Maybe it’s the excitement of mapping unfamiliar subway lines or the freedom to scrap plans on a whim, or perhaps it’s the anticipation of what new sights and sounds lay just beyond the steps of each platform. Whatever the case, there is something exhilarating about traveling alone in an urban metropolis. Solutions to long debated issues quietly present themselves while waiting in line at a delicatessen and dilemmas untangle effortlessly on an evening stroll. The chaos of exploring unknown terrain somehow puts everything in order. Paris had been exceptional in this regard. The city was sophisticated but unpretentious, busy but not harried. I exhausted every waking minute of my first day exploring the sites.
The second day was dedicated solely to the Musee du Louvre where I experienced art for the first time. While I have always enjoyed museums and appreciated art, I couldn't say that it's ever really moved me. I never understood what people got from staring into painted canvases for hours. I always thought of those rare multi-million dollar works as nothing more than really expensive trophies, the ultimate status symbol for the super wealthy. While I've not completely abandoned this assessment, I can now personally attest to the mesmerizing power of art. On two occasions at the Louvre, I found myself rendered captive by the narratives distinctly communicated in sculpture and on canvas. I felt these pieces the way you feel a good book or a great song and the fact that the creators of these works, existing in an entirely different era and culture, were able to pour into it the kind of truth and passion that transcends time and language is testament to the commonality of the human experience.
After about three days of these “you had to be there” moments, I actually wanted someone to be there. I had not accounted for this since loneliness is usually the least of my concerns when traveling solo. Urban areas are packed with highly social, interesting, and lively people - a dynamic typically sufficient to fulfill the want of company. In my haste to get to Paris, I hadn't considered the tactical barrier that language would present. Though many Parisians spoke English and, contrary to stereotype, were very polite, all attempts to engage beyond basic pleasantries were noticeably straining. I felt a tinge of guilt at drawing out conversation that required them to accommodate my language on their turf. It was clear that whatever social aptitude I had, did not translate here.
Spotting a Starbucks at the corner of St. Germain de Pres, I decided to indulge my longing for familiarity. As I waited in line for the cashier, the barista took orders of the customers behind me.
“Quaimerais-tu?” he asked. “Umm…Caramel Macchiato glace’,” replied a feminine voice with an American accent. I turned around to discover that the voice belonged to an African American woman. “You’re American!” I blurted. “I am,” she replied. We chuckled as I paid the cashier, and moved our impromptu introduction to the bar.
Her name was Tasha and she had lived in Paris for nearly a year. She moved from New York City after her job on Wall Street was eliminated to downsizing. Tasha seized the opportunity to pursue her dream of living in France where she was now learning to speak French at the university while working as a business writer. She was adjusting well and had made quite a few friends. In fact, she was on her way to meet with a group of them for lunch at the park. “It’s a Meet Up for expatriates living in Paris,” she explained. “You should come with me!” I needed no convincing. We grabbed our drinks and hurried across the street to the metro station.
Continuing our conversation as we boarded the subway, I confessed that while I was having an incredible time, I found myself desperately craving company. She assured me that everyone has that experience which was precisely why the expat group was conceived. “I don’t think you understand," I said, turning to her. “When I see’d you in line at that Starbucks, I know’d there is a God.” She cracked up at my best dramatic rendition of Sophia from The Color Purple. As we stood there in the middle of the subway car sharing this distinct African American cultural reference, I could hardly believe my fortune. What are the odds of two black women, former corporate managers turned writers randomly meeting in Paris?
Our conversation subsided as passengers wedged onboard. Tasha signaled that we were four stops from our exit. I nodded and began to anticipate how the rest of the day might unfold. With every stop I became progressively anxious considering, for the first time, the social dynamic I was about to enter. I would be a newcomer in this group of expats. Would they welcome me? Tasha was cool, but group dynamics could be different. There was bound to be at least one person committed to asserting her fragile sense of supremacy in sneak disses. By the time we arrived at our station, I nearly talked myself out of attending the gathering. I shelved my concerns as I followed her off the train.
My anxieties vanished the moment we approached our table at the beautiful Parc de la Villette. The buzz of laughter and cheerful conversation hushed as Tasha introduced me to the group and everyone stood, one by one, to engage us in faire la bise. The group consisted of grad students, professionals, couchsurfers, and educators from the Caribbean, Mali, Algeria, Canada, and the U.S. We sat for hours engaged in conversation that shifted easily between English and French and back to English for my benefit. What couldn’t be translated verbally was easily communicated in enthusiasm, facial expressions, and the constant recurring chorus of genuine, hardy, thigh slapping laughter.
This diaspora would become my tribe over the next couple of days, gathering for dinner, drinks, and a massive Sunday Brunch followed by a Black Film Festival on the terrace of the elegant La Bellevilloise Café. They were beautiful and authentic, each of them, stunningly regal with the kind of confidence that radiates from within. I left Paris inspired, enchanted, and totally affirmed in my belief that things always unfold exactly as they should when I allow it.
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