got a box of them for my friend Owen, who I would be seeing in a couple days for Christmas. Montmartre was obviously charming and I knew I’d feel enchanted by it if I felt safe and could have shared it with someone. I was also really fucking annoyed that I couldn’t take each part of Paris as it was and feel the individual details and take in the atmosphere because I felt so goddamn shattered. I didn’t want to be so self-absorbed. I didn’t want to learn another lesson about what my body meant to people as I just tried to navigate the world. I wanted to be the anonymous and unmarked observer who could insinuate themselves into the background to acclimate and therefore learn about their world. I didn’t even have the stupid delusion of being a cute Amelie who finds magic all around her. The caricaturists called out to me and asked if I wanted to be drawn for only 30 euros but the last thing I wanted was to be taken in and my image spat back out at me again.
Down the steps away from the Basilica was Pigalle, made famous by people who are either really into schmaltzy maudlin bullshit medleys or toplessness. Or both. My goal was not the Moulin Rouge but the Musee de l’erotisme, recommended to me by my sister. (SHE IS NOT SUPPOSED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX. SHE IS ONLY 30. VERY DISAPPOINTED IN HER). The deep irony of my visit was in this spot, centered completely around sex, I was finally alone and unbothered for the first time on my trip. In fact, amongst the groups of fashionable, artistic Parisians who were visiting, I looked like sort of a creep ogling the displays by myself.
The first floor comprised sacred sexual artifacts from around the world, which skewed heavily phallic rather than yonic. (Autocorrect wants to change yonic but not phallic! MISOGYNY!) The photos I took are definitely not worksafe, but can be viewed here, along with all of the many, many, many photos I took in Paris and Newcastle. The second floor had a Paul Amar exhibition with wildly colorful pieces made of seashells.
I find the sea VERY EROTIC. Tentacles, you know.
Another floor was dedicated to the history of the brothel in Paris, in which I found my favorite Ayn Rand book cover:
It only covered about a fifty year period, which was tightly connected to the heavily romanticized turn of the century and both World Wars. The museum’s focus on “primalism” in religious sexual artifacts from non-European countries, in contrast to the more contemporary Parisian historical documents and pop art, to me seemed to leave a gap. I know there were medieval European dildos and sexual poetry. I’d like to see a European sexual mysticism section! The pop art was definitely more focused on the objectification of the female body, and also topless chicken ladies.
Mark McKinney! Fancy seeing you here in PARIS!
I did not expect that to be the most religious, the most informative, and the most peaceful experience I would have thus far, but it was, and it ended up proving to me that it might be worth not giving up and going home. I went to a bistro and had a croque salmon and a vin chaud. The proprietor was kind and sort of paternal towards me, and was patient and even encouraging about my poor French.
When I got back to the hostel, Olivier was out somewhere, so I was able to immediately get some sleep when I got back to the hostel. In the morning I put on my victorian puddings dress that my friend Tyler made, a fur tippet, and a bow, attempting to reach maximum fanciness for my trip to Versailles.
Even the RER train to Versailles was decorated like a Baroque carriage! From the RER station it’s only a short walk to the palace. As you approach the gates, your eyes glaze over with GOLD.
The palace was PACKED with non-fancy PEASANTS. No sweatpants in the Hall of Mirrors! STORE POLICY. The level of splendor evident within I could only capture poorly with my stupid phone’s stupid panorama feature.
Everyone knows the story of Versailles. Louis XIV thought that an absolute monarchy meant that logic and economy were irrelevant to him so he built himself a giant palace and then ordered a bunch of furniture made of PURE SOLID SILVER. When he had to pay for some boring wars his counselors peer-pressured him into melting down all of his furniture. He still died in what I would consider near-modest comfort. His successors did a terrible job of convincing their country that they deserved to live in a idyllic palace, with the addition of a quaint “cottage” for the spoiled foreign princess who played pretend-peasant in her hamlet that mocked the actually starving peasants that populated her country. Also, why was she always listening to new wave music and living in an Instagram filter? Time Magazine put a picture of Marie Antoinette taking a selfie on their LE MOI GENERATION issue and that was the start of the French Revolution.
The French government now makes the entirety of their GDP from letting Americans and Australians track their muddy Uggs on the floor of Le Petit Trianon.
I belonged in that room. I really wish that the security guards hadn’t forcibly removed me when I started making plans to move in.
mid 18th-century modern
Mid-December is probably not the most optimal time to visit Versailles, as nothing is blooming in the garden and the fountains are not on.
After exploring the many finely appointed apartments of the palace, I took the long and lonely path to the Grand Trianon.
There’s something slightly hollow about the Grand Trianon. It’s not as densely decorated as the palace and feels slightly stiff and formal.
