Tag Archives: France

Hungry in Paris (Ask and it shall be given, part 5)

The following is a true story about one of the most randomly extraordinary things that’s ever happened to me. I want to share it with you here, to the best of my recollection.

I was 16 years old in 1992 when I went on a student trip from Puerto Rico to Oxford, England for a 3-week intensive English course followed by one week travelling in France and Spain. While I’d already been bitten by the travel bug years earlier, this was my first time away from home without my family or friends. That was its own big deal.

Oxford 4

The view from atop Carfax Tower in Oxford

The host family assigned to me in Oxford was an elderly couple living in a tiny house on a street almost identical to the Dursleys’ Privet Drive in Little Whinging.

privetdrive

Left: the house I stayed in outside Oxford. Right: a photo I took of Privet Drive during a visit to the Harry Potter tour at Warner Brother Studios (London) this year.

The woman kept a padlock on the house phone, presumably to keep us student boarders from making long distance phone calls for hours and hours. She never hid her dismay when I turned down constant offers of tea throughout the day. “How can you not want a hot drink?!” (I lived in Puerto Rico where it’s 85 degrees year round!) And the sandwiches she gave me for my school lunches were either cheese and tomato, or tuna fish with butter and cucumbers. One time she asked me what I normally ate cheese sandwiches with, and turned her nose up when I answered ham.

But I digress.

When the three weeks in Oxford ended, my fellow students and I were revved for the upcoming week of straight vacation, starting in Paris. We grabbed our last packed lunches from our British host families, and hopped on a bus to London, where we boarded a train to one of England’s southern port cities (I think it was Plymouth) for the ferry boat crossing over the English Channel into France. I’m pretty sure I ate my sandwich (was it tuna and cucumbers or cheese and tomato? I can’t remember) well before I got on the ferry, and had basically no more food for the journey after that.

Oxford 12

Starting the journey

To say that the waters were choppy that day is an understatement. Though I was mercifully spared the miserable seasickness, I did witness a good number of my fellow travelers running to toilets with pale, drawn faces.

Oxford 14

The ferry boat ride

After that was over, we still had to take a train to Paris.

Oxford 15Cropped

Train ride to Paris … by this time in the day I would’ve given anything for a tuna and cucumber sandwich.

Finally, it was a drizzly early evening when we arrived at our Paris hotel. It was, in fact, dinner time, and just a few minutes too late to exchange money at a bank or at the hotel’s front desk. This was a time before you could go to any cash machine and withdraw money. Most people still traveled with travelers’ checks, the currency was francs, and none of us had any. We had a few British pounds left over, which did us no good whatsoever. Since most of us were high school students, we didn’t have credit cards, and I have a sense (my memory on this is a bit fuzzy) that some of the restaurants where we asked didn’t even take plastic.

What could we do? A group of about four other students and I started to walk around the city, trying to figure something out. We were wet, exhausted, and hungry. So we came up with a plan to approach someone who looked local, and ask them to withdraw cash for us using their bank card in exchange for pounds and travelers’ checks. It was a long shot, obviously, but we were starting to feel desperate. The first few people we asked –wait for it!– said no.

Right as we were about to give up, someone looked up and noticed the names of the cross streets where we were standing: they were Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance.

RueEsperanceProvidence2Cropped

So we figured, since we were literally standing on the corner of Hope and Providence, maybe we shouldn’t give up … surely someone would help us! That’s when we saw a pregnant woman exiting an apartment building. We approached her and quickly explained our situation.

To our shock and delight, she told us yes, she would withdraw francs for us in exchange for our travelers’ checks and pounds … on one condition: that we sit and have a drink with her before heading off to dinner. Starving as we were, we agreed. The woman went to an ATM, got out cash, and together we found a bar and sat down for a drink. I have only a very vague recollection of what she looked like, and she didn’t tell us much about herself. Funnily enough, we did learn that she was headed to the UK the following day, so she’d been on her way to the ATM machine anyway, and she was happy to take our British pounds.

She was also lonely. I got the strong sense that her baby’s father was not in the picture. Then she said something like this: “How funny that we met each other on the corner of Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance, and that we were able to help each other. See, it wasn’t just me helping you get your money, but you have also helped me by sitting with me these few minutes and talking to me, keeping me company. So in a sense, we needed each other.”

Oxford 17

Paris the next day

I think she declined to join us for dinner. Soon we completed our money transaction and parted ways, wishing each other all the best. Then my friends and I took the money to a Chinese restaurant where we had the grandest and finest Chinese feast I’ve ever had in my life. At least that’s what it seemed like in my 16-year-old mind, and who is my 40-year-old self to tell that girl otherwise? Mistaking our jadedness for wisdom is such a common blind spot among us grownup types.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the kindness of strangers in France. In fact, I’ve shared the stories here, about the incident with a cash machine in Paris and the time a few years later when my husband and I were hungry in a tiny French village. Isn’t this trend kind of mysterious and amazing? But all these things really happened. And remembering them touches a place deep in my heart where my own pure goodness lives alongside my faith in the goodness of others. Call me crazy, but I think we could all stand to tap into that place more often.

