The continued adventures of Laura in Wonderland (meaning 1991 Europe)
This traveloge left off with me just arriving in Paris after a harrowing bus trip. Then finding my stalker room mate standing in the lobby of my Paris hotel.
I am such a dyed in the wool phony that I said ‘Valerie!’ like I was happy. ‘Valerie…wow what a surprise. You. Here. In Paris. I thought you were going to Aix.’
Meanwhile I was freaking OUT! Valerie found me in Europe. She must have been paying attention when I was making plans. Somehow. Like by listening to me yak and yak about it before I left. Even down to the hotel I was staying at. Me and my big mouth, right? But she SAID she was going to Aix en Provence. To improve her French. I didn’t even really believe she meant to go, honestly.
She’d already been in Paris for quite awhile at this point. Turns out she left Vancouver before me and I’d spent a week in London. Or more. It’s all kind of vague. I think I was hyperventilating. While remaining polite. I’m a Proud Canadian.
Meanwhile, I wasn’t fooling the guy behind the desk. He was Algerian. He was good at reading faces. He said ‘So, you need a room for two now? We have one room with one bed. You want that? Right?’ I could have murdered him-even if he did say it in French and I sort of understood him and was TOTALLY thrilled. Valerie took charge. Of course she did. She switched my cute little room at the top of the hotel with a twin bed that overlooked a courtyard to a cavernous room on the street side. Valerie insisted that we see this room before we commit to it. So up we went, me still expressing some sort of half assed surprise, stunned.
It was a chopped in half living room or dining room. Probably in it’s illustrious past it had been quite something to see. Now? It was scary. One bed. That’s right. One bed with a big dip in the middle that we were going to share. One toilet in the room, with a bidet and NO WALLS around it! Not one wall. Just sitting out there, flapping in the breeze. A sink and a linoleum table that someone had cooked on. And chopped on. And slept on, maybe. The windows were heroic. Nothing to do about the windows, except perhaps only curtain the bottom 1/4 of them and make sure they had towering buildings that looked into the room from across the street.
I took one look and died inside.
But I didn’t say anything. The Algerian guy was staring at me. I could feel him staring at the side of my head. Like willing me to SAY SOMETHING. Complain. Say NO. But I didn’t. I said ‘Wow. Look at the toilet. There are no walls.’ He said I had to pay extra for a toilet in the room. And the extra person. I had to pay MORE for a horrid room. So I said ‘um…’ and Valerie took charge again. She said we’d take it. Just for one night. Then we were going to stay at a youth hostel.
ME!? In a hostel? Youth? I was 31. I had money. More importantly, I had reservations! Valerie may have been on a tight budget but I wasn’t. She assured me I was going to love it there. Really. Why spend money on a ratty horrible hotel if you were only going to come back to it long enough to sleep? Right?
Valerie started unpacking, it seems you have to take all your stuff with you when you leave the hostel for the day (What?!) and I went downstairs to pay for the room.
Remember this is like 6 am or something. The Algerian guy filled out the paper stuff and took my credit card and I just stood there silently. My thrilling smile was gone. My feeling of being in Paris for the first time was gone. Valerie was in my room and she was going to dog my footsteps all through Europe. I just knew it.
Algerian guy said, in beautiful English, ‘This is a friend of yours?’
I blurted out the whole story of her wierdness. Clinging to the front desk like it was a life preserver, I told him the mouse story, that my friends didn’t like her and even though she was perfectly nice and all I was having a hard time liking her too. That’s not like me, I said. I like everyone. Basically, I said ‘Help me!’
He pointed at a chair and said ‘Sit’ so I did. He did the exchange of the night to day shift thing with some guy and then said ‘Come’ and we went out for coffee.
He took me to a place right by the Sacre Couer, which was close to where I was staying. I was in Montmarte! In Paris-the artists quarter, right? I read ‘Nana’ and ‘Germinal’ and all that Zola stuff. I was starting to feel better. He showed me how to order coffee in Paris. Leaning against a scarred wooden counter, under an awning, the smell of bread baking, he bought me a coffee and a roll and pointed out The Moulin Rouge and the Sacre Couer up on this hill. I was feeling better and better. Then we went to another cafe, almost next door, so I could practice how to get a waiter myself.
You see, there’s a trick to it. You ignore the waiter. Don’t turn around. Don’t look for him. He knows you’re there. They are like sharks, he said. And the blood in the water? You, looking as if you are going to stay a long, long time. So spread out your papers, open a book, set up an easel, take off your shoes and stare off into space introspectively. You’ve got time. Lots and lots of it. Paris waiters are special. They are like beautiful women, he said. Ignore them at your peril. The more you ignore them, the more they want to be noticed.
I opened a book. My friend stared majestically off into space with his feet on a chair.
Within moments a waiter was there. My friend, I can’t for the life of me remember his name, I’ll call him Al, said, in english, ‘Don’t order in english.’ I panicked. All my french was gone. POOF! Well, most of it. I said ‘Duex vin blanc, si vous plait’ which almost gave the show away, that ‘si vous plait’. Plus ordering wine at 6:45 am was a little weird. Al continued to stare into space and I did too. The waiter was puzzled. He was SURE I was a tourist, sure of it. But I was ignoring him. He fired off a question in rapid French, which totally went over my head. But I remember Al saying to me ‘If you don’t understand, stare at them as if THEY don’t understand and repeat yourself very very slowly.’ So I turned and gave the waiter my best 1000 yard sniper stare and said ‘Duex. Vin. Blanc.’
It worked. Except we both had a whole carafe of white wine to drink. At 6:45 in the morning. Al thought it was funny and he drank it even though I don’t think he wanted it. We talked and talked for 2 hours and drank our wine and he told me about Algiers, which he loved and hated and missed, and I told him about Los Angeles and Hollywood and Vancouver, which I also loved and hated and missed. We talked about politics and when he heard I wanted to go to Russia he laughed and said I should and good luck with that. But he wasn’t sarcastic. He was my life saver, Al. Finally we got down to Valerie. This guy should have been a psychologist. Maybe he was. It was brilliant. He said tell her the truth. Nicely.
He saved my little room. He really did. I had it reserved for a week. He told the day guy I was checking into it tomorrow morning. He had faith in me. He knew that I would be able to explain to Valerie why I wasn’t staying in a youth hostel and why I wasn’t traveling with her. It was crazy, but he said, tell her the truth. Spend a night, if you have to take that long to make it clear, but tell the truth.
So simple. I told him I would let him know how it went when he started work that night and I went back to my weird room. I was tired from the bus ride and the white wine but when I saw Valerie asleep in that awful bed, I left her a note and took off again. I had Paris at my feet. And no Valerie.
I went straight to the Louvre. Of course I did. I found it too. First try. I never had a problem again while traveling. Never got lost. It was London that threw me. No other city in Europe, only London. It’s all court yards and side streets and oddities. I loved it. It made every other city look like a grid. Paris was easy!
I got off the bus and walked into the courtyard of the Louvre and all of a sudden the whole morning caught up with me. I was at the LOUVRE museum. I was going to see the WINGED VICTORY OF SAMOTHRACE. I was going to see the MONA LISA! I was in PARIS. Oh my GOD!
I started crying like a baby. Really. I just sat down on the ground and started crying. I was here.