I’m not quite sure where my story starts. Maybe it was waking up on the tile floor of the Milano airport to the prospect of another cramped Ryanair flight. Maybe it was going to sleep for the night three hours earlier, selecting the longest slot in a row of twenty huddled Europeans to stretch my body in between. Interestingly, I can vaguely recall the sound of my name spoken thirty feet behind me as I once more grabbed up my jackets and hoisted my backpack over my shoulder. As I learned months later, a high school acquaintance was in that airport that night, or as she said, “at a ridiculously early hour of the morning,” and she spotted me. I wish I had turned around. That would have been a great story.
The true beauty of the flight to Paris that morning is barely imaginable. It was just spring. The alps were thick with snow. The pink sun filled every mountain crevice and dotted every peak for hours. We of course landed at the Ryanair airport far from Paris and had to take the unexpected bus journey into the city’s traffic and fog. Then we had trouble knowing how to get to Lyon. I remember searching platform signs to no avail, even leaving the train station and asking at local businesses. I’m not sure if this is typical, but there may have been as few as ten people in the train station that day. Once we finally discovered where we should stand and wait, a search began for an ATM machine because we correctly predicted that they would charge us above our inter-rail passes to ride the high-speed train. In fact, there were no tickets available on the route, although it was still recommended that we board the train. We might as well–there was no one at the station. “Is there any other way to get to Lyon?” we asked the lady at the counter. She raised her eyebrows and looked at the rail map. She paused sarcastically, and then, somehow, she achieved a gracious, warm voice as she softly answered, “No.” She smiled. “This is the only way.”
When my cousin returned from her search for an ATM machine, which took her twenty minutes, and we boarded the train, we thought the best thing to do as American backpackers without tickets was to sit in the luggage rack. No one boarded the train, so when we finally saw the train crew serviceman with his shiny billed hat, I think a we felt a kind of relief from our solitude. “Hello?” he asked. I let my cousin explain our situation. “Go sit down. I’ll be back soon.” “C’est un ange,” my cousin told me. An angel. He still charged us an extra €40 to fill empty seats.
We were arriving in Lyon a day later than initially planned. This leg of the trip took us from Denmark, and when we learned how long it takes to get out of that country by train, we pushed things back. With all the travel days that day I wondered if we were ever going to meet up with my cousin’s friends. The astonishing thing was, when we stepped off the train, a giggling group of sharp-eyed French teenagers bumbled down the stairs. They said they had come to the station three times that day to see if we would be among the Paris passengers filing out, and they were overjoyed to see us. One of them asked if I spoke French. I told him all I could say was ça va. Fine. I didn’t need to explain this because just then another approached me and asked how the trip was. “Ça va,” I answered. We laughed. It was sunny outside in Lyon. I followed this group of skinny-jeaned and frilly skirted French kids (they used to call this look Baba cool) as they charged adolescent-speed through downtown Lyon across streets, over railings (if I recall correctly), and up into a an apartment building with large shutters.
We sat down to a lunch of pasta. Do the French eat anything else? A sixteen-year-old boy prepared it. And after we had eaten, he removed a piled-high cheese plate from the bottom shelf of the fridge. With pride he told us which each cheese was, and though I had no idea what he was saying, he took on the measured tone of an enthusiastic but patient storekeeper unveiling his treasures old and new. In fact, all the others chimed in with delight as if it were a quiet conversation of weighty matters. Apparently this is what French teens do for fun. I’ll come back to this.
Next, we toured the town. First a music store, where I listened for a half hour longer than I would have liked to two guys play early 2000s power ballads. I wanted to interrupt and play Brahms. I shouldn’t have. I had to get my cousin to ask the one with long hair to let me play something for a few seconds. Then we hopped in the metro. Who knew where we were going, I wondered. There was a man on the train who grumbled when we crammed into the car. “Allez, M’sieur, c’est pas grave,” one of them said. “Go on, sir, it’ll be okay.” We arrived at the town stadium. Again I can’t be sure exactly what was said, but I think we were hoping to get in. This wasn’t a possibility, but we did stand around for over an hour by some dumpsters. The sky was turning gray. After I figured out that we were waiting for a famous footballer to come out, I spent the rest of the time trying to find a place to sit. Finally, he pulled up in his shiny black car and stepped out to greet the fifteen or so of us who had gathered, removing his shades. Someone had purchased a gray soccer ball and a black marker for him to sign, but the signature wouldn’t sink in. None of this had felt worth it even before he had arrived. Then we headed on to dinner in the tiniest studio apartment I’ve been in. We had pasta. I finally got to sit down on a sofa. The lull of incomprehensible conversation rocked me in spurts to a sleep from which I was violently woken to rush back into a car and careen nauseatingly in roundabouts so we could look through the growing dark at fountains splashing in the biting March cold. When I realized that I could absolutely not face another trip to any other part of the city, I began to admit the frustrating truth: I was sick.
