27 February 2013

non merci

non merci.

This is the first french phrase I learned when visiting Simone in Paris. It appears to be useful when warding off the creeps in the street that are trying to steal your bag or paint your picture or do something else in which you're not particularly interested in partaking.

Non merci. I would rather not have you tie my fingers together, but thank you for the offer, anyway.

Whatever. Paris was incredible. I was completely, 100%, in love with the city within the first three hours of arrival, which was totally unexpected. Honestly, I had formed my expectations of the city based on reports of dirty streets and unfriendly people (neither of which accusations I found in reality to be overwhelmingly accurate). So, I guess the question is, why would I waste my time going to Paris, when I expected the city to be completely miserable? ARE YOU INSANE? Helloooo, (1) it's cultural capital, and a must-see when you're only living a 3.5 hour train ride away, and (2), more importantly, one of my best friends in the world is Parisian (at least for the semester), and we desperately needed to spend some quality time together after 9 months apart. And don't let my tone fool you. This is way more dramatic than I can express.

I hastily booked my train ticket to Paris during exam period, when a special offer from TGV (the French railway) fell upon me from heaven (actually, Ute sent it to me, but same thing..). With my brain struggling to switch between remembering where the dashes and dots belonged on all of the Arabic names I had to memorize for my Middle East exam and the graphical and numerical explanation of the effect of Greece returning to the Drachma for my European Economic Integration exam, I was having a rough time trudging through the endless grey skies of Tübingen and desperately needed to take some time out on the bench with Simone. As fate would have it, we unknowingly planned for my visit to take place on Valentine's Day weekend. How romantic.

At approximately 16:35 on February 14, 2013, what the television and store fronts tell us is the most romantic day of the year, in Paris, the city that the travel books tell us is the most romantic on earth (I'm actually just making that up for dramatic effect. You might want to double-check me on that one.), I stumbled out of the TGV Express onto platform 9 of Paris Est, where Simone scooped me up in her arms and we shared a long, teary-eyed hug of reunification. Just like in the movies.

That night, we decided we had to do something special, so after a wee bit of sightseeing and a delightful little french dinner together, we did what any respectable pair of twenty-year-somethings would do on Valentine's Night in Paris, and shared a bottle of champagne on various benches around the city. A little known thing about Paris, my friends, is that it is a spectacular city for bench-sitting. I must recommend that if you do choose to visit the city, you park yourself on a bench, or you bench yourself in a park, and just sit and enjoy the beauty and the life around you. Make up stories about the world. Make up the world with your stories. Let yourself be there, see the perfection and the imperfection, feel the love and the hurt, and cherish the smallest details that you might have been the only one to have seen.

Note: while bench-sitting, you will also likely notice absurd fur coats, painful choices for walking shoes, and that every American that passes by seems to be the loudest and most obnoxious person in a one-kilometer radius. It is not an illusion. We, Americans, really are loud and obnoxious, at least relative to the subdued presence of Europeans. Yes, it's embarrassing, and yes, you might have the urge to speak in a British accent every time you're feeling the shame of being American, but the truth is we can't escape it. Whether we like it or not, we will, at some point, be the shame of a fellow American watching us from afar, and I think that's something we'll just have to learn to accept and embrace. So, we like to play. Is that so bad?

That night, presumably on the move from one bench to another, a french man with an armful of roses approached us, insistently shoving a small rose wrapped in plastic toward me. "Non merci, non merci," I repeated, happy to have another opportunity to practice my French. But the man insisted that it was a gift, so I eventually ceased practice on my catchphrase and accepted the dinky rose. Later, as I was waiting for Simone outside of the bathroom in a bar, a french woman approached me and said something which did not contain the words: non merci, s'il vous plaît, bonjour, or au revoir. I understood nothing. Feeling helpless and confused, my mind refused to tell her that I couldn't speak French...in English (see American Shame section above). "Ich spreche kein Französisch," I told the woman. I was relieved to find out that she also spoke a bit of German. She proceeded to tell me that my rose was ugly, to which I laughed and replied, "Yes, it really is, isn't it? But a rose is a rose." I gifted the rose to our kind and friendly bartender, Sebastian, shortly afterward, who, even in it's damaged and and hideous state, accepted it with love and gratitude.

The weather in Paris was spectacular that weekend. It was 10 degrees and sunny as can be. This sudden change in Europe's attitude actually had a dramatic influence on our activities. For example, instead of going inside the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa and all of the other art that isn't given nearly as much credit, we sunbathed out in the courtyard. We saw the touristy things like the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame and all of the other things I can't remember the names of, but one of the things I found most striking and would like to share is La Defénse, or what Simone and I like to refer to as The City of the Future. Here, one can find the modern version of the Arc de Triomphe and many futuristic buildings. What I find particularly interesting about the City of the Future, is that it, in no way, looks like it belongs in Europe. The difference between Paris and La Defénse is so striking, that one's arrival in La Defénse can be sort of surreal. Apparently, this is where many of the people in Paris go to work. I think it's incredibly impressive how successfully they have been able to keep the cities separate and individual, preserving the history and beauty of Paris and cultivating the growth and modern development of La Defénse all at once. While they are two polar opposites, they are still one in the same. Definitely a must-see, if only for the shock factor.

As you can probably imagine, leaving Paris was definitely a bummer for both Simone and me. We both have bright months ahead of us, an endless path of discoveries and adventures to look forward to. I wasn't sad that I was coming back to Tübingen. And I really also wasn't sad that I was leaving Paris. So at first, I didn't understand why I was so bummed out, because honestly I'm quite accustomed to goodbyes and see-you-laters and au revoirs. It's usually no big deal for me. But it was the same feeling I had when I said goodbye to my friends at Tufts last May, and that's the feeling of vulnerability, of having your whiskers cut and walking around in circles, if you know what I mean. So, dear friends, I want you to know that I consider you the crème de la crème of whiskers. Thank you for always being there to lead me in the right direction. It was an incredible weekend, and I couldn't have been more happy to have experienced all of the delights of Paris with Simone.

Important lessons: (1) don't pass up a rose, even though it might turn out to be ugly or thorny, and (2) hold onto your whiskers.