This was written my third week in Paris. The frustrations had thoroughly set in.
Finding myself in Paris again has been life changing, and not in any way that one would expect. The saying goes “You can’t go home” and no matter how much I may have shunned this and mentally prepared myself for the experience, what I never took into account was what I was leaving. I focused so easily on where I was going and what that experience was going to be, that I forgot to remember the daily life I had in Birmingham. In retrospect, this was easy to do. I had never experienced Paris with any sense of there being anything else, I had only known Paris. I then spent twelve years looking backwards at a life I always thought was better than what I had.
Coming here was a financial sacrifice, but compounding it is that life here is astronomically expensive. To give it some context, I will point out the things we take for granted in the U.S.
Food. The best example being the average ham sandwich. Bought here, at the cheapest boulangerie(bakery) I can find is 6€. This is essentially $9. A large McDonalds meal is the equivalent of $12. At this point, you decide you simply HAVE to go the grocery store and do your best to find cheap eats there. Again, I will use the ham sandwich example for it’s simplicity. A loaf of bread, if you forgo the baguette that doesn’t keep past 12 hours, is about $4. This is par, but here’s the catch, bread is priced by the government. There are others items that are too, I’m just not sure what they are yet. The ham for your sandwich? 4 slices, for a whopping $6. Yes, you read that correctly, 4 slices. I’ll stop here, but I’m sure you get the point. By the time you’re done, you’re paying $25 for what will come out to be a little over 4 sandwiches. Might as well buy it at the bakery.
This, by the way is all only relevant if you are able to go home for lunch. That is not the case for this job, where half of your day is spent in the tourist meccas of Paris, where even the most basic lunch will cost you upwards of $25 without batting an eye. Imagine paying $7 for a diet coke. I’ve done it now on multiple occasions only because there was no other option. Better yet, I’ve done it as some grand ‘screw the french, i will have my diet coke and drink it too’ taste of home.
The coming posts, are, to say the least, late. Possibly too late. I became a little hesitant to post anything new when I realized how quickly my emotions about being in Paris were changing not from day to day but by the hour. That said, I’m going to post most of this unedited, as I wrote it then, as I intended it in the moment.
Forgive the delay. And I will get back to the fun posts sooooon enough
Today, I spent 3 hours talking to an 83 year old French couple about their apartment they are adding to our repertoire.
First of all, my French took a big leap for me, they wanted to talk talk talk. I find myself missing words, but less so than yesterday. It feels amazing. Possibly because it has felt so miserable to know that I used to not even think about it. I can’t explain it, but imagine for a second you couldn’t remember the words for average household items and you were trying to write a shopping list. Point being, my confidence is back, on day two, and it makes everything here easier. Yesterday, a visit to a brasserie felt forced and touristy. Today, it’s not. The touristy feel is also a misery for me… Not to say being a tourist is bad, I love being a tourist anywhere else, but here it feels like I shouldn’t be, especially in light of how familiar it feels. Talk about internal conflict.
That said, it must be confusing for anyone serving me, I stick out like a sore thumb. Everything about me is oh so very American, from my hair to my shoes and everything in between. I spoke French to a waiter last night and he spoke back to me in English.
Today, I traded my signature white button down and my sports coat for a darker shirt and a black jacket. I am now sitting at a corner cafe between two couples and their dogs and it seems it has helped. If it hasn’t they are not telling. How French of them!
I am back in town, and struggling. None of the emotions are anything I expected them to be. On the lowest level, I feel like I took a trip to Atlanta, but even there I would be more out of place than I am here. I know where everything is. I can walk the streets with my head down and cross intersections without looking up. Admittedly, my eyes are up, almost permanently. The Paden in me sees the rooftops against the negative space everywhere.
I feel at home, more than I could have ever imagined. Perfectly comfortable and in place, but this is part of the problem. I thought for sure I would have a giddy kid in a candy store response to being here. Instead, I’m not bored, but I’m not really that inspired. That said, I’m aware that this is day 1. I haven’t been on the ground for 24 hours yet. I feel like, at any moment it’s going to hit me and I’m going to hit the ground crying. I’m almost hoping that happens.
