Thursday, April 10, 2008

Making Friends on Trains (Daunting in Length but Lovely in Content)

My residency at the Hotel Lutetia in Ste Germain. Lucky SOB.

Friends- the following is a portion of the MASSIVE emails I used to send my friends pre-TKTC. This one is from June last summer when I returned from my last trip over the pond. Only I never sent this for some reason. I've not edited at all but this is Part 1. It remains one of the single favorite days in memory. Random friendship tends to do that to a person. Will warn you's long. But still makes me warm while making me glad that I quit smoking shortly thereafter. I never was terribly hardcore enough for it.

Bellejour Mes Amies. Encore.
Actually, to my knowledge, "Bellejour" is not an actual greeting but I find it appropriate today. Beautiful Day My Friends. Again.

The last time I wrote it was storming quite violently in Chicago, which is what gave me the excuse to stay at my desk and start hammering the updates out. That's actually pretty appropriate because it rained the full time I was with the Pages and was still coming down as I wheeled my body bag full of too many pairs of shoes and 5llbs of Tetley black tea from Melanie into the EuroStar station.

What a mob scene. Easy enough to get to from Waterloo but once you've gotten through customs, it's just so many people in lines winding throughout too large a space. My feet were run over by large rolling bags two fewer times than I did it to others. Finally I made it to my car near the back of the train and was among the first to arrive. The trains are very nice- especially compared to our beloved but jank El trains in Chicago.

This is a good time to recommend that everyone reading this go see a film called Paris Je T'Aime. The same length as any other movie but made up of 18 different vignettes done by different directors with a crazy amazing cast that includes Natalie Portman, Elijah Wood, Gena Rowlands, Nick Nolte, Juliette Binoche and MANY others. Incredible and good to keep in mind because I went through the following thinking I was secretly the 19th portion of the story.

So I got on the train. And, of course, immediately spot a very attractive French guy seated directly behind me. The trains are set up so that the first row of seats are two per side, facing the back of the next row, then they are grouped as two facing two with a table in between. So, in my head I'm thinking "Too bad he's not facing me because then I could stare at him and the whole trip would go a lot faster." No such luck.

My little pod of four began to fill up. First with the French girl who had been chain-smoking right outside the train doors sitting directly beside me (Great, going to smell like cigs when I see my mother, that's always such a fabulous plan). Next was a rather grouchy looking English girl still having a rather exasperated conversation on her cell phone while shoving her bags around. The final addition to our little pod was a Korean tourist, directly across from me, who was frantically reading a small book entitled "Top Ten Paris." Time to take a nap.

I woke up as they were announcing our descent into the tunnel which everyone on the train was already aware of because your ears pop as the pressure changes. I didn't realize how close England and mainland France actually are because you're only underwater for about 20 minutes and no, you can't see fish or anything, it's an actual tunnel. As we start to come back up, the guy across from me asks me about a time difference between London and Paris.

I'm now feeling a little chattier and tell him I'd just bought the same book he's reading but I got the Barcelona edition. He goes, "I bought this in America." Apparently I'd been using my Harry Potter accent when I said it the first time so I assured him that I, too, had bought the book "in America." He asked where I was from etc. and it turns out that while he is originally from South Korea, he had done his undergrad at Michigan and was now an Engineering grad student at Stanford. He had never been to Europe, had a 10 day break and decided to take himself to see as much as he could- an ambitious 5 city tour. I asked him how he liked London and he said it was fine. He loves musicals and had seen the West End edition of Sound of Music as well as seeing the guard change at Buckingham Palace, the Tower etc.

"I'm really looking forward to Paris though. I've heard it's a fashion capital and everyone in London looked the same"

I looked at him in his too-tight khaki cargo shorts, walking sandals, and faded green polo shirt (tucked-in most of the way) and asked him what interested him about the fashion scene in Paris. I'm genuinely intrigued at this point. He tells me that he has no idea what to do when it comes to clothes but that he knows it's important to girls that guys dress well. I've started to wonder if I've ever met someone more genuinely honest or naïve. It was actually pretty charming. He then asks if that's the case and I do my best to speak for 50% of the world population. It went something like this:

Guy: Are there any magazines or anything that guys read to learn this type of thing?
Me: Esquire is pretty good I think. Don't you have any friends that you think dress well? You should ask them where they shop.
Guy: Well all the guys I'm friends with go to class with me and I just don't think many engineers know about these things. And I wouldn't want to sound gay in asking.
Me: If you were gay, you might not have this problem. You don't really put out that vibe anyway.
Guy (blushes I think): I also don't really care for shopping malls. My ex-girlfriend used to drag me to the mall for hours and then would get mad at me when I was ready to leave.
Me: Why on earth would she want to drag you around a mall for 3 hours? No offense.
Guy: I don't know, she wanted to know what I liked.

