Sunday, October 24, 2010

Paris, je t'iame

Paris, France
March 2006

The great thing about being in Europe is that you’re only a stone’s throw away from numerous other countries. You don’t have to endure the interminably long transatlantic flight (it is only when traveling to Europe from the states do you realize just how very large the “pond” between the two continents really is). No, instead you simply board a plane at point A and get off two hours later at point B. Ah, what niceties.

            Although I had spent the previous summer “toiling” away long hours at my two part-time jobs (one was in a fluff position at a county law library, the other a bit more involved as it consisted of watching toddlers and young children), I still hadn’t amassed a large fortune, so I didn’t have the funds to jet-set all over the continent every weekend or stay on in Europe to travel after my program had ended. But I did have a relatively small fortune, so the day I saw Iberia’s mid-winter sale advertised on its website, I knew I had to take action.

            A ticket to Paris was the logical choice, of course. Although I had been there before, it had been a complete bust of a trip. Not only was it on a poorly planned guided high school trip (yes, all you savvy travelers out there, you can commence the rolling of the eyes starting now), but I developed a tonsil infection as well. So my memories of Paris consisted of seeing its major sites from the bus window and napping in the Lourve cafeteria for hours as my fever raged. Needless to say, I wanted to make things right with one of the most spectacular cities lo mas pronto posible (as soon as possible).

            From an early age I had always been independent. My mother never fails to regale people with how I wouldn’t allow her to walk me into pre-school. At the time, with all the infinite wisdom a three year has, I probably thought it was nerdy to be seen with my mommy, but on the other hand I’m sure my thumb sucking while clutching my blankie was acceptable. Needless to say I would be traveling to la cite lumiere (the city of light) sola, which was absolutely fine with me. I have been in too many group instances in which people’s indecisiveness ends up being the only thing accomplished. Plus, I didn’t want to visit Paris of all places only to sleep during the day in order to recover from the hard partying the night before. There were too many people in the program who did just that…each and every weekend. What money they did have was spent on alcohol. Large amounts of it. The only person who really seemed taken aback that I would be traveling alone was my host mom.

            “You’re going there alone?” “Yes, Estrella although it really doesn’t bother me. I can see and do what I want.”  My roommate Lisa was also at the dining table when the conversation was ensuing. I’m sure she thought I was a bit of a loser since she really didn’t do anything alone. She and another girl from her college seemed to be attached at the hip. “Entonces, ten cuidado.” Of course, I’ll be careful. I wanted to tell Estrella that she should really worry more about her other host daughter, as she was the one constantly boozing it up along with the hordes of other young borrachos (drunks) at the banks of the Guadalquivir, but I didn’t. But for all Lisa’s intense partying, she always made it safely home before the sun came up, so she seemed to be doing okay.

            Before I knew it, I was in Paris. It still felt surreal being there after only a two hour flight and not having my passport examined (traveling from one European Union country to another is like you have never left the original country, so there’s no need for a new inspection). The smell of the rotting oranges that littered the street and the lispy Andalusian accents had been replaced by the sight of the delicious looking pastries in the windows of the patisseries and a language that didn’t turn z’s into a ‘th sound. Granted the amount of years I had studied Spanish, far surpassed the one semester of French I had taken in college, but still. I was just relishing being outside of the Spanish border even if it would be for a grand total of only 40 hours.

            Having taken public transportation in from Orly Aeroport and gotten off at the Filles du Calvaire metro stop in central Paris, I was in the neighborhood of my hotel, but had no idea what direction to go.  I was not the most adept at using maps back home but at least there, thanks to William Penn, the streets in my native city of Philadelphia had been laid out in a grid-like pattern. As in, you look at a map of Philadelphia’s city center and it’s pretty easy to plot your course. In a city as old as Paris where grid-like patterns didn’t really exist, not so easy. After attempting to not appear too conspicuous while looking  at my pocket size map, I went in one direction only to have to retrace my steps five minutes later, realizing I should have gone the other way to begin with. Happily I found the hotel no worse for wear.