By far my favorite part of my entire trip to France was the time I spent at Marie Antoinette’s hamlet. I knew it was meant to be enjoyed more in the spring and summer, but I loved the haunted feeling of it in the dim winter mid-day. So few of the bustling throng of tourists had bothered to make the detour to visit it, so I spent at least an hour just enjoying the feeling of a rococo abandoned playground. Telling someone to build a fake medieval village is the exact sort of shit I’d pull if I were rich, so I wallowed in my self-absorption and obliviousness in the place that I felt myself. You can buy Laduree macarons in Versailles to complete the fantasy. The Petit Trianon was less interesting, as Marie Antoinette wanted a very simple, pastoral cottage to pretend to be a poor shepherdess in.
Versailles provided a respite from the depression I felt in Paris proper, but they would not let me stay the night or forever, so I had to leave. When I got back to Noisy Le Sec I decided to see if French Chinese food is any different from American Chinese food, and I also bought myself a religieuse and a mocha eclair. I don’t even like Chinese food so I have no idea what I was doing. I had been living mostly off of macarons and lemon Schweppe’s (a lot like San Pellegrino limonata) for nearly a week so I thought I was ready for a big meal. French Chinese food, as far as I could tell, had a lot more things on skewers. It made me extremely ill, which I should have anticipated.
I had seen a facebook friend’s photos of her trip to Saint Chapelle, a gorgeous chapel from the Middle Ages in the heart of Paris. Paris is a many-hearted beast, I found. I loved the intricate patterns and tiles on the walls and floors:
A man offered to take a picture of me in front of the altar, noting that I looked just like the holy mother. “I’m named after her, too!” I said. He didn’t think that was interesting and I felt embarrassed.
Look how holy I am
I could have spent hours looking at the stained glass windows and patterned walls but I figured it was finally time to get to Notre Dame. You’ve seen Notre Dame! We can skip my pictures. I wasn’t in love with it. They really try to retain the pretense that it’s a working church but it seemed like a real circus. They pack a couple thousand people in there at a time, expecting them to trudge their way around the cathedral for their requisite half hour and hope that no one robs them. I paid an extra fee to get a peek at the treasury, because I love reliquaries, but it was small and impossible to get a good look at anything because of the crowds. I was happy to walk across the bridge to Shakespeare & Co, Paris’s famous English-language bookshop.
I spent my evening cuddled up in a chair there reading the entirety of Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw” while four different people came in and tried to play parts of the “Amelie” score. Shakespeare & Co. has that ambience that unbearable Tumblr girls like me find so appealing: the air is dense with the smell of old paper. Gorgeous bearded men with glasses come and go. They encourage you to just curl up and read. I came away with two Yukio Mishima books, one of which I foolishly gave away to my rebound chap before I left England.
I still felt pretty rattled at the time, but in retrospect I see that I had managed to turn the trip into something pleasant and worthwhile. I had some crepes in one of the many identical restaurants in the Latin Quarter. It didn’t feel like it was almost Christmas. No one was playing Mariah Carey or Wham!, but I certainly wasn’t complaining. Back at the hostel, it wasn’t so peaceful, as a very loud group of Spanish tourists were basically screaming all night long. In the morning the hostel owner kicked them out because they were loud and got everything in the bathroom soaked. I felt lucky to be a boring killjoy in that moment.
My last day in Paris was spent mostly at the Musee du Moyen Age, the National Museum of the Middle Ages, a true gem not hindered by dense and slow-moving pockets of tourists. I was able to spend ample time marveling at the relics, books of hours, and tapestries on display.
They had a tapestry on display which has become famous for what looks like the Lady’s exasperation at the unicorn’s vanity. I love tapestries. I love the intricacy, the effort evident in each detail, and the stories they tell. I love that European people in the middle ages gave animals eerie judgmental human features.
I love that they pretended narwhal horns were unicorn horns.
Afterwards I took a walk along the Seine and listened to Scott Walker.
I hoped that my giant fuck-off headphones, a Christmas gift from H, would deter any more persistent Parisians from fucking up my day.
Hopes are folly, friends. Hopes are for idiots. A man approached me and said, “HELLO, WILL YOU PLEASE TAKE A PICTURE OF ME?” I should have just kept walking, but I am naive and thought he was a fellow tourist. I acquiesced and took a picture with his phone, but instead of letting me go, he insisted on walking beside me.
There’s a quote that I see every so often that says something about how we live in a world where a woman’s desires mean so little that the only way to deter a suitor is not by saying that you’re not interested, but only by saying you have a boyfriend. Not so in Paris. Every time I said I had a boyfriend, it was met with, “But he’s not here! So I’ll be your boyfriend in Paris.” This GENTLEMAN took me by the arms and prevented me from taking a leisurely stroll through the Tuilleries to get to the Rue di Rivoli. The whole time he tried to convince me that monogamy was stupid, as though it was just my monogamy that kept me from wanting to sleep with him.
You can’t even take a non-blurry picture. Why would I sleep with someone with hands that unsteady?
