Frisbee on the Champ de Mars and a Little Canadian Cheer To Go

July 7, 2011


le feu
traffic light
une fontainefountain
un quai – quay
le métro – subway
La Défense – the ultra-modern business district just outside of Paris
comme la guerre – like going to war, like going to battle
passe Navigo – the Paris transit pass
se retrouver – to meet up; literally “to find each other (again)”; unlike English, in French, the verb “to meet” (se rencontrer) is used only in the context of a first meeting/introduction, while verbs used in relation to “meeting up” are se retrouver, se rejoindre (literally, “to join each other”) or se voir (to see each other)
une crêperie – a restaurant that specializes in crêpes
un couloir – corridor, hallway
le changement – change, transfer; in this context, refers to changing trains, or transferring between the different subway lines
les gars – (familiar) the guys
haut – (adj) high
cinq – five
mot à mot – word for word, literal
Tope là ! – High five!
le boulevard périphérique – the large highway that encircles Paris proper, dividing the city from its surrounding suburbs
Wi-Fi – Wi-Fi; although this word is spelled exactly the same way in French, don’t make the mistake of pronouncing it the same way over here, or people will stare at you blankly; in French, it’s pronounced “Wee-Fee”!
la pelouse –grass, lawn
un repos – rest, break
le spectacle exagéré – the overblown spectacle
Comme elle était belle ! – How beautiful it was!; It was so beautiful!

******

Last Monday I went out for drinks at The Great Canadian Pub and said goodbye to Dylan, one of my very first friends in Paris.  After an eventful year abroad, topped off by a two-month whirlwind tour of Europe, he was back in Paris for one night only before heading home to Vancouver.

On my way to the pub, I hurried across the busy intersection at Saint-Michel against the light with the rest of the locals, while hesitant tourists waiting for le feu to change looked on in confusion. I barely glanced up as I zipped past the gorgeous fontaine Saint-Michel, surrounded by its usual gaggle of ardent admirers, ooh-ing, aah-ing and taking pictures for posterity. I sprinted along the quai des Grands Augustins, dodging wide-eyed sightseers along the way, and beelined straight for the pub, where I slid breathlessly into the open chair at the table where my friends were waiting.

The evening passed in a pleasant haze of buffalo chicken wings and Canadian draft beer (both rare finds in Paris), and as I sat around joking with the circle of people who, over the past year, had become my good friends, I remembered my first experience at The Great Canadian Pub, and how very different—and scary—the city had seemed to me back then.

That night, I went home and dug up the entry I had started to write about that evening, so long ago. I had always intended to finish it and post the story, but I never seemed to find the right time.

This seems like the perfect occasion.



******

My first week in Paris was really hard. My last month in Toronto had been a manic blur of running around trying to get my affairs in order before my year abroad, interspersed with various goodbye lunches, dinners and gatherings with friends and family.  I’d been up for nearly three days straight leading up to my flight in a mad rush to get everything done, and was still frantically throwing things into – and pulling things out of – my suitcase five hours before my flight was scheduled to leave Toronto. By the time I arrived in Paris, I was jet-lagged, exhausted and emotionally drained.  My flight landed in mid-April and the weather hadn’t yet turned, so it was damp, cold, grey and rainy. The city didn’t feel welcoming at all.

Those first few days were a bewildering haze of frustrated confusion as I tried to navigate the maze-like Paris métro and decipher the cryptic signboards in the RER, the Paris suburban train system. I got lost. I bought the wrong kind of métro ticket. I took trains in the wrong direction. I swallowed hard and fought back tears of frustration as I tried desperately to understand employees in transit booths rattling off directions at me in rapid, incomprehensible French. One afternoon, I spent 35 frantic minutes wandering in circles around the vast complex of high-rise office buildings at La Défense because I couldn’t find the entrance to the subway (it wasn’t clearly marked with the usual telltale “M” or “Métro” sign so often visible in central Paris).

