Nicole Brodeur just spent a month in the City of Light. Here's what she learned about France — and also about her own American self.
The tour boat had pulled to the side of the Seine and was inches from the dock when I first heard her, her voice cutting through the happy cacophony of languages that always bubbles up among tourists in a beautiful place. And this place, Paris, was breathtaking.
We had spent the last hour sliding down the shimmering spine of the city, taking in the soaring Haussmann architecture and landmarks like Notre Dame, slipping under centuries-old bridges such as the Pont Alexandre III, with its golden-ship statue on one side, the Russian coat of arms on the other. From here, the Eiffel Tower seemed to stand even taller. The stone walkways along the water bore the weight of history, of other times and other lives.
It turned me to a speck, a momentary being. I felt humbled and silenced.
And then: “Well, that was lame,” the woman croaked.
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“Yeah,” a man’s voice said. And that’s when I pivoted. He was wearing a baseball hat and white sneakers. She stood scowling with a purse slung over her shoulder. One of her mittens had “Bud” across the top. The other: “Weiser.”
“I didn’t see anything,” she said. I noted the boat’s clear Plexiglas ceiling, the windows all around, looked at my shoes and sighed.
There are people who, no matter the place, no matter that they have coats and mittens to guard against the cold, hotel rooms to sleep in, food and drink, just can’t be happy. I don’t know if that’s an American thing, but when the boat’s gate finally opened, I was the first off. I wanted to get away from them, and as quickly as possible.
I spent last month in Paris, taking French-language classes five days a week. The goal was, and is, to forge a more meaningful bond with my family there and re-establish the connection that was lost when my French-speaking parents passed away.
In the process, I lost myself in the city, the food, the people, the Metro — speaking my blunt and broken French, striding through cloud after cloud of cigarette smoke, becoming a professional eavesdropper and, to my surprise, the object of sympathy.
You don’t have to wear Budweiser mittens and complain about the view to be identified as being from there, that place, where we replaced President Obama with a reality-TV star in a too-long red tie.
President Trump arrived in Paris a week after I did. While other world leaders walked down the Champs-Élysées for a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, he rode in a limousine for security reasons.
Trump later skipped a trip to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery because of the weather. But other world leaders managed to get there, with cars and umbrellas and a clear sense of duty.
I didn’t want to be anywhere near it, so I walked to Le Bon Marché, the department store where famed photographer Annie Leibovitz was signing copies of her new book, “At Work” (“Au Travail” for me). There was a long line of admirers who spoke mostly French, so when I approached, said “Hi!” and told Leibovitz I was from Seattle, her face lit up. She put down her signing pen, reached across the table and grabbed my forearm.
“How are you managing with that man in town?” she asked.
That’s why I’m here, I told her. To counteract today. To be with you: an American whom French people will stand in line to meet.
Counteracting my American-ness became a daily pastime, like drinking strong coffee and tearing off the end of a warm baguette as I walked home from school. If your accent isn’t perfect, you’re a goner. You’re an American, open for teasing, questioning. Whatever came.
When people picked up that I was “des États Unis,” they looked at me with a mix of disappointment and pity, like I had forgotten my gym clothes and had to play in a dress, or brought pigs-in-a-blanket to a Seder.
So, one of the first phrases I learned was “Je suis désolée,” which means, “I’m sorry.”
Time and again, people would ask whether I wanted to move to Paris, if I were thinking of staying, rather than spending two more years — or more? — shaking my head.
I thought about it, the things I learned and loved about Paris. The way you could turn a corner and lose half a day. The craftsmanship put into everything, from a sandwich to a bridge. The fresh food. The art, stunning and ubiquitous, which, time and again, brought tears to my eyes. Again, we are specks, just here for a moment, while the works of Monet, Renoir and others will sustain mankind forever.
But the French have their problems, too. On the day I left, there were violent riots over increased fuel taxes. There is homelessness, but nothing like here. I only saw tents once, far from the city’s tourist haunts.
I am happy to be home, to sleep in my own bed and easily grasp the words to fully express myself. I went to Paris to get in touch with my French heritage, and came back with a fresh look at what it means to be an American.
If a month in France taught me anything, it is that time is fleeting, and that we need to embrace our moment in it. Look at art, read more books, challenge yourself, walk more, travel, eat new things. And have a sense of humor about the people who can’t appreciate history, or understand that history may not appreciate them. Mittens, red ties and all.