I went to Paris alone. I was in my 20's and I wanted to learn French. Classes at the Alliance Francaise would be my ticket to fluency. But I knew no one in Paris. I spent the first few nights in a cheap hotel, sharing a hall bathroom. I wandered the streets in wonder. I practiced French I'd learned from tapes, and stuffed myself with croissants and pastries from patisseries. It was exhilarating.
At some point, I got friendly with a young English guy staying at the hotel. We hung out, one night walking along the Seine, enjoying each other's company. Um, a lot. You know, City of Lights, young, in the dark, relatively alone. Yup, exhilarating.
During my hotel stay, I'd chatted daily with the desk guy. When I checked out, I found his card tucked under the handle of my suitcase. That's how Mohammed and I ended up going out on the town a few times. Upon finding out that his brother had two wives, I decided to keep my religion to myself and the "relationship" short-lived.
After about three days, I made my way to the school and found lodging advertised on a bulletin board. I arranged to stay for the month at an apartment offered by a woman named Evelyn. In the chi-chi 17th arrondissement, no less, a short walk from the Arc d'Triomphe.
When I arrived at Evelyn's house I found out that two other Alliance students also rented rooms there. But the rule of the house was French only. And it was only fair since Laura from Italy spoke little English. Evelyn, Betsy (British), Laura and I had a blast that July.
We ate dinner in Evelyn's dining room every night with the, yes, "French doors," open to the night air. We sat on the twin beds in her vacationing daughter's room engaging in girl talk, as best we could, in our simplistic, flawed French.
Four women from four different countries, one each in her teens, 20's, 30's and 40's, all babbling like we'd been friends since childhood. Well, babbling as best we could in a second tongue.
One discussion cracked us up. It turns out the word "squirrel" in French is extremely difficult for new English speakers to pronounce: ecureuil. Go on. Give it a shot. (ay-cue-ruh-oy, with the "r" pronounced deep in the throat). And vice versa for French speakers. In English, their tongues get tangled over the double "r's." Each time one of us tried to pronounce the unfamiliar version of squirrel we were in fits.
My favorite story from that night was about movies. Our "French mother" said her favorite flick was, phonetic spelling here: "Krah-MARE vare-SOO Krah-MARE." I'd never heard of it. Until British Betsy and I realized she was saying, in her heavily accented English: Kramer vs. Kramer. Surely they heard the howling from the streets.
By the time I left Paris, I had three best girlfriends and a handful of ex-dates, including David from Spain, who was also attending the school. And a lot more desire to go places on my own.
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Ellen Perlman is a freelance travel writer published in The Washington Post, the Miami Herald and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among other metropolitan newspapers, and blogs on solo travel at boldlygosolo.com.