As my friend Floriane once wisely noted, when you move to a new country, every day is a little comme la guerre.  Nothing comes easy.  Ordinary things you’d do without thinking back home—going to the grocery store, buying medication at the pharmacy, taking the subway—all seem to involve a sometimes Herculean effort and a steep learning curve, especially when you’re trying to do these things in a foreign language.  A perfectly intelligent and capable adult in your own country, you find yourself having to relearn how things are done, struggling with the simplest tasks and more often than not, feeling just plain stupid. Sometimes a friendly face, a sympathetic ear and five minutes of patient explanation are the only things keeping you from losing it altogether.

In Canada, of course, I’d have had at least a dozen friends I could call on for tea and sympathy, but here in this new city, I felt pretty much alone.  There was no internet or telephone where I was staying, which further compounded the feeling of isolation. I spent a good portion of time feeling lonely, lost and on the verge of tears. If it weren’t for a handful of friendly, generous-spirited people who went out of their way to make themselves available, those first few weeks in Paris would have been a complete bust.  Sébastien, who you met in a previous post, was one of these people.  Also up there on the list are Floriane, a Parisienne friend who patiently held my hand through the daunting process of shopping for a cell phone and registering for my passe Navigo, and my Toronto friend Andrea, who was in Paris that month on vacation and gave me squatters rights to her apartment so that I could use the internet.

And of course, there was Brian and Dylan.

The day I landed in Paris, I got the following message from my sister Steph:

“Hey guys! So… Paris is an awfully big place and you’re both pretty social people who will undoubtedly make friends easily. HOWEVER it happens that you’ve both moved to it in the same week. Thus I thought maybe if you are looking for an exploring buddy you could connect with each other. Ummm this is the power of Facebook?”

She’d sent the message to both me and her friend Dylan, who had just moved to Paris from Vancouver. Eager to find a friend in this new city, I contacted him right away.  He responded almost instantly, a flurry of messages flew back and forth, and we set up a time and a place to se retrouver.

Dylan suggested that we meet up in the 17th, where he was temporarily living. He offered to meet me right at the exit to the Villiers métro station so that I wouldn’t get lost—a small kindness for which, at this point, I was incredibly grateful. He was there waiting for me at the top of the stairs when I emerged from the station, greeting me warmly with an open, friendly smile that put me instantly at ease. We traded our first impressions of Paris as we wandered back to the apartment building on rue de Saussure, where Dylan was staying with his friend Brian, while he looked for a place to live. Another Vancouverite, Brian had moved to Paris fourteen months earlier for work and in addition to Dylan, he was also currently hosting his cousin Sylvie and her friend Kaylee. The girls’ visit had been unexpectedly extended by a volcano that had erupted in Iceland, effectively shutting down European airspace and delaying all scheduled flights on the continent. Three houseguests plus one daytime visitor made for quite the full and chaotic household, and we quickly abandoned the apartment in favour of a little more breathing room, a leisurely walk through the Châtelet neighbourhood, and dinner at a crêperie near Hôtel de Ville.

Fine upstanding Canadian boys that they were, Brian and Dylan then decided that it was time to – what else – catch the hockey game. We descended once again into the cavernous depths of the métro.  By now, Brian was an experienced veteran of the Paris subway, leading us confidently through the many couloirs and navigating the changements with ease. He turned to me as I trotted along behind him on the quai and noted humorously, “Now, we’re about to take Line 4 – arguably the stinkiest métro in the whole system – but don’t worry, we won’t be on it for long.”

The last place I’d intended to end up a mere five days after arriving in Paris was a Canadian pub, but I was so happy to have some friendly company, I’d have probably followed the group all the way back to Canada if they’d suggested it. We ordered beers all around and Sylvie professed (then vehemently defended) her fondness for Nickelback, while les gars derived endless amounts entertainment from the fact that the French equivalent of “high five” was not, in fact, “haut cinq”, which would have been the mot à mot translation, but rather, “tope là”, or literally, “tap there”. (Between you and me, I’m pretty sure that the high level of amusement derived from this fact was not entirely unrelated to the amount of beer they had consumed.)