This is my favorite one of these stories, though. I have no idea if the woman would remember the role she had in helping a group of hungry Puerto Rican students get money for food on a drizzly Parisian evening 23 years ago, or that the thought of her poignant generosity and vulnerability still moves me deeply and lifts my spirits every single time. I especially think about the power of asking. It’s not just that you might actually get what you’re asking for (which in itself is pretty awesome), but it’s how the act of asking for help opens the door to keep kindness flowing. And to think it happened on the corner of Hope and Providence!


 

Note: A new friend I made on this trip was a law school student, (I believe) at the University of Puerto Rico. By the time we made it to Seville, I had all but run out of money, and she lent me money so I could buy souvenirs for my family at the World Expo. I promised to pay her back, but then we lost touch completely after coming home from the trip. I don’t even remember her name! But I did circle her face in the only two photos I have of her. I would love to track her down, to thank her again and to pay her back. Please help me share this blog post, so we can keep up the spirit of pay it forward! (Or in my case, in the spirit of paying her back…)

Oxford 7WCircle Oxford 22wcircle

 

Share this:
facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

You won’t know if you never ask. Part 1, Paris.

I hate being told no as much as anyone, and sometimes I’ve chosen to play it safe and haven’t bothered asking for something. But I’ve realized I regret not asking more than I lament being told no, and some good stories have come from the times I’ve been brave enough to ask. One of these times was ten years ago–this week!–when my boyfriend David and I were on vacation in Paris. It was Easter weekend. David and I had been dating about a year and half.

We took a red-eye flight from DC to Paris and arrived in the late morning. After a long taxi ride and a good nap and shower in the hotel, we headed out to dinner, stopping at the nearest ATM to withdraw Euros. The bank was already closed for the day, but with a machine right on the sidewalk, that was fine. David got cash first, then I swiped my card, entered my PIN and desired amount of Euros (300), and waited. The machine gave me 200 Euros. Then the receipt printed, indicating that the machine had given me all 300 Euros, and that the transaction was complete.
Well … !
Shit!
Right?
Obviously we’d have to come back the next morning and try to get the rest of my money. It felt like a long shot and I was already feeling self-conscious about it, but 100 Euros, then and now, is a lot of money. What was the worst they could do? Say no, right? But I also had this bizarre fear that they’d arrest me and throw me in a French prison like Jean Valjean. (I have weird fears like that.)

Breakfast the next morning consisted of a baguette each for David and me. This was the thinnest, daintiest baguette I’ve ever seen in my life, and it had about an inch’s worth of perfectly softened salted butter spread along the inside. It was easily the simplest meal we had that entire trip, and anything I write ten years later couldn’t do justice to the beauty and comfort of that perfectly fresh crusty bread and butter with piping hot café au lait for me and hot chocolate for David. The non-English-speaking waitress was also a delight. We spent our time with her shrugging and chuckling at our mutual incomprehension, even as we still managed to understand each other on a level that we knew counted for something. Encouraged by such a breakfast, and “armed” with my ATM card, the receipt from the previous evening’s transaction, and my passport, we were ready to face the bank.

“Parlez-vous anglais?” we asked.

“No,” they answered.

I knew only a little bit of French, and the situation wasn’t super easy to explain. But once English was ruled out, we knew that our only hope for communication lay in my multi-lingual abilities. My German in college was decent so I tried that. No dice. And I’d studied Portuguese in grad school.

“Pas de portugais.”

I should say that this entire time and despite our linguistic limitations, the folks at the bank seemed genuinely interested in helping. In my anxiety, I looked at David and said something to him in English that included a Spanish word or two, probably Dios mío.

Then I hear, “Espagnol? Oui. Un peu.”

So what’s French for “Duh!” No, it had not occurred to me to ask about Spanish. But there it was, one male employee who spoke very limited Spanish.

I explained what had happened to him as slowly and carefully as I could, and watched as he translated for his colleagues. A female colleague then got up and left the room with a large key ring. The keys to the vault? Do banks still have vaults? Anyway, I assumed she was in charge. While she was away, the rest of the employees kept talking amongst themselves in French. After enough time had passed, I grew nervous and said to David something along the lines of, “Either she can’t get the vault to open, or this is the part where they confiscate my passport, cut up my ATM card, and have us arrested for trying to rob the bank, you know, go all Interpol/Bourne Identity on our asses.”

A few minutes later, the woman with the keys reemerged. She was looking at a newly-printed receipt she had in one hand. In her other hand? My 100 Euros!  Honestly, for all the misgivings we’d had, it all seemed rather easy once it was over. Something in their system probably confirmed the truth of my story. We’d been so nervous, yet all we’d had to do was ask. To celebrate, I went out and bought this hat which I’ve never worn since.

