Day 1: Europe 2015
As I packed my bags, I did not really know how much or what I would really need for the following six weeks in Europe. I packed the essentials: underwear, toiletries, socks, basics, 5 pairs of sunglasses, shoes, shoes, and more shoes. (Fashion tip: Wear solid, dark colors and give your outfit a pop of flair with shoes and glasses!) After squeezing in as many pairs of shoes as I could, wearing the bulkiest on the plane (travel tip!), ready to go– passport, keys, phone, wallet– and I was out the door. I hadn’t traveled internationally since going to England in 2008. That trip, my first to Europe, found me spoiled on a British Airways flight that was spacious, comfortable, and drunk (yes, they had free wine, and yes, that was the year before I stopped drinking). Cut to 2015 when I arrived at Newark International– I checked in at the desk for what I thought would be comparable to Air France. Turns out, XL Airways France is not as glamorous as Air France, nor as spacious. Packed in like sardines, this budget airline, and its employees really did not care about the passengers as much as cramming as many people as it could in a small space. But that was not going to ruin the magic of arriving at Charles de Gaulle in Paris. No, indeed… that was not what turned levity into desperation and near-panic. Instead of claustrophobia and achy legs after living the cramped existence for 5 hours, I discovered something much more problematic than jetlag when I went to the bathroom– there was something wrong down there. You know. There!
I returned to my seat, calmly greeting my seatmate whilst hiding the panic that wanted to spew from my eyes and mouth. She asked, “you alright?” I simply half-smiled and nodded, knowing that if I tried to talk, my tendency to overshare would get the best of me and I would explain the entire ‘down there’ situation to this nice person whom I had uttered a mere six words to the entire flight. It was not long before we were on the ground and the deplaning commenced. Challenge 1 of the journey was no longer simply to find a SIM card for my phone, learn how to navigate the city, and find my accommodations; suddenly it included finding a doctor to diagnose what I could only imagine was a special type of infection and do it in French. Now, I speak enough French to order a sandwich or a coffee… but I hadn’t used the language in 19 years since my French 2 class in high school! Not to mention that French 2 in Central Minnesota didn’t touch on the subject of arriving in Paris with an STI! So, yes. I could order a sandwich with the best of them, however, explaining that there was trouble in ‘river city’ to a doctor, in FRENCH, promised to be my greatest test to date. Initially, I reached out to some friends who frequented Paris, but they did not have much to offer in the way of healthcare options.
After claiming my bag, I found a SIM card with ease, stumbled upon a Starbucks (bonus!), and purchased a bus ticket to somewhere in the city. I did not conduct any research before my trip, therefore, my geographical knowledge of Paris was also locked away under 19 years of dust. I knew my fare would get me close to the center of the city, and while on the bus, I installed and activated my SIM card, and began researching hospitals and clinics. I was definitely winning this challenge. Nothing was going to stop me from enjoying Paris. One of the hospitals was simply called L’Hôpital Américain de Paris. What could have sounded better in that moment for someone attempting to navigate with sandwich-ordering-fluency than The American Hospital of Paris? Not much. I was on my way– I said to the bus driver at a stop light, after discovering that we were heading away from the hospital near city’s center, “S’il vous plaît. Rester ici!” I suppose I didn’t need to shout it like I did, but you know… American in a foreign land! Anyway, it didn’t really make sense, but he saw the urgency in my eyes and opened the door. “MERCI!” I exclaimed. And there I was, suitcase and all, exiting a bus in the middle of a busy cobblestone street in Paris following a map on my phone… in the rain. Yeah, it was actually raining.
Drenched with rain and sweat, I approached the American Hospital of Paris and the doors glided open, indicating the ease with which I was about to navigate my most recent malady. I approached the welcome desk, “Bonjour. Je suis Américain. Je suis malade.”
“It’s ok,” she said in her beautiful French accent, “you can tell me in English.” Oh thank the heavens! This place lived up to its name!
“Great! Um. Well. I have a problem. Um. You see, I need to see a doctor. I have this thing… an issue. Down there.” I pointed.
“Ah. Yes. I see,” she began. “Do you have insurance?” I explained that I have American student insurance and that I was hoping that would work. “Mmmm. No. This is a private hospital, and it will be very expensive.” She spoke with such a beautiful accent, “Here is a list of public hospitals. You will have better luck there.” I begrudgingly thanked her, defeated, and exited back into the rain. No longer was I winning.
Traversing another mile or so to the next hospital, the one where she indicated I would have the most success, it looked like a county hospital in an American procedural, so… promising for my sake. They probably have to take everyone. The nurse behind the bullet-proof glass greeted me, “Bonjour. Comment puis-je vous aider?”
