The great thing about travel abroad is that you’re always seeing something new and different. In the U. S., it seems to me, wherever you go there are the same old Walmart, Starbucks and McDonald’s. Elsewhere, everyday life is filled with new and educational experiences, especially if you get out of the resorts and into the real world.
That’s what I’ve experienced in the last week as I venture on my own through the city of Paris. After previous trips, I’d wanted more time here, and I found an opportunity to stay in a neat little apartment in the 12th arrondissement for 12 days. Half-way through, I can say I’ve done a lot of learning. It’s not all been easy, and there’s been a fair amount of swearing along the way, but I’m proud to say I’ve coped.
First, after an 11-hour flight, I managed to find my way afoot from the airport shuttle stop to my temporary home, wheeling suitcases along Paris sidewalks as wide as some Maui roads. I punched numbers into a keypad to open an enormous wooden door that hides three apartment buildings separated by small courtyards.
But the door to my apartment baffled me. Finding the lockbox, freeing the key inside and figuring out how that key fit into the door took about 10 minutes of deep breathing.
Inside, I explored my new domain, then set out to find food. Back at the enormous street door, I discovered I was locked in. No keypad to punch on this side. Fortunately, a friendly Frenchman came along and showed me a button on the wall that released the door, apparently standard equipment on security systems retrofitted onto ancient doorways all over Paris.
Such day-to-day mysteries and challenges continued: how to turn on the lights, stove and TV; how to dial strange phone-number combinations; how to press “start” when none of the microwave buttons translate as “start.”
Then there’s getting around. Paris streets are not laid out in a grid, but often in complex spokes from central points, with many a cross street and odd intersection. Bus and Metro stops feature large maps, where I sometimes see French pedestrians who look as puzzled as I feel. (A French lady asked me for directions the other day!) Navigating the Metro’s actually pretty easy, but first you have to find the Metro stop, and then find your way home once at your destination, and getting lost is even less fun when you’re at the end of a journey. So I painstakingly drew a map to help me get home from the nearest Metro stop.
After one supposedly half-hour walk that turned into an hour-plus due to several missed or wrong turns, I decided to catch the Metro home. And my hand-drawn map didn’t work; I got lost again. Finally, after dragging myself up and down long, wrong blocks, I found my road home, and a great landmark, so I’ll be sure to find it again. You’ll never guess.
It’s right behind the McDonald’s.