II/LII: Midnight in Paris

Thought long and hard about how to go about this, this whole 'documenting the year' ordeal. Thought I'd keep writing words and sharing pictures to match, all at once. But it just doesn't work for me. I love to write. All the time. So many words, every single day. Sure, most of them never see the light of day, but maybe one day they will. And I also take photos. Lots and lots of photos. All the time. And most of those, too, haven't seen the light of the day. And maybe they never will. But the two are entirely different entities, two different forms of expression, and I'm done with trying to throw them together. I don't feel like the blue of the photos and the red of the writing become three-dimensional when combined. They aren't enhanced. They need to remain predominantly separate to be most accurately expressed, I've decided. So I've chosen to sometimes do written posts. And sometimes, picture posts. Today, I'm full of words. So many words. So here goes, red without the blue, hopefully still impressively dimensional and multi-faceted as a result, but no promises.

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It's late on Sunday afternoon here in Paris. 17.42 at the time of commencement to be exact, and though I had all these extravagant plans for my Sunday afternoons over the next few months, they've all crumbled into nothing, because, well, reality happened. I even wrote a relatively structured way to come to new cities, for every day, not just come Sunday. The intention was to make a system out of an entirely free and unstructured way of life. My perfect plan, penned in my favourite little orange notebook, went something like this: I'd spend my first day fresh in a city getting acquainted with the area- looking at the Metro maps and riding a tour bus around to get my bearings. Context is important to me. I'd stroll through a grocery store and marvel at the aesthetics of a language I wasn't used to seeing all over. Purchase some things that were 'typical' for the place I was visiting- locally made or something along those lines. The next day would be spent scouring the local thrift stores and the smaller, lesser-known art galleries. I'd planned to purchase a homeless person a meal at least twice a week and volunteer at a shelter as often as I could. And of course, I was going to participate in various yoga classes across the city at 7am every morning. And find all the flea markets possible. And stroll along riverbanks and sit in parks and make a serious attempt at poetry for the first time in my life. And Sundays? Sundays were to be spent within the walls of as many churches as I could find- not just of my own religion, but of many others, too. I'd fill the day with worship, and stained glass and architecture and choirs (!), and work hard to increase my understanding of the differences and the similarities between us all and what we believe, and would then spend the next day tied to my laptop, writing about what I'd observed as a result. How idyllic it'd all be, how controllable, how delightful. But alas, as I mentioned earlier: reality happened.

Let me take you on a brief walk, through just the tiniest portion of what I've learned and noticed and thought throughout the past few days. It hasn't been as easy nor as enchanting as I'd always dreamed arriving in Paris would be, but being here has already taught me more than I could have conjured up in my own imagination. And I'm holding on for dear life trying to keep up with it all.

Wednesday morning arrived and I woke up after a night I can only compare to Christmas Eve- sleep being broken every hour or so, due to excitement butterflies so strong they kept winning the battle against the need for rest. It was difficult to comprehend that in just a number of hours time, home would no longer be there in that huge house, smack-bang in the centre of suburban Utah. That I'd no longer go up the stairs to be greeted joyfully by bright-eyed Carolyn, the mother of the household. That so soon, I wouldn't hear little meows from the neighbours cat at my window anymore, signalling me to climb the stairs to open the door for her and let her in- before she rushes by, curling her way around my feet, pushing up against my shins with her fluffy tail high in the air. But the time had come- and it felt right to be leaving, moving on, and making new. 

Skip forward a teary goodbye, a pensive train ride to the airport, and a ten-hour flight, and there I was, stepping off the bus, giant bag on my back, staring at the Arc de Triomphe- a million cars rushing by on the road in front of it in a disorderly fashion, beeping their horns. The hustle and the bustle had the fourteen-year-old, French-art-and-music obsessed girl inside me bursting with joy.  I'd made it. I was in Paris!

I walked down the street with the biggest smile on my face, to the apartment I'd booked- the size of a prison cell, on the sixth floor of an ancient Parisian building. The stairs creaked as I climbed them, the mottled wood brittle and dry. I'd booked the accommodation when I landed in France, after sitting at the airport for almost two hours, just watching people go by. Having no schedule but that which your heart desires is somethin' else entirely. There was nobody waiting for me, nowhere to be, nothing to do. Heck, nobody knew where I was. Or knows where I am, right now. And so I sat there, at Charles de Gaulle airport, and I watched, and I watched for a long time. A French boy in a long, black trench coat sat by me and we had a short chat before he went outside to light up the cigarette he'd been twirling in his fingers the whole time. I can't remember if I was tired or not, but I do remember the airport bathrooms, and how the world's most dignified and classy lady had walked in, wheeling a khaki-coloured suitcase behind her, before closing the bathroom stall door. Moments later the unseemly sound of throwing up bounced across the white tiles. I helplessly stood by the sink where I was brushing my teeth, wondering if I should ask her if she needed help, but knowing all too well that talking to a complete stranger- albeit in a different language- was the last thing she wanted to do right that second. After a little while she exited the stall, looking as dignified as she did when she entered, and with perfect posture, headed promptly out of the bathroom, green bag in tow. How bizarre. That was the first piece of the real world I encountered here, and it's not slowing down anytime soon. 