“Quoi?” What did she just say?
“Que vous faut-il?” She followed up.
“Bonjour. Je suis Américain. Je suis malade.” Nailed it.
“Quel genre de maladie?”
I blankly stared at her.
“Parlez-vous Français?” She asked.
“Un peu! Parles-tu Anglais?”
“Some. Little.” Ok. I could work with some, little. Starting an absurd game of charades in the lobby, I began to say words and point at body parts. “Infection. Ummmm. Antibiotic. No insurance. Poor.” She nodded. Kind of. Her head was slightly tilted to the right and her brow was furrowed, but my acting skills led to some paperwork on a clipboard that was on the counter already. It seemed that I was finally making progress. As I filled out the forms, she looked at me with the look… you know, the one that says what the hell are you doing? There seemed to be a miscommunication (you think!?). I sat down in the lobby for a bit, hoping to wait out the misunderstanding, or maybe a shift change. Finally, she came out from behind the bulletproof glass and told me that she cannot help me.
So, strike two. Before I left, she gave me the information for a free clinic that was happening the following day between 4pm and 6pm. I added it to my non-existent itinerary and began my journey to the VRBO (vacation rental by owner) where I would stay that evening.
The rain continued and the winds became gustier than Kansas in pre-color Oz. As I walked against the wind, I finally came upon the address where I would be staying for at least one night. I booked only one night, unsure if I would move on to the Berlin the next day or spend more time in Paris. Now knowing my fate to be in Paris for at least one more evening because of my situation, I needed to figure out a way to extend my stay at the VRBO. As I looked at the large cement barracks, it didn’t appear as inviting as the pictures online, but I was convinced that all would be fine once inside… IF I could find my way into the building. There was no obvious entrance and I had circled the slab twice, so I contacted my host and asked for help. He guided me via text and voila! I was in. I followed the labyrinth of hallways and eventually found the elevator. The flats were not numbered in a manner that indicated which floor of the building they were on, so I kind of guessed, and incorrectly at that. I found a nice woman in the hallway, definitely not my host, but she was pleasant. She spoke very little English, so I showed her the address and phone number that was in my hand, she invited me into her flat and called the number of my host. Having what sounded like a hilarious conversation (probably at my expense) with the person on the other end, my host was soon knocking on the door. I merci‘d the hell out of her and exited with my host who led me to the elevator. When we stepped in, he gave me a big hug; it was as if we had known each other for ages.
And then he kissed me.
On the lips.
Um. Ok. I could get on board with this, I thought to myself.
The elevator opened as he told me that he had a friend in town staying with him until the morning. We entered his flat and there, watching television on the couch, was the friend. He was very nice and from Nice. How apropos. I took some time to get settled into my bedroom and clutch my pearls from time to time due to the knee-buckling greeting that I received in the elevator. My host checked in time and again making sure I didn’t need anything. The room was lovely and definitely lived up to the photos that were posted online. Overlooking the city, with a lot of fresh air from the open picture windows, I felt calm in the stranger’s home. As for the sleeping arrangements, the Nice guest was sleeping in the master bedroom, I was sleeping in the guest bedroom, and our host was sleeping on the couch. After a dinner together in the small kitchen, the three of us retired to the living room to watch some television– sitting in a row on the single couch. I pretended to understand what was happening on the sitcom we were viewing, after giving a few generous chuckles I announced that I was going to bed. This initiated a domino effect, and soon the friend retired as well, leaving our host with the couch/bed that we were all occupying.
As I tucked myself in with my book, my host knocked on the bedroom door, popping his head in one more time to see if I needed anything. He entered and sat on the edge of the bed, saying things to me with his French accent… and then the rest is out of a Danielle Steel novel (with the minor exception of me having to communicate to the host that maybe something is amiss ‘down there’ so there was no hope of rounding first base. I mean, Ms. Steel should write with more realism! How many times have you had to pump the breaks because of a ‘down there’ situation!?). Strangely, that mention of what may be brewing in my system did not kill the romance and soon thereafter we fell asleep, entangled in the other’s arms and legs.
Morning came too soon for me, but my host was awake and soon thereafter out the door before I could really manage a coherent thought. He wished me a good day through the shades of jet lag, and told me I could stay in his flat for as long as I wanted, he did not have another booking until the following week– with that, he headed off to work. I fell back asleep, and after not much time had passed, I felt him crawl back into bed with me.
He decided to take the day off and spend it with me! I thought to myself. How sweet! (but also secretly dreading it. I LOVE MY ALONE TIME!) I opened my eyes to greet him and the man who crawled into bed with was DEFINITELY not my host.