Sunday Storytelling is where I post a piece of fiction on Sunday. It might be a complete short story, a snippet of a work in progress, a character sketch, a response to one of the thousands of creative writing prompts I’ve collected through the years. Most of them won’t be polished or “final,” so feedback and criticism is welcome, but please be constructive in your comments. Read other Sunday Storytelling pieces here.
The city’s big. You know this; you can tell with one quick glance at the hard-to-read map in your tome of a guidebook–only a handful of the streets seemed to be marked. All the arrondissements spread out in an awkward spiral, different landmarks helpfully labeled, even little symbols for recommended cafés or hostels…you grimace and slam the book shut in your lap. The train sways and you instinctively grip your backpack to keep it from slipping into the aisle.
You’re not even supposed to be in this city for more than an hour, tops. No, you’re supposed to be somewhere in Italy–Milan, maybe, or Florence, whichever one has the multi-colored Duomo–by tomorrow afternoon, a plan that’s getting less and less feasible with every stop. But that train that’s leaving Paris at 9:30 AM, the one that’s going to Germany, where you could, conceivably, transfer to one that’s going to Austria, and so on? That, according to the helpful agent at the station last night (thank God he spoke fluent English), is already completely booked. And you’re definitely in the wrong country to be all American about it and pitch a fit until they relent and squeeze you in.
But hey, it’s okay, right? After all, you’ve been backpacking for almost two weeks now, and you’re easygoing and ready for crazy adventures and willing to roll with the punches…
None of the guidebooks tell you how much harder it is to roll with the punches when you’ve slept in five different beds in the past six days (if those little cots they bolt into train compartments could be called beds). And you’re trying really hard not to think about the night train you’re booked on tonight, the one with no empty sleeping compartments, only seats — that, you already found out, definitely do not recline at all.
But it’s okay. Maybe if you keep telling yourself that, you’ll believe it by lunchtime. There are worse cities you could be stuck in for approximately twelve hours, as your friend and travel buddy reminds you, trying to be cheerful and make the best of it. You offer a half-hearted glare, toying with the desire to mirror that sunny disposition or to throw an epic tantrum to rival the one in Toys R Us when you were six that your mom still reminds you of after almost fourteen years.
You sigh and look out the window, trying to catch a glimpse of the famed City of Lights. Unfortunately, you’re arriving at Gare de L’Est, East Station, nestled in the…you flip the book open again to the earmarked page…tenth arrondissement, one of the districts tourists rarely make it to, except to catch a train, apparently.
An announcement in French comes over the speakers and a stern-looking conductor raps on the door of your compartment, probably telling you, your friend, and the four other people you became close personal friends with the night before that the train will soon be arriving at its destination finale. You roll your shoulders and haul your backpack out into the main aisle, struggling into the straps in the tiny space. Absently, you run your hand through your hair and wonder if the French will mind that you haven’t showered in about forty hours, give or take.
Once in the station, you beeline straight for the information window–a recognizable shape now, thanks to the many train stations you’ve visited recently. You look to your friend, the one who took three years of French in high school. She smiles brightly and says, “Bonjour! Un plan de la cité, s’il vous plait?”
Wordlessly, the dark haired woman at the window hands over a rather bulky-looking folded map. “Would you like zees as well?” she asks in a heavy accent, holding up a pocket-sized guidebook.
Your friend looks at you. You shrug.
“Uh, sure. Oui, merci. Oh! Do you have, um, lockers where we can leave our backpacks for a few hours?”
“Yes, long-term lockers are down zat way, take zee stairs and turn right. It is across from a large bathroom with showers.”
So Parisiens are fans of hygiene.
Unfortunately, showering isn’t really option–it costs money, something both of you are rather short on at the moment. You pool together the last of your change, counting every last coin, and find you just have enough to rent a locker for the day.
“Okay, so we’ve got almost twelve hours in Paris,” your friend says, opening the map. It’s huge when unfolded, bordered all around with coupons for stores, restaurants, hotels — all the basic tourist traps.
