But the overall experience of seeing the world, of skiing in the Alps and hiking Cinque Terre and taking cheesy tourist photos in front of Buckingham Palace with
my fellow collegiate Americans was life altering. A taste of another life, of one not my own but on the surface far more glamorous than the perceived image of America helped to give me a greater understanding of who I was and who I was not. This time would be different, M and I would forgo staying in hostels, bunking 5 girls to a room and paying 50 pence to take a shower in some places.
We arrived in Paris after an all-night flight - dazed, exhausted and hungry. First order of business was to find a Starbucks. "I need coffee," I whined to M as we deposited our bags at the hotel. So off we went on our journey to find a Starbucks. We walked and walked, but there were no Starbucks to be found. I was under the impression Starbucks were as ubiquitous globally as McDonald's, but I guess I was wrong. We settled on a brasserie right off George V. "Deux Cafe American avec au lait, s'il vous plait," I said in my best French. I had no idea how to say skim milk and decided whatever we got would be good enough.
Damn my French teachers hammering in words like chat and chien. She answered me in English. Que Sera. I lacked the language ability to ask for "to go" cups and spit the request out in English. "No to go," the young French woman behind the counter said. "To go" is an American thing, whereas the French linger over coffee and croissants and their morning paper.
We toured in the morning - checking out the must-see sites: Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysees. By lunch we were starving. "That place looks good." I directed M's attention to a brasserie across the road on the Left Bank. It looked the same as every other place we had passed. In Paris, there seemed to be a lack of ethnic food and an abundance of Pastis looking restaurants. M gazed at the menu outside that hung on the window.
"What's jambon?" he asked.
"It's ham," I said.
"Everything has ham in it. A Croque Monsieur, a Croque Madame - even the salads all have ham. And can you explain to me why I just had to pay $5 to use the bathroom here? They charge you to pee?" M said utterly perplexed.
Neither of us being big pig eaters, we ventured on to another venue only to find the
menu was a near replica of the other. And so our trip went. Restaurant hopping from one to the next looking for "American cuisine". We couldn't figure out how everyone in France stayed so thin what, with all the ham and cheese and buttery croissants drowned in mayonnaise. "Ugh," M said each time we sat down to eat and he inspected the menu asking me for translations. Meals were never easy, but a fun part of the day that included: finding a place that looked good, sitting down, studying the menu and then sneaking out in search of something we deemed edible.
On our 5th attempt at lunch on our 3rd day there, hungry and impatient and near an implosion I turned to M, "Just pick a place. Anywhere!! I don't care! We aren't in America. We can't get make your own salads or get plain grilled chicken. We can just eat cheese, it won't kill us. It's not wrong, it's just different."
By the end, I had lost 3lbs from sustaining a diet of fresh fruit, coffee and yogurt. We loved Paris, the City of Lights, the ineffable sense of romance, glamour and history we digested, despite our inability to digest the cuisine. And as our Air France plane touched down at JFK, my growling stomach did flips of excitement. It was good to be home. "When we get back to the apartment, I want to order the most American Upper East Side meal," I squealed in delight.
That night, we sat on the floor of our very American apartment, with our very American dog in our Old Navy sweats and ate giant hamburgers and 'freedom fries' from America's Hamburgers and Wraps (68th/3rd). There's no place like home....