Road to Elsewhere, Excerpt #6: The Longest Walk of My Life

Mitigating factor: I was in Paris, France, after all.

On Fridays I run excerpts from The Road to Elsewhere, my coming-of-age-travel-memoir-with-funny-drawings. (You can find the first entry here.) It tells the story of my road through Paris, London, and Zagreb, in search of the ultimate destination: a life worth living.

I WAS LADEN WITH LUGGAGE, but without much baggage, when I avoided the most justifiable cab fare of my lifetime. But I couldn’t imagine coughing up my undergraduate French, or fielding inquiries about why I was here in Paris, or paying 10f, or facing the tip-or-not-and-how-much? decision that would punctuate any taxi ride. I was guarding my grandfather’s $6,000 as if it were my lifetime allotment.

I turned the corner onto the Rue de Varenne, 200 yards into the two-mile walk ahead, and my wrists, upper arms, and back were already throbbing. By the time I passed by the portal of the Musée Rodin, I’d sweated through my L.L. Bean tattersall-check shirt, and miles to go before I sleep. The more I ached, the less likely I was to flag down a cab. Not for the last time, I persisted in an error I was too embarrassed to acknowledge. If I kept quiet and looked stalwart, perhaps no one would notice how displaced I was?

It was late August, late morning, and none of the sensible Parisians had yet returned for “La Rentrée ‘’ in cool September, when they reclaimed the city from people like me. Only the sun and I were in town, so my path was clear.

I struggled past the Varenne and St. Sulpice metro stations, either of which might have whisked me to my new home in minutes. But I didn’t know that yet, or much of anything really. I was now trading the idea of Paris, where I had never been, for the reality of being 3,500 miles from home.

Whatever was I running from, to propel me that far away? Loving parents, comfortable home, top-notch education (already paid for). I was aware of my cocoon of privilege, but eager to get on with my butterfly phase. The surrender of a “first job” felt like a graver risk than “no job,” and in any case, I wasn’t qualified for employment. My vocations: Finding patterns in the clouds, connecting the dots in the night sky.

I was aware of fops from earlier eras taking “grand tours,” and Paris was at the center of the great globe itself. I would see all of it, as well; I was too astonished to rush past.

These are the things you notice when you’re new to Paris:

The white-on-blue enamel house numbers.

Fortress-like wooden doors, fifteen feet high, which occasionally swung wide to afford glimpses into courtyards where you were not welcome.

Irascible house matrons, guarding same.

Posters advertising events you can’t afford, which will nicely dress one’s dorm room.

Cafes, with caned chairs and small round tables spilling out onto the sidewalks.

A bored waiter smoking in the doorway of that cafe, skeptically eying your approach, proximity, and departure, in turn.

Architecturally imposing newsstands with polyglot titles — even dear, distant English — neatly folded and clipped to their facades.

Bookstands, with books in them! (This was a long time ago.)

Plane trees, some manicured right up to the sky, and yellowing into autumn.

Sculptures in an antique style — nymphs, fairies, fantastical beasts, heroes with elaborate facial hair — to remind a visiting American that he comes from an absurdly young civilization (if you really want to call it that).

Fountains spouting in dear little squares with benches you don’t feel entitled to sit on.

Boucheries* with all manner of dead, plucked, and skinned fowl perfuming the air with rot.

Also: denuded, beheaded, disemboweled rabbits, stretching as if caught at full sprint from the butcher’s cleaver.

Fromageries, at maximum pungency in late August.

Miniature cars, bumpers kissing.

Motorbikes parked everywhere, like dropped toys in the nursery.

Geraniums in window boxes, popping from pale facades, just like Monet promised they would be.

A profusion of chimney pots.

And spreading over all, le soleil enorme, gilding every surface, just like Louis XIV’s goldsmiths did at Versaille.

The sun dazzled me, as I stopped every block or so to rest my aching arms and flex my wrists. Why did I pack that typewriter, anyway? And in what sense was it “portable”?

On Boulevard Raspail at last, I struggled through my final steps to the modest hotel that would hold me until my dorm opened on Monday. My chambre was on the third of five floors, a walkup. The concierge asked if I wanted help with my bags, and I croaked “Non merci, monsieur.”

Accepting help was a useful skill I wouldn’t develop for decades. So my forearms were sore for my entire first week in Paris. They may never recover, in fact.

It was mid-afternoon now, and I decided to take a short nap. Twelve hours later, at 3AM, I awoke with a start, and wrote in my journal: “Thoughts while sitting in the W.C. at three in the morning in Paris, France. While I was admiring the foreign graffiti on a city wall, a quiet happiness stole over me, as I anticipated that suddenly being alone with my thoughts and my books might be a situation I could learn to love.”

I followed with a recollection from the most difficult walk of my life, not counting crossing the stage at college graduation: A woman, my street acquaintance, passes slowly on stumpy legs, a weak, thick lip concealing her upper toothless gum, while her lower jaw gapes for air, exposing her four remaining teeth. They stand at the front of her mouth like an advance guard, or the cruel under jaw of a predatory fish.

That woman, and her jaw, are gone and forgotten now, except by me.

*merci bien to Mary McCullough for this correction. The original said “boulangerie.” J’ai fait une bêtise!

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