Six European Train Tales
I had done as much as I could to procrastinate going to Paris. Strategy number one: Avoid getting on the train. So I spent three whole days which may be some sort of a record earnestly sightseeing in Luxembourg City. Strategy number two: Detour. When I could no longer pretend that there was anything left to do in Luxembourg, I decided to stop in Reims, France. Two days passed during which I took greater interest in gothic cathedrals than I ever knew I had.
Now I was out of excuses, the train was slowing down, and the next time it stopped, I was going to have to get off, navigate, and find a place to stay. All of a sudden, I felt as alone as I had ever been in my life.
I can't quite remember why the prospect of finding my way around Paris terrified me so much. Certainly, I had been looking forward to the trip. I'd known Parisian geography since tenth-grade French class, when Monsieur Nathan had made us recite all of Paris's major landmarks, starting, of course, with the Louvre and the Champs Elysies. I had wanted to go to Paris because of Impressionists and food; because Chopin had lived there, and George Sand, and Victor Hugo; because of the Left Bank, Notre Dame, cafis, and a thousand other clichis, none of which were clichi to me.
But I'd also heard stories of nasty-tempered waiters and shopkeepers who scowled at the barest trace of an American accent. (Monsieur Nathan's efforts notwithstanding, even a deaf Frenchman would have been able to pick out my accent.) And I had it on good authority that Paris was prohibitively expensive, frighteningly stylish, staggeringly snobbish, and filled with gypsies who would steal your wallet in the Metro. Clichis, here, too unless it happened to be your wallet that was filched.
At the time, I was 23 and the sum total of my travel experience consisted of taking a few planes between New York, where my parents lived, and Chicago, where I went to college. I had a Eurailpass, a hostel card, a backpack, and a budget of fifteen dollars a day. The list of what I didn't have was longer: no reservations, no itinerary, no traveling companion, no credit cards, and no idea what to expect.
"Europe on the bread and water plan," I had laughed to my friends, but inside I wasn't laughing. I hadn't the slightest idea what I was doing. My father, who disapproved of all things unplanned and unregimented, was horrified by my budget and lack of an itinerary or reservations, which I presented to him as a matter of free-spirited philosophy. The truth was that I didn't know how to make a reservation.
"You will be sleeping under bridges!" he warned."You need a hundred dollars a day to travel properly in Europe."
I didn't care too much about doing things properly, but the business of a hundred dollars a day took me aback. What if my father was right? I didn't know anyone who had traveled independently. Most of my friends had never been out of the country, and if they had, they'd gone on family vacations or ski trips. But there was one glimmer of hope: the orange-covered Let's Go Europe guide that offered the promise of five-dollar hostels, cheap seats at the opera, and student discounts. I brandished the guide as proof that my trip was possible, but my father walked out of the room muttering something about stupid young people who had to learn everything the hard way.
The train was slowing down now, inexorably rolling toward the station. Visions of scowling desk clerks, hostels with no vacancies, and my father saying,"I told you so" filled my mind. Earlier in the train ride, I had taken comfort in the number of hours (ever dwindling) left until I would have to get off the train and cope with language and directions and finding a room. Now, all I could hope for was a last-minute delay. Instead, the train slowed smoothly to a stop, and I followed the crowd down the platform, at the end of which was a tourist office kiosk where a pleasant young woman who spoke English made a hostel reservation for me, gave me simple directions, and sent me on my way.
Somewhat to my surprise, everything was exactly where she said it was. I reached the hostel in five minutes without incident. The French-speaking person at the desk did not faint in horror at my accent. To the contrary, he spoke slowly, took my money, agreed to hold my luggage, gave me a receipt, and told me that the hostel would reopen later in the afternoon. He also pointed out that we were about five minutes from the Louvre, which he located for me on the map.
I wandered outside and down the street, turned two corners, and found the Louvre exactly where the man said it would be, more sprawling than I had imagined. I went into the courtyard and, looking up, saw the grand avenue of the Champs Elysies leading up to the Arc de Triomphe. Everything was there: the Tuilleries, the Obilisque, the Place de la Concorde.
"What did you expect, the Empire State Building?" I asked myself, surprised by my surprise to see it all laid out as neatly as the diagram in my French textbook. I think it was at that moment my mind finally processed the fact that I was indeed standing right in the middle of Paris, the city that only half an hour ago I had been terrified to set foot in. I hadn't gotten lost, no one had scowled at me or stolen my wallet; I had found a hostel and wouldn't have to sleep in the street. Suddenly all of Europe seemed so very manageable.
The French have a word, dipaysement, which refers to the disorientation of being away from the familiar routines of one's home. Dipaysement is the twinge you feel when the street signs are the wrong shape, or when you can't figure out how to make the phone work or the toilet flush. It is the sense that even the most routine activities making reservations, using a vending machine, going to a movie harbor some hidden opportunity to make an idiot out of you. I had been feeling pretty much dipaysi for the last couple of days. Now, in that instant in the courtyard of the Louvre, I realized that it was just part of the deal.
I walked down the Champs Elysies and was startled to see a McDonald's, its golden arches more subtle than usual, but still glaringly out of place. They reminded me that I was hungry, and I knew that if I went inside, I'd be able to get through lunch without making a fool out of myself. But with my newfound confidence, I passed up the MacDonald's and chose instead a cafi, where I sat in the wrong place, mangled my order, and tipped (I am quite sure) the wrong amount. The world didn't end. The waiter didn't even scowl.
I think back on that moment often because it seems to me that I learned something pivotal in those moments when I gave a fancy French name to my feelings and felt the fear melt away. In the years since that trip, I have heard many people try to define the difference between a traveler and a tourist. Perhaps the difference lies merely in whether one embraces the feeling of being dipaysi, or tries to avoid it.
I have been happily dipaysi ever since.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication