October, 2001; fresh out of university and living in London, England, I felt fairly sure I was nearing the peak of my culture and sophistication. My husband and I lived in a quaint flat and shopped in trendy open air street markets. We dined in European sidewalk cafés and frequented internet cafés to keep in touch with friends and family across the ocean.
Thus, wanting to travel to France for my week school break, I scorned the use of a travel agent to book the trip. This Luddite service was not for one so sophisticated as I. On the day we departed from our usual internet café having just booked the trip to France, I felt particularly cutting edge. (Some of you may be questioning my cool factor here, but in 2001, booking a trip entirely online while shoving 10 pence coins into a box attached to your computer, was seriously trendy.)
We were determined to experience the ‘real’ France, and were far too impressed with ourselves to question our decision to avoid tourist traps when booking our trip. Backpacking was what most in our crowd did at the time, but I just couldn’t get past the idea of sharing bathrooms with complete strangers. So as a show of solidarity with this laid back, rucksack wearing group, we booked only 1.5 star accommodations. Despite my aversion to sub-par sleeping quarters, we were not concerned. The pictures shown on the hotel’s website looked great. It was probably much closer to a three star we had just gotten a good deal, we assured ourselves.
By the time our train pulled into Gare du Nord after passing through a tunnel under the English Channel, I was at the edge of my seat with excitement. I could hardly wait to take Paris by storm. There were so many locations throughout the city imprinted on my mind from the pages of favorite books, and I was eager to see them with more than the eyes of my imagination.
We had decided to drop our luggage off at the hotel, before combing through the city of lights. We found the hotel with no difficulty and chalked it up to our experience as world travellers. As we approached to doors to the building, we were thrilled to see it did indeed live up to our expectations. The exterior was typical of historic France, and enormous gilded doors beckoned us in. We stepped into the lobby and gasped in astonishment. It was far grander and more beautiful than any picture on the internet could convey. A chandelier worthy of Versailles threw sparkles of light across the marble and stone interior. I marvelled yet again that we had found this gem on the Internet without the help of a travel agent.
Having gained our bearings, we confidently strode over to the concierge with our passports and booking information. It was quickly apparent that his English was limited to greetings and little more. Ah yes, the true Parisian experience. Our check in process was somewhat lengthy, but having accomplished it, the concierge directed us towards the lift in broken English. He kept eyeing our lugging skeptically, shrugging and shaking his head in a way I affectionately noted was so typical of the French.
Rob and I rolled our baggage to the lift and pressed the button. Our eyes widened in surprise as the doors slid open. There was barely room for the both of us, never mind our luggage. (We may have travelled on the budget of backpackers, but we packed like we were five-star.) Rob, ever the gentleman, suggested I and a suitcase or two ride up to the third floor, while he lugged the others up the stairs. Not wanting to be confined to what now appeared more like a death trap than convenience, I assured him that we could both take the stairs.
Frustrated with our unsuccessful attempts to locate the staircase, we returned to the concierge for assistance. He gestured with great animation, muttering in French. By now, it seemed slightly less endearing. Undaunted, we ignored him in the most politely Canadian way we could, and decided to muddle through on our own.
When we finally located the staircase, we saw that it was indeed authentic to its time period, but in a more well used than historic way. The dark and dirty space was so narrow Rob’s shoulders touched the walls as he dragged suitcases up three flights of stairs. By the time we reached the third floor, my apprehension was growing but I was determined not to let my rapidly accumulating tears fall.
Emerging from the staircase into the hallway, we saw the door to our room immediately. This was not the quaint, romantic accommodation I had envisioned from my internet café in London. While the lobby was beautiful, the rest of the building was dingy, suspiciously stained, and filled with a pervasive odor.
There was no turning back so with some trepidation, we opened the door to our room. As I stepped inside, the tears I had valiantly been holding back began to pour down my cheeks. The bed was parked in the middle of the room like some dejected centrepiece. It mattress sagged so badly, its covers were so littered with stains, and pillows so battered and lifeless, I promptly burst into tears. I threw myself against Rob’s chest sobbing loudly. “This looks like a place you’d rent by the hour,” I wailed.
Rob stroked my hair patiently as he waited for me to quiet down. As my wails quieted into sporadic hiccups, and he spoke to comfort me. Before he could finish his sentence, a rhythmic pounding followed by moans of another sort filled our room. I sobbed again as my earlier suspicion was confirmed.
With the skill of a seasoned negotiator, Rob managed to convince me that now would be a good time to leave the hotel and go exploring. He reminded me what a trooper I was, and how I had risen above other such disappointments in the past. (Let’s just say, our cozy English Bread and Breakfast, was closer to a post-war housing project, than a Tudor era cottage.)
The streets of Paris awaited, I would not shirk from the challenge!
Part II: In Which I Am Brought Low to follow