It was fun and games on the flight from Detroit to Paris. In the early nineties, you couldn’t get lung cancer or give other people emphysema on a Trans Atlantic flight, so as soon as our plane took off, Beck and I whipped out our heretofore illicit pack of Camel lights and ordered adult beverages. Then we donned our Sony Walkmen and began scribbling furiously in our respective diaries. Important, sophisticated things were about to happen to us, and it was imperative that we write them down in progress.
We were twenty years old, best friends, and on our way to study abroad in France. We were going to fall in love with devastatingly handsome men, spend our days reading Camus in sidewalk cafes, and become all-around glamorous. I was planning on staying there for life and raising Gallic children in a chateau on the banks of the Loire, but I hadn’t yet broken it to my parents. They were footing the bill.
When we exited the passenger walkway at Charles de Gaulle in our Doc Martens and black turtlenecks, France knocked the air out of our lungs and then proceeded to ignore us. I noticed immediately that the travel outfit I had carefully selected from The Gap was no match for Paris street fashion and scrambled to unroll my pegged jeans. How could I make my hair look worldly in that sloppy French way? Why was everyone wearing the same ugly plaid scarf, and where could I get one?* Why didn’t I look less like Punky Brewster, more like Julie Binoche?
After locating our luggage, Becky and I stood in the terminal like deer in headlights. Ou est la gare de train? Suddenly it struck us with perfect clarity that we were two dowdy specks with Berlitz accents standing in a sea of indifferent humanity, and that knowing how to say, “The weather pleases me today” with perfect diction wasn’t going to get us to our youth hostel in one piece.
Becky was the first to brave the SNCF counter, where she accidentally bought two train tickets instead of just one. I stepped up to the window next, and after complementing the maleficent government employee on her beautiful blue eggs, managed to buy two tickets of my own. It was only through dumb luck and the grace of God that Becky and I made it, three hours later, to our hostel in the Latin Quarter.
After only a few days of living our dream, we were depressed. We had the wrong shoes and even Pepe Le Pew spoke better French than us. The rest of our study abroad group, who had arrived several weeks before, had already closed their circle and sealed it shut. We spent a lot of time writing in our diaries.
One afternoon as we were despairing in the fifth floor loft bedroom of our host family’s home, Becky picked up a station playing Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. on her Walkman. At home, we wouldn’t have touched the Boss with a ten foot pole. We were tortured souls who preferred Morrissey’s self-absorbed navel gazing over a bumpkin like Bruce. But all of a sudden, Bruce Springsteen was speaking directly to our hearts. By God, we were born in the U.S.A.! We liked malls and Big Gulps with ice, dammit! Why had we ever thought living in a country where people ate frog legs and horsemeat would be fun? We cranked up the volume and danced on our beds.
France was exactly the way I had always pictured it: sophisticated, slightly rude, and grungy with a glossy veneer. The problem was that it I was less of an adventurer than I’d previously thought. I happened to notice also that I was the the same person across the pond as I had been in America. I wasn’t smarter, more glamorous, more fashionable or more interesting. Living abroad, I suddenly realized, wasn’t going to magically transform me into a bohemian swan. If anything, it had stripped me down to my very essence, and all of my personality traits – both good and bad – were having an unauthorized dance party dangerously close to the surface. Standing unmoored in the middle of Europe was making me more myself than ever, and I had plenty of time to contemplate it.
(to be continued . . . )
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