On Arrivals is a new travel narrative series on the blog. Arriving in a new place can be thrilling, scary, joyous, nerve-racking, and exciting. You never know what to expect and the unfamiliarity of a new place can lend its share of challenges and rewards. I wanted to share stories of my own arrivals into foreign lands with you. Some tales show successes while others highlight failures. Some will make you laugh while some may make you cry. Some are anecdotal while some are serious. And many show that travel isn’t always as glamorous as it seems. I hope you enjoy this first installment!
“I’m sure we’ll be there soon.”
My words were as hollow as the post-midnight streets of the 10th arrondissement. Ashlee knew it. She knew I knew she knew it, yet I reverberated them all the same. As if sheer will could make them true. I don’t know how long we’d been lost. Time had become irrelevant eight wrong turns ago. We’d been lost as long as it felt like we’d been lost.
Which, by this logic, meant we were approaching hour twenty-seven.
My arm grew tired with the weight of my overstuffed suitcase as I half-wheeled, half-dragged it over the uneven cobblestone. By day the twists and turns of Paris’s backstreets lend the city its charm; when darkness descends they turn sinister. Its moniker may be City of Lights but the only light emanated from a lit cigarette. Smoke curled off its tip, barely discernible in the jet-black night. No more visible were the lips it dangled from, their owner a nondescript figure cloaked in shadows who deepened the orange glow with each inhalation. I shivered despite the summer heat as two gargoyles watched the scene from overhead, their maniacal expressions trained on us from their perch atop the adjacent building. I shifted closer to Ashlee. “I’m sure we’ll be there soon,” I repeated, not sure which one of us I was trying to reassure.
A low rumble sounded from behind. Craning my neck in its direction, I spotted a homeless man rolling back and forth in a bid for a comfortable sleeping position. Hoping Ashlee didn’t take notice of him, I picked up the pace, leading us farther up the alley, feeling absolutely sure our hotel waited at its end.
It did not.
Wordlessly, we hooked a right, following an intuition which had long since lost its reliability. A few blocks later, Ashlee broke the tense silence, quietly humming beneath her breath. I recognized the tune as one we’d written together earlier that afternoon at Madrid’s international airport, where the wheels of our troubles first spun into motion. Troubles which led us to where we are now – lost and increasingly afraid in a disreputable Parisian neighborhood.
Our day began
a lifetime ago just that morning in Valenica, Spain. I had recently wrapped up a summer study abroad session and was celebrating the end of exams with a jaunt around Europe with my friend Ashlee who’d flown in from Florida a few days earlier. Full on paella, montaditos, and sangria, we boarded the train for the two hour ride to Madrid, arriving in time for our 5 o’clock flight to Paris only to find it’d been delayed. Shrugging our shoulders, we purchased a couple beers and a deck of cards before settling in for the duration.
One hour turned into two and two hours turned into three. The flight scheduled for take off before ours suffered the same detained fate. Queues of travelers laden with luggage and barely contained frustration waited at its gate. A gate the airport staff switched every so often in a maneuver I can only assume was utilized purely for their own entertainment. Air France flight 1401 has had a gate change, now departing from Gate E74. En masse the queue took off, their carry-on bags flapping wildly behind them, one hitting a pudgy-legged child as he raced to keep up with his mother. Reaching the new gate, the line became somewhat orderly again. Only for the loudspeaker to click on, Air France flight 1401 has had a gate change, now departing from Gate E78.
Taking swigs from our 1 liter bottle of Alhambra, we watched the human ping pongs bounce back and forth over the next hour; eventually penning background lyrics to go along with their comical movements. The same lyrics Ashlee hummed now as we aimlessly wandered the abandoned streets of Paris – this is the delay that never ends, it goes on and on my friends, some people started waiting not knowing when it’d come and now they wait forever just because this is the delay that never ends. Only now any remaining traces of amusement were underscored with a jittery nervousness, her humming a thinly-veiled attempt at masking the rising panic.
I wasn’t far from hysteria myself. It ran hot, boiling beneath my cool demeanor, its constant companion the consuming guilt I felt for alighting at the wrong bus stop. Due to our late arrival, the night’s final metro run had escaped us by a hair’s breadth. Newly minted tickets in hand, we’d barreled down the escalator shouting choruses of “pardon, pardon”, our elbows jabbing each passerby along the way before our feet landed on the platform – just as the train’s door slid closed with Ashlee and I on the wrong side of it.
Dismissing the line of taxis waiting upstairs, we’d opted for the cheap way out and boarded a local bus instead. One running a route neither of us was familiar with.
“I think we should get off here. I see the Gare du Nord and I’m positive we can find our way from there.”
That’s how we wound up here, hopelessly lost at an hour my mother warned me nothing good ever happens after. Aggravated by my own prior cocky assurance, I kicked a piece of trash lying on the sullied street. Unceremoniously dropping my suitcase, I hunted it back down, intent on kicking it again. And again. And again. Mid-kick a horn blared, interrupting a tantrum that straddled the line between minor and explosive. Jumping back against the nearest wall, I watched the headlights cut through the darkness as the lone car squeezed past us through the narrow alley.
“Does that say Taxi Parisien?”
The words barely left my mouth before my feet broke into an awkward run on the cobbled path, desperation etched on every inch of my face. Waving my arms like a madwoman, I let out a relieved cry as the brake lights flashed red and the car slowed to a stop. Ash and I climbed in knowing the six Euros we had between us wasn’t enough to cover the cab fare. Our only other option was to stay on the streets. The ones I knew would eventually get us mugged. We shut the cab door.
Our hotel was half-hidden on an unlit, yet eerily familiar side-street, a fact I thought wise not to point out to Ashlee as we pulled up to the front entrance. We disembarked, waiting until the driver unloaded our bags before shorting him 2 Euros. He spat out something unpleasant in French and climbed back into his cab. Slamming the door, he sped back into the shadows. I felt culpable for further perpetuating the arrogant American stereotype but soon let go of my worries as sheer exhaustion overtook the adrenaline I’d been running on the past Lord knows how many hours. Ready to collapse onto the first available surface, I rang the bell.
I tried again. On the fourth ring, a soft scuffle sounded from behind the door before it slowly gave way, allowing us to enter. The lights in the lobby were switched off, contributing to the already dingy atmosphere. Dust collected on the cracked chandeliers overhead while old and faded velvet furniture sat in a state of haphazardness on the entryway floor. The receptionist, donning a suit as ancient and lackluster as the fraying carpet he stood upon, greeted us with a subdued bonjour.
He shuffled behind the reception desk to check us in, his pale complexion illuminated by the old-fashioned TV flickering from behind the counter. A muted scream flowed from the TV’s speakers. I leaned over as the receptionist perused Ashlee’s passport and watched the heroine in the black and white horror flick trip down the stairs, her soon-to-be murderer closing in. I was suddenly anxious for the safety of my room. One I’d be sleeping in with all the lights turned on that night.
A few moments later, keys now in hand, we declined his offer for help with our luggage and half-walked/half-ran up the curved staircase to our room. Dumping my bags on the bed, I glanced at the bedside clock. It read 2:23. I turned towards Ashlee who stood stock still in the center of the room, a steely expression on her face as she spoke for the first time since disembarking from the bus all those lost alleyways ago,
“This is fucking Paris?”
Do you have an interesting arrival story? Let me know in the comments below!
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