Every family has their fair share of embarrassing stories that, regardless of attempts to keep under wraps, have a tendency to spread to many ears in a short space of time. Most of my family's Jessica-specific stories involve red-headed temper tantrums and clear illustrations of common sense gone awry. Another favorite is a family trip to Washington, D.C. when I was in fifth grade. This marked the first time I'd ever experienced vending machine peanuts (which became a twice-daily staple during that trip) and, more importantly, my hatred for trekking through cities in cold, wet, miserable weather. There are many reasons why I now live in Arizona; this hatred is one of them.
In short, I was trying to catch up with my parents on stubby little 10-year-old legs, tripped over my own feet one too many times, and gravity took hold. My parents found me sitting on a drainage grate in the pouring rain with soaked peanuts scattered around me, crying with sufficient volume to let D.C. know precisely what I thought of it.
14 years later, my inner 10-year-old was threatening to pay another visit.
Google Images has a nasty tendency to lie. So do travel sites, travel blogs, and inspirational posters with the clichéd Eiffel Tower in the center. So let me tell all y'all the truth:
It actually rains in France.
I know, shocking. Google search "France" and scan through the images that pop up -- I can guarantee there isn't even the slightest hint that the Parisian skies have deviated from a glorious Carolina blue since the last ice age.
In retrospect, I now question each and every BBC series that depicts a bright and sunny London, because we should all know that's a lie. Even after devouring every episode of The Vicar of Dibley with the enthusiasm of a child on Halloween, it never really struck me that blue skies don't mean a hell of a lot when the actors are darting around puddles the size of baby whales.
So to avoid any crushed hopes and dreams, let's assume rain exists everywhere on earth. Except maybe Arizona.
So there I was, dressed in my cute little French outfit with wedge sandals, skinny jeans, a loose Ann Taylor blouse, and Camille's leopard-print scarf, standing in the middle of a gray and rainy Reims and looking for the closest drainage grate to cry.
But let me backtrack a bit.
Public transportation in France is as temperamental as curly hair in Florida. When trains are delayed by 30 minutes for no reason whatsoever and it's perfectly acceptable to park the bus down an alley, pull out your iPod Touch, and take a 15-minute-break (and be damned with the bus schedule posted outside), I think I'd rather chance Florida without hairspray.
As a side note, France is great. I really like France. But that doesn't mean every idea is well executed. Public transportation is one, toilettes are another. There's a reason why we've invented those timed faucets you see in public places that gush water for five to ten seconds and immediately stop. Why are they important? They save water, and no one needs to spend more than five to ten seconds washing their hands.
Similarly, there's a reason why we do not generalize these timed faucets to showers. Why? Because no matter how environmentally conscious you might be, a five-second shower is realistic only for naked mole rats and other hairless critters with no real need to scrub, rinse, and repeat.
If you haven't noticed, I have a lot of hair. Trying to wash a frizzy mop of curls in five-second increments is like trying to wash a car with an eyedropper.
Another bad idea? French toilets.
Let's talk about what it's like for a woman to perch on a toilet bowl like a pigeon on a power line. If this battle for balance doesn't surpass underwater hockey as a valuable sport in our society, I don't know what does.
After I saw that my first train to Champagne-Ardenne was running 30 minutes late, I started to panic. My connecting train, after all, was scheduled to leave for Reims only 10 minutes after my initial arrival time, so the likelihood of getting to Reims at a reasonable hour was beginning to look doubtful, if not impossible. I rushed to a nearby SNCF employee to explain my situation, and received only pursed lips and a disdainful "It will be fine, it will be fine" and, within a second, a turned back.
Duolingo didn't prepare me for this, either.
To shorten a much longer journey than was necessary, I got there in the end...and was to be found wandering through the Gare de Reims (i.e., train station) with ringing ears from the 200-mph trip.
Reims is laid out at an awkwardly tilted slant of a grid system, with central streets stretching from NE to SW and every street in between zig-zagging whichever way the cobblestones wish to go. The gare is located conveniently at the northernmost tip of town, with the remainder stretching south and across a canal toward the west. That being said, it should have seemed simple to get from the gare to my AirBnB at the southernmost tip, particularly with the aid of public transportation. (Yes, at that point my level of jadedness toward public transportation was still in its infancy.)
So I pulled out my handy little step-by-step itinerary to see how best to get to Guillaume's apartment, which seemed relatively simple: Take Tram 4 from the train station to a bus stop only a few blocks from his apartment, make one turn, and you're there.
Well, this girl arrived only seconds after Tram 4 pulled away from the station, with no hint of its next return.
It was cold.
It was wet.
The drainage grates in Reims didn't look quite as comfortable as those in D.C.
So I stood there, considering my options, and decided it couldn't possibly be too bad of a walk. Although I didn't have a map (it would seem that Reims is too small to warrant map-making attention), I could easily follow the tram tracks to the correct bus stop and go from there.
So let's list all the things wrong with this naïve assumption.
First, I'll admit that I have a gut instinct to roll my eyes when someone says that Phoenix is a "sprawling" city. Phoenicians wouldn't know a sprawling city if it hit them in the face. The Valley of the Sun has the advantage of laying within, well, a Valley. Its natural boundaries force neighborhoods to grow on top of one another, and the result is that there are at least two Starbucks and two Taco Bells on each block. (Hint: these are indicative of my priorities in life.)
