I placed my elbow on the side of the chair and noticed that there was an ashtray welded into the metal armrest. Leaning into the aisle I looked towards the front of the airplane and saw a sign that read, “Smoking Section.” Above the sign, in black magic marker, was printed the word, “Don’t.” So apparently I was sitting in the, “Don’t Smoking Section.”
I didn’t know much about aeronautics, but was certain there had been some advancement since the time it was legal to smoke on a plane. I imagined the in-flight entertainment would be a silent film starring Charlie Chaplin and poked my head back into the aisle to see where the segregated bathrooms were located. It was then that I was struck in the shoulder by a flight attendant pushing a cart. The smell from the cart could only mean one thing: a passenger had died and they were shuttling him up to the front.
I held my nose and tapped the flight attendant to inquire about what was going on.
“It’s the meal, sir.”
“What is it?”
“Oh, it’s very delicious today. Hot curry.”
“I see. And about how high up are we at this point?”
“Oh, I’d say just under thirty thousand feet.”
“Excellent. If you’d be so kind to point out the closest door, I’ll be leaving.”
The man laughed and continued up the aisle as the other passengers basked in the warm stench like flies on a garbage truck. I leaned over to my friend next to me.
“I can’t believe we decided to take Air India, man. I think the guy next to me has a goat in his carry-on.”
“Take it easy, we’ll be in Paris in no time.”
“I don’t think I’ll make it. Can’t you smell that? Who serves curry in a pressurized cabin? And look at these seats. I think mine is just a folding chair bolted to the floor.”
“It’s not so bad. I’m kind of getting into this Bollywood music they have. It sounds like someone repeatedly running over a cab driver’s foot.”
It was November 2008 and I was en route from New York to Paris with my best friend for a four-day trip. He was going to attend a photo exhibition at the Louvre and I had decided to tag along to see what kind of trouble I could get into. We landed at Charles De Gaulle a few hours later and I angrily shoved my way off of the plane, whispering “Kali Ma!” to each passenger I passed.
After retrieving our bags and double-checking for monkey feces, we made our way to the Metro station only to find that the service had been suspended. There was a public transit strike, a common occurrence in Paris, and the only way into the city was via taxi. All we had to do was find a cab stand, and this is where my mood brightened.
I have very few joys in my life, but one of them is watching my friend attempt to speak a foreign language. His face contorts like a constipated Asian and he starts each sentence with a low, guttural growl as if revving a loquacious engine. Then he extends his hand and pinches his thumb against two of his fingers, tilting his head and leaning in like he might kiss the person he’s speaking to, who by that point is backing away with a look of horror.
Meanwhile, I stand behind him, imitating his every movement and hopping around to each singsong, silly word that is uttered. Like any good American, I don’t know any other languages and instead rely on the well-proven method of speaking loudly and using elaborate hand motions. In this case we actually do need to communicate with the startled French worker we’ve accosted and (in spite of my best efforts) we are soon given directions into town.
We arrived at our hostel about an hour later and retired to our rooms to change for dinner. The building was situated on a cobblestoned side street just off of Rue Oberkampf and adjoined an ancient Parisian bell tower that would gong every half-hour and scatter pigeons into my room. I decided against showering, as the guests were required to share a stall on each floor that reused the water from the floor above. Since there were three floors above me, the result would be like dipping a cup into a French man’s bath and pouring it over my head.
My friend and I made our way over to the Rive Gauche, or Left Bank, a more bohemian part of town where college-aged people usually hung out. We soon came upon a fondue restaurant and settled in for a hearty meal of melted cheese, French bread and red wine. There were virtually no other customers in the place and we struck up a conversation with the owner, who informed us that we had arrived at the perfect time – the beginning of “Beaujolais Nouveau Season.”
Beaujolais Nouveau Season, I’d later find, is just one of the many reasons Paris is so amazing. At one minute past midnight on the third Thursday each November, millions of cases of wine are cracked open at once and hastily consumed. It’s a race, of sorts, to see who can serve this first, cheap vintage the fastest while the better Beaujolais is still fermenting. In short, people just get really smashed on some really cheap swill.