            I had booked a single chambre online at the Mary S Hotel as its location was decent enough (this coming from my Parisian wannabe father who had visited the city numerous times and was well acquainted with the city’s arrondisements), and the price was good as well. When I greeted the young Arab looking man at the desk with a bonjour, he rapidly said something to me in French (I guess sometimes I do look something other than Americaine). But before I could even muster my je ne parle pas le francais (I don’t speak French), he had quickly switched to English, I’m sure upon seeing my lost expression, making me feel slightly bad for my only one semester of French.

            My room was not ready so I set out to explore the neighborhood, stopping forst at what are the fringes of Paris’ Chinatown. I entered a small eatery there and ordered the cheapest menu option. It always amazes me when eating ethnic food in a country where it is not native to begin with, how much it varies from each country. Therefore Chinese food in France tastes nothing like Chinese food in the states. It was here in the restaurant, among what appeared to be Parisian workers dining on their lunch break and chatting animatedly in French, that I felt alone and sans amies (without friends). I have always partaken in many activities alone, but dining in public is not one I enjoy. I guess the only thing that saves me from a pity party is that I am not a spinsterish elderly woman outfitted in musty old clothes. Thank goodness for my extremely youthful looking appearance.

            The Arc de’Triomphe, Napeoleon’s gift to the city of Paris, was high on my list of must-dos when there. I had seen it pictured in countless books, heard about, read about it. My parents even had a near-death experience there on one of their visits to Paris when my father was not able to maneuver their rental car out of the pattern of the traffic circle. And so they went round and round. And some 30 years later so did I, only on foot.

Although whenever I’m with my husband and we’re slightly turned around he’ll continue to go out of his way instead of asking for help, surely a testament to the stubborn and slightly pigheaded nature of the male species. Yet I was the exact same way in Paris. I don’t think it was because I felt stupid (which I feel is the underlying issue beneath my husband’s refusal) but more that since I was alone I didn’t want to appear the distressed female to others.  But perhaps that day in Paris I should have spoken up and asked someone how to access the Arc, as it would have saved my poor feet from walking almost the entire perimeter of the island where the arc is situated. It was only after I arrived at the point where I had begun my “circular walk” did I realize that the stairwells I had seen scattered about around the perimeter of the arc were in fact meant for accessing it. Le sigh…

            Besides having to endure solitary meals at restaurants when traveling alone, you are also forced to to ask strangers if they would be so kind as to take a picture of you so you at least have one preserved memory that you were indeed there. Occasionally however you strike conversational gold as I did when the family I had asked to take my picture with the Eiffel Tower in the background was from the same city as my grandparents. I felt even more pleased when I saw the impressed look in their eyes after I told them I was studying in Spain for the semester and had come to Paris for the weekend. It’s all about the little “gems” that serve as pick-me ups when traveling.

            That night while sitting on the bed in my closet-size hotel room eating the two samosas I had gotten for my dinner from the Indian restaurant down the street, I looked at all of the wonderful pictures I had taken that day and just let out a sigh of contentment. I was really here in Paris, and this time I was doing things right.

            The French petit dejeuner (breakfast) is your typical European continental breakfast, consisting of a roll and a hot drink. At my hotel it was nothing different yet it still managed to feel special, to feel French (anything was better than the two sweet rolls my host mom left out for us each morning to eat for breakfast). Even though I had to argue with the hotel clerk that the rate I had booked included breakfast (this was not easy as he spoke no English and my French was surely not at the level to vigorously press my case) I still managed to emerge as the victor and enjoy my ultra flaky croissant, tartine (a piece of a baguette served with butter and marmalade), and a cup of steaming hot chocolate (even if it was from a machine). Although in Paris cafes you will find menus that offer the petit dejeuner Americaine, go for the croissant and tartine. It may be less food but it’s so French. (On our recent honeymoon in Paris, my husband and I arrived early in the morning and as our room was not ready (mais oui-of course), I had us go to a nearby café for some breakfast. I ordered us the croissant and tartine, a chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) for me and a café crème for my husband, now we were in Paris).