Dylan and Brian practice high-fiving in French

Eventually, jet lag kicked in and I started to fade. The rest of the group was hunkered down to stay until the wee hours of the morning, but I had a long trek waiting for me out past the boulevard périphérique to La Défense, and I knew the métro would be closing soon. I was secretly frightened to leave on my own, unsure of exactly how we had gotten to the pub, and intimidated by the prospect of navigating the hugely confusing intersection we had crossed through to get there. Noticing my uncertainty, Brian asked kindly, “Would you like me to walk you back to the subway?” The relief on my face must have been instantly apparent, because he stood up to go before I could even answer. “Come on,” he smiled.

We exited the pub into the cool evening air and Brian led the way along the quai des Grands Augustins, back across the busy intersection and past the towering fontaine Saint-Michel to the métro entrance.  “You should be okay from here,” he said reassuringly. FeeIing much better, I smiled and thanked him, scurrying down the stairs and into the night.

******

Two days later, I was basking in the sun on the cobblestone plaza outside the Centre Pompidou, poaching the free Wi-Fi signal on my laptop, when I received an impromptu invitation from Brian. They were going out to throw a Frisbee around, would I like to join them?  Would I!  He didn’t need to ask twice.  Starved for human contact and still feeling lonely and homesick, I packed up my computer and headed off to the métro without delay.

I met up with Brian, Sylvie and Kaylee on the Champ de Mars, a large expanse of land in front of the Eiffel Tower. We squeezed onto a tiny available space on the crowded pelouse and I shared in what was to be my first of many, many Paris picnics to come. After an appropriate post-lunch repos, we started a game of Frisbee, joined halfway through by Dylan, who arrived exuberant and slightly out of breath from an afternoon of viewing apartments around the city. Some of us (read: me) were less talented at Frisbee than others, and eventually the game devolved into sort of a merry exercise of “Frisbee catch”, which involved more running after the Frisbee once it hit the ground than it did actual catching of it. There was a lot of laughing and good-natured ribbing, and in the end, a good time was had by all.

The sun dipped low in the sky, casting its long golden rays out over the iconic tower and the surrounding field. The breeze picked up and we shivered a little in our thin summer attire, debating whether it or not it was time to call it a day.  “Let’s wait just a few more minutes,” Brian suggested. “It’s almost time for the light show.”

He was referring to the fact that after sunset, the Eiffel Tower is illuminated every hour on the hour in a sparkling light display that has tourists exclaiming in rapturous delight, and blasé locals rolling their eyes at the gauche spectacle exagéré.  Sure enough, fifteen minutes later, the tower lit up for the first time that night, twinkling merrily at us from the far end of the field. Tourists that we were, we gawked in admiration. Comme elle était belle !


It felt like a kind of welcome, a friendly reminder of the amazing city where I was and how far I’d come to get here, and a gentle reassurance that through the challenges that lay ahead, I’d be able to find friends to help me through it all.

“Okay. Now we can go,” Brian declared, satisfied. I couldn’t have agreed more. It was the perfect note on which to end a perfect evening, and though I didn’t know it at the time, the perfect introduction to what would become two very special friends.

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8 Responses to “Frisbee on the Champ de Mars and a Little Canadian Cheer To Go”

  1. Laurent Says:

    Rue de Saussure is a funny street name, the funny translation would be “sue street”… Because you better wear nice “sues” to walk in this street…

    Like

  2. Andrea Says:

    I don’t remember if I’ve sent you the pics I took of you on rue des Gravilliers, but there is this: From Paris 2010: La Vie en Rose

    Like

  3. Laura Stewart Says:

    LOVED this post. Such a nice juxtaposition between nervous newbie and relaxed veteran.

    Laura

    Like

    • Darlene Says:

      Thanks Laura! It really is so funny when I think back to how intimidating the city seemed a year ago. All the places are still exactly the same and yet in my mind, it felt like a completely different city than it does now!

      Like


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