Copyright 2004 by Pamela Hamilton
The living of a journey becomes the telling of a story the second you begin sharing it, but where does that story really begin or end? Wouldn’t the initial recognition of your own internal, insistent voice telling you to ‘see the world’ count as the beginning? Wheels are set in motion by allowing yourself to consider going, by asking the question ‘what if’ and finally concluding ‘I can’. To me, these moments, along with the first, flushed-cheek excitement as tickets are purchased are as much a part of the adventure as deplaning in a foreign land. Likewise, the memories of precious moments lived in other times and places remain long after suitcases are returned to basements; memories immediately accessible by the power of recall. The places you had once only dreamed of seeing become part of you and their memory keeps the journey alive.
I lived an incredible adventure when I travelled throughout Europe with my roomate. I’ve had the perspective of time to reflect on that journey and consider why it was so impactful and why I now whole-heartedly encourage anyone contemplating such an adventure to go. What I’ve realized is this: in going and allowing the journey to reveal itself to me one step at a time I changed, becoming someone who learned to appreciate another sort of journey, the one that would continue, after I returned home. Each day is an adventure and my realization of this began in Europe. This is first day of my European adventure.
After my grandmother died I inherited enough money to make a dream come true and I suppose I did what any 24 yr. old would do who had just inherited eight thousand dollars: I quit my job against the advice of my worried mother and went to Europe with my roommate. The decision to go wasn’t made overnight but it started with what at the time seemed like an unrealistic question - ‘what if’ - but after much consideration ended with an ecstatic conclusion - ‘I can’. Even considering going remains a treasured memory and to me, is where the journey began.
Before I knew it quitting my job and leaving my country to return to no plan whatsoever made complete sense. I purchased a Eurail Pass and an airline ticket and turned ‘I can’ into ‘I am’. “I’m going to Europe”, I kept repeating to myself and anyone who’d listen. This was the first time in my life I felt like I was choosing my destiny, in effect, making a dream come true. How I wished my grandmother knew what her gift was enabling me to do.
With a money belt containing $2,500 hugging my waist, a Eurail Pass, a copy of Europe on Twenty Dollars-a-Day and one overpacked backpack in hand, I left Gloucester, MA in September knowing I wouldn’t be back until Christmas and completely unaware that an unrepeatable adventure was just beginning.
I didn’t anticipate the joy I’d feel when the moment arrived and we said goodbye to family an friends who had accompanied us to the airport. I was excited to be going but was unprepared for our reactions after loved-ones disappeared from view and we had passed behind doors for security inspection and baggage checks. Overcome by convulsive laughter that left our abdominal muscles sore and tears streaming down our cheeks we collapsed against a wall and howled, releasing last vestiges of nervousness and unexpressed joy, conscious that we were living the adventure that up until that very moment had been just a dream. There was no need to pinch ourselves - this was really happening.
A college graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theology, I had considered myself well-educated until the moment I looked around after deplaning at Charles De Gaulle Airport. I was surrounded by words I couldn't recognize, with no idea how to get to Paris. I wondered why I hadn’t better prepared. All I knew was that I couldn’t lose Amy, so with one hand holding fast to her backpack, I followed where she led while she maneuvered us to Paris. I concentrated on looking disinterested in my surroundings so as not to advertise that we were tourists, not considering that our backpacks were sure giveaways. I had anticipated landing safely in France but had not foreseen running smack into culture shock.
An airport shuttle, two trains and several subway stops later, we arrived in Paris to begin our search for a hostel, thankful that our travel book was written in English. The day quickly reached 80 degrees and I made a mental list of what items would be jettisoned from my backpack at the first opportunity. Weariness followed us like a third companion as we made our way from one hostel to another in search of a room and at each location Amy recited the phrase she had been rehearsing during the flight: “Avez-vous des chambres disponibles?”
I couldn’t recognize much of the replies other than non which I understood well enough to mean there were no rooms at the inns. Our first official café -au-laits revived us and, after getting our bearings, we discovered we were near another hostel listed in the guide book, the Centre International on the Rue de Bernadines, near the Latin Quarter. We sighed deep relief when we heard “oui” following Amy’s rehearsed phrase. We sat on our backpacks with backs against the wall and dozed intermittently as we waited for our key.
Two hours later our slumbers were interrupted by a soft clearing of the throat and a few “pardonnez mois”. I was glad the desk clerk smiled at us in our present states and she led the way to our room and handed us the key. I managed a “merci” after she said something I hoped wasn’t too important and we stepped in. Two bunk beds, two Spanish-speaking girls from Barcelona and a washroom common to 12 travellers would be home for the next six days - and it felt so good to be home. Giving no thought to the safety of our packs, we slid into our narrow spaces and fell into oblivious sleep.