Although I had come to Paris with a jam packed itinerary, I still made a point to enjoy those Parisian moments. Strolling along the Left Bank, I perused the wares available at the bouquiniste stalls. Nothing really caught my eye until I came across a 1960s edition of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. I didn’t get it as it was in Italian and I knew even less Italian than French. But to this day it is something I regret not having purchased because what could have been more Parisian than having bought a historic copy of one of Papa Hemingway’s works in a city he so truly loved?

            I found one of my favorite things to do in Paris was to pass by the boulangeries (bread shops) and gaze in the window. Seeing the dozens of beautifully sculpted long baguettes being readied to be baked in the ovens and then enjoying the tantalizing smell once they have finished baking to a crisp, golden perfection is a joy and experience within itself. Only in France do you have people queuing up every day to purchase their baguette. It is so different from in the United States where most families’ dinner bread is the frozen or refrigerated and bake kind, and certainly not from a store whose sole purpose is the making and selling of breads. A couple of years later on the BBC Internet site I read each year Paris sponsors a contest of the best baguette baker. That year the winner was a Senegalese immigrant which the article said surprised some but to others it made no difference since the color of one’s skin has nothing to do with the taste of an award winning baguette. Where the French went in the days of colonialism, the ubiquitous baguette followed, whether it was to Senegal, Algeria, or Laos.

            The Place de la Madeline area of the city is an extremely posh shopping district. It is home to the city’s glitzy stores and features prices to rival any found on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Although I bought the requisite souvenirs (a tea towel of the Eiffel Tower, prints at the Musee d’Orsay gift shop), I still wanted to purchase some foodie related ones. The only problem was that after a long day of sightseeing, not only is your entire body fatigue, but most stores are closed as well. It is only the extremely tourist trap shops selling your cheesy glow in the dark Eiffel towers that remain open until much later in the evening.

            As I ascended from the steps of the metro at what all the guidebooks describe as some of the best shopping in the city, all I could see was darkened storefronts. Le sigh. But there was light still being emitted from what used to be (and what some would still consider is) the best gourmet food store in all of Paris…Hediard, a shopping “institution” that has been in operation since the 1850s. Score!

            Although the majority of the goods lining the shelves of Hediard far exceeded my budget such there were bottles of wine over 1000 euros along with some pretty expensive truffles. All weekend I had been keeping meticulous track in my journal of every euro I had spent, mostly to show myself I could totally be a budget traveler when needed. But it was still neat to look upon the endless rows of gourmet cheeses whose names I couldn’t even begin to pronounce and the other fine wares that are purchased by the same men and women who buy couture. Oh, to be French and wealthy.  But I did find a small item that suited me and my wallet just fine, a petit size canister of loose vanilla tea. Even though I hadn’t had the time to make it to any of Paris’ fine tea salons, I thought it was perfectly fitting to take home some gourmet tea as a more foodie souvenir of my wonderful weekend in Paris. The fact that it only cost six euros and hardly weighed anything in my backpack was the cherry on top.

            Even though I had been eyeing them ever since my arrival on Friday, I had still not indulged one of Paris’ delectable pastries. Although some cost as much as a menu option at a two star restaurant, you cannot go to Paris and not consume a pastry. It is like going to Belgium and not eating any frites. Needless to say I needed to find one and eat one lo mas pronto posible since Spanish pastries were almost non-existent. In fact, the only sweet that the Spanish people seem to go loco over was flan. I like flan, but compared with pastries that resemble little works of art? I don’t think so.

            The only thing I can say is don’t wait too long in the day to select your pastry. The pickings are slim…But what I did select was oh so delicious…une tarte citron (lemon tart). As it was dark by this point and I was not about to sit alone on the street enjoying my treat, I had to transport it back on the metro. By the time I got back to the hotel it had toppled over in the box and the filling had gotten slightly smudged, but it was still one of the best things I had ever eaten in my life. I say this because there have been very few instances in which I have licked my fingers clean from something I had eaten. But this was one of them.