I told him I was trying to find the Rue Cambon, and like apparently every man in Paris, he thought that by helping me find my destination, I would realize I owed him sex. This one wasn’t as determined by the others, because at a certain point on the Rue du Rivoli he got bored with my inane American ideas about monogamy and had never heard of Rue Cambon, so he gave up. I soldiered on, and reached the Macaron Motherload: Pierre Herme, the originator of the macaron, the perfector of texture, the innovator of flavor. I got a box of the best macarons in the world for myself, and one for Pepper. It was right near the Chanel store but I was afraid to go there because of having purple hair and no money.
I used the last of my energy to wander around the Louvre a bit, feeling disappointed in myself that I could not muster up the gumption to give it my proper attention. I forced myself to go see the Mona Lisa, which is so small in real life! When you go see the Mona Lisa, what you will really see is 500 people per second taking a selfie with her.
I much prefer Henri du Navarre
And these ladies
I spent the rest of the evening packing and whining on the internet. In the morning I was more than happy to say goodbye to Olivier, Noisy le Sec, and to Paris. Getting back to Kings Cross was easy enough, but when I went to collect my tickets to Newcastle, I realized that because I lost my debit card I wouldn’t be able to use the ticket machines. It was a minor crisis that on top of my stressful week caused a slight breakdown. All I wanted to do was go back to Norwich, no matter how depressing spending Christmas alone would be, but Owen convinced me to keep a cool head and try to resolve things so I could spend Christmas with his family. Even though I missed the train I was supposed to be on, after a phone call to TheTrainLine, I was able to use my passport to collect my tickets, and allowed to get on the next train.
Owen and his brother met me at Newcastle Rail Station on Christmas Eve. I had met Owen in Edinburgh through the first English dude I dated, and after that he had stayed at my mom’s house in Philadelphia. In 2012 he was living in Bangalore but came home for Christmas, and since he knew I had nowhere to go, he and his family opened their home to me. Owen’s shared his Fentiman’s soda with me and let me de-stress in the guest room. I was happy to finally have space to myself again, and to eat proper food.
On Christmas morning Owen took me out to see something he knew would be a complete treat for me:
HIGHLAND COOS! Owen, in his infinite patience, put up with an ungodly amount of squealing and excited picture-taking. Owen’s mom is an Anglican vicar, and she showed me around her very sweet little church. We went to Owen’s uncle’s house for tea where we ate pease pudding, broke Christmas crackers, watched his uncle scream at a terrifying and disobedient robot dog. It was truly wonderful.
Boxing Day is nothing to Americans, but I had a proper English boxing day at Owen’s sister’s, I think. We ate really really delicious soup and broke (broke?) (shared?) yet more Christmas crackers and had a DeeeeeLite dance party and watched the Muppets movie.
Owen knew how much of a goddamn despicable nerd I am, so the next day was dedicated to a trip to Durham. Durham Cathedral was one of the filming locations for Hogwarts, and also a haunting ground for the historical historian, the Venerable Bede.
Owen could not contain his enthusiasm. I mean, he could not contain MY enthusiasm. AND DON’T EVER TRY
So when does Sean Biggerstaff come out?
Owen swore there was a door that led to a room that was used as Snape’s Potions classroom, but all the doors were locked. We took the train back to Newcastle and wandered around Newcastle Keep while Owen told me the story of St. James’ Park almost becoming SPORTSDIRECT.COM @ St. JAMES’ PARK and how everyone there blamed “the Cockneys” (anyone from London, apparently?) for ruining their city.
In front of the Black Gate, which is old as shit
For dinner, Owen and I got some pies at a local pub, and came in a respectable 5th or 10th or something in the pub quiz. I had mulled wine, of course, and tipsily whined about the pub quiz being TOOOOO ANGLOCENTRICCCC WHYYYY. We spent the evening watching the Fast Show, which I had never seen but thoroughly enjoyed, and not watching the Doctor Who special.
My last day in Newcastle I ogled goths wistfully and went to an Asian market. Owen and I discussed the phenomena of attractive girls in shirts that said NERD or DORK.
Owen’s family had shown me an amazing kindness. They taught me about Mackems and Tackems and magpies and trains and vicarages. They fed me and tea’d me and let me sleep on a bed with big pillows. It was the first time in ages I had spent time with someone who knew me pretty well and it was extremely restorative. I’m still so very grateful Owen convinced me not to give up and to come stay.
I got on a train back to Norwich and H not only picked me up from the rail station, but also had a trunkful of my favorite foods because he figured I’d be too tired to get groceries. Sometimes I wonder if I actually made H up, or if he was real, because he was certainly like some sort of guardian angel who was too good to be real.
At home I spent all goddamn day singing alone in my room, because I had promised myself I could. Pepper and I exchanged Christmas presents, and on New Year’s Eve I gussied myself up and then had a big panic attack because I was convinced everyone hated me and didn’t want me around.
That turned out to be only mostly true, and it was nothing that couldn’t be fixed by getting drunk and leading everyone in a chorus and also every single verse of Total Eclipse of the Heart.
The new year didn’t start so well, but by god, I’m sure if you’ve gotten this far you deserve every kind of break.