All of this aside. If I had all of my girls here, I know I would and will, have a different feeling. When Christy gets here, it will all change. The spark, the shininess of Paris will be there for me, even if by proxy I will be a crazed looney toon character about Paris. When the pups get here I’ll get to do it all over again, from cafes with plates for the dogs to the parks, even that will be a great feeling for me and I seriously doubt the pups will complain about the eating options here.
Some day one observations from Paris.
Oh my god, it’s the same. You can tell me all day long that Starbucks and McDonalds are destroying the French way, and I would hush you and call you crazy. They exist, no doubt, and trust me I will be having a grande iced latte from there soon enough, but the culture hasn’t changed and Starbucks isn’t putting anyone out of business. They exist, amusingly in an almost cafe format in some cases but the cafe on the corner still has a full house.
Smoking is still very much alive here. You can pass all the laws you want, and create great nonsmoking environments, but the reality is that the average cafe or brasserie Isn’t going to stop serving “café, clopes”. They have taken the patios, the outside seating and wrapped them in plastic and put in heating. It sounds simple enough, but some of these places have made the outside seating bigger and in all honesty, better than sitting at a table in the corner inside. Amusingly, the youth smoking culture is the controller. Inside are the people that have quit, 40+ give or take, outside (that’s not really outside) are the movers and shakers 20 to 35 crowd. I am certain, that at some point I’m going to find a cafe with a tiny interior non smoking table and 40 outside seats.
Americans are everywhere. I don’t think I took notice growing up here, only enjoying the perks of the American presence in the frame of expat oriented bars and such. They are everywhere, some as tourists, but as I write this I’m sitting in a bar I grew up frequenting, a storefront with a dozen visible seats and a small staircase in the corner that leads to a 30+ downstairs bar, in what is essentially a 400 year old basement ‘cave’. The bartender is Nepali, the first I’ve ever met, the DJ is an Australian that was previously homeless in Paris, mixing The stones, Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse.
The patrons are thin on a Wednesday night at midnight, the staff tell me “you just never know” here but that weekends are packed. The few patrons are an international crockpot of languages and origins from brazil to a well represented Missouri and a washington DC teacher on a transfer to the American School of Paris teaching history to 8th graders.
This is without a doubt, my new life and my future.
This feels right.
Life is riddled with conflicts, with options, with decisions; this we all deal with, day in, day out. Whether it be which route to take to work in the morning, what fast food joint to frequent on a busy day, or which movie to watch at closing time. Most of us calibrate ourselves to make these trivial, but amazingly hard decisions in a dazed but methodical fashion; like following cattle to slaughter, we simply follow the flow of traffic on the pre-determined thoroughfare. I65, McDonalds, Oceans 11.
Sometimes, decisions carry weight, and not in the McDonalds fashion, but in the, how to play your 401k way. Growth? Balanced? Boring? Or what car to buy, like buying a pair of shoes you have to wear every day for 60 months.
Once in a while, a truly important decision comes along, that requires thought, analysis and focus groups. The kind of thing you never leave to chance because it can, and will affect your life for years to come if not what’s left of it.
And thus, this blog post; A serious and profound need for input. A plea for help in what may be the most important decision of this decade for me.
I now have a flight, a ticket, a transatlantic date with Air France. I am leaving the night of the 28th of february and will land in Paris in this leap year’s one extra day.
What should be my first steps in Paris?
This is the part where everyone sneaks a smile, maybe even a laugh, but I am thoroughly overthinking it.
If anything, you should snicker at how stupid I sound saying this, but I really have thought about whether I should, when I get off my 6am screw up your sleep for a week flight and get ‘un espress’ at the airport. I can’t help but think that my second, first espress should be somewhere slightly more relevant. Maybe not at ‘Les deux maggots’, or any other tourist trap, maybe at the cafe around the corner from my new home in the 6th arrondissement, but I’m fairly certain it shouldn’t be in an ugly airport holding pen.
What about the things I’ve pined for year after year away from Paris? The ‘Sandwiche Mixte’ or the ‘chouquettes’, the ‘omelette frites’ or the ‘steak frites’. the questions are boundless, where to have them, in what order and with who. Will I burn myself out if I try to do it all the first day I’m back?