At this point, a very chic French accent chimes in. Cecile- my smoky seatmate- has come to back up my argument. Over the course of the next 40 minutes, Cecile and I try to tell this guy that any girl worth the time knows what she likes and doesn't need him to validate it. We usually dress for other girls anyway, in terms of details, but we also know when we look hot which is more for the boys. We tell him not to worry about it so much. He confides he speaks no French and was trying to learn key phrases from his Top Ten Paris book. Cecile rolls her eyes and teaches him how to say something to the effect of, "I am so very sorry that I cannot speak your beautiful language. Do you happen to speak any English?" She says looking very apologetic is key but that, if delivered well, will secure for him the keys to the city of Paris from anyone he asks.
She also confirms that no one would mistake him for gay (apparently she'd been listening for most of the ride) and follows this up with a story about her boyfriend starting to ask her roommate (a male-oriented male roommate) for fashion advice and how that's been a benefit. This also sparks a conversation on 3 continents; reception of homosexuality- how it's changing, how it's still the same. It was fascinating to listen to the two of them and by the time we started to approach the Paris suburbs, I was genuinely disappointed to have to get off and get into the rain that was still steadily coming down.

Somewhere in the conversation, Cecile mentions living near St Germain and that my hotel is near her flat. Out of nowhere, grouchy English girl (known henceforth as Meri- oh the irony) goes "All I want right now is a cigarette." Followed closely by "I live on St Germain, share a cab?" Cecile looks at me like "Where did that come from?" but we agree for the sake of a cheaper fare. The three girls get off the train and into the cab line after saying goodbye to our 4th companion. The girls promptly light up Marlboro Lights from their respective packs and I ask to bum one.

Blank Stares.

Cecile: You're an American, you don't smoke.
Me: Ha. I wish the two were mutually exclusive.
Meri: I would have offered you one but I thought the same thing!

So then it was the three of us crouched under a drippy awning waiting for a cab, puffing furiously at our American cigarettes. Meri, as it turns out, is quite pleasant, if on the blunt side. In fact, I think I might adore her. She explains that she would have joined our cross-continental dialogue but she had a splitting headache and the first thing she heard after dozing off was that everyone in London looks the same and has no fashion sense. Considering the source, she did not feel the need to contribute.

We are now tooling around Paris in a cab speaking half English, half French and the ugly mutt that comes out of my mouth rapidfire. We exchange business cards, they know the hotel I'm staying in and we decide we'll all go out for a drink the next night. After dropping off Cecile, Meri says that you can see my hotel from her apartment and I should come up for a minute so she can write down some good restaurants for my mom and I to visit. I think to myself that my mother will already be worried because we have no cell phones here and it's pouring and, well, I'm not the greatest at staying on task and could get lost in some half-baked reverie and not realize I've missed my stop until I'm in the middle of Montmartre. All good points. She knows me well:)

I agree, thrilled to have found not one but two kindreds about the same age as me (slightly older). So we are dropped at a lovely building across from the Bon Marche and a sweet park. After the two of us pivot my bag into the cage elevator and Meri properly berates me for packing so much for such a "short" trip, we arrive on the 5th floor. and are soon in the door to her firm's supplied flat. It is big by Chicago standards and I imagine HUGE by Paris standards. High ceilings, a combined living and dining room, separate kitchen with glorious counterspace and bedroom that I would eyeball at about 12 x 16. The piece de resistance? A balcony running the full length of the apartment. In low-hanging clouds still soaked like dishrags, you can see the Eiffel Tower about 3/4 mile away and the gold dome of the capitale even closer. It gives me chills.

Meri must have sensed this because in her very practical way, she has already brewed a pot of coffee and gotten out an ashtray. My mother is going to smell the ash from 4 lengths away and I don't even care. We have two cups of coffee and four cigarettes and I leave, almost hesitantly, with a full page (front and back) of recommended shops and hidden restaurants. I couldn't have daydreamed this. That occurred to me in the elevator and i resist the urge to pinch myself and make sure that I haven't fallen asleep on the El and am not mainlining it to Cermak.

