Having just returned from a trip to Paris, I’ve been thinking a lot about the French capital city. One of the first things I realized when reflecting on Paris is how many memories I have of the city, particularly from my very first trip there. So to take this in a more narrative direction, I’m going to write in this post about my very first encounter with Paris and my memories that touch all five senses.
My first trip to Paris was in January 2001 for about 10 days with a small group of students from my high school and our two high school French teachers. At the time I only had 1 semester of French under my belt, and although I could string together sentences, I still hadn’t yet learned past tense, and didn’t know the word for chicken.
I remember feelings, like waking up exhausted in the morning from jetlag to get our early morning hotel breakfast (croissants, bread and hot chocolate). The sun comes up later in France, and so it was still dark in the morning until about 8 :30, 9 am. I remember savoring particularly long subway rides so I could catch a quick nap. I also remember the knot in my stomach before going into a tourist store on rue Mouffetard to buy souvenirs. It was only the first or second day of our trip, and it was the first time I was alone and needed to communicate by myself with a French person (I don’t remember the exchange so it must of have been
I remember smells. That year the perfume Dior Addict had just come out. I remember smelling its powerful, spicy scent wafting through the metro off of chic French women’s scarves. This perfume contrasted with the smell of the metro itself, which is unique only to the Paris metro and doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Whenever I go to Paris today, the smell of the metro always brings about some nostalgia from that first trip.
I remember, of course, the sights. The characteristic sights, like the Eiffel tower, Notre Dame, the Seine. But there’s also an understated sophistication in Paris, in the grace of the Haussmanian architecture, in the elegance of the art nouveau metro signs. Just as much as the typical tourist spots were a feast for the eyes, I also remember inescapable advertisements on the metro. Galéries Lafayette, a French department store, had ads all over the place for its yearly January sales. I even remember that one ad had the French spelling for ‘shhh’ written on it (chutttt) and me and the other students spent a lot of time musing over it and what it could mean. I bought magazines in French that I still have, keeping them as a relic from my trip and wanting to decipher as much as possible.
I remember the tastes and my wonder at discovering French food. I loved trying new things and trying to decipher complex French menus. Hot chocolate, crêpes, delicate salads, hearty traditional French dishes, I wanted to document everything I ate and took pictures of a lot of my meals. I thought everything I ate tasted wonderful. I quickly learned to appreciate the typical 3 course restaurant ‘menu’ at a fixed price. And I discovered the wonderful idea that in France, dessert is a part of the meal, not just an extra at the end. I took special care at each meal to try a different dessert, some I had already heard of like mousse au chocolat and crème brûlée, and some that were new to me, like île flottante, crème caramel, and profiteroles.
I remember the sounds, and trying to find my way through spoken French. Even though my level was low, I stayed in a hotel room with three other girls who had advanced levels in French. They were really great with me and we spoke French all the time, and I’m sure this helped me a lot in my progress. Things like learning to correctly pronounce the word ‘arrêt’, French for subway stop. The word has a silent ‘t’, meaning it should sound like array. If you pronounce the ‘t’ on the end, you are saying the word for fish bone ! I also remember, strangely, the first time I correctly used the verb ‘can’ or ‘be able to’ in French and was praised by my teacher.
On that trip, everything seemed momentous, and I wanted to document and remember every second. I saved every single piece of paper I collected: receipts from souvenir purchases, paper napkins from a restaurant I liked, a flyer about things that were happening that week. I think at that time it didn’t occur to me that I could and would return to Paris, and I suppose I was trying to bring back as much physical evidence as possible.
My views about Paris have changed over time. I still think it’s an extremely beautiful, rich city that always has something to explore. But I would probably never want to live there. Because now I also see Paris for what I couldn’t see when I was 15 : a chaotic, bustling city where rent is extremely high and life moves very quickly. It’s probably great to live in Paris if you can find an apartment, and don’t need to worry about money. Paris is also extremely touristy. This certainly didn’t bother me on my first trip. But now, having friends who live there, I have a better sense of how tiring it must be to always run into tourists.
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In the end, my enthusiasm about my first trip to Paris was not so much about Paris itself. It really was my initiation into French language, life and culture. It was literally the world, a new world, opening up for me and I think that’s why I have so many clear, fond memories. That trip to Paris was what fueled and inspired me to continue, because I saw just how much I was able to do with so little language. Paris doesn’t quite hold the wonder it did for me on the first trip, some of which was surely due to its newness. But it will always represent and remind me of what initially fascinated me and drew me to French.