All of this can seem trivial, and as I think about all of it i constantly fight the urge for nonchalance, to discount it, to make it all normal.
I want it to be important, but I want it to be natural. How on earth does one pull that off?
To add memory to something as if you could gauge the scale like an engine block or a shoe; not a lawnmower engine or a v8, not a keds or a manolo blahnik. Something reserved but relevant.
I am no different than any other traveler in this respect, I am giddy about the small things as much as the big. I am not ‘better’ than anything, I will stand in line to ride up the Eiffel Tower, again, for the 28th time. What I will do though, is the same trick I pulled off every other time I went up there with a family friend visiting Paris. I will find a cute american family all the way at the top and I will tell them about how even when there is no wind, the Eiffel Tower sways 3 meters to each side.
“Now close your eyes and you can feel it swaying”
One of the greatest things to me in growing up in Paris was always the proximity of the French Alps. A 5 hour train ride could take you to the world’s best never-ending winter wonderland. Not kidding, you can actually ski from france to italy through switzerland in a day. Our ski trips were a february ritual for us as a family. Still in the era of unlimited funds and vacations galore lifestyle, we would do it up in different mountain towns each year. Some places warranted a return, usually for bizarre or food related reasons, but It was never a goal of my parents to be jet-setters, and in a couple if instances, they were just outdone by a little too much glamour. I could list the towns off but that’s not the point, we had fun, and the focus was on the best skiing the best food and a family adventure.
Dad was always a navigator, not solely in the geographic sense but in a cultural, conversational, and generally fearless way. He knew where to go, who to ask, how to get there, and how much to tip the guy that did, well, anything to help you in the process. The catch with some of these adventures though, was that sometimes, Dad was missing. This is no sob story about a workaholic father (he was, and is) or that he didn’t care (he did, and does). It really just came down to the fact that to support our debonaire lifestyle, someone had to actually work. Also, he always made it there, just not always at the same time as us. Most of the time this was a non-issue, I had grown into some of his ways by this point and let’s just say ‘I got it’. Then again, it’s not like I was ‘driving the car’ metaphorically speaking, I was 12, maybe. Ultimately, the burden fell on Mom. In this case, it didn’t quite work out how anyone had planned.
The trip to La Plagne involves a quick and unbelievably easy jump on a train in Paris marked “Les Alpes”. There aren’t forty ways to get there, there is one. A phenomenally fast train (TGV, translated into english as Really Fast Train, two points to the french for bluntness), that slows to a crawl once it hits the first 2 degree incline. I’m probably lying through my teeth but I think it takes 1 hour to get to the bottom of the hill and 4 hours to get up it. By the time you get into the lower areas of the mountains with white snow and fir trees everywhere, it’s pitch black outside except for the reflection of the train lights on a pristine white canvas. It’s stunning, and awe inspiring. It just goes and goes forever. It has nothing to do with the single existence ski resorts in the US with 25 runs and 6 lifts. We are talking about being in one town, with 50 lifts and 300 runs going up one side and down the other of dozens of peaks to more towns with the same predicament. Needless to say, it takes a while to get to where you’re going, and the pristine view turns into a bland white mess rather quickly.
This is where travelling up a french mountain in the pitch black with a teenage sister and a University of Alabama ‘AlphaGam’ mother gets fun. On one side is my sister and I, antsy, ready to be somewhere, anywhere, just not in limbo and my mother, ready to not be dealing with antsy, ready to be somewhere kids. Cue what was probably the third random stop at a barely marked train station in the middle of nowhere. This is, did I mention?, part of the experience; you have to actually figure out where to get off. By now, most of the passengers are off the train, it’s late, the conductors are nowhere to be found and you have to open completely unlocked train doors yourself, peak around, try to find a train station sign in unlit, unmarked, unplowed stations and pray you didn’t miss your stop.
The fear of missing your stop I have found, is greater than the fear of getting off at the wrong station. I learned this through my mother. My navigational concerns and thoughts were at this point, unfounded, unnecessary, and childishly trivial. Her’s were tried and true, and the result of years of horribly bad navigational decisions.
