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I fell in love at 16 years old. Her name was Madame Jagusch and she was my French teacher. Though I had been hot for teacher before—I played all the wrong notes on the recorder in my third grade music class because of Mr. Ryan’s chiseled jawline and khaki-ed moose knuckle—this affair was strictly platonique. She wore Doc Martens, her hair was stringy and she ate with a fork in her left hand. She got her shirt ripped off in a Ramones concert mosh pit and she inadvertently bought “I’m a drug dealer” tribal-print pants in Senegal. And—if my notes were still legible underneath my pool of drool—she taught me some French too.
French came naturally to me. I had all of the necessary hacking and gagging mastered from years of listening to my sister’s Jewish girlfriends. And, like the truest of Francophiles, my look of disgust comes naturally. But, outside of the classroom and my Brigitte Bardot one-man tribute show, I never had the opportunity to use much of the language. Quebec wasn’t far away but the idea of going to Canada to speak French seemed like eating your first Philly cheesesteak in Guadalajara.
Though I could realistically spend this semester only in Sweden and never run out of new cheekbones to explore, it wasn’t long after arriving that I made a list of countries I hoped to visit. At the top of this list, just above sharing a pair of traveling pants with Ugly Betty in Greece and freebasing Rimmel eyeshadow with Kate Moss and the Queen’s corgis in London, was France. Within the week, I booked my ticket, packed every black article of clothing I own and jetted off to the City of Lights just in time for Valentine’s Day weekend. A train, plane, and atrophied set of legs later, I was in Paris.
With a baguette in one hand, a crepe in the other and a camera around my neck, I cast all my morals to the wind and let myself become the kind of person I loathe. From Pont Neuf to Versailles, Champs-Élysées to Sacre Coeur: I loved each tourist trap more than the last. Though I didn’t exactly pose for a picture pinching the tip of the Louvre Pyramid (I do have some self-respect), I still took several painfully-staged photographs of over-priced macaroons and got goosebumps when I saw the Mona Lisa. Blame it on the joie de vivre.
I’m from New Jersey so assholes are my birth rite. For me, stereotypical French arrogance was not only expected but warmly welcomed. My travel-mate, Aline, had just ordered brioche praline at a boulangerie when an elderly woman thwacked her on the shoulder to correct her pronunciation of “p-GKKAAHH-line.” After the fourth failed attempt, Aline got frustrated while I shoved an entire pain au chocolat down my throat to keep me from crying out, “Mom, is that you?!”
Our first night in Paris was spent with a friend of Aline’s but we needed a place to sleep for the rest of our trip. I don’t have money but I do have a death wish so I proposed the idea of couch surfing. I told her about this website where homeowners offer a bedroom or couch to strangers. For free. Not counting sexual favors and the cost of body-lice removal. While groans of “why did I agree to travel with this fucker” probably rang through her head, I created a profile and started surfing.
The more accepted requests that I received, the more evidence I had for my sexual harassment suit. With hope failing, I denied yet another frisky nudist offering for us to sleep in the same bed when Gautier in Montmartre offered us his futon. His only flaw seemed to be an interest in Bruno Mars so I quickly confirmed our arrival.
We met up with Gautier outside his apartment. It was clean and there weren’t any S&M restraints chained to the wall. I was relieved. After dinner, he offered to take us up to the roof of his building. To get up there, we had to go through the apartment of his next door neighbor—a 50 year old guy balancing a joint in the corner of his mouth and twinkling his fingers across a piano as we came in. His apartment was like a Brady Bunch bedroom—groovy, glamorous and gay. Though the view of his boudoir was just as sublime, I figured I should take his rickety ladder up to the roof to experience midnight in Paris.
With boozy laughter coming from the apartment below, we sat together on the rooftop and saw all of Paris. There wasn’t much that could be said so we spoke in sips of wine. Earlier that day, I lit a candle in Notre Dame for every person who had brought me to that moment. I thought of family and friends; people I loved and people I’d never met. I thought of my dog. I thought of Madonna. And I thought of Madame Jagusch. Somewhere in the golden champagne bubbles of the glittering Eiffel Tower, I could still see the candle burning.