I was sick not just of pasta. I was sick of waiting. I was sick of big words and arguments on the metro. I was sick of hearing people say “C’est pas grave” and sick of saying “Ça va” to every question because it was the only thing I could do to hold onto my sanity. I was sick of things like football and Europeans in general and having to be interested in them. I was sick of following my cousin around. I needed someone to tend to me, to ask me what I would like to do, to ask me to tell them about America and California and things like tacos, to treat me like the guest of honor and ask me to play another song on the piano. Instead I was getting a whirlwind tour of every part of the city that only French people could want to see. I also had a cold coming on.
When we returned to the apartment, I learned, through a conversation with a lot of repetition on their part (and ça vas on mine) that they meant to have me take the only bed in the room. In an instant, like a blister being popped, all my bitterness drained. “Thank you. That is very kind,” I managed to tell them, and I sank into the twin bed.
I tried my hardest not to wake up that next morning. As everyone popped in and out, putting on clothes and discussing the weather and the next stage of some awful set of plans for the day, I turned over and over in my bed until I was able to make out that the words shared by the two boys were about me. “Should we wake him?” they asked. They sent for my cousin. Now was the time for my appeal. I turned it on: “I’m sick!”
“Oh,” she said, and touched my forehead. Finally some compassion, some motherliness. “I’ll go open the window,” she said.
I pause here to note that Europeans have a varied relationship with windows that perhaps underlies that conflicts of the last two centuries. By cranking open the window, my cousin was situating herself within the Germanic framework of openness to strangers and clean air that must have struck her French friends insensibly as a trifling of all that is prim and close-kept in the world–things like equality and fraternity which can never survive except in the mustiness of an upstairs room, so the French believe. In any case, to Germans, a sickness needs the fresh air of morning (and afternoon and evening, even in winter.)
“I cannot imagine going with you today,” I said. I did feel awful. We arranged to have me sleep there that morning, in this French boy’s bed, yes–but most strange–in his house. I still had not seen an adult there.
But not for long. I awoke to the grating sound of the window being pulled shut. There was a man there. He was typically skinny and wore a yellow striped sweater. He apologized for waking me and explained that the street cleaner was coming up the street and that it would be loud. It had also grown blazing hot, but maybe I was still feverish. The man knelt down by my bed.
“So you have been traveling?” he asked. “In…” he thought for several seconds, searching for the English word for Germany, “Ah yes, in Deutschland?”
“Oui, en Allemagne et au Danemark” I began to answer in French. This was the kind of chat one learns how to have in high school. A smile radiated across his face. “Continue,” he said. I told him about the mountains and trees and trains. “There’s nothing like the mountains in Germany,” he said. “We do have them here, but they’re not the same.” After a little back and forth he started asking me–in English again (rude?)–some health-related questions. How long I had slept, was I feeling any better, and most important, what I wanted to eat. I told him what he offered sounded nice. And ham? It took him a while again to get the English word right, but yes, he indeed asked me if I wanted ham. This is not the last time a French person would ask me if I wanted to eat ham when I was running a fever. Since he put in the effort to ask in my own language, I took him up on it. He went down the hall and brought me back from the kitchen a cup of yoghurt, a baguette, a carafe of water, a packet of deli-sliced jambon, and a couple cigarettes. “Just open the window again,” he said. I’m kidding about the last part. A Frenchman would never say to open the window.
I think there was also a woman there who was not the kid’s mom, and I’m not sure why she was there on her lunch break, but you don’t ask questions when you’re depending on someone to give you ham to keep you alive in a strange country.
The icing on the cake was our evening activities that night, when I felt up to rejoin the group. First, they decided to spray paint one of their cars–the one belonging to the guy who used the biggest words and talked the fastest. A police woman immediately intervened and talked to them for a half hour. After that, they decided to kick back at the house of one of the piano players, the one with long hair. It was the kind of modern house with high ceilings I thought only existed in American suburbs. We had picked up pizzas on the way. And we decided to watch a movie. I felt at home.
I was not prepared, however, for the movie this group of French fifteen-year-olds picked for this casual get together. “Let’s watch this,” one of them said, and he took out a DVD. “I liked it.” Everyone gathered around. It was Requiem for a Dream. Apparently he liked it.
Somehow through in the agony of the next two and a half hours, some of which I put off by translating the summary on the back of the DVD case (they thought it was important enough to specify that the mother character was a juive conviviale de Brooklyn), as I tried to nurse my spirit back to health, I regained my strength. It had been a long thirty-six hours and I had more of France to see. There were of course some things, mostly in this movie, that I never wanted to see again. When the credits rolled, and he flipped off the TV, the piano player with long hair said in a chipper voice, “Pretty good movie, right?” And, in the same tone that these French teenagers had used the day before to discuss the family cheese plate, all of them agreed.