Reims, my friends, is a sprawling little town. It is officially classified by the French government as a village, but if this counts as a village, Phoenix should count as a state with at least 25 representatives.
Second, although I tend to have quite a reasonable attention span when it matters, I also tend to be easily distracted in novel situations. If the typical joke is "Ooh, shiny!", mine would be something along the lines of "Ooh, cobblestones! Baguettes! Statues! Basilicas! Vespas! French words! Macarons! Cute outfits!"
In other words, it took me all of three minutes to find myself completely separated from those damned tram tracks, and without the aid of a map, each and every winding street looked like a replica of the last.
Suddenly those drainage grates were looking quite comfortable, after all.
After two hours and more than five miles of wandering through Reims and asking intermittently for directions in broken French, I was soaked to the bone (yeah, guess who forgot her umbrella) and cold enough to miss the Arizona summer. I had no way of contacting Guillaume, no way of finding one of Reims' few Wi-Fi areas, and no way of using a compass to head in a vague direction if I didn't have a clue where I was in the first place. The streets I had written in my itinerary were unfortunately a collection of names no resident recognized, and therefore could only give me vague directions toward unknown landmarks.
To make matters worse, I stuck out like a sore thumb. In Paris, tourism is something to be expected; in a small town like Reims, where very few people speak English and even fewer people trek the streets with backpacks in tow, I was the subject of much attention. It was an odd conjunction in which I was surrounded by individuals, but with none of whom I could actually interact. It was a humbling, and incredibly lonely, experience.
Oh, and let's not forget the moment when, after only half an hour of slipping over wet cobblestones, my five-year-old Target sandals broke, leaving me with only a pair of stilettos (for summer school and the conference) and wedge sandals (which I most certainly wasn't going to wear in this setting).
If it was difficult finding directions toward southern Reims, imagine the difficulty of shoe shopping when you don't have a clue what European shoe size you wear, can't figure out European sale systems (price as-is, or an additional percentage off? where do you even find the price on a box covered in French and German?), and can only hold one-word sentences with the men and women attempting to help you find a pair.
But armed with a pair of 12€ sandals, I finally reached the far end of Reims and one of the last stops along a central bus line. In desperation and aching from my pointless travels, I sat down in the bus stop to wait out the rain, leaned my head against the glass behind me, and stared up at the wall behind me.
Instead, I caught sight of the first map of Reims I'd seen, posted conveniently only inches above my head.
And after a minute of searching, I was delighted to see that Guillaume's apartment was only a few turns away.
And so it was that I arrived three hours after my intended arrival thoroughly soaked, exhausted, and grumpy. Only minutes after Guillaume showed me to my room, I was to be found passed out on the bed with his cat, Mimoun, curled up beside me.
I woke four hours later to the sound of English.
Oh, what a sweet, sweet sound.
I had gone through so much in the last 12 hours that I tromped into the living room, all manners forgotten, and stared at the couple sitting on the couch, taking in everything from the woman's Americanized appearance to the man's Florida State University t-shirt.
The first thing that came out of my mouth was an incredibly intelligent, "I like FSU. I go to ASU."
And that's how I met Dawn and Chad.
They had flown to France for their first time to follow the Tour de France, which had passed by Reims earlier that very day. After staying a night with Guillaume, however, their train tickets to Paris fell through (shocking) and they went back to the only place they knew -- Guillaume's.
The four of us spent the rest of the night chatting together, sharing champagne from one of Reims's fancy wineries (Dawn's contribution), and trekking to the city centre for dinner at Brasserie Les 3 Brasseurs. It was a perfect end to a harrowing day.
The next morning was a slow one, which was precisely what I needed, given my still evident jet lag. Guillaume and I had a breakfast of English muffins, apple preserves, and Nescafé (surprisingly good, or maybe I was desperate) while watching World Cup coverage on the French news. (Given how little I understand soccer even in English, this made no difference.)
And then, without a thought of the itinerary in my pocket, I set off. The weather was warmer, the skies lighter, and my spirit of adventure reawakened. Fed, watered, caffeinated, and armed with Dawn's town map, Reims became an entirely different city: No longer did I feel alone, but rather one out of hundreds of people wandering the cobbled streets with baguettes under their arms, newspapers in hand, responsive to my smiles and murmured greetings.
And thus my day began, exploring a new world under a canopy of smoking chimneys, towering trees, and cathedral spires that stretched toward the sky.
a note on French gastronomy
North Carolina is the country's leading exporter of pork products. I grew up with a hell of a lot of pork. I'll quote shrimp-loving Bubba and say that from country ham and bacon to baked ham and sausage patties to sausage links and hot dogs to salami and barbecue to Slim Jims and pork skins to proscuitto and (my all-time childhood favorite if cooked by my father) SPAM, I know pork.
The French, it would seem, also know pork.
Pork is everywhere. I don't know to what extent this spreads to Paris and other parts of the country, but Reims also boasts close proximity to Germany...hence an onslaught of sauerkraut, home-brewed ales, and flammkuchen (read: flatbread pizza) covered in every kind of pork you can imagine.