The owner, excited that Americans were in attendance for such an event, presented us with a few bottles. And since we’re such good ambassadors, we drank them. When we stumbled into the street shortly after, we were greeted by a marching band. Literally.
Not a few yards from the restaurant we bumped into a five-piece brass band that was marching through the streets to celebrate the beginning of Beaujolais Nouveau Season. We danced alongside them for a few blocks before we were adopted and given our own tambourines, along with wine glasses to share in the cartload of Beaujolais they were rolling behind them.
We left the band at a bar called Violon Dingue (“The Crazy Violin”) and slunk into some stools. It was empty except for the two bartenders and we decided to take advantage of being in a foreign country by having an inappropriate discussion that would obviously not be understood.
“Who would you rather bang, Rod Stewart or Phil Collins?”
“Easy, Phil Collins. He’s a lyrical gangsta.”
“Yeah, but we’re just going on pure sexual attraction.”
“Oh, in that case, Huey Lewis.”
“He wasn’t an option. But okay, Huey Lewis or Michael Bolton?”
As we went on to discuss which 80’s era male pop-rock star we’d have intercourse with, we noticed a smirk forming on one of the bartenders’ faces.
“Hey, what the hell? Can you understand us?”
“Aye. Him too. We’re from Scotland, mate.”
We shared a laugh with our new friends and after a few more pints they locked the front door.
“On the house, gents. Nice to have some Americans in here.”
Forty minutes later and five darts games lost, there was a knock at the door. One of the Scots opened it and revealed a gorgeous girl who couldn’t have been older than twenty. She said something in French and was let in as we sat at the far side of the bar and whispered chivalrous things to each other.
“Don’t look now, but I’ve got the Eiffel Tower in my pants.”
“I’d invade her like it was the 1940’s.”
“I wonder if her name is Lisa, cause I’m gonna make her Moan-a.”
At that last comment, to our utter horror, she smiled.
“Oh, damnit. Can you understand us?”
“Yup. I’m American.”
“Manhattan. I’m a senior at NYU studying abroad.”
It turned out she lived about twenty blocks from my apartment, and thankfully thought our remarks were funny instead of horribly offensive. We had a few more drinks with her before my friend fell off his bar stool and we decided to call it a night.
I made my way down the street with my friend slung over my shoulder, his feet dragging behind him. We soon came upon a cab stand near the Seine with about twenty people waiting in line. This would not do.
“Hey! Zer iz ze line, azzhole!”
“It’s okay, we’re from New York.”
“Fuck you, pal. We’re American too. You can’t just cut the line.”
“Oh yeah? Where you from?”
“Green Bay, Wisconsin.”
I assumed the laughter would explain my position, but it must not have been clear enough and the burly man with the fanny pack started towards us. I pushed my friend inside an idling taxi and had just managed to close the door when our new lactose-loving friend stuck his head in the window.
“Don’t you dare take this cab you son-of-a-bitch!”
“Au revoir, douchebag!”
At that I expected the cab to drive away. It didn’t.
The man was now trying to open the door and I frantically began to shake my friend, who had passed out beside me.
“Dude! Wake up! Say something French! Get us out of here!”
I looked at the cab driver to see if “Ungh” was a French word. It wasn’t.
“Say something else! Tell him to drive! What street are we going to? What Rue, dude? What Rue?!”
“Rue…rue…ruby dooby doo!”
“Rue Obre…Rue Oberkampf.”
And the taxi took off down the street.
I leaned back in the seat and promised to never make fun of him again (…until that morning when he ordered coffee and sounded like the Sweedish Chef from the Muppets).
The next few days followed a similar pattern (i.e. that evening we mistakenly found ourselves in a gay bar) and overall the trip was a tremendous success. Four days later and we were back on Air India headed home, comfortably squeezed into the “Don’t Smoking Section” and enjoying a bowl full of hot curry.