Allons, Enfants: A Young Appalachian in Paris
I was thirteen years old when I hopped a jet to Paris and proceeded to make myself at home for a month among brie, baguettes, Monet, Versailles, and the Seine. The youngest of a group of West Virginians on a student-exchange trip, I served as an ambassador to a lycée and took in all things French by immersion. The bread and cheese, the art and the history—in essence, the planned parts of my time in Paris—were all anticipated and appropriate. It was the unplanned parts that helped create me. Binge drinking, taking up smoking, multiple ear piercings, and a near-assault in an elevator were not on my agenda that year. Neither was falling under the spell of an older girl.
I was in seventh grade, and the other students were all in high school. I was captivated by each of them. Most of them were from schools where I had never known anyone before, but one girl was from the high school I would attend. Her name was Stephanie, and she was a creature like no other I had ever known. She was about six feet tall and rail thin. Her hair was straight, black, and hung past her waist. She wore black cat eyeliner, leather, and skinny jeans. Her voice was like Garbo’s, all whiskey and cigarettes. I wanted to be exactly like her.
The odds were long, however, that I would ever be confused with Stephanie. I was five foot six and 120 pounds with blonde hair and the fashion sense of a potato. I had no genuinely sinful habits and was an all-around snooze of a girl. But Stephanie treated me like an apprentice. She allowed me to follow her around and brought me into every conversation about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. She would take a drag on a Dunhill and ask me nonchalantly what I thought of the Clash. I had no idea what she was talking about but did my best to fake my way through it. She would look at me in a way that said she knew I was full of shit, but she liked my bravado. I’d have done anything to keep getting that look.
One afternoon, for reasons I cannot recall and that probably amount to “because we could,” Stephanie and I went running around the streets of Paris, just the two of us. After shopping in various boutiques we ended up at an open-air café table, watching passersby and musing about other members of our group: who was hot, who was not, who was moped-ing around with Fabrice, the superstud guy from the lycée (hint: it wasn’t me). Stephanie reached into her handbag and pulled out a box of Dunhill cigarettes; as usual, I was green with envy. I didn’t smoke, was in fact a sworn nonsmoker, but this ritual was so adult and exclusive that I practically drooled.
I come from West Virginia. My people are no strangers to tobacco, but we are strangers to luxury tobacco from Britain. The box, rich burgundy with gold accents, was extra wide so the cigarettes could be packed horizontally instead of stacked on top of each other. It flipped open with the lightest touch. Stephanie lit a cigarette as effortlessly as writing her name. Then, for the first time, she looked at me before lighting up and asked, “You want one?”
I was giddy and overjoyed and anxious and freaked out all at once. Yes, I wanted one. No, I had no idea what I was doing. Yes, I would regret this. No, I wasn’t going to say no.
Stephanie had a way of looking into one’s eyes to gauge the B.S. factor and she was looking at me now with keen interest. I think I said, “Yeah, sure,” in my best grown-up voice. She offered me a light, and of course this was where my ruse fell apart. Any idiot can take a cigarette out of a box and put it in her mouth, but you have to actually understand smoking to light up. I had never smoked and did not know one had to engage the damn thing to get it to ignite. I just sat there with a cigarette in my mouth, and fire on the other end, and waited for something to happen.
Stephanie’s lips curled into a slow, knowing smile. “You have to inhale,” she said. “You have to draw in to light it. When I put the match here, you pull air through the filter, OK?”
For just a minute I thought about continuing to pretend, but then I dissolved into laughter. My pretending was too obvious and too stupid, but it broke a barrier that had stood between us for weeks. Once I dropped the pretense that I was even remotely in her world, my life became easier. I felt I could admit I had no idea what a blow job was (What is anyone blowing? Why is that effective?), that I had never listened to punk rock on purpose, that all my jackets were cotton and I’d never done anything an authority figure had told me not to do.
It seemed as though in France, no one cared what I did. I was expected to manage my own life: if I was doing it, I was responsible for it. No one ever asked me how old I was when I bought cigarettes. No one asked me where my mother was when I got my ears pierced. For sure, no one seemed to be concerned on our last night in Paris, when I started guzzling wine.