            All too soon it was Sunday morning and time for me to return to Orly Aeroport for my flight back to Sevilla. I’m not embellishing when I say I was seriously sad. On one of our family trips to Disney World as a child, my mom told me some years later that my older brother was extremely melancholy for weeks after our return. As the metro took me further away from the center of Paris, I knew exactly how he must have felt. The thought of returning to Sevilla really depressed me. I don’t know why, but I wanted nothing more than to stay in Paris, a city that at that moment had everything that Sevilla and Spain did not. For a couple of weeks after I returned I was in an “I hate Sevilla and all Spanish customs mood”. It didn’t last of course but deep down I knew that if things had been reversed and I had studied in Paris instead of Sevilla, and gone to Spain for a weekend, I know I would have relished being away from all things Paris and French. That’s usually how those things work. You always want what you don’t have.

La Alhambra and Food Poisoning

Granada and Seville, Spain

One of the neatest things about studying abroad is that sometimes your classroom is a famous historical site. This was the case during the organized trip to the city of Granada, home to the famed Moorish palace, the Alhambra. I didn’t know much about it before going there. The most coverage that Spanish history receives in American classrooms is basically limited to the whole Isabel, Ferdinand, Christopher Columbus angle and its connection to the New World, not the old one. My grandmother had been there when she and my grandfather visited Spain on a tour back in the 1970s. But the only thing I really remember her telling me was that it was very hot the day they visited, and that a couple of German tourists had passed out from the heat. Towards the end of the program, when temperatures in Sevilla soared close to 110 degrees, I can see why the heat is the only thing I recalled.

The city of Granada itself was somewhat disappointing. It looked all too modern, not at all charming. Maybe I really was biased towards any other city in Spain after living in Sevilla. Where was this architectural legacy that had supposedly been left behind by the Moors after they were kicked out by the tough ass Spanish monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand? After being “released” from the walking tour instructors from the program had taken us on, Tami (another girl in the program) and I decided to explore on our own. As we made our way through the narrow winding streets in the Albaicin, a district which exemplifies its Moorish past, I was feeling more and more dismayed that this was what Granada’s most historic area was today; nothing but North African immigrants selling wares that had been mass produced in China. I found this out after discovering that the pillow slip covers I was about to purchase for my mother had not been made in Morocco, even though the name of the store was Joyas de Marueccos (Jewels of Morocco).

The one thing I had read in my guidebooks touted as a unique experience in Granada was going to a traditional Moorish tea house. As in traditional mint tea and North African style pastries. Of course I didn’t get to one. Spain is NOT a tea country. The only time I drank it was in my host family’s house, and only then because they had tea bags that were left over from a former student of theirs. They, of course, never drank any. Throughout the semester I would often hang out with Tricia and every time I did I always came to regret it. She, like me, wasn’t into hardcore drinking like some people in the program, so I think that’s where we first connected. But that day in Granada when all I wanted was some mint tea and some flaky phyllo pastries, Tricia wanted to hang out with some girls from her school. It’s not that the invitation hadn’t been extended to me to join them, but one had the most annoying accent when she spoke Spanish (she sounded like a valley girl), and also had nothing but obnoxious things to say. As I had spent the previous weekend alone, I didn’t really want to bum around Granada alone too. So I tagged along, mentally cursing myself the whole while.

When I suggested that we all head to a tea house, I was met with, “like, I really like just want go get a coca light and some jamon.” Tricia, who could see my slightly disappointed face whispered to me, “We’ll head to one later, vale?” Almost two hours later after sitting at the end of the table, having tuned out the mind-numbing conversation 30 minutes into it, the group started to disband with people going their separate ways. As our hotel was a 20 minute walk into the city center where the tea houses were located, I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be going to one, and suggested going to a movie since, turning in that early on a Friday night would have been considered lame by Spanish social standards. There was a theatre about half a block from where we were staying. Tricia agreed and we headed to the 10:30 PM showing of a Spanish movie I remember nothing about today. So much for a unique cultural experience.

