“Vous-allez oÃ¹?” the voice inquires, I think, from the open taxi window.
“Great,” I think to myself, “He better speak English.”
I slide into a mid-90’ Renault. The seats produce a puff of dust as I slam my bag onto the seat. The days of smiling cabbies and leather seats of the London bred handsome cabs are long gone.
“Montmartre, s’il vous plaÃ®t; A hotel as close to the Sacre Coeur as possible.” I cruelly stress the “t’s” and “r’s” and wait for the cabbie to cringe at the sounds.
His mustache creates a downturned arch more defined than that of the Arc de Triomphe.
We, my mother and I, had arrived to Paris from London via Eurostar, the gloriously fast train that cuts under the English Channel, all whilst serving splendid chicken on porcelain tableware. We glance at each other wearily as we pass red lit streets and fruit vendors trying to peddle their final produce to the ever elusive eleven o’clock fruit crowd. The Renault carries us along, deeper into the true heart of Paris that is Montmartre. At least for me it is the true heart of Paris. Although at the time I didn’t know it.
“Voila. Nous sommes ici.” The cabbie announces triumphantly.
“Congratulations,” I mutter under my breath as I hand him ten euro.
My mother and I check into the hotel he had deposited us at, and follow the owner up a narrow corridor, and a narrower staircase, explaining things to us as he pointed to various doors. He finally stopped at our door, opened in with a flourish, and, slipping the key off his key ring, handed us the only instrument that could open our door.
“So,” I exhale into a smile, “What did he say?”
“I don’t know!” says my exasperated mother. “Something about a shower ‘ici,’ a fire something or other ‘la,’ and something most important ‘la-bas.’”
I stare at the toilet hidden behind a half wall adjacent to our one, tiny window. I really wish I knew where “ici” was so I could locate the shower. “This is all part of the genuine experience,” I remind myself.
I decide to venture out to the highest point in Paris, Sacre Coeur, Paris’ sacred heart. It is a white church of a breathtaking magnitude, with two hundred and thirty five steps up the hill to the base of the church, from which you can see all of Paris. But the most spectacular sight to me is the sea of humanity gathered on the steps leading to the church late at night. They are mostly all teenagers, and all sit in clusters, singing, laughing, and really embracing life on this hill overlooking their beloved city.
I hear the easy laughter of the crowd and I listen to the singing. The hundreds of voices rising from the steps, the beautiful sound of French words that I did not understand, the mustached cab driver, and the proud inn owner all started to add up to one conclusion: that I could never fully understand a culture without learning its tongue.
I speak Russian, English, Spanish, and after this trip, French. My goal in life is to travel, and to fully travel, I believe, one needs to learn at least the essence of the country’s language. Not even to know the words necessarily, but to know the unique sounds, the gentle ones that develop on the tongue last minute, or the deeply premeditated ones deep from the throat. Only then can one understand the culture. And that is exactly what that one night taught me.
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