June of 2002 was one of the most exciting months of my college experience.
That summer, I went to France.
One of my very favorite college professors led the Study Abroad group to France that year and I couldn’t be more excited about going. I had dreamed of seeing the Eiffel Tower from the age of 5 while watching PePe Le Pew attempt to woo his dream girl on the streets of Paris.
I could fill volumes writing about those blissful three weeks.
(It was in that summer between 9/11 and the Iraq War when France liked us and Bush was still popular.)
But it’s the last day of the trip that brings me to write today. The day that convinced me that I might not actually have bat-like homing senses and might occasionally benefit from a GPS device.
We were back in Paris. We had spent a week in Paris already, sandwiched between stays in Strasbourg and Limoges. France is notorious for labor strikes and work stoppages, and our Professor, wanting to make sure that we didn’t miss our return flight to the US, arranged for us to return to Paris a day early so that we had at least a dozen ways to get to Charles de Gaulle Airport should the need arise.
The plan actually turned out to be perfect because we got to spend the last day of the trip in Paris. And it was the Summer Solstice, which is big in France. That is the day of the annual Fête de la Musique, which is a huge music festival celebrated all over the country, but primarily centered in Paris. Garage bands and small-time artists and huge, well-known acts set up all over the city and play to their hearts’ delight all day and into the night.
That night, Lenny Kravitz was performing a free concert near our hotel.
(So was Sheryl Crow, and if I had known it that night, I would have probably gone to her show instead, especially after what happened…)
There were six “traditional” students in our group. You know, 18-25 and single (except for two of them who had just gotten married and were receiving college credit for their honeymoon). The rest of the group were older. In fact, with the exception of one, they weren’t even students but were friends of our professor.
The six of us (four girls and two guys) decided we wanted to go see Lenny Kravitz. Some of them weren’t particularly excited about seeing him, but it was our last night in the country and we wanted to have sort of a last hoorah before going our separate ways for the rest of the summer. We had practically all lived together for three weeks and it was going to be a little weird saying good bye.
As the day went on, however, the married couple decided they wanted to spend the evening together, just the two of them. And who could blame them? And then the other guy decided he was tired and just wanted to go back to the hotel and watch some futbol. Some nonsense about the “World Cup” or something. And then one of the other girls decided she wanted to go back to the hotel and pack and get some sleep. (Um, hello! That’s what the plane is for!)
And then there were two. Me and Aime. (Yes, I gave her grief about her misspelled version of Amy.) We would not be dissuaded just because everyone else had turned into a bunch of fuddy duddies. We went to the concert. We each had a Metro ticket in our pocket–just in case. The place was only two Metro stops away from our hotel and I had studied the map enough to know exactly how to walk from Place de la République back to Gare de Lyón, which was around the corner from our hotel. We were set.
We were on the other side of the city when it was time to head over to the concert, which was scheduled to start at 10pm. At 8, we made our way over and didn’t miss a beat following the crowd when we realized the Metro station at Place de la République was closed. It was still bright outside and thousands of people were crowded into this plaza in front of a makeshift stage, waiting for the show to start. We hung back, Aime promising that she was good at getting up really close at concerts.
At 10:30, the stage lights came on and the opening band started. They were loud and awful and only succeeded in getting the crowd to attempt to rush the stage. I don’t know how Aime and I managed to stay together as we were caught up in a wave of motion and advanced thirty feet closer to the stage, packed in tighter than stuffing in a Christmas turkey.
(And you know how they say French people don’t shower every day? Yeah…)
I’m on the short side, and was on my tip toes trying to peer over the tops of the heads in front of me when this really friendly guy directly blocking my view offered to switch spots. His buddy switched with Aime, too, so we were now in front of the two very friendly and much taller French guys.
They were very friendly.
By this time Lenny was onstage, so I was kind of oblivious to how friendly they were until Aime suddenly turned around, shouted, “NO!” and slapped one of them. Then I glanced over my shoulder and the guy behind me was actually leering. Has anyone ever leered at you before? It’s creepy. Especially from a stranger standing so close you can actually count the hairs in his goatee.
The light bulb went on!
These guys were gross!
I grabbed Aime’s hand, forgot all about Lenny, and shoved my way through the densely packed crowd. Checking over my shoulder, I realized that the two guys apparently thought they had been invited to flee with us, because they were right behind us, leering all the way. I turned right, I dodged to the left. I jumped over a lady who had bent down to tie her shoe. The crowds broke and we were on the edge of the plaza, suddenly able to breathe again. And we had lost our admirers.
I don’t know how familiar you are with the plazas in Paris, but most of them connect several streets together into a star. It’s a little bit easy to get confused and take the wrong street. But I was confident that we took the right street because I had studied the crap out of the map that was conveniently located on the dresser in our hotel room. I knew exactly where I was headed. And we didn’t need the Metro to get back to our hotel because, after all, we weren’t that far away.
But when we got to the end of that street and reached a fork in the road, we had to make a decision for which I was not prepared. Two kind police officers stood at the corner, politely gesturing and directing hundreds of pedestrians this way and that. In the best French I could muster, (which was pretty darned good at the time!) I asked for directions to the train station. Which happens to be a well-known train station. Two kind police officers, standing right next to each other, gave two completely different sets of directions.
Did I mention this was while France still liked us?
I followed the directions that sounded closest to accurate and we continued walking up a crowded street. There were more guys leering. Apparently French men are world champion leerers. Some invited us to a party. Our flight was due to leave in ten hours and would be leaving without us if we couldn’t find our hotel.
We walked and walked.
We walked along a canal. The canal was nowhere near our hotel. We imagined our beloved professor freaking out over losing us and trying to explain to our parents that all we had done was go to a free Lenny Kravitz concert, alone, in the middle of the night, in a crowded plaza in the middle of Paris.
We kept walking.
After nearly two hours, we found a Metro station and darted toward it, praying that the trains were still running and thankful that, even though we’d brought no cash, we’d at least had the foresight to bring tickets. I didn’t care what station we were in, even though I knew we had to be as far away from our destination as it was possible to be without actually leaving the city. Once you are below ground, you can get anywhere because everything eventually connects to everything else.
We were one stop away from our hotel.