Pont Neuf with new Parisian hat.
Know what else? After dinner at a tiny, ridiculously charming restaurant on Île Saint-Louis that night, David and I got engaged! Ah, Paris in the springtime. It was a very good trip.
 
Share this:
facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

One French Mother’s Day

In early June of 2009, my husband David and I traveled to France, and rented a self-driven house boat on the River Lot for one week. We thought it would be fun and romantic. Even relaxing!

The boat’s exterior was extremely charming. Strangers in other boats would smile and run for their cameras when they saw it. It was also large and sluggish, and difficult to maneuver, compared to some of the faster, slick little boats we saw on the river … usually passing us. Inside the boat, the sleeping areas were cramped and moldy, and the kitchen/living area reeked of years’ worth of accumulated BO. The first night, we killed the boat’s battery after having too many lights on at a time.

The owner had to come rescue us the following morning. He scolded us for having too many lights on at a time. “Oui, oui, we get it.” Subsequent nights were spent in darkness, one dim bulb in use at a time. A few days in, we lost hot water just as I was going to take a shower. Some minutes after that, we realized we actually had no water. Thus we learned about refilling our boat’s water tank, and began to make a note of which mooring stations provided these facilities.

The River Lot also held a delightful surprise that we had not prepared for properly, and that was the locks. Operating each lock was extremely physically demanding, and “parking” the boat in order for one of us to get out and operate it was terrifying. The river’s current was strongest in these locations, and there were many instances when I was certain we were going to hit rocks and/or go over the weir.

So our boat trip was basically the opposite of relaxing. And though there were moments of fun and breathtaking scenery, it did not feel romantic.

One significant stressor that we had also neglected to anticipate when planning our little misadventure was that we happened to have a difficult time finding food. Turns out there were very few grocery stores in the small villages that we had access to on the river. Also, there were not a lot of restaurants, and some weren’t yet open for the official summer season. And the few stores and restaurants that were in operation actually closed for several afternoon hours a day, every day. That was when I learned that the siesta tradition is not exclusive to Spain.

We were hungry. And being hungry in a foreign country, under stressful circumstances, creates a unique feeling of vulnerability.  On the rare occasions when village business hours and our eating and boating hours aligned and we managed to eat at a restaurant, we resorted to always taking the bread, shoving it in our bag when no one was looking. A hot meal was a rare luxury. Bread, cheese, and chocolate became our staple foods, with wine at the end of the day.

So it was that one evening we came to a small, family-run restaurant in a secluded camping area, which happened to be open for dinner. A warm and friendly woman seated us. The tables and chairs were (cheap) plastic patio furniture. The woman told us, apologetically, that they were not completely set up for summer yet. But we were so relieved to find this place, and so comforted by her kind welcome, that we didn’t mind. We proceeded to inhale a basket of bread the moment it was placed in front of us, and promptly ordered two glasses of champagne to toast the occasion. We also ordered a bottle of water, and finally allowed ourselves to relax a little while browsing the menu.

By the time the friendly woman came back with our drinks, we were straight-up giddy about all the food we were about to eat. Before she could take our order, however, our new friend wanted to make sure we understood that it was cash only. The restaurant typically accepted payment by credit card, but because they were not yet set up for summer, they didn’t have the ability to do so that particular week. One week later, no problem. Just not that day.

David and I quickly realized that with the roughly 30 Euros we had in cash, we’d only be able to order one entrée for the two of us. We looked at each other, took one quick glance back at the menu, and settled on a plate of sausage and fries. It was all we could afford. The woman saw what was happening, and offered to split the entrée into two plates, so we each could feel like we were getting our own dinner.

When the two plates of food came out, each one had a whole sausage, and was piled high and heavy with fries. Our friend had a big smile on her face. The photo below shows David’s plate thoroughly cleaned, and mine well on its way, plus two empty bread baskets on the table; the second helping of bread we received—free of charge—had probably already made its way into one of our bags. On top of the other empty basket sits a red rose.

DSC01940

When we first arrived at the restaurant, our friendly waitress had offered me a flower in honor of Mother’s Day (that day happened to be Mother’s Day in France). This was before we had our son. So I thought it was very nice of her, but I tried to tell her, “Thank you, but I’m not a mother.” It didn’t feel right to accept the flower. But she insisted, simply saying that she really wanted me to have it.

A few days later, we’d had enough of boating in France. We were sporting bruises and blisters. I’d wake up in a panic at night, with visuals of either the inferi from Harry Potter, or of our boat coming unmoored and drifting toward the nearest rock, which was sure to break us in half … right before the inferi came out for us. We’d been smart to plan our Paris stay—our real vacation—for after the boat instead of before. I contacted our hotel in Paris to ask if we’d be able to check in a day early; they said yes! So we cut our first and last boating vacation short, and gleefully boarded a train back to Paris, where we had a wonderfully romantic and relaxing few days. Nine months after that, I became a mom.

Share this:
facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest