It was somewhere amongst the screaming kids and the 25cl Heinekens (note: that’s, like, 8 ounces) that I realized that we’re all humans: infinitely capable of being fat, stupid and annoying.
God I hate (other peoples’) kids.
But that’s not France. That’s not Paris. It is, but it also isn’t.
We walked into Paris virtually blind: I had never visited, neither of us spoke a word of French, and my only understanding of their history was through World War II clichés. I honestly didn’t care. I was there for the baguettes, the croissants, the coffee and long-lost family.
From day one, I was functioning (and, to a certain degree, Jamie) off of stereotypes. In addition to the aforementioned croissant-love, I expected nose-upturned, dainty-handed Europeans, with even their garbage collectors clad in clothes more fashionable than I plan to wear to my father’s funeral (which won’t occur for decades—dad is somehow preserved in a broth of his own “don’t give a sh*t” attitude and cheap beer). So what happens, day one, ten o’clock at night?
I buy two pizzas and four beers. From a guy in blue jeans. And he was REALLY nice about it, considering he was just getting ready to close when I showed up. No eye rolling.
Okay, but we were in Parc des Exhibitiones—the Newark/Schaumberg/Sun Prairie/Onalaska to the real glory of Paris.
Yet time and again, we failed to find an instance where our butchered pronunciations of “merci” and “bonjour” were met with some kind of French snootiness. Every time we sat down in a café, Lily was treated to a delightful appetizer of nuts, raisins or buttered baguettes with ham, free of charge (well, mom and dad had to pay approximately $5 a pop for 25cl of wine/beer). Smiles and English-language courtesy abounded.
Carrying a hundred pounds of luggage, one guy helped me get through the exit gates at the train station. Immediately after, a separate, large-muscled guy (who did not remotely look like a luggage-stealing cretin or a bum looking for a handout) offered to help me with my bags down the stairs.
In the middle of this, we visited my mother’s cousin—the only link to my mother’s side of the family any of us had ever met. Eva, her hilarious brother, wonderful children and gracious, scotch-whisky-bearing husband were fantastic. But even they seemed to have to stretch to provide us the “French” experience. Or maybe “stretch” is the wrong word: Eva’s husband knew how to pour the champagn aperitif, no one in the room was a stranger to Roquefort, Camembert or brie, and coffee with dessert was barely a question. Everyone was dressed sharp, and dinner took three hours between four courses of food and conversation. It felt so wonderfully French. But this isn’t how they eat every night. This isn’t how they finished every day.
“There are no Burger Kings in France!” my (second?) cousin Stefan lamented. I couldn’t help but wonder how those croissanwiches might taste.
The next day, we had bad croissants. Horrible croissants, like greasy, crescent-shaped bread. We had traveled throughout the day, taking two metro lines with 500-lbs of our gear to Euroline’s bus station. Engulfing that station was a shopping center. A shopping center filled to the brim with very, very, VERY non-french things, including the Auchan supermarket where Jamie bought four croissants for EUR0.99.
Which brings us back to McDonalds, small French beers (side note: ordering beer in McDonald’s never, EVER gets old) and these screaming kids. Here it was, proof that we’re all just humans, inifinitely capable of being fat, stupid and annoying. Not like I needed to know that—I’ve met more than enough fat, stupid and lazy people throughout the dozen or so countries I’ve traveled—but this was the first time in a while I had a stereotype conveniently shattered. It’s the whole reason we travel: not just to accept that we’re all just human, but to actually witness it, firsthand.
The French are just folks: sometimes good, sometimes bad. What separates the French from a schmuck like you or me, is Paris.
And Paris is fucking awesome—shopping malls be damned.