Where Wine Is Cheaper Than Water
To most people, love poses a bit of a mystery. People fall in and out of it, expect it and don’t, watch it develop over time and come crashing in all at once. People love their family, friends, and certain TV shows. They love books, movies, and specific flavors of ice cream. And some are lucky enough to fall in love with places. They are lucky enough to know what it feels like to have a seemingly ordinary moment forever change the way they look at where they are and what that place means. They know the feeling of falling in love with the usual, the unexpected, and the foreign. I am one of the lucky ones.
Fighting through the bustling crowds of Parisians, my classmates and I drag our suitcases up stairs and escalators. We stare at the map of the underground as though we’re all illiterate. Then, after almost making it out, it happens—I fall. I fall right at the top of the stairs when I should be getting my first good look at the city. I bash my knees onto the dirty sidewalk in front of a café full of stuck-up looking French people staring down their noses at me as I scramble to get off the ground as quickly as possible. My professor just wants us to keep moving, and that seems to be the mindset of all the Parisians crowding past me. I know my knees will start to swell in just a few minutes, and walking anywhere for the next couple of days will be insanely uncomfortable. The tall metal archway leading to the metro seems to frame my humiliation. Trying to cope with all of this and fight back the tears, I just keep my head down and stew over my own clumsiness. I do not look up and take in the river Seine. I do not stop to admire the first glimpse of Notre Dame. And I do not peek into the souvenir shops we pass. I’ve come to this “City of Love” as part of a week-long urban travel writing trip, and so far, love is not one of the things I am feeling about this city.
As we continue walking, it becomes impossible for me to completely block everything out. In my periphery, I catch a flash of an old man sitting at a table outside a café, rolling his own cigarette. Shakespeare and Company’s telltale green store front and a small park that looks like it has been here, untouched, since Paris began. We turn a corner and start to make our way into the Latin Quarter; our professor stops to point the first landmark out to us, and I look up and take in my surroundings. I’m in awe. The Latin Quarter is everything I could have hoped for and more. The Paris that I’ve always imagined is here in these winding, cobbled streets – in the vehicles zipping by, the corners too tight to see around, and the dark alleys that beckon my inner wanderer. Cafés are on almost every corner. The smooth babble of people speaking French as they pass by helps to deaden the sound of traffic, and as we walk towards our hotel the smell of coffee, fish, and crêpes all come to me.
It’s the first time I’ve seen Paris, and it’s love at first sight.
“Deux personnes,” I tell the waiter as I hold up two fingers. He ushers us in to find our own table and follows closely with menus. The classic Parisian breakfast of coffee, bread, and cheese are not enough to keep me going after four days in London spent gorging myself on full English breakfasts. I’m so hungry, in fact, that it doesn’t even matter that I can’t read most of the menu. I find one of the few things I can decipher—quiche seems like a pretty universal dish—and then check on my beverage options.
We had learned quickly that in Paris, water was not a guarantee like in the States. You had
to pay at least 4 euros—or 4.50 in U.S. dollars—for a carafe that only held two or three
glasses of water, unlike in America where you can get endless refills at no cost. This has posed a bit of an inconvenience for us, but we’ve started getting used to ordering something besides water when we are at a restaurant.
I flip to the back of the menu and there’s the water, a glass priced at what would be about five American dollars, and then there’s wine. Three different varieties are all priced lower than the water. It’s eleven in the morning. If I were to have a glass of wine this early back home, I would probably be called an alcoholic or at least be judged pretty heavily. I look around the little café; the pair of women two tables down are both sipping on wine, and even further down I see a man with what looks like a beer. To my Midwestern, American upbringing, this all seems so bizarre. To the part of me that loves to experience as many new cultures as possible, this is a fascinating change from what I’m used to.
Sometimes we have the type of love that doesn’t make sense. It’s the type of love that no one else around understands -- one that even a past self wouldn’t have understood. People will question it, saying this doesn’t seem like what you would normally do. But sometimes you need those experiences. Especially because, in the end, we can’t help falling in love like that.
“Screw it. I’m getting wine.”
“You want to order something now, you can just pay tomorrow,” the man working at the sandwich shop says. He’s seen everyone on the trip so many times by now that he can recognize us even when we are by ourselves.
“No, I’ll run across the street quick. I’ll be right back,” I tell him. I’ve run out of cash, and the ATM on the other side of the street has become a frequent stop for my classmates and me when we can’t use our cards. The street is busy—cars, buses, and cyclists all rushing by until the crosswalk light brings them screeching to a stop. I cross quickly, weaving through the Parisians who never seem to be in much of a hurry.
In a matter of minutes, I’m back at the shop with fresh euros in my pocket, and the man looks relieved to see that I did indeed come back. I’m the only person here, and the small hole-in-the-wall shop feels oddly empty. I haven’t had a good look at the entire place before now, and I pause to take in what the quiet, shabby exterior doesn’t show. I take a step past the awning that stretches over the sidewalk to cover the two tables out there. I look up and to my right. A tightly winding staircase leads upstairs—to what, I’m not sure. Further in, past the glass case full of fresh sandwiches and past the fridge full of sodas, is a small room with a television set playing music videos with bright, flashing lights. There are more tables and chairs back there, which makes sense, I suppose, since they have to be able to seat more than six people.