Meri was right- my hotel was only about 5 doors and one crosswalk down from her building. All of us along Rue St Germaine or Rue Raspail. This really can't be the right place. It's beautiful. Art Deco and everything gilded or covered in velvet. I think I saw the Fitzgeralds check in ahead of me. I know I did because I remember noting that I really loved Daisy's cloche. Enough of my tripping-I get in and my father has already checked me in and requested I meet them at their room first. My mom is missing, it's about 5:30 (I'm an hour and half late) so I assume she is having wine downstairs. Rightfully so, she is probably beside herself. Big hugs for Dad! He starts telling me not to be too optimistic about my room, that because i'm staying by myself and we booked it so late, there weren't many good options. I know this tone. Once when I was 10, we went to Hawaii to meet my dad who had been there on business. He told my brother and I that we had some hoopty island car that smelled funny. It was a brand new Mustang convertible. What a trickster that Dad.

We get to my room, on the same floor. My mouth dropped. Corner room, king size feather bed, two balconies, floor to ceiling windows, a fireplace, two bathrooms, fresh-baked madeleines and a bottle of champagne bearing the crest of the hotel, Hotel Lutetia Paris. I am convinced I will never stay in a place this nice again and I feel guilty for having it to myself while simultaneously relishing that this is my space and the fact of having no friend, boyfriend or husband to share it with strikes me as a multiplication of the primary luxury that drips from every drawer in the room. I like to think that in these situations, I can keep a poker face, stay classy and act as though "This is nice, of course this is what I'm used to." Nope. I took pictures. Dad got a kick out of that and left me to freshen up with little asides of "Don't get used to it." and "This was all they had and they gave us a deal because the company had other rooms here" and "Careful or your mother and I will take this one. We would have but we didn't see it till after we'd unpacked!!" None of these things mattered though. He was very clearly amused at the fuss I was making.

I decided to really class it up and hang a few items. Once I'd done that I took it a few steps further even and removed the prettier items from my make-up bag and my Nanadebary perfume with the pink atomizer. I don't wear anything very expensive in terms of clothes but I am very she-she with my make-up- creature comforts and all that.

I change into a black sheath dress I've borrowed from Kate. She says she found it at a thrift store but we both love it because it is of a very chic length, about 3 inches below the knee, and fitted. I had a black belt at the waist and a silk scarf around my hair which was getting bigger and bigger as it dried. There is a rapidfire knock at the door and I know for a fact that it's my mother. It's not the Oscar de la Renta wafting under the door or the rapping itself that falls naturally to the tune of "Little Boy Blue." It's that when a mother and daughter are in close proximity among strangers, they have an inherent awareness of each other. Half of the chiding that goes on between them is never spoken aloud but sensed. I open the door and I catch her at about the 4th word of her conversation with me/my door.

She is not angry but clearly relieved and immediately catches that i'm glowing from tip to toe, bursting with some new energy source of information. I apologize profusely for worrying her but then dribble out the whole story from the train, the rain and the apartment. And mes amies. She is grinning widely like me in the way she always does when my brother or I are relaying some adventure. In the way I hope I do when she'd relaying one of her own to me. Usually, for the three of us, adventures come in the form of a new friend met in line or at the airport and whatever "it's such a small world" moment that was had. We live for those. I learned it from her. We get ready for dinner, both fishing for our lipsticks.Meri, Me, Aline and Cecile. Cecile and Meri both now live in the Marleybone neighborhood in London and I'm hoping to see them for more wine and, let's be honest, eurosmoking, in two weeks!

I did end up meeting my friend for wine at La Palette, which it turns out was quite the famous literary hangout back in the day. I went back to Meri's and smoked another half a pack of cigarettes and drank straight Captain Morgan's. It was probably the most brilliant 2 days possible and I didn't even tell you about Chad Michael Murray. Story for another day.


Nilsa S. said...

Girl, you know how to write as much as you know how to talk! *grin* I haven't yet made my way through all of this post and will have to revisit it this weekend when I have more time. Just wanted to let you know you made an impression!

Cheryl said... THAT is an email :) I too have to come back and finish this one.

L Sass said...

What a great memory! I met some great people on trains in my European travel too... back when the Euro was worth 85 cents. Sigh. Good old 2002!

ToKissTheCook said...

Nilsa: Quantity. I mean really, props to you for even making the attempt on this little love monster. Thanks for trying!!

Cheryl: You's way too long. Like I've never heard of installments.

Sass: It about brings me to tears thinking about .85 euros on the dollar. Seriously. That's ridiculously sad.

~Angela~ said...

Welcome to the longiloquent club. ;) You'll fit in nicely with DS and me.

~Angela~ said...

Oh, and that thing about Americans not smoking was pretty damn funny.

ToKissTheCook said...

Ang: You are a total trooper for getting through that whole thing. I see why you only post a couple times a week!