Riding Bikes with Boys

The following incident occurred on my second to last night in Paris, according to the best of my memory. Italicized dialogue was spoken in French. 

*** 

Stumbling out of the bar at 3:30 am, approximately three-and-a-half hours after I was planning to be in bed, I set off in search of the nearest public bike-share station. Bikes were my preferred method of getting home after a night out, because taxis were expensive and I always got too tired to stay out until the metro re-opened at 5.

After passing several empty stations (I'm not the only one who favors drunk biking, it seems), I finally found one just up the street from my apartment. As I swiped my card and dislodged the bike from its post, I sensed someone behind me. Turning, I came face to face with a twenty-something bearded hipster who looked like he came straight off the set of Portlandia (denim cut-offs, plaid button-down shirt, tattoo on his forearm - I think it was an animal - you get the idea) - except he was French.  

He was trying to get home too, and asked if we could share the bike. I knew what he had in mind: one person (me) sits on the seat, legs held out to the side, while the other (him) stands and pedals. What the hell? I only had a short distance to go. 

"Okay," I consented, inching back on the seat to give him more space. 

Although I had seen this done many times, this was the first occasion I'd ever actually tried it. It is probably not the best idea, even when sober. I'm not sure whether my co-pilot was just really intoxicated or whether he expected me to steer, but I recall a lot of swerving and me yelling, "You're going to kill us both!" There may also have been some screaming on my part. Thankfully the early hour meant that the street was empty.

With my face pressed against his back, my field of vision was limited to the narrow gap between his torso and arm braced against the handlebars, but shortly I came to recognize my building.

"Stop!"  

Dismounting from the bike, I realized two things. Firstly, I had no idea where he lived. And, secondly, because the rates are dependent upon the time elapsed since checking out the bike, I could not, in good conscience, leave it with a drunk stranger. But I figured it was worth a shot...

"Can I trust you?" I asked.  

"This bike is under my account. Will you return it to a station?" 

Despite the fact that we had gotten along just fine with Franglish, he decided at this moment to pretend that he couldn't understand me. Fuck. I tried again in French. Still, nothing.

"Ah, you are a tour-eest?" he said, mockingly. 

"I've lived here for a year," I snapped. Adding, for good measure, "I'm not a fucking tourist."

By this point I wanted nothing more than a shower followed by bed; getting into an argument when my money was on the line was the last thing I needed. So, seizing the open bottle of liquor he had placed in the bike's basket, I shoved it into his chest.

"You - take this," I said. 

And, grabbing the handlebars, "I - take this." 

I could tell this was unexpected. 

"You're so aggressive," said hipster boy as he took his bottle and stepped away from the bike. 

By the time I had parked it at the nearest station and returned to the scene of the confrontation, he had disappeared into the night. Probably, I assume, to con someone else into a free ride. 

Adieu

Of all the expats I know, I was the only one who, as the expiration of her visa drew near, was not scrambling to find a way to stay longer. Don't get me wrong - I loved Paris, especially in the beginning, but after a while my feelings started to change.

"It's okay to be 'over' a city," a friend assured me over dinner when I met up with him and his girlfriend back in February.

"But what makes you say that?"

A lot of things, I guess. I previously confessed how upset I was after my phone was stolen, but what I omitted from that account was that I spent the next ten minutes crying on my friend's doorstep as I waited for her to return. As unabashedly attached as I am to my iPhone (0:28 and 0:49 if you're impatient; 0:40 is my dearest brother who tricked me into being on camera) that was just the final straw in an emotional breakdown that had been brewing since my family had departed a day earlier, leaving me with a stronger sense of homesickness than ever before, and since my Facebook newsfeed was starting to feel less like keeping in touch than being constantly reminded of everything I was missing out on at home. I was beginning to feel irrelevant, because no matter how many apps you have you can never be in two places at once.

As I sat there crying in the middle of the very residential 15ème, people kept passing me by with that uncomfortable side glance and quickened step normally reserved for panhandlers and public drunkards. In other words, no fucks were given. (My psychology-expert friend later told me that this is more of a human nature thing than a Parisian thing). Fortunately I had only been pickpocketed, but what if it had been worse? What if I had been assaulted? No one bothered to ask me if I was okay or needed to call the police, so instead I sat there stewing in my own self-pity until my friend came home and made me a cup of tea.

I suppose that marked the beginning of the end of the honeymoon period. In the weeks that followed two of my friends, on separate occasions, were mugged. (And, mind you, they were guys of a stature that doesn't really scream target). I traveled to the Loire Valley, Brittany and Normandy, and for the first time interacted with non-Parisian French people, discovering that they were so much kinder and more generous than their capital-dwelling countrymen. In other words Paris no longer felt as safe or welcoming.

Things that had previously seemed charming became frustrating, like the open-air markets that I admired because they so exceeded farmers markets back home. Yet as the weeks wore on I came to hate Sundays because grocery stores (and virtually all other businesses) were closed, and I was often too hungover to go to the market and shop before it shut down for the day. (Yes, it was my own goddamn fault, but recovering from an all-night bender has the unfortunate side effect of being irrationally angry with the world at large). The Metro, once so friendly and convenient, became less inviting when I began to notice all the men trying and failing to discreetly urinate in the tunnels connecting the platforms. (I'm told that the walls are slightly slanted such that the consequent splashing will deter this behavior, however the persistent stench indicates that the effort is unsuccessful). And the sidewalks dotted with dog poop shifted from a comical nuisance to an irrevocable scourge on the reputation of a city that, to me, was gradually eroding before my eyes.