As the train has stopped, all three of us have tried to wipe the condensation from the windows, tried to press up against the glass with our hands cupped around our faces and tried our damnest to catch a glimpse of this particular station’s identity. A photo from the outside would have made us look like three orangutans scuba diving. Between the lack of lighting outside, and the excessive lighting inside, we simply couldn’t see anything, at all. I at this point, make the executive decision to work my way to the end of the train, to the door, to the only viewport out to the world.
I open the door, look around, squinting, searching for anything that denotes where we are only to realize that not only is there no signage, there doesn’t seem to be a station at all. I would have been happy to catch a glimpse of a bench and call it proof, but none appeared.
Suddenly, and rather surprisingly, I find myself with my arms straight out to each side and cold snow up to my chin. I have been expelled from the train-car, jettisoned onto the softest and whitest train platform ever to exist. It is easily six feet deep, and I, clock in at, maybe five. Not that the thought had not already crossed my mind, but I am now fully convinced that we are, without any doubt, not at an actual station. For a split second, I ponder why on earth the train would have stopped here. Were we going to be here all night?, was there an avalanche ahead, a car on the tracks? Or, as I was prone to think, was this a James Bond moment where some dapper british man would be climbing out of a window nearby with a seventies goddess in tow?
All of these thoughts were quickly shuttered, when as I hear my mother scream “We’re here!” with the joy and exalt of an escaping convict, I am pushed another foot down into the snow by a suitcase turned projectile. Panic mode has now set in for me as I imagine the train kicking into gear, hearing all of those familiar clinking sounds as the accordion of the train stretches out, and me being left, buried on the side of the tracks, with my sisters ski clothes in this particular suitcase. I know, I know, salmon is a very manly color, but her ski suit was most definitely bright pink and not a good look for me. I throw the suitcase to my side, and scream at the top of my lungs ‘MOOOOOOOOOM!’. I look up and she is now grabbing another projectile, this one hers, and significantly larger and I really freak out. I am now worried about being out here in the snow with really bad ski clothes AND a concussion. She swings the bag around and her eyes catch sight of, nothing. Well, she saw grey, a lot of it, with a few trees here and there to break the monotony but I am nowhere to be found, and the suitcase is gone.
“Eakin?” she half whispers, half mutters, as she is slowly coming to the same conclusion I have, that this is probably not our stop, and probably not a station. I respond, from 6 feet below her with a “Yes?”. She looks down, and suddenly, as if I were missing my legs, freaks out for a split second. The same thoughts of loss and abandonment that I had thirty seconds ago are rushing through her head ,I think, and I for a moment feel a sense of comfort and warmth in knowing this. Then she starts laughing, and it’s gone. Paden has by this point made her way to the door and joined in on the cacophony. I am now the only person worried about anything. Clearly, had the train picked up and left at this point, they would have laughed their way up the rest of the hill and enjoyed telling the story over a fondue dinner of how they lost Eakin, and that pink ski suit. They would have, the next morning, right after a sumptuous brioche and cafe au lait breakfast, replaced the pink ski suit. End of story.
Apparently, after what felt like 10 minutes of laughing, which was more likely only 20 seconds, they decide that I may be useful to them later in life and determine that they need to get me back on the train, quickly. Paden and Mom both reach down and I reach up, but again, I am wrong about how this is going to play out. They ask me for the suitcase. Now, I completely understand the physics of getting two objects onto a train, one with opposable thumbs, the other without. You can’t well reach down from 6 feet up and grab the suitcase once I’m on board, but that doesn’t make the experience any less demeaning, not to mention, I’m starting to think the pink ski suit wouldn’t be so bad to have if the train were to pick up and leave right now. I can’t get it up to them fast enough, I’m scared to death that I’m going to be left here, that at any second the train could up and leave at TGV speed and I will be left here to melt into the snow. They finally get me back on board, both of them grabbing an arm and heaving me up into the train. Everyone laughs, even me, now that I am back in the warmth of the train, no longer in the running for ‘first family member lost to the hazards of a family ski trip’. Please note, I have been in the running twice before. I’m now expecting the train to jump into action, and whisk us away to our destination, as we’re walking back to our seats, I’m holding on to every seat we pass expecting a sudden pull from the trains first movements. It never comes. We sit down, we laugh a little more, we joke about telling Dad the story, all is good in the world, except that we’re not moving. For 45 of the longest minutes ever, I sit, looking out the window thinking how nice it would be to be out there playing in the snow. Finally, the train gets to moving, at a pace I wold have easily been able to keep up with had I been outside. Ultimately, it got us to our fondue dinner, though rather slowly.
