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 Walmarts, Starbucks and McDonald’s. Travel afar, and 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 experienced recently as I ventured on my own through the city of Paris. After previous trips, I’d wanted more time there, and I found an opportunity to stay in a neat little apartment in the 12th arrondissement for 12 days. All by myself, speaking very little French, I did a lot of learning. It was not always easy, and there was a fair amount of swearing along the way, but I’m proud to say I coped.
First, after an 11-hour flight, I managed to find my way on foot 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 hid three apartment buildings separated by small courtyards.
But the door to my borrowed 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. He 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 was getting around. Paris streets are not laid out in a grid, but often in complex spokes from central points, with many a cross street, ancient alleyway and odd intersection. Bus and Metro stops feature large maps, where I sometimes saw French pedestrians who looked as puzzled as I felt. (A French lady asked me for directions one day!)
I found navigating the Metro much easier than walking the streets above and enjoyed observing the amazing flow of humanity through those trains and tunnels. But before you can hop aboard, you have to find a Metro stop. The closest stop was several bewildering blocks away, and it took a while to figure out the easiest way to go. But finding my way home from the Metro stop somehow eluded me, 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.
One day, after a supposedly short walk that turned into an hour-plus due to several missed or wrong turns, I decided to catch the Metro home. Back up on the street, my hand-drawn map didn’t work; I got lost again. Finally, after dragging myself up and down long, wrong blocks, I found the right turn, and a great landmark. From then on, I’d always be able to find my road home.
You’ll never guess.
It’s right behind the McDonald’s.