Oh, Paris, in one year I've only just brushed the surface. If there's anything about living abroad that I might have remorse for later it's that I never really integrated with the local culture; in fact in a lot of ways I cheated. During my first few months I lived with a French girl who occasionally invited me out with her friends, which was a nice gesture but difficult for me because by the time I had thought of something to contribute to the conversation, it had already moved on. Twice. The international student body at LCB introduced me to friends from around the world, and my food truck coworkers, for the most part, likewise consisted of expats. Part of why I struggled so much with the social aspect of my internship was that it was the first time I had spent a significant amount of time around Francophones, and by that point I had become accustomed to living with one foot out the door, so to speak. I knew kitchen vocabulary but I was far from being conversant in the language, which is why during breaks I tended to pull out my phone and catch up on my Twitter feed because even making small talk was a challenge.

Were there things I would have done differently if I had the chance? Absolutely. But I don't really believe in regret, and besides, for all of the little setbacks and disappointments there were just as many - probably more - pleasant surprises and unexpected opportunities.

When I look back there are certain images that will likely forever be branded unto my memory, like watching fireworks light up the Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day, opening the door of the food truck for dinner service and seeing a hundred hungry faces already lined up, or biking home in the silent hours of the early morning after a night out. But I think more than any particular thing I did while I was here, it's the people I met and befriended that really shaped the experience. I hope to see all of you again soon, but until then...we'll always have Paris.

À la prochaine, chers amis.

Bisous,

M

La Promenade Plantée

After almost a year of being in Paris, I tell myself that I know the city pretty well. So imagine my surprise when a Google search for "best picnic parks Paris" revealed a 3-mile elevated park spanning eastward from Bastille to the highway that encircles the city proper. Even before I biked there on a recent sunny afternoon (not as straightforward as I thought because a protest had shut down some major streets), I was all excited because The High Line, another famous parkway, had been one of my favorite places to go the summer I lived in New York City.

For the most part the park runs parallel to Avenue Daumesnil in the 12th. Starting from Bastille, the repurposed railway, whose archways at street level have been taken over by shops, is now effectively a greenbelt popular with joggers and day drinkers. And, like The High Line, it occasionally cuts through buildings.

I didn't take the promenade all the way to the end, but stopped where it descended to the gorgeous Jardin de Reuilly. I think I found my new picnic spot.

Photo Diary: Springtime in the 5ème

Taking a break from attempting to describe the chasm of mixed feelings regarding my internship, here are some reminders of why I love this city and will miss it when I leave in a few short months. After a long winter (it snowed again in March, if I recall correctly), the weather has finally decided to cooperate with the seasons. And now that it's not pitch-dark and freezing cold when I leave in the mornings for work, I'm finding it much easier to roll out of bed at 5am.  

Below, some scenes from the neighborhood. 

1. The Pantheon. 

2. Brasserie near the Luxembourg Garden. 

3. Joggers in the park. 

4. Visiting the food truck on my night off after spending a glorious afternoon catching up with a highschool friend at Parc de Buttes Chaumont on the first true spring day (70+F!). 

5. One of my personal favorites of spring/summer: strawberries! 

Rungis: The Market That Never Sleeps

Last week we showed up to school at the ungodly hour of 6:15am for a field trip to Rungis Market, the world's largest wholesale food market that covers nearly 600 acres of land just outside Paris near Orly Airport. (Some other figures to give you the idea of the scale: the market's day-to-day activities include some 1300 companies that collectively employ over 12,000 people). Consisting of a vast industrial network of warehouses, Rungis couldn't be more different from the quaint neighborhood open-air markets that you see in French towns and cities.

The warehouses are organized by product type, kind of like a larger, gastronomic version of Ikea. Once we were all decked out in thin white coats and caps provided on the premises (sort of a cross between what you might wear in a laboratory and an operating room), our guides led us through the poultry, beef, fish, produce and flower halls, before concluding the tour at one of several on-site brasseries for brunch.

Despite the fact that we arrived out our first destination around 7am, early by normal people's standards, most of the day's trading had already been completed. The fish, seafood and poultry halls open as early as 2 or 3am, giving the impression that activity at Rungis never really ceases.

Undoubtedly the most memorable sight was the hall where red meat is kept, even for the cuisine students who by Superior level are pretty much desensitized to butchery. I've included a few pictures in the slideshow below (probably don't click through over your morning breakfast or whatever), but the best way I can describe it is how I would imagine a slaughterhouse would look; entire carcasses hang in neat rows by large hooks, the skin peeled off revealing the lifeless brute's powerful muscles, as men with clipboards and white lab coats covered in cow's blood scurry around taking notes. A vegetarian from my class had to leave just a few minutes after entering because it was too overwhelming. 

The rest of the tour was less interesting, either because the section had closed by the time we got there (fish and seafood) or else it consisted of looking at rows and rows of boxes (produce). What made me think, though, was reading the labels of the boxes; apples from Greece, green beans from Kenya, etc. Yes, it was cool and impressive to see such a vast array of food in one place, but at what cost?

When I thought about how much energy it took to get all the products to Rungis, and how much more it would require to transport them to their next destination, it made me feel worse than anything I saw in the meat halls.