As you might imagine the fondue tasted just a little bit better to me than anyone else.
I’m going home. Finally. 11 years and 5 months since I last left Paris I have, by pure happenstance, found a way back.
It’s a weird thing being from there, but from here. It’s a little hard to explain, but no different from trying to answer the question I get asked so often ‘Where are you from?’. My passport says Birmingham, AL because I was born (t)here. My brain says Gadsden, AL on account of where my family ‘history’ is. My heart screams Paris, France.
I was raised in the city of lights in a kitchen filled with fried chicken and y’all. It was a small, parisian kitchen that my mother managed to convince into being an amalgamation of baguettes and my grandmothers alabama fig preserves, of parisian street bought rotisserie chicken and black eyed peas. It worked, and ultimately became what I still remember and pine for in ‘comfort food’. My mother had been plucked from a movie like upbringing in Gadsden, AL, a blonde beauty, daughter to a WWII engineer pilot trainer father that could, literally, figure anything out in his garage turned wood-shop. They lived a good, simple, full life with the occasional mistake of a pet monkey. She fell for my father, after years and years of courtship, the third brother in a family of high living hoteliers that had recently found hard times. The family had at one point owned a half dozen hotels, including for a new york minute the Redmont in downtown Birmingham, a pair of hotels in Gadsden and a high brow vacation motel in Sarasota. Yet, in this story, my father worked selling books door to door to pay for his University of Alabama education. He took over the remnants of the family business fresh out of college, the restaurant on the bottom floor of a long closed family hotel in Gasden while my mother taught grade school children the ways of the mid 70′s american dream. He struggled to make it work, between managing a kitchen and managing customers that ripped marble bathroom dividers off the wall it simply wasn’t meant to be. He took a job in Birmingham working for Dan Wallace, more on him later. Ultimately, the Birmingham job turned into a London, England job with two kids in tow; my sister at 4 years old and myself, at 3 months old. Not to mention, a southern belle school teacher mother of two that had never set foot outside the United States.
My first word was ‘Dada’, that I like to remember for the sake of this story, as being said with a distinct british accent. All of our home movies from my youth show me running around talking like a true british aristocrat. Scary is the only word that comes to mind. It is one thing to hear yourself as a child, it is another completely to hear yourself in a voice you can’t connect to. This period of my life I only remember anecdotes from, I was a child, I don’t remember much. I remember walking the polo grounds with the Queen. I remember climbing century old trees I wasn’t supposed to, that I’m pretty sure were the property of said Queen. I remember cats, and au-pairs.
I was 7 years old when we left for Paris. A strategic move by my father had taken us to the business ‘middle’ of europe. He was now running a company with a reach far and wide across europe and the world. I was a child, without any real understanding of all of this. I had the remnants of a british accent and knew I was an American in Paris. I was in a school with the children of diplomats, from every country you can think of and a handful of offspring of famous Parisians.
I, am no writer. That said, this new chapter has brought up too many emotions to count. I feel like some of them are worth sharing, and the memories each one brings back. Mostly, I want a place to put the stories that my parents, my sister and I find ourselves laughing to tears around the dining room table telling. No matter how many times we’ve told them. From a car in the winding hills above Monaco that honked the horn every time you turned left, to being pushed off a stopped train in the french Alps into 6 feet of snow by mom while she screamed “We’re there!”.
All of this brings about the scariest sensation of them all, that I’m going home to a home that no longer exists. I feel like I know it, and I feel like I’m prepared for the shock. But.