Thirty years ago, in the waning days of summer, I got on a plane and went to France. I flew on a DC-9 and it was the summer they kept blowing up. “Don’t worry,” my father reassured me, “By the time you leave, they’ll be the safest planes around.”
I landed in Paris, solo. The plan—if there was one—was to spend several days hanging out in Paris, finding my way around, before I headed down to my school in Angers, in the Loire Valley. My sister who was babysitting in Spain would join me at some point. That was the only plan I had. I had no real idea where I was going in Paris of after, but I went anyway.
I got off the plane and in my best American French, asked for directions to the bus that would take me the center of Paris. I took the wrong bus and ended up in a depot on the outskirts of Paris. I waited patiently for an irate French woman to finish berating the counter people in the bus terminal and then slowly explained my situation. The irate French woman took one look at me, twenty-one and lost in Paris with a backpack, and said, “Come with me!”
Her name was Francoise and she was in her mid-twenties. Though only a few years older than me she seemed sophisticated beyond her years. On the way back into the city she ran errands, pointed out landmarks and kept up a steady stream of information in rapid fire French, including relevant slang and necessary swear words. Francoise was a school teacher, and for her apparently, everything was a learning experience. When we finally got to the hostel, she looked at the bunk beds jammed against each other pursed her lips disapprovingly. “I will come back,” she threatened. What did I know? And really, what did it matter? It was Paris. The sun did not set until almost ten o’clock that night and I ate dinner with some red-headed American college boy on the sidewalks of the Boulevard St. Michel.
The next morning I learned to drink coffee out of a bowl and then took some Madelines down to a quai along the Seine. The sun warmed the mossy gray steps as I ate the cookies and watched the flat boats slip along in the water. I smelled green dankness and diesel and yeasty baking bread. To this day, that is still how Paris smells to me.
True to her word, Francoise returned before lunch and insisted I pack up and come stay with her and her boyfriend and his nephew. I explained about my sister—no matter! She would come, too! We went.
I have no idea what inspired her to take me in like that, but she took us everywhere. She led us to hidden churches, parked on sidewalks—engaging in constant heated dialectic with the police over her decision to do so, and taught us to swear in rapid-fire French. Our last night in Paris, my sister and I treated Francoise to dinner in Montmartre, and it involved a lot of wine and an in-depth discussion of whether or not she should leave her current boyfriend and go live in Martinique with another boyfriend. Well past midnight she decided we had to see the Moulin Rouge and so we drove up and down one way streets the wrong way because she couldn’t quite remember where it was. As she drove she taught us to sing “La Marseillaise” (I still know every word). We were inevitably pulled over by yet another cop. Francoise cued us to continue singing as she rolled down the window, and told the policeman that les Americaines could sing the Marseillaise, at which point we sang very loudly. He was impressed with our pronunciation and let us go.
The next day Francoise dropped us at the train station. My sister was headed to the airport and back to the States; I was headed to a school where I knew no one. I cried on the train, sitting on the scratchy, navy blue seat. The old woman next to me peeled an orange and placed a few sections at a time in the palm of my hand, patting my arm gently.
My first morning in Angers I woke early. There was a mist on the field outside my window and I got lost in the medieval streets trying to find my way toward the university. I stopped at a boulangerie for pain au chocolat, lost in admiration for a country that sold bread spread with dark chocolate as a legitimate food product. I crossed the street to walk on a narrow sidewalk in the sun and I could smell September all around me. Every August now, when I smell the first hint of cool autumn in the air, I think of Angers and Paris and the lovely anticipation of the unknown.
This morning I woke up and smelled autumn in the air. I was running to catch a train but when a traffic light forced me to stand still, the scent rose up around me. After I boarded I found myself across the aisle from an old woman and she reminded me suddenly of the old woman on the train from Angers to Paris. By some odd chance and at that moment someone two rows forward peeled an orange. I leaned back into the scratchy blue Amtrak seats and laughed.
Sometimes even the well known can have elements of the unknown and if we’re lucky we can get lost there again, if only for a little while.