This is the farthest away from home I have ever been. And where am I?
That’s right, I am writing this from a Starbucks on Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 8ème arrondissement, Paris, surrounded by young English-speaking students like me. Because I do not have wifi. Yes, I am a spoiled American 22-year-old. But I am also a writer, and writers need their wifi, goddammit.
But the wifi (pronounced here as wee-fee) is a small wrinkle in a week full of all the stuff I just said I can never possibly describe.
After eight hours overnight on a plane, I was not the best Hailey I could be. But it was a full day that started with a table full of French people and a steak for lunch.
I met my host father at the airport and we took off for the city center. There were so many more colors than I would have expected: signs and buildings, the Stade de France, and then the Boulevard Périphérique — the ring (literally, peripheral) road running around the city. Then we are on a neighborhood street, and I see a runner. People run all over Paris, I learn. And at the park near where I will be living, Parc Monceau, people run around the one-kilometer edge at all hours of the day. It is like a runner’s highway.
Even though we were off the highway, I still felt the same overwhelming lurch of traveling at high speed. The narrow streets and tons of people and zooming cars and asymmetrical buildings I had envisioned were right there in front of my eyeballs. My up-all-night brain was already starting to fry. Soon enough, we are out of the car and I am let into an old building with a sunny courtyard.
OK, petite pause: For many of the old apartment buildings I have seen in the last few days, this is the setup I have noticed: You enter through a set of heavy painted wood doors that are cut into a larger set of doors, which can open to let cars out. Once through this door, you are no longer outside, but you are also not quite inside. It is a cobbled entranceway covered by a the apartments above, but continue straight a few meters and there is a large courtyard. Some are cobbled, some have gravel. But you can look up at all of the long windows and their iron grates, and suddenly the noise of the street is gone. Going back the way you came, you can go inside for real. There is a staircase or a number of staircases, and maybe an elevator. The first floor is what we Minnesotans would call the second floor. The ground floor is called the rez-de-chaussée, and there might be a little room with a desk or an apartment for someone who takes care of the building.
We take a tiny elevator up to the apartment. In my frazzled state, the elevator seems especially small. It is approximately one fourth of the size of what I would call the typical U.S. elevator. I was hesitant to join one or two people in it at first, but I have since ridden it with at least four. Another thing for the frazzled senses to get used to: people get close here in France.
The door opens, and there is the rest of the family. They greet me with bisous and we eat a lunch of steak, potatoes and green beans. Then everything begins.
Deuxième journée: Déjà à l’école
Throughout the first day, I travel back and fourth from the youngest girl’s school to drop her off and pick her up. First with her parents (it’s the first day of school!), then on the second day, alone. After a few repetitions, I get a feel for how French people pick up their kindergarteners:
The school door is nondescript on a quiet street. Starting about fifteen minutes before classes let out, women start gathering on the relatively small area of sidewalk outside. Some come with strollers full of younger siblings. On days after the first one, many of them are full-time nannies, many of them from various other places in the world. Some look like au pairs. They are young and quiet and do not seem to know anyone. Like me. Some are mothers. They are dressed nicely and might be talking on their cell-phones, might be visiting with a friend. Sometimes, there are dads. But they are tougher to spot in the small sea of women.
By five minutes to the end of the school day, a crowd has amassed around the door. Like I said, people stand close, like at a concert. The doors open, and the matrices walk forward with their classes. Then, the haggling begins. The crowd bursts into a low buzz, and women’s hands start to shoot up, calling to their children. “Jean! Jean?” a lady calls, and soon enough, a small blonde head is wading through the mob, his little hand reaching up for the outreached one of his caregiver. The matrices search the faces with trained eyes, finding familiar people and letting their children go to them. Other times, kids step from their place in line in the cobbled hallway and pull a matrice’s sleeve, pointing to their person and getting a nod of release. Voices are bubbling, names are called, kids are hurried (“Allez, allez, on y va … “) once their hands have been grabbed and they start to plunge through the mob. After a few minutes, the pace slackens, and the matrices wait with the children whose parents are late.
It repeats every afternoon. Many women arrive early and greet each other warmly, informally: “Salut … ça va … et toi?” Friends are made throughout years of waiting here.
I am still learning how to find a good spot in the crowd, searching for prime locations for watching the door and reaching my hand out for the girl I am watching. After school, we visit the park, or go back to the apartment. There is usually a snack, or goûter, before playing and preparing dinner.
Jours trois et quartre: autres explorations
I will tell you now: I will not get too descriptive about the work I do with the family. It is nothing out of the ordinary: I watch the children, looking after the youngest one more closely. For the older girls, I am just there if they need anything and I talk with them in English. Other than that, I would like to respect the family’s privacy by only referring to it when necessary and not in too much detail. And because detail makes for a much better story, it will probably be best to focus on the other things.
The first couple of days, the streets overwhelm me. I go for runs in the mornings, but stay close to the park near the apartment. It offers a nice loop where you can run consistently. Venturing beyond that, the crosswalks scared me right away. Everything moves faster in Paris. The drivers are rushed, there are always people walking. But I settled into the rhythm and started to explore the area.
On the third day, I walk on Avenue de Friedland toward L’Arc de Triomphe. The Arc and the Champs Elysées are the closest major landmarks, and they are also on the way to my language school. I slowly take in the street-crossing: cars come fast down impossibly narrow roads. The light-up signs show figures of people, red for stop and green for go. It’s that simple, but crossing in Paris traffic sparked some nerves at first.
I walk down Boulevard de Courcelles and the other streets surrounding the park, trying to get used to the neighborhood. The eighth district is somewhat quiet (as in, it’s pretty darn loud but not as loud as other parts of Paris), and mostly residential. But there are still shops everywhere for anything you could need (or just want). There are a lot of schools, and the park is a vibrant gathering place for children of all ages who want some liberté after long hours in the classroom. Tots play on the small playground labeled “ages 1-6 only” and climb on statues. They chase each other and play football on the grass. High schoolers sit on the lawns in groups or walk the graveled paths holding hands with sweethearts after school. Couples lay on blankets embracing (I know, another overworked image, but it’s true). The park is traversed by businesspeople on their way to the office or métro, adults jogging, and friends visiting. Parisians do not have back yards, front yards, or porches. This is their green space, and they make good use of it.
Jour cinq: plus tard
After much skimming over all of the other things I did (the French encounters, the awkward mistakes), I have reached Jour Cinq. I am still at Starbucks but my charger is not. When I find another wifi haven, maybe I will pick up on meeting the six friends I made the next day, visiting the Marais and Centre Pompidou with them, and later eating burritos at Café Madeleine, grabbing the métro to Monmartre for a delicious Desperados beer at La Fourmi, and climbing the sloped streets and stairs to Sacré-Coeur to look out on the city in the dark.
But I have five percent battery and want to post this thing. And though there’s French all over Starbucks, it might be nice to get out of the air conditioning and into the plenty-cool streets.