I’m back in France. Nothing’s changed.
I arrived excited this time, anxious, determined to approach this as a French person would—to shove my way through this country with my nose held high and my brows furrowed low. I would be just as bastardly and unaffected as the rest of them, and just as fabulous, too.
I stepped off the plane at CDG with a plan: I would swap my cheery Swiss-inspired French for the more precise, insistent Parisian French. Instead of a sing-song, alpine “Bonjour!” I’d use my freshly-honed, disarmingly curt, Parisian “bonjour.” The Parisian version is more staccato, and seems to have a slight raise on the jour, rendering the word partly-inquisitive, partly-restrained. Totally French.
But at passport check, my new French stinkeye was faltering. Something about the inherent awkwardness of approaching a stranger in a glass box and offering him, bleary-eyed, a document with my sad mug on it as a bid for entry into his country always leads me to recede back into my American openness and smiley innocence—two qualities, incidentally, that the French view not as affability, but as stupidity. In American culture, awkward situations are often met with an elbowing “hey, we’re uncomfortable, but at least we’re uncomfortable together, right? heh heh.” Not so for the French. The douanier met my smiling “merci, bonne journée, et vive la France!” with a glare of regret for having stamped me into the country.
From this point on, I tried to keep my curiosity and amusement in check. I emerged into the arrivals hall looking simultaneously grouchy and indifferent. Now if I could just maintain this look for the next year.
I’ve been to Charles De Gaulle airport more times than I’d like to count. Yet finding the CDG railway station is always a hassle. I know exactly where it is, too (the ground floor of terminal 2A). I know all the landmarks; there is a Paul patisserie on the 4th floor, as well as a cosigne de baggages called Baggages du Monde. The guichets are on the 2nd floor, and you go down an escalator to access the train (usually at the last minute, to spare yourself the arctic blast and cigarette haze of a Parisian platform).
And yet, every time, there is a problem. The sign that says “rail station” with an arrow pointing down, is pointing down (indicating, one would think, “downstairs”) where there is no elevator, escalator, or staircase. As if you are supposed to teleport to the floor below, or as if this is a platform 9 ¾ deal, and the train station is exactly where you’re standing, but you’re too Muggle (or too un-French) to see it.
I once managed to find an escalator that supposedly led to the rail station (the escalator, incidentally, was nowhere near the “escalator to rail station” sign). I began to go down the escalator when a French maintenance worker stopped me, yelling “attention, travaux!” Sure enough, at the bottom of the escalator, there was a single orange cone and some caution tape indicating a mini construction zone, which one was somehow supposed to see and heed before boarding the escalator that was otherwise open for business at the top.
And so, the seeking-train-station dance continues: I walk in circles, or spirals, or zigzags, passing through terminal after terminal, each insisting that the rail station is here, look down! And I do ultimately find it . . . with minutes to spare. I squeeze myself and my luggage past unrelenting French people that clog up the station, groups of high school kids looking like models sprawled out on the floor, using their luggage like living room furniture. (Who can blame them? There are hardly enough seats in the station for a Smartcar-load of passengers, let alone dozens of TGV-trains full.) I reach the grey, stinking platform just in time to hear the SNCF tone chime, “DO DO DO DO—le TGV ‘neuf mille huit cent quatre-vingt quinze’ depart avec un retard de quarante minutes.”
Train’s late again. I say “phew” and “damn” in nearly the same breath, and begin to vulture around the station, trying to snag one of the four seats offered to the four hundred delayed passengers. Usually by the time I find a seat and have just settled in to its unforgiving plastic, I notice people scrambling to the platform door as a barely-audible announcement is made: “DO DO DO DO—le TGV ‘neuf mille huit cent quatre-vingt quinze’ arrive en gare.” Uh, what happened to the 40-minute delay?
Again, the gathering of luggage, the jostling, desperate push through the Frenchies, the teens, the tourists, the worried crowds gulping down their cigarettes in the icy chill, and onto the train, where I heave and hoist my bags, not because I want to look strong and independent and heroically un-jetlagged, but because no one in this city would dare help a lady, nor a man, nor anyone that’s beyond reach of one’s own nose (which, in the case of the French, can be quite large).
I don’t know what keeps bringing me back to this country. Let’s call it a case of terminal masochism in a girl seeking love and approval from that which is too indifferent to give it to her. Tant pis.