My first trip to Paris was a solo venture. Everyone was amazed I went by myself. I felt that if worse came to worse I would land on the steps of the American Embassy and make my way back home. As it turned out, travel in Europe was remarkably easy.
I booked a room in a low budget hotel in what I would later learn, was considered a pretty bad neighborhood. But coming from Englewood, in Chicago . . . bad is relative. I always travel either in spring or very early fall, to avoid the crowds, but still enjoy good weather. I remember walking out into the bright sunlight of the morning and exploring on my own. Paris is a city of pale limestone. There was a crashed motorbike abandoned at a tiny bridge like crosswalk. On up just a piece was a boulangerie, where I would buy my morning croissant. Just a few paces on up the way and I was in the heart of a Sri Lankan/Indian district. This was ironic as one of my favorite places in Chicago is our large India Town. I had stopped there on the way to the Airport and had lunch with my sons.
One of the most surreal experiences I had was walking in the early evening down the main drag with the shops and restaurants. In the middle of this block full of Sri Lankan restaurants and shops was a bar that seemed very out of place. It was the Hell's Angels of Paris biker club. To be honest this club would have seemed out fo place anywhere in Paris, but it particularly stuck out here. One evening their activities were in full swing. Members with their bikes were congregated outside. Engines revved as on the other side of the street Sri Lankans assembled taking it all in. Quite the scene, and not to be found in any Paris guidebook I am aware of.
I would take the train and travel to the various tourist drags. Much of Paris is lovely. Other parts are so normal and very much like any city in the world. Dollar stores, corner stores, etc. My French was from a tiny book at that time. and not very good at all, but the French appreciated the effort. On most of my trips as soon as I manage to spit out one mangled phrase of French, the person I am addressing says, "It's ok. You can speak English." But if I approach them blurting out English, I get quite the opposite response. I always try to start in French." Je suis désolé. Je parle un peu Fransais. Parlez vous Anglais? " More often than not, the response is positive.
One time I needed to buy some aspirin for a headache. I went to a pharmacy just off the Champs Elysee. I gave the pharmacist my standard opening line. He responded with a firm, "Non!" Undaunted and amused, I stood firm and said, "Votre anglais est supérieur à mon français." He relented and helped me, then gave me a French lesson. "Ah seet ah men o feen!" I smiled, took my acetaminophen, and said, "Merci!"