Hiding inside her apartment leaves the author little room to make faux pas on the streets of Paris.

When the chance to apartment-sit in Paris came up, I finally made the big move. After years of fantasizing about life abroad, I was about take the first leap into my destiny as an international adventuress. That was the title I introduced myself by, for lack of more concrete plans.

I was seduced by the idea of making a fresh start. Being able to say, “I live in Paris,” would render even the act of waking up a little more blessed. (Read: “I’m waking up poor and unemployed in my dingy flat, IN PARIS.”) I harbored the secret thrill of knowing that the fascination most people had for the city would, by extension, leave them in awe of me.

“Living abroad will teach you so much! You’ll turn into a real woman — refined and sophisticated.” My friends and family were swept up in the possibilities of my upcoming journey.

But by departure time, I found myself all knotted up and personal growth the last thing on my mind. My mood dipped from excited to gloomy. I was sure that my first trip to France last summer had sapped the newness of the experience. The clichés had been exhausted. I had visited the monuments touted on the tourist postcards. Already scampered across cobblestones with Gene Kelley enthusiasm.

This time, I would have no friends, no job visa, no plans, just a scary blank slate. With my anticipation dampened by pessimism, all I had left was the dreaded realization: I’m moving to a foreign land, and I have to make it work. My Parisian fantasy went pouf.

Les Halles station, with its hordes of veteran Parisians, can be intimidating for the uninitiated.

Paranoid to patron

After pooling my savings from a series of meaningless jobs and waving a falsely cheerful goodbye to friends and family, I had nothing to do but leave. During the first few weeks of my arrival, I spent days shuffling around the apartment in my pajamas, taking fearful peeks out the window between spoonfuls of Nutella. I didn’t have a problem with Paris or French people, but the risk of being a walking ball of foreign faux pas was daunting. Having taken a year of French in college meant that I should have been able to manage without resorting to “parlez-vous anglais” but fear of conversing in raw, unadulterated French froze me entirely. My only line of defense was shrugging my shoulders and flashing “I don’t understand, please go away” eyes.

Improving my language skills was an emotional process. I would spin around in a mental dance of self-congratulation whenever I got through a conversation without bursting into bright red as I stuttered through the exchange. Unfortunately, I wasn’t masochistic enough to willingly humiliate myself on a routine basis. The amusement as well as flashes of impatience in response to my mangled pronunciation held fast in my memory and deepened my diffidence.

I poured over guidebooks on French culture but made a general effort to avoid social situations. Food markets were picturesque in books but made my anxieties flare. How should I ask for unlabeled items?  How could I explain to the fruit lady that I hadn’t understood her well-meaning advice on figs? I avoided the fromagerie and bucherie for similar reasons and resorted to impersonal packaged food from the supermarkets. Instead of practicing my French, I practiced making myself invisible to ward off looks of pity.

Meanwhile, the ordeal of keeping in touch with friends and family back home had taught me that evasion is the best policy. In principle, email updates from abroad should include a generous dose of “What I’m up to,” with a subtext of, “Don’t you wish you could be here?” or more subtly, “don’t you wish you could be me?” Contrary to what people back home expected, I refrained from gushing. I hoped they would interpret the lack of news with a little misguided imagination and enthusiasm. If they would only try a little, they could imagine me coiffed and chic, romanced by a dozen chain-smoking young Europeans over an assortment of croissants and paté.

I was tempted at times to pack up and leave but failure was more frightening to me than staying in Paris. The little voice in my head whispered “and what would folks back home think if you were to give up?” So I parted with some of my precious savings for daily French lessons. After two mundane hours in morning class, I got to hang out in the school cafeteria with an international cast of women who also had complexes about being in France. Our lunchtime conversations covered everything from the confusions of life abroad to job search tips.

But more than language lessons, what really turned things around was the don’t-have-a-clue state of some anxious tourists. Two months into my stay, I was in a grocery store on the Champs-Elysées, strolling up and down the biscuits aisle when my reverie was interrupted by the raised voices of confused Americans. A couple was struggling to get assistance from overworked cashiers in no mood to straddle languages. I shook my head, knowing from my French culture guidebooks that substandard service was a cultural norm and that speaking in English only made things worse. In an act of compassion, I swept the tourists under my protective expatriate wings.    

The source of their confusion was in the range of electrical outlets. “We don’t know which one to pick. We don’t want to risk exploding our second cell phone as well.”

“You won’t find what you need here,” I told them authoritatively. “You have to go to the 12th district, full of computer shops. [But] no one will understand what you are talking about and will send you away. You’ll need to head to the one just a bit off, by the river.”

“Ah merci, merci! Do you have a name?” they asked, tearful with gratitude.

“No. And if you find the right plug, it will cost you a lot of money.” I walked away with the glow of one who had done good. My assortment of embarrassing mishaps had allowed me to accumulate what could be interpreted as Important Information. For the first time since arrival, I was able to demonstrate competence, at least in relation to those more clueless than I — the people who felt even more stranded and scared in this country. Suspecting that this could hold the key to a greater truth, I decided to make it my duty to sniff out tourists in their moment of desperation and come to their rescue.

Another day, another tourist in need of assistance.

My most memorable damsel/victim was a little balding man stranded in the Metro’s maze of underground tunnel. Shoved by the rush of afterwork passengers, he looked ready to cry. “Vous avez besoin d’aide?”  I asked him, then tried “Um, do you need help?”

“Thank goodness, someone who speaks English!” said the tourist, who turned out to be from Kentucky. He explained that he had been following his tour group through the station for a metro change, had paused to give some money to musicians, and when he looked up, the group had disappeared. “The tour guide was taking us to a pizza place. Somewhere south, I think.” He didn’t have the name of the restaurant or the metro destination. “Maybe a taxi driver would know of a pizza place south of here.” I stared at him, amazed and I must admit, exhilarated at his naïveté and childlike carelessness.

He thought it might be easier if he just returned to his hotel, but he had forgotten the name: Hotel Est, maybe, or Est Hotel. He sifted through his pockets, but found no address or phone number among the wads of American dollars and euros.

We spent a quarter of an hour at the information booth where the attendant with the Yellow Pages fruitlessly read out the names of 20 hotels containing the word “Est.” Mr. Kentucky then went through his pockets again, this time yielding, to the disbelief of me and the attendant, two business cards from the hotel.

I didn’t get irritated. Because as much as this guy was a nuisance, I found that I needed him and all the other helpless tourists just as they needed me. I hoped that he, and the others who in their moment of confusion mistook me for a local, returned home with a memory of me as some kind of French guardian angel. A Good Samaritan who had helped them at their most vulnerable moment without disdain or ridicule.

I had spent months trying to shrink away from life abroad, but my newfound ability to save other sufferers injected optimism into my Parisian travails. I allowed myself to see that after incessantly analyzing French culture as an outsider, I had somehow accepted and internalized some of its more foreign elements. As I grew to see my new culture for what it could be, I was finally able to take off my cloak of invisibility. I felt like I had grown just a little more competent at fitting in; well on my way to international adventuress status.

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