These are stories of me, Zach Roberge, River Editor, and my time in France this Summer, 2017. I’m staying in a cultural, kind of lively, city named Le Mans (the ‘s’ is silent and the ‘a’ is long). These blog entries will be a filtered, sometimes artistic, telling of my experiences, my expressions, and all the sights I may see. This is a foreign country with interesting people and with such history and culture, and the first external country I’ve ever visited. I’m obsessively engrossed in all the new spectacles around me and I hope to share them as best I can. With that said, I’d like to disclose that there is no intended story or plot-line in any of these entries. If you somehow discover a strand of character development, catharsis, or a climactic moment hidden among my words. That is your own prerogative. I intend to share, not shape my experience, and now I’d like to recount my first day in France:
I have been to several of the “big” cities in the United States. I’ve walked the hilled streets of San Francisco and looked at those metal cranes that inspired the Star Wars AT-STs. I’ve held my head down in Los Angeles and walked among the crowds near the Staples center, noticing the remnants of the Justin Beiber graffiti. I’ve been to New York City and felt short and under-dressed next to the fast-walking residents. I’ve lived near Boston and got lost every time I entered the city lines. Now, I enter through gate 8 into the Paris Airport tired and in desperate need of a restroom. I’m greeted by long, large hallways that are narrower than normal, quainter with large cement pillars squeezed along the sides and red carpets. I wonder how much time it must take to vacuum such a daunting and impressive welcome mat.
I move through the long line at customs, to the baggage claim. I grab my one suitcase and move to the train station. It’s a cathedral-like place made entirely of cement with large pillars next to plummeting stairs which shape sharp fall-off points. There’s a bathroom around the corner of a coffee stand. The toilets have a 2 euro entrance fee, and I decide to find another place to go. Walking, I notice a peculiar thing about the French people. No one moving is looking at me. Everyone has their head high, their backs straight, their chest pushed out with confident strides, but no one will make eye contact as they pass. It’s actually an issue at times. Walking through the crowds is like playing Frogger on hard the way I need to jump to avoid these people who aren’t watching where they’re going, but it’s a strange, sort of, situation to be in.
I sit on a stone bench and pull from my pocket my smartphone to help me wait for the train that will take me to Le Mans. My first thought in France, “Everyone’s clothes are impeccable and gorgeous, but no one’s shoes matches their outfit.” My second thought in France, “I’m surrounded by people, maybe hundreds and I don’t feel like I’m going to get stabbed.” I’ve been in situations like this, constantly checking my pockets, constantly looking over my shoulder and glancing at the faces of people for possible threats. Here’s so different though. I don’t feel threatened by the people in their nice clothing—well, other than the armed security with their open and ready assault rifles. With everyone’s heads facing the other way, I simply feel invisible.
I’m pondering this, completely absorbed in my own naive perspective, when I hear the sound of someone playing a piano. It’s hard to decipher clearly through the crowd, but I can make out a soft, playful version of Clocks by Coldplay. It’s light, it’s fun, and it’s lilting. I look over and see two girls at a jet-black public piano. They’re young, skinny, and smiling. One’s fingers dance across the keys and the other leans over her friend’s shoulder, giggling. That’s when I realize I recognize the piano. I’ve seen it in YouTube videos being played by famous, award-winning pianists, surrounded by adoring crowds. I look up and find a ledge I could stand at and get the exact angle they had in those videos. The song and the joy from the girls brings out a smile in my travel-wear demeanor. I lean back into the stone bench and, as they finish the song, I think, “Damn… Goddamn. I needed that.” I smile wider as they move, both dancing and playing, a wordless version of The YMCA.