COUNTING SHEEP WASN’T WORKING so I switched to bottles of beer, but that just made me sick. Little lambs and bottles of booze spun in my head. I repositioned myself for the hundredth time, found that perfect way to squish my sweatshirt into a makeshift pillow, and stretched my legs out to get my feet up. It still didn’t do anything to help the miserable journey I was on; the overnight train from Amsterdam to Paris with three of my best friends.
Unfortunately, we were no longer drunk; we were tired, irritable, and at each other’s throats, or we were until everyone but me fell asleep. We couldn’t seem to stop drinking. Why? I knew the answer as soon as I asked myself the question. We were 18, American, and in Europe where we didn’t need to lie, cheat and steal to get as drunk as we desired.
Our last week was spent in a dirty, cramped hostel in Amsterdam’s Red Light District giggling about the prostitutes in the alley behind us, chain smoking cigarettes in our bunk beds while passing a bottle of vodka around. Funny to think we came all the way here to do exactly what we did at home. Minus the prostitutes, of course.
Somehow I finally dozed off, and then I woke up to sunshine outside, rancid cottonmouth, and Paris. After we departed the train we realized it never occurred to us in Amsterdam to get directions to the hotel. Or a guide book. Or a map. That’s what we got for spending the week stoned and drunk. I think the most cultural experience we embarked on was the Heineken factory tour.
Mapless and three hours from the hotel
“Pardon, où est…” I asked over and over while pointing to the piece of paper in my hand that had the name and address of our hotel. No one knew where it was, but at least they understood my clumsy French. Finally, someone told us that our Parisian hotel was not, in fact, in Paris, it was in a small town two hours outside. The last train in that direction was departing in five minutes. “Cinq minutes? Everyone run!”
We dashed recklessly through the train station and jumped onto our train with seconds to spare. After another hour and a half ride, we departed into a desolate station where we found out the hotel was an hour walk away and we had missed the last bus. We had now been traveling since the night before. We hadn’t eaten a real meal all day. We were still hung over. We hadn’t had coffee. We had no pot. No one spoke English. Fuck.
We sat down to smoke and pout when some Euro-trash boys with acne lingering around us offered a ride in broken English. We looked at them, we looked at each other, we looked at our bags, we nodded our consent simultaneously, and we finally made it to the cursed hotel.
“J’ai un réservation a trois nuit.” I had been practicing that sentence for the whole train ride over. The receptionist stared at me. “Pardon?” I repeated myself. “J’ai un réservation a trois nuit.” She stared blankly. Finally she said in English, “Do you have a reservation?” At that moment I realized I was starting to hate France.
The next morning, after food, a shower, and sleep in real beds, we were in much better moods and ready for Paris. When it was finally time to come above ground and see the famous city for the first time, I took a giant breath in anticipation, and prepared myself to be amazed. I was. My first impression of Paris in the summer was the unmistakable smell of old urine cooked on hot asphalt. But no matter.
“Look! Look! Look!” said one of my friends and pointed to the Eiffel Tower in the distance. We began to work our way towards it. After a few wrong turns, it loomed in front of our eyes. We were very proud of ourselves for finding it without a map and posed for the obligatory tourist shots.
We decided the Eiffel Tower was ridiculously overpriced to enter and instead decided to spend our money on drinking. A random monsieur on the street gave us a subway stop where there might be a cheap bar. It was all we had to go on, so back down to the Parisian tunnels we went. We got off at what we thought was the right stop. “What was it called again? Rue-de-something-eau?” Upon making it to street level, I spotted a sign offering drink specials for vodka, our favorite.
Jacques and Jean-Claude were our real life sexy French bartenders and we had fun smiling coyly at them. When they extended happy hour specials all night for us we alternated between flirting shamelessly, practicing blowing smoke rings, and giving in to fits of laughter. During one of these fits, I realized exactly why these girls and I were friends and travel companions, and that it was more than the fact that we had all grown up together.