You crane your neck to look over the map. “Hey, free appetizer at Hard Rock. God, I’d kill for one of their sundaes right now…or a Hurricane.” Your mouth starts watering and you try not to wonder about the last time you remember being full.
“Uh-uh. We’re in Paris, you’re hungry, we’re getting crêpes. Ooh! And croissants. Chocolate croissants. They don’t make them the same anywhere else, trust me.”
She had excitedly told you last night about a previous trip to Paris. Best you can tell, this city’s got the Mona Lisa, the Notre Dame, and crêpes chocolat. “Sure, whatever. But what are we gonna do for the rest of the day? Is there a French version of La Rambla? Maybe we can start up a street performance somewhere, earn some money so we can, I don’t know, go the bathroom later.” It’s something about Europe that you’ve decided will never make sense to you–paying to use public restrooms.
“Let’s just find a café or something and eat, okay? And an ATM…” she trails off, studying the map. “Okay, I have an idea. Look.” She hands you one side of the map and points at a spot off in the lower right. “We’re about here. We can walk up this street,” she slowly drags her finger upward, “find some food somewhere, run into the Seine here, then we’re only a couple blocks from the Notre Dame, see? And from there, we’ll just walk up this way,” her finger turns slightly to the left across the map, “following the Seine, we’ll pass the Louvre, probably won’t have time to go in, but then it’s just a straight shot up the Champs Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. Then we can walk down this way,” her finger turned again, dropping down the map now, “to the Eiffel Tower, and then we can probably take the Metro back here to catch the train. What do you think?”
You consider, your eyes backtracking over the route she just traced. Looking at it that way, the city’s hugeness doesn’t look too bad. Paris, it seems, started in one place along the River Seine and grew outwards, leaving its most famous sites right smack in the middle of the now sprawling city. “Alright, let’s do it.”
You find your way out of the station, your friend chattering on. “And there’s this square, somewhere, where all the artists set up easels and stuff and you can get a sketch of yourself for pretty cheap, I wanna find that, if we can. See? It won’t be so bad, we’ll still get to Florence in time, we’re just taking a little pit stop on the way.”
Florence, that was it. Despite your waning efforts to stay petulant, the clean-ish clothes you changed into and your friend’s enthusiasm are getting to you. “Right. So, any French words I should know?”
* * *
An hour later, your patience is in danger of getting swept away in the Seine. The Seine that you haven’t even seen yet, because your friend is suddenly determined to find these artists with their easels and sketchbooks and get a drawing that she can send home to her parents or whatever and you’re beginning to suspect that she made the whole place up. “I swear! It’s got to be around here somewhere, Latin Quarter, students, Artist’s Something…maybe we can ask someone.”
“I think they’ll tell you that you’re nuts,” you say, trying to keep your tone light.
“I just forget what it’s called…” She flips through the little pocket guidebook from the train station again. At least she found a little café with, admittedly, delicious croissants and pastries, and fresh-squeezed orange juice, so at least your stomach’s somewhat happy as you trek aimlessly up and down streets in the fifth arrondissement, the Latin Quarter, the supposedly lively neighborhood that was — is, probably — home to Paris’ most famous universities. You turn a corner and see a giant dome.
“Oh! The…Pantheon. Parthenon?” She pauses.
“Pantheon,” you mumble. You did pay some attention in history. “Parthenon’s in Greece.” Neither of you move for a few seconds. “Is it worth going to see?”
She shrugs. “Dunno. It probably costs to get in, but we might as well check it out.” You start walking. “So, does ‘Pantheon’ mean it’s been here since, like, Roman times?”
“Maybe? I don’t think so, though…” You arrive at a huge, empty plaza in front of the enormous building. “Sure looks like it, huh?” You pull out your camera and take a few obligatory tourist shots.
Your friend pokes you. “Hey, look.” You turn around, squint in the direction she’s pointing. Way off in the distance, through the morning fog and light haze, a blurry grayish beacon points up, far higher than anything else you can see.
La Tour Eiffel.
Comments, feedback, and constructive criticism welcome…