“I’d like a Nutella crêpe please,” I tell the man behind the counter. He’s short—probably 5’9”, with a round, dark face and dark brown hair. “Yes, yes!” he says with a thick French accent. “Where is your professor today?” I watch through the glass as he pours the batter onto a hotplate. It starts out in the middle and grows to about the size of a pancake. He then takes a spatula and spreads it out until it thinly covers the entire plate—so thinly, in fact, that I can already see it starting to bubble at the edges.
“Since it’s our last day in Paris, he brought a bunch of students to the catacombs,” I tell him, watching as he expertly flips the crêpe. I had opted out of the trip in favor of exploring the parts of Paris that don’t show up as frequently in guidebooks. I wandered the streets, stepping into shops every once in awhile, but mostly just people-watched, taking in as much of this city as I could on my last day here.
“Ah, I see. So it is your last day. You go back to the U.S. then?” His English isn’t as great as many of the other French people we have talked to on this trip, but something about the way he asks his questions makes it feel like he is more genuine than others - maybe even more genuine than some people whose names I actually know.
“Yeah, we fly out tomorrow morning, so I had to come by and get one last crêpe
before we leave,” I tell him.
“You remember our crêpes when you go back to U.S.?” He asks, his face suddenly serious.
“Of course! They’re the best ones we’ve had so far!” I tell him. And no, I’m not kidding. He charges me for the crêpe—three euros since it is a Nutella crêpe—and then he begins the process of coating the pastry with the chocolate-hazelnut spread. He dips a pastry knife into the jar of Nutella and slathers a heaping pile of it onto my crêpe. As he does this, he tells me: “Since you remember our crêpes in U.S., I make you very special crêpe.” He grabs a banana off the counter, peels it, and quickly cuts it up into fine slices which he folds into the crêpe. He wraps it in red and white checkered wax paper, and hands it back to me over the counter.
“Merci beaucoup,” I say, and turn to leave the shop.
That moment made my heart ache at the thought of leaving. A city that I had grown fond of and thought of as a place that I really enjoyed, had somehow, without my being aware of it, turned into a place that I loved dearly. Paris was my best friend turned lover.
Our boat is about to return to the dock, and it’s time to make a decision. Half of our group wants to take the metro back, and the other half wants to walk. I know for sure that I’m walking—I lost my metro card this morning and would rather not have to sneak back onto
the underground—but the decision is a little more difficult for the others. Walking will take longer, but the Paris metro is confusing. Walking gives us a last chance to wander the city,
but taking the metro will give us more time to do last-minute packing.
We get off the boat and split into our two groups, promising to meet up in the lobby of our hotel to get one last group picture. There are eight of us walking, at least two are pretty intoxicated, and one who may or may not be -- we’re not sure. It’s a grand time, talking
sports and sights and sustainability with the others.
I loop my arm through my friend William’s and we stroll along the sidewalk together for a while, separating ourselves from the rest of the group. This is our second international trip together, and he’s been a constant whenever I’ve wanted to stay late at a pub, or wander a little extra before heading to the next destination.
“Lauren, I’m really glad we got to go on this trip together,” William says. This kind of honesty is rare from him—he usually keeps his feelings to himself. “I just feel like we really got to get to know each other better, and I really like that.”
I squeeze his arm a little. “I’m glad too,” I tell him. Before we can continue with our conversation though, confusion arises about whether it would be faster to cut through the back streets of the Latin Quarter, or to continue on the way we are familiar with. Why not continue on? We decide we are enjoying ourselves too much to want to hurry back anyway. Suddenly, there are raindrops. Not too many at first, just enough to catch our attention. But the rain quickly picks up until my hair is stuck to my face and neck, and there is water running in the streets. A part of me knows what the girls on the metro would say: “I told you so. You should have taken the metro with us.” Maybe the voices in my head have a point. After all, we would have gotten back faster and avoided getting wet. However, I also know that I wouldn’t trade this moment for the world. This moment, when I’m soaked through, cold, and completely exhausted, is the moment I fell head-over-heals in love with Paris.
It’s not a “been together for fifty years” type of love, nor is it the puppy love you see in high school couples. No, this is a reckless, cheesy, Nicholas Sparks novel, soulmate kind of love. It’s a kind of love that makes your heart ache every time a smell reminds you of walking through Notre Dame, or when the wind coming through your window at night feels like you’re standing on the edge of the subway platform.
Paris is arguably the most romantic city in the world. If you search “City of Love” on Google, Paris will pop up multiple times. But those well-known moments, the scenes and the experiences that everyone says you must have when you visit, those aren’t what made me fall in love. What made me fall in love were the moments that caught me off guard. The moments that were too real to be true and that woke up my senses and my imagination. Being in love with Paris may be the biggest cliché out there, but it may also not be at all.
“What did you think of Paris?” asks the man driving our shuttle to the airport. He’s short and wiry with a beret balanced lopsided on his head. He threw the question over his shoulder as he weaves through traffic. He is so nonchalant and relaxed; he obviously doesn’t realize how complicated of a question he just asked. How could I possibly explain to him how I felt about Paris? Had he ever been in love with a place? There is no way for me to be sure.
“It was great,” I say with a smile, and sit back in my seat as I watch this beloved city flash by.