I was deposited at the Chatelet metro station with my large backpack sagging on my shoulders, wearing a straw cowboy hat that read “Je t’aime Charles de Gaulle Aeroports.” My clothes were disheveled from a sleepless night across the Atlantic, and my look must have screamed AMERICAN TOURIST to the impeccably dressed French women who sniffed their noses as they passed me in their four-inch heels and flowery summer blouses. Welcome to Paris!
Chatelet station was a huge hub of eight metro and RER trains coming together in bustling, frantic jumble. I followed the signs toward Line 7, then turned around as another sign pointed me in the opposite direction. I wove through the underground maze of tunnels and moving conveyor belts that whisked me passed giant advertisements peeling in curled loops over the dark walls. As time wore on I thought I’d been transferred down into the catacombs, and at any moment I might find a skeleton lying beside the open water drains lining the walkway. A begging homeless man lurched at me from behind a curved wall and I dashed down the tunnel in fright.
Eventually I found my train and reached my new studette apartment in the Latin Quarter. In English, I confirmed with my French landlord that I was renting for the entire month of July, which I was spending in a writing workshop at the Paris American Academy. After I paid the rent, she gave me a map with the city’s tourist attractions highlighted in green. After classes, she explained, I could easily hop on the metro to see the sights. Me? Go back on the metro? I don’t think so! Right then I vowed to walk – and only walk – across Paris to get where I wanted to go.
In only a week, this promise was put to the test. Using Notre Dame as a marker, I was able to navigate my way around the City of Lights without too many hours wandering down unknown boulevards, asking for direction using the only words of French that I knew. One evening the writing workshop had an informal meet-up at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in Champ de Mars – all the way on the other side of Paris!
Following the curve of the Seine, I walked the entire way from Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower. Two hours later I arrived at the Champ de Mars, slightly late and exhausted. The writing group welcomed me with wine and cheese, and we read poetry until sunset, which this time of year meant 10 pm when the sky was lit on fire with an orange and yellow glow.
When we decided to head in, I realized that my apartment was too far to walk back to at night. I had to take the metro – but I didn’t even know where the nearest station was! Where was my transit map? Tipsy and worried, my new friends calmed me by linking arms and we all walked to the nearest station and descended its gritty steps. Everyone had a pass that they swiped through the gate and I felt self-conscious as I muddled around with the ticket machine in French, trying to purchase one-way fare while everyone waited for me. Finally, with my white ticket slip in hand, I joined the others and we rode off in the train.
It seemed at each station we said goodbye as another member of the group got off, until I was the only one left. I clutched my umbrella close to me – my weapon in case another Frenchman lurched at me – and reached the Jussieu stop.
As I ascended out of the underground, the antique streetlamps glowed down into the escalator shaft. I looked up at a large tree next to the steps, its leaves swaying in the wind and rustling over the sound of the screeching trains behind me. Every moment I rose higher and higher, until I reached the top and walked out in the cool night air with a smile. There, that wasn’t so bad was it? Maybe the metro wasn’t going to kill me after all.
The next morning, I stood in front of the entrance to Jussieu station. I grabbed the map my landlord had given me, and traced my fingers along the transit lines that could take me to Sacre Coeur, or the Louvre, or even Versailles! Clutching my umbrella for strength, I descended the dark steps into the metro, and all of Paris opened up to me.