I walked forty minutes to find the Eiffel Tower that first night. With the little blue dot on my Google Maps guiding my way, I turned a corner and there it suddenly was: bigger than anything I could have ever imagined. I literally gasped, and in what felt like a trance, walked teary-eyed towards the great, big towering structure, lit up gold against the dark night's sky. How overwhelming. How beautiful. And despite the beauty, like most monuments I'd ever visited, it was nothing like I'd imagined in my head. The sound of the Eiffel Tower isn't French music and the smell isn't that of warm baguettes and Nutella-filled crêpes. It's the jangling of tacky rainbow flashing Eiffel Tower key chains and their sellers heckling you to buy one, promising you a 'good deal'. It's the sickly-sweet smell of marijuana. It's one-hundred tourists surrounding you and not a Frenchmen in sight. It's ten different languages being spoken simultaneously. It's burqas and bindis and kippahs and baseball caps. And it's incredible. What a world we live in! And what a time to be alive.

That night I walked home, heart full of love for diversity, and being in a city so international again. I smiled at an old man walking two sausage dogs, one brown, one black, in knitted vests coinciding with the colour of their fur. He didn't smile back. I shrugged inside and kept strolling along the dimly-lit street, freezing hands tucked into the pockets of my coat. Then I walked by a group of Arabic boys, who were pushing each other playfully right by an ATM, laughing up a storm. I love how universal laughter is. Love it. 

The next day was a blur, of trying my hardest to respond to people when they spoke to me in French, my response often just Swedish words flying out of my mouth in a French accent. That poor part of my brain reserved for foreign languages- it's suffered a lot this past year. I spent a good few hours mapping out my week, what I was going to do here, how I was going to make the most of it, and how I could come to understand this city and these people as quickly as possible. I feel like without coming to know the people of a place, you never really went there. You know?

Saturday came around and I made my way underground to the Catacombs, after a two-hour battle with myself standing in the neverending line of tourists to enter, so freezing cold that I almost left. But it was worth it. Or so I tell myself. It was haunting and beautiful and it reminded me of how much I love being underground, being in tunnels and caves and tiny enclosures. One of my favourite days in my life to date, was about four years ago- when we went caving. There's something about having to manoeuvre your way to move forward that makes movement feel so much more rewarding, something about straining your eyes and only being shown but a couple of steps ahead by the flashlight strapped to your helmet, that makes seeing so much more valuable. Restrictions are needed sometimes to show us the freedoms we enjoy so frequently. 

Coming back to ground-level in a part of the city I'd never been, and without a map or any way to navigate on me, I just let the night take me to wherever it needed to. The result? Attended Catholic Mass. 6.30pm on a Saturday night, like the party animal that I am. But it was more thrilling than any other Saturday night plans could have been. I entered the great, big cathedral and watched people from all walks of life slowly filter in. The Priest's voice boomed through the church and I tried my best to join in on the singing and paid special attention to the French lady sitting in front of me, trying to imitate her pronunciation. Music is the best way to learn a language. The organist accompanying the congregation wiped her nose with a red handkerchief as she continued to play with her left hand and both her feet. Multi-tasking at its finest. And in that moment, I was happy. And very grateful. For music and language and learning and people and religion and commitment. So wonderful.

So I guess in writing all of that, it doesn't sound all too bad, or too difficult. It also doesn't explain why I'm here, inside, in Paris, on a Sunday afternoon, instead of adventuring around town- diving in and out of ancient cathedrals. And I guess it's because I don't really like writing about things that hurt me, and would rather indulge in unnecessary amounts of words about the tiniest of joyous things. But essentially, it's because I've been outside long enough today already. I'm full of thoughts and feelings and questions, enough to last me a week spent inside, not communicating with anyone. Because let me tell you, this is a dark city. I've never felt the weight of the world drag me down so much before. It's a strange feeling, being in a place you've always dreamed of, only to find that many of your nightmares look exactly like it too.  There is darkness on every corner here, of every street. It is cold, and not just because of the icy temperatures. For the first time in my spoilt white-girl life, I feel a little bit... unsafe. And unsure. My naivety is decreasing as the number of my days here increase. And of all the places I have ever visited in my life, this is the first I can honestly say I'd never willingly live in. Who knew? And maybe I haven't the right to make such a call yet, for I've only been here four days. But I certainly wasn't expecting to feel like this. But the best learning happens when it isn't planned, anticipated, or controlled. Happy to call this city my school for the next little while, my learning ground, my very own life university. Happy to work with the missionaries here, to enjoy their light like I was able to today, and to find other light and joy and happiness in strangers and experiences all along the way, to offset the dark. There is more good than bad in the world. There are more of His followers than of the Father of Lies. We are winning now, and we will win in the end, for no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing. Happy to take part in the battle. And happy to be here doing just that.

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Tomorrow I commence my 9-5 French course, which I'll be doing every day for the whole week. I'm excited to learn and to be in a school setting again. But mostly, I'm doing it because I'm tired of stumbling my way through street-side conversations, my French course from way back when rusty and right at the back of my brain, coming forth only in portions, and usually not when needed. Only arriving here did I realise just how important conversing with strangers is to me and how I work and grow. I'm one of those people, it seems, that more often than not wants to talk to people I've never met, in places I've never been. Just like my Maori Grandpa, apparently. Not that a week of learning a language will barely even scratch the surface, but barely is better than not at all, right? My schedule is bursting with appointments with missionaries and other humans I want to learn from this week, including a date with Mona Lisa at the Louvre and Valentine's Day dusk spent on the lawn by the Eifel Tower, camera in hand, waiting to see if I can find any proposals going on. It's going to fly by as always and will look nothing like I'm anticipating. But the best things never do. Like I said: happy to be here.