As the bus drove higher and higher into the hills of the Sierra Nevadas away from the lackluster city center, I finally understood why the Moors had decided to build their lavish palace here. Simply put, the views were incredible. Long forgotten were the tacky souvenirs being hawked in the Albaicin, the disappointment of not having relived a traditional Moorish experience. In Ferdinand and Isabel’s quest to take Spain back from the Moors, Granada was the final city to fall and the Spanish royals would showcase it until their deaths. They even decided to be buried there rather than to be entombed in an abbey in Toledo. Granada from high up was gorgeous.

The Alhambra did not disappoint. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. Here I was in Spain, a Western European nation but it felt as if I was walking through the rooms of an Ottoman palace in Istanbul. I could imagine myself transported to the world of Aladdin and Scheherazade as there was nothing but bright colors, exotic and elaborate art designs, and endless rows of gold that had been incorporated into the walls and ceiling. Three years earlier I had toured an equally famous palace in Europe, Versailles. While I thought the palace itself was an overhyped attraction due to having to go through each room packed in like a sardine, I could not dispute the sheer opulence of the palace’s look, both inside and out. However, not being able to fully enjoy myself while there reduced its overall grandeur and allure in my book. But at the Alhambra, while touring its rooms, I felt as though I could breathe, something I couldn’t do when going through Versailles. It seemed possible to put on my inner body’s “dream Spain. I could do this because even though the Alhambra was crowded with throngs of visitors, just like it had been that day at Versailles, the design of the rooms allowed you to inhale with their multiple openings, and their very high ceilings. I like to think that the rooms of the palace were constructed this way on purpose, perhaps even as a means of recreating sultry North African nights for the inhabitants. Perhaps…

Of all the rooms and areas at the Alhambra, my favorite was the Patio de Los Leones. It was a somewhat simple looking courtyard area except for the striking fountain in the middle, a fountain whose base was made up of elaborately carved lions. Mischievous looking chubby cherubs or naked women must not have been in fashion back in the Moorish times. 

Of course pretending to be Princess Jasmine from the cartoon Aladdin doesn’t last forever and the bus eventually transported us back to our hotel in the city center. And it was at the hotel’s restaurant where I most likely got my food poisoning from the beef in the lasagna that had not been fully cooked.

            We got back into Sevilla around eight o’clock at night and my roommate Lisa, always the alcohol loving night owl of course went out for the night. I, being the slightly nerdy and more solitary figure, returned home where I ate dinner and became engrossed in a tawdry romance book that had been left by a former program participant. When I finally went to bed that evening, delayed until I found out that the heroine of the book did indeed end up with the poor boat maker, I never imagined the brutal assault I would be dealt the next morning.

            No one likes being sick, but being sick when you’re thousands of miles from your own bed and living in what is essentially a stranger’s home, is the absolute worst. When I woke up that morning to a feel of rising vomit, I quickly dashed to the apartment’s only bathroom. I was ever thankful that it was not occupied as it so often was due to my host brother Miguel’s medical condition. Praying that whatever had just come up was the end and I would not experience it again, I returned to bed, hoping I could fall back asleep. Nine in the morning on a Sunday in Spain is entirely too early to be doing anything. This of course was affirmed by the completely dead to the world body of my roommate.

            But less than 20 minutes after I had my first visit to the bathroom, my next trip commenced, and a horrifying onslaught of mad dash trips to the bathroom began. The one bathroom used by five people. As it has never been my fashion to bring much attention to myself, I just told my host mom that I would not be eating lunch, as I wasn’t feeling well not that I ever remembered ever feeling this sick in my life. When Lisa finally showed activity of life sometime around two in the afternoon, she immediately asked me what was wrong upon seeing my rather crumbled body lying in bed underneath the covers. Just like with Estrella, I didn’t go into how horribly sick I really felt and simply said I had picked up some bug. While she and I certainly got along just fine, we never became exceptionally close during our semester of living together.

