Five days in Paris. Just my mom and me. I had one mission: keep us both from getting lost.

I failed in the first minute. After getting off the subway at Place d’ Italie and climbing a half dozen staircases up and down (think MC Escher in 3D), we emerged to find ourselves in the middle of the largest roundabout you can imagine. A football field across, cars whirring about, joining and splitting in organized chaos from the eight streets that intersected it. Like a kid trying to read an analog clock, I read it wrong.

“This way,” I said to Mom, too confidently.
“Sounds good, sweetie,” she said, too trustingly.

Fortunately, it was only a few minutes later I realized my mistake.

Strangely, even though we were only ‘one street over’, it wasn’t exactly an easy fix. This spindle pattern of the streets (so dissimilar to the Chicago grid) required us to either track back all the way to the circle itself and pick the right street from there, or keep walking further down the wrong street (and further as the crow flies from where we needed to go) until we could find a connecting alley to bring us back around. If that was difficult to understand, try a real life version of the mess.

At last, we found our hotel. Relief! A place to call our own for the next four nights. After a quick freshen up, the two of us headed out for a stroll.

The afternoon was waning. Street lights grew brighter than the dimming sky. Mom fell in love with the flower shops, pausing at each one to soak up the color spilling onto the sidewalks. I couldn’t get enough of the fromageries. Shops for cheese. Just cheese. Cheese!

We walked for an hour until we found a tiny restaurant district. Proprietors stood outside their entryways. The more exuberant characters tried to real us in. They spoke to us in French. We smiled. They spoke more French. Us? Passing for Parisian? I opened my mouth, “Merci,” and we moved on. If they didn’t know before, they knew then.

Impostors.

Our Americanness bit us in the ass when we finally chose a restaurant to eat dinner. The proprietor, slathering on the charm, gave us the evening’s specials in his best English, and lured us in. We were happy. We were in a Parisian restaurant. Maybe it’s where the locals go! This place isn’t listed in Lonely Planet, right?

Then the waitress showed up. She spoke to us in French. We pointed at the menu. She stared at us. We smiled. She, more French. Mom and I looked at each other. We looked back at her, sheepishly. We shrugged our shoulders, smiled more. Sorry, sorry, really. Just trying to get a little dinner. Nothing but arrogant foreigners with our “bonjours” and “mercis.” Only our bonjours and mercis. Sorry again, but we were hoping maybe you’d meet us halfway? Maybe a little more?

Despite the waitress’ disdain, we ate. Two glasses of wine, two salads, and two entrees later we found ourselves with dessert. Mom ordered the oddest thing on the menu, an almond mousse. It looked like a tiny tablespoon of chocolate yogurt. It was fantastic. Even better than my – believe it or not – cheese plate.

Our first day in Paris: a little lost, a little speechless. Nothing some wine, cheese and chocolate couldn’t fix. ☼