I almost hit my head on the ceiling when I woke up with a start to silence and darkness about seven hours later. The room was unfamiliar and for a few seconds I couldn’t pinpoint where I was. When I remembered, I thought for sure I had wasted my first night in Paris by sleeping through it. I was glad Amy heard me fumbling around in the dark and then, with lights finally lit, she, like me, hurriedly primped and beautified for our first venture out into the City of Lights.
We emerged from the hostel just after dusk, hungry and ready for our first adventure, meandering away from the hotel toward the Seine River. Checking the map as we went we headed toward the Université, then St. Michel. We could see on the map that Notre Dame would be somewhere in that direction, but were completely caught off guard when glancing up, we realized it was Notre Dame illuminated in the distance beyond the Seine. Its immensity and serene, Gothic beauty and complete unfamiliarity were overwhelming and neither of us could stop ourselves from crying and laughing and hugging right there along the Seine, a moment in time still cherished.
We hurried toward the glorious vision and spent the next two hours sitting in the Notre Dame square amazed we were actually there and trying to remember what the guidebook had told us about the cathedral. I remembered something about flying buttresses and rose windows but didn’t know exactly what to look for. Looking toward the top of the cathedral I imagined gargoyles surveying the city, especially one I had seen in my guide that was holding his face in his hands and giving Paris a perpetual raspberry. I couldn’t wait until we could climb the 387 stairs to the Gallerie des Chimères when I’d meet them all face to face. We remembered that the Celtic tribe, the Parisii, had once lived on the Ile de la Cité and gave the city its name.
We would have stayed there contentedly marveling all night had Ali and Joucef not started chatting with us. Not surprisingly two 24-year-olds gaping at Notre Dame at 8:30pm was some kind of Parisian invitation; nevertheless, we delighted in the attention and accents.
“Ah, Pamela Ewing” Ali responded, smiling, after I introduced myself. Evidently, reruns of Dallas were still playing on TV and my first name had preceded me. Tall, thin, dark-haired and dark-skinned, Ali was the first Muslim I’d ever met. Originally from Algeria he was a student who dreamed of moving to New York City to one day join his girlfriend. He knew broken English and told us of the brutal war that led to Algeria’s independence from France in 1962 and the subsequent exodus of French settlers. Part of a minority population he resented how Parisians looked down on Algerians. Despite resentment over the remaining problematic relations between France and Algeria, however, he possessed an abundance of joi d’vivre, serenading us and anyone who would listen with Algerian songs, acapella, while we shook our heads in amazement, delighted that all this was really happening.
Joucef was quiet but his easy laugh showed he enjoyed, and was probably used to, Ali’s performances. A natural-born Parisian, his ruddy, rough features softened when he smiled, the squint of his eyes that it caused making him look especially kind. He wouldn’t sing or speak much English, indicating with a wave of the hand and a quick ‘ne pas’ he didn’t do either very well. I watched how easily Amy conversed in French with both Ali and Joucef and was determined to learn some French while in Europe. Ali seemed content to converse with Amy in either English or French but I could tell Joucef wanted to talk to me, but couldn’t. Smiles and delayed laughter, after Amy would translate for me something spoken between them, were all we could share. I was glad that at least we had the language barrier in common.
After 11:00pm we decided we should head back to the hotel and were thrilled when Joucef and Ali offered to walk us back, as if the first day of our adventure wasn’t perfect enough. They led us through the Latin Quarter, one of the liveliest areas in Paris. Voices, laughter, foreign languages and Greek music converged, hovering all around, while deliciously pungent spices hung in the air and mingled with lingering perfumes and smoke from filterless French cigarettes.
There were so many people it seemed that the only things not in motion were the buildings themselves and the uneven road beneath our feet. I wondered if we wandered into some kind of street festival. Where there wasn’t a continuous procession of bright, unfamiliar fashions and animated faces absorbed in spirited conversations there were arms reaching right and left, exchanging francs for fresh gyros from overworked cooks who leaned out from open-air kitchens to survey the spectacle. Perhaps they were contemplating jumping out and abandoning their posts to join the cavalcade. We each purchased gyros and devoured them eagerly.
We followed the parade, matching stride and spirit. I was intoxicated by it all and it’s no surprise I let Joucef kiss me. I was head-over-heals in love - with Paris.
Just one day since leaving Gloucester, MA, home to courageous fishermen, persistent seagulls and refreshingly sea-scented air, I’d experienced my first case of culture shock; first glimpse of Notre Dame; and first foreign kiss. My adventure was already more marvelous than I had ever conceived. To come would be other firsts, which the journey would reveal one step at a time, just as it had here during my first day in Paris.
Originally a New Jersey girl, I now live in Canada with my husband and our two daughters. This year I rediscovered a love of writing I had abandoned 20 years earlier and now spend as much of my free time as possible choosing one word over another, when I'm not with my family, working full-time in marketing communications or training in gymnastics, that is. This year I published a poem, an essay on gymnastics and am currently working through my travel journals to develop the entries into full stories that I hope to compile and print, one day. I am still loving the journey, one day at a time. Feel free to read my writing at http://phwrites.blogspot.com
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