Robin Sparks is looking for a country to call home. She is traveling around the world looking for the perfect spot. This month she is in Paris, meeting with old friends and meeting new ones. Join Robin Sparks in each issue of the Escape From America Magazine as she travels around the world in search of a country to call home. (Robin is currently in Italy for two weeks. Her wallet has been stolen and she was involved in a car/motorcycle accident. But she says that meeting an expat like Leo Forte in Pontremoli makes it all worthwhile.)
You move into a flat in the St. Germain des Près and you sip a Kir Royal under a vermilion awning at the Buci Café and you think, ‘things don’t get much better than this.‘
But the fact that you don’t speak French begins to make things interesting.
You have to plot how to get from here to there after you figure out where there is. And that means learning how to use Europe’s oldest subway system, the Métro. You need to make a phone call, but first you must find out where to buy phone cards, and then where to use them. Where is the laundromat and how do you use it once you get there? Where is the post office so you can mail your daughter a birthday card?
The telephone line in your flat doesn’t work so you can’t use the laptop computer. You’ll have to rely on Internet cafes. You’re seated at a computer and you begin to type — but what’s this? The letters on a French keyboard are not the same as on an English one. You regress to hunt and peck typing. You can’t access your online address book. Your hair dryer blows a fuse, your laptop and cell phone batteries are dead, and you need to recharge your digital camera. You need electrical adapters.
Your apartment, which felt so charming the night you arrived, is below street level with two windows which face a crumbling concrete wall; in your flat it is always dusk. Want to see what the weather is really like today? You must get right up next to the window, and crane your neck in order to see the small patch of sky at the top of the buildings.
Each morning, construction workers scrape electric saws and drills and lathes across the cement outside your open window. The sound of power tools fills your ears, and dust your nose until 7 p.m. each evening.
So you go out. A lot. You teeter up and down the ancient cobblestone streets in your Oh-So-French- Frou-Frou-Shoes. (Beauty is painful, my new Paris friend Dale assures me.)
The soles of your feet grow blisters so you patch them up with an assortment of bandaids and you walk and you walk and you walk — because you’re lost again. You collapse into another chair at another cafe, and lay down 21 francs for yet another mineral water, in order to once again study your Paris map.
You need food and water, and you’ve run out of toilet paper.
Why not just ask someone? Because the rumor that most Parisians speak English is just that — a rumor. The few phrases you memorized on the plane are getting a lot of use. “Parlez-vous anglais?” (Do you speak English?) “Pouvez-vous m’aider?” (Can you help me?) and the one that should be the easiest to say if the world was a logical place. “Je ne parle pas beaucoup de français.” (Zhuh nay par-lay pah bo-coo duh frahn-say.) Try telling someone you don’t speak French very well — in French — ten times fast.
Without the gift of gab, life is trying in Paradise .
So who you gonna call? Stress buster, Adrian Leeds. She’s made it her work to narrow the gap between Parisians and Americans through her consultation firm Western Web Works and as “relationship marketing” director for WebFrance International. Her French-English “Parler Parlor” conversation group meets four times a week and her Parisian restaurant guide for anglophones (English speakers – primarily Americans) can be ordered online. She writes articles for several expat and travel related online magazines. And as if that weren’t enough, she organizes expat get-togethers for American holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. The Americans I’ve met in Paris agree on one thing, Adrian Leeds is the guardian angel of American expats in Paris.
But what do you do after you’ve called Adrian for the eleventh time in one week?
You plan to get the hell out of Dodge.
You decide to spend a week in London, a city that’s never been on your shopping list because you think it’s cold and dank with bad food and seven million stuffy people. But it is a popular expat destination, and so you decide that as long as you’re in Europe, you may as well visit the home of the Beatles, Madonna, and the Queen of England.
You meet Dale, a New Orleans native, through Adrian. (Many expats in Paris trace their friends back to Adrian.) She’s been staying with Adrian while she waited for her flat to become available. Like you, she’s an American woman in transition looking for a new country (a nice Continental man would be nice as well).
But Adrian’s daughter Erica is returning to reclaim her bedroom, so Dale is homeless for one week and she asks you if she can go with you to London.
You say sure, but you can’t leave for another day or two. You have a story due.
“Mind if I stay with you until then?” she asks. “No problem,” you say wondering how the two of you will manage in your tiny studio apartment. Dale, because she has lived in Paris for eight months, knows precisely what you are going through. She has generously helped you this first week to negotiate Paris so that routine tasks no longer gobble up whole days. You owe her.
But that night you toss and turn, unable to sleep in your double bed in your studio apartment with a same-sex virtual stranger. And you think, “Relax Robin. It’s only one night.“
You hole up in your apartment the next day to polish off the story. You leave a poetry reading early that night to take the Métro to the Web Bar where a Web techie will help you send photos to your editor in Panama. Hours pass as you email the photos one at a time. You do a final rewrite. Finally you hit the “Send” button and the photos are in Panama and the story in San Francisco.You dial up Terry on your one-dollar-a-minute cell phone and leave a message on her machine begging her to read the story, make corrections, and forward it to your editor in Panama before your deadline — in five hours.
You pack up your laptop and catch the last Métro train back to your flat at half-past midnight.
First thing next morning you hoof it to the neighborhood Cyber Cube to check for Email from your editor indicating he received the photos. He did not. Even from Paris a PC will not read photos transmitted from a Mac. So you rush back to your apartment to retrieve your stack of floppy disks with the photos. You return to the Cyber Cube where you crawl under the desk twelve times to insert each floppy disk one at a time. You choose a few keepers, download them, and hit the send button. Then you pray.
In all three travel agencies you visited earlier in the week, you were told that no, they didn’t sell train passes. You’ll have to go to the behemoth Gare de Nord train station and muddle through it yourself. By the time you arrive at the station it is 10 p.m. Every sign in the station is in French. There’s one long queue under a sign that says “Billets International,” so you get in line even though you’re not sure it’s the right one The one English-speaking guy in line knows less about what’s going on than you do. After 30 minutes, the line is shorter, by one person. You leave prepared to try again tomorrow.
Then you go home to bed for the third time with a woman you’ve just met, and you’re not gay, and you lay awake most of the night wondering if you will ever get out of Paris.
You ride the Métro once again to the train station the next morning and wait in line. You tell the clerk you need information about train passes. She says something in French and points to another line. You move to that line. You reach the front and you are told that you must go to an office at the end of the station to procure train passes. You wait in line again and “voila!” You are finally in the right place. After a lengthy exchange in “franglais,” you peel off way too many francs to buy a rail pass and a EuroStar train ticket to London. You leave the station, train tickets in hand, aware that you’ve just experienced first-hand the number one complaint of expats in Paris — lack of customer service and the tangle of bureaucracy involved in getting anything done.
That evening you meet Adrian at Les 7 Lézards to hear American expat Joe play piano with an assorted group of other expat musicians. When you relate your experience to Adrian,she says, “You paid how much? You should’ve gone to my travel agent on the corner.“
The next morning aboard the high speed EuroStar train you shoot across the French countryside and under the English channel (known as the “chunnel”). You emerge in London, England. You’ve done it. You’ve escaped Paradise.
“I feel such energy just being here,” Dale says as the two of you climb into a lorry outside the train station.
You speak to the cab driver. He responds! He understands! As the day progresses and you find yourself having conversations again, you realize that the ability to communicate gives you back your identity and makes it easier to accomplish everyday tasks.
You vow to join Parler Parlor next week when you return to Paris.