A delayed flight. A connecting train. “We’ve only got fifteen minutes to get to the train station, pass it on!” The message spirals through the line of rushing teens who walk aimlessly down shadowy cracked sidewalks, winding back and forth in front of gothic-style, graying buildings. Streets are nearly pitch black. Narrow sidewalks brim with quick-paced men buried in scarves and hats, weaving bicycles, Parisians jabbing and spewing French into their smartphones. Fourteen clueless teenagers decorated in marshmallow coats and awkwardly massive suitcases wobble over each crack, topple over curbs, and half-distractedly follow two straight-faced chaperones who steer cagiley through the masses. “We’re going to miss the train to Reims!” Mrs. Barlitz barks, not bothering to look over her shoulder when Lindsay’s barely-under-the-weight-limit bag flips over and sets her back ten steps.
Paris is supposed to be the city of romance. One pictures a gleaming Eiffel Tower, two lovers sipping bordeaux on their front porch, and couples in a rose garden at sunset. There was no Eiffel Tower here, no rose garden. Only winding streets with sketchy homeless men, suffocating clouds of cigarette smoke, and the roar of motorbike engines. Panic and sharp November air fills my lungs as I jerk the bottom half of Lindsay’s bag onto its flimsy wheels. I lift my chin to find the white walking sign flashing red, and past it, Mrs. Barlitz and Mr. Perez streaking down the sidewalk, while twelve other jet-lagged teenagers flounder behind them. Like an iceberg split in two, we stared across the ocean of honking automobiles, watching our other half splinter away into the cold. The sign flashes white again and two frazzled girls– who haven’t slept in twenty-nine hours– take off like rockets (one of which is weighed down by an extra hair dryer and six sweaters too many). The cracked cobblestone slaps our heels and threatens to topple our luggage. The sidewalk grows narrower. Sleep deprived men in trenchcoats breathe icy clouds into the fall air and graciously lend us soulless stares. In the distance, Mrs. Barlow’s beige overcoat wafts behind her, and her swagger leads the embarrassingly touristic band of kids through a slotted black gate: “Gare du Nord”. Panting, I look behind me to find Lindsay’s eyes glazed over; her hair is scattered and she’s holding her left shoulder, as if to prevent her bag from tearing it off. As sixteen pesky Americans crowd the dainty entrance of the train station, scarved foreigners bump and shoulder past us. “Perdon,” I say hoarsely, and unimpressively, in French, and I wiggle a few feet to the right.
Mrs. Barlitz takes a hiatus from a diligent scanning of her iPhone. She acknowledges our presence with arched eyebrows that seem to ask, “what took you so long?” “Is everybody here?” A few seconds of garbled city noise and a couple of eyerolls. “Good. So it turns out we weren’t late. Just forgot to adjust my clock to local time. We got about an hour to spare. Ha!” she declares, pointilly, like she caught herself making an amusing typo. “At least we’re not missing the train, yeah?”
And so we wait.
We let the crisp European air wash over us. Drivers honk and roll by. It was clearly not the fairytale one imagines, but it was another world; the buildings weren’t steel New York skyscrapers; the people spoke in smooth foreign tongues. There was something about breathing this rare air– air that philosophers, romantic artists, and rich-beyond-belief kings once breathed. You can find irritable businessmen and distracted, school-trip chaperones in America. But you can’t find this rare air.
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