            The rest of the day I alternated between feeling on fire and having intense body chills. When I couldn’t stand keeping how horrible I felt inside anymore, I picked up my cell phone and called home. Fully knowing that my mom wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing to help me, I still wanted to hear her voice all the same. So when calling and speaking with my dad only to be told that my mom was out for the day, I burst into tears…during a phone call with my dad. Having never been the teary, drama-driven female, my dad immediately asked me what was wrong, to which I responded, “I’ve been throwing up all day in between having horrible diarrhea. The only thing I ate today was a little white rice my host mom made and even that I couldn’t keep down.” Had I not been so sick, I never in a million years would have told my dad I had been having diarrhea, but feeling embarrassed was the last thing I was concerned about. Of course nothing he said could make my sick feeling go away but for the 15 or so minutes I was talking with him, I did feel the least bit better. Well that is I didn’t feel as if I would burst into tears anymore.

            When I was in high school I never felt bad about missing school if I felt sick. But for some reason when I got to college, tremendous feelings of guilt would wash over me if I even contemplated not going to a class. Maybe it was the fact that some only met once or twice a week and if you missed that class you were SOL. I remember a day I had the most brutal cramps ever as in my back felt like it was literally breaking in two and yet I still went to some lame ass first year required arts course. Well, it was the same in Spain.

            My host family’s apartment was located in Triana, which is a neighborhood located on the other side of the Guadalquivir River, across from Sevilla’s famous cathedral and the giralda. Hundreds of years ago, Triana was not part of the city. It was its own city just like Paris’ Montmartre neighborhood. On a day when I was feeling healthy, it would normally take me about 15 minutes to walk from my host family’s house and across the river to the program building. Well, the day after what felt like the invasion into Normandy during World War II on my body, it took me almost 45 minutes to walk it. Every step I took became a labored affair. When I finally made it to the bridge I literally had to stop there and rest for a couple of minutes, because I couldn’t continue right away.

            Although I felt bad, I ended up arriving almost 15 minutes late for my class. When I started to apologize the professor informed me that students in the class had told her I had been sick, so she said she  was surprised to see me at all. I didn’t want to tell her that I would feel even more sick had I missed her class and gotten behind with the notes and material.

            Research on the Internet on my symptoms made me believe that I did indeed have food poisoning. A week of an extremely bland diet-rice, boiled potatoes, yogurt, and bread-did not help my still overall feeling of unsettledness. Not wanting to endure it anymore, I finally visited the doctor whom the program was affiliated with. A friend from the program accompanied me, for which I was ever grateful since it’s scary enough visiting a doctor in a foreign country, especially when the physician is a man and you don’t speak the language one hundred percent fluently. Although I didn’t understand every bit of information he told me, I did receive a prescription for two different medicines. One was oral tablets, the other a humongous glass bottle whose contents not only resembled cod liver oil but tasted like it as well. The tablets of course only had to be taken for a week, while the cod liver oil had to be taken three times a week for almost three weeks. Nothing was more comical at the center than when I produced my large glass bottle of medicine. Oh, the joys of being sick abroad.

            It took almost a month before I felt fully back to normal. Getting that sick was truly a harrowing experience for me, since not only was I in a foreign country, but I was sick the whole time alone. You’re never too old to want to have mommy taking care of you. It was from that experience that I reckoned I could never make it in the Peace Corps. Although it had been my dream since the age of 13 to apply for a position in the Peace Corps, perhaps to work in an African country, I sadly realized that if I could barely stand throwing up and having diarrhea in a place with an actual bed and indoor plumbing, I would never make it in a million years where the “bush” was the bathroom and the pharmacy was whatever root the medicine man gave you.