We had crossed off so many firsts there was no way to count them all. We had seen each other with skinned knees from falling off the swings at eight, tears in our eyes from school dances gone awry at 12, and vomit in our hair from cheap rum at 16. We knew each other before we had breasts. We knew each other when life was simpler. We knew each other when we were virgins.
Missing the last bus
But not anymore. Now we were mature and worldly. We were on another continent and life was a celebration. We were young and invincible. We were drunk and loud. Our bartenders didn’t seem to mind. We could do no wrong; nothing like being 18, blonde, and foreign as an excuse to bend the rules until they broke.
We raised our glasses and cheered to being out of school and knocked down a shot. We were in Paris. Shot! Jean-Claude left a full bottle of vodka on the table. Shot! No parents. Shot! Amsterdam was awesome. Shot! Our hotel sucked. Shot!
“Shit. Our hotel.” One of my friends brought us back to reality. We had lost track of time and now had missed the last bus out of Paris and back to our hotel. We took another shot, but this one was not celebratory. What else was there to do? We now had a new mission; we needed a place to stay tonight in this foreign city. The bartenders were cute and nice… now we were not flirting for fun anymore, we were flirting with intention.
Soon the bar was closed and we all moved downstairs to an underground lounge and the guys pulled out some Afghan hashish. They rolled it up European style, took a small ball of the sticky black goo, warmed it with their hands, and rolled it slowly into a long strip that got placed inside of a rolling paper with loose leaf tobacco and skillfully twisted into a slightly cone shaped joint. It got passed around our circle a few times, and we all bonded via the universal language of coughing.
At some point late in the night we started to fade. The bartenders offered us an empty €100 room in the inn above the bar. We just had to be quiet and out by ten the next morning. We accepted both terms, although by this point they could have given us any conditions besides prostitution or quitting smoking, and we would have agreed.
I passed out into a blissful alcohol enhanced sleep until rays of sunshine shone in through our open French doors and landed on my face. I was the first to rise. I tiptoed to the bathroom in the corner of the room where I attempted to brush my teeth with toilet paper and repair the mess my hair had become, and then I treaded softly back across the room and outside to a small balcony.
I lit up a cigarette and leaned as far as I could over the rail to watch the day begin from two stories up. The sun was soft but bright and the street below me radiated under it. There were five cafés on this block alone, each with outdoor seating and already partially filled with people sitting, reading, and talking.
It must have sprinkled the night before. The ground sparkled, and the scents of rain and freshly baked pastries intermingled with the smoke from my cigarette. I inhaled deeply and smiled. This is what I thought Paris would smell like.
And then something inside me clicked. I finally got it. I understood travel. I comprehended why people sold their belongings, packed up, and gave up having a “normal” life in order to see the world. In this moment I felt everything I had been waiting to feel here. I loved France!
I appreciated the culture of the city, the elegance ascetics, the haughtiness of the people, the beauty of how they all merged together. I saw why this city was so coveted. I realized that there was no way I could have found this feeling at the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre.
I didn’t know it yet, but I had just begun to discover three important lessons of travel. The first is that most of the time everything has a way of working itself out against impossible odds. The second is the most excruciating experiences make the best stories. The third is that the most magical moments of travel happen not in the motions or in tourist destinations but in between them in stillness. Oh, and the easiest way to learn a foreign language is to get drunk with locals.
Soon the other girls woke up too and we snuck out of the hotel and into the gleaming outside world to begin to navigate our way out of the city. As soon as we got back into the subway and I smelled that putrid urine again, I vomited into a trash can and once again declared my hatred of Paris. My friends held my hair for me, offered me water, and then made fun of me the whole way back to our hotel.
Paris : amour ou la haine? The smell of fresh rain or old piss? It is always one extreme or the other whenever I look back. Love or hate. Never anything in between; like two sides of the same map that will forever be connected in my mind, but can never be viewed simultaneously.