It seemed a crime, really, for anyone to go to Paris for the first time and not do something forbidden or untried. Once I got a taste of my first self-lit Dunhill, I was ready to roll. My next stop was to visit a local piercing place and ask for a second piercing in each of my ears. I’d been in school for years with a girl who, in elementary school, had somehow negotiated parental permission for three piercings in each lobe. Her father owned a jewelry store, and she had access to lots of real-gem studs like emeralds and amethysts. She was the elementary-school version of Stephanie when it came to popularity. She wasn’t cool; she was just doing things no one else was allowed to do, and by virtue of that she became revered. I worshipped her sparkly earlobes, but my parents had said under no circumstances would I be permitted to have more than one hole in each earlobe. But my parents were nowhere in sight, and I was in Paris.
So I got the new holes, and now I smoked, too. What next? Ah. Wine.
It seemed as though in France, no one cared what I did. I was expected to manage my own life: if I was doing it, I was responsible for it. No one ever asked me how old I was when I bought cigarettes. No one asked me where my mother was when I got my ears pierced. For sure, no one seemed to be concerned on our last night in Paris, when I started guzzling wine. Our group was gathered in a cafeteria, and diners could select a bottle of wine with dinner just as easily as they could choose a bottle of water.
I had a very clear plan in my mind that night. In movies, the people having the most fun were the people drinking the most alcohol. If you wanted to celebrate and really enjoy yourself, the thing to do was to drink. And the more you drank the more fun you had. That was like a clear set of instructions: Drink a lot. Laugh. Have the time of your life. So I did. I drank a glass of wine, felt great, and had another. Everyone seemed to be having loads of fun. The next day I would be getting on a plane to go back to being a seventh grader in Appalachia. I’d have my chocolate milk and like it. I’d wear one pair of earrings if I was lucky. I’d ride the bus and shuffle around when the bell rang, and the boys would be named Jeff or Oliver, not Fabrice. I’d have a plain bike, not a moped, and I’d have Scholastic book posters, not the Mona Lisa. Tonight, I’d have another glass of wine.
Things started to unravel from there. Perhaps that’s too obvious to even bother mentioning. At some point I was on the hotel elevator alone, and a grown man got on with me. When the doors closed, he turned around and tried to kiss me. He’s lucky I didn’t puke right in his face, because it wasn’t long until I was throwing up every last thing in my system and almost my socks. That night was my first and only experience with dry heaves. I didn’t even know such a horrific phenomenon existed, but the next morning my abdomen was weak, and I felt as if I’d done three thousand sit-ups. Someone had taken out my contact lenses, and I couldn’t stand to have the light on. This was the day of my boarding a plane back to West Virginia, but that morning I was reasonably certain I was going to be buried in French soil.
Our chaperone, Madame Thomas, seemed to have no clue about my debauchery. She herded us all through customs and security, and we made our way onto the airplane home. During that entire transcontinental flight, I thought I might die. I prayed I would, I felt so wretched. Stephanie is not in any of my memories about the flight home. I remember some other kids trying to take care of me, and Stephanie probably helped, but most likely she just found a better seat, one with some distance from the barfy girl, and prepared herself to be just as fabulous when we got home as she had been in Paris. She was no dummy.
As for me, part of my nausea came from knowing I would not be fabulous when I got home. I had tasted vogue, but my system couldn’t handle it. I would go home and put on an airbrushed sweatshirt and Nikes. My mother would discover my double-pierced ears. It was illegal to smoke and drink at my age in West Virginia, not to mention in exceedingly bad taste, and so that was lost to me as well. In the ultimate pathetic attempt to carry on my Parisian smoking habit, I took to rolling dried corn silks in a Wrigley’s double-mint gum wrapper and toking like a hippie. It was a sad and sorry decline from my glory days. I was a bit like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Pledge, stuck in one place, muttering on the school bus about all kinds of things I was sure had happened, but there were no witnesses and no believers. All of the other students went back to their schools, and I came back with Madame Thomas, who though in Paris, hadn’t seen any of my real explorations there.
And what of those real explorations? It was in fact entirely real, everything that happened those few weeks in France over thirty years ago. It was not all, however, truly equal in its power to shape my identity. I remember standing about a foot from an Impressionist painting in the Louvre, the canvas vast with smears of deeply pigmented paint. The sheer size of the painting was overwhelming. It was a masterpiece of vision, the artist’s mind clearly able to see the macrocosm of the work even while only inches from it. It’s brilliant and incomprehensible all at once, how one can understand reality this way.
But there are simpler ways of seeing, too; ways I can visualize life now. I can see us all more like a map of the Paris underground Metro system. Colors of the rainbow squirm this way and that, explaining that if you get on here you can get there, but only if you then transition at this specific place. Most of where you want to go is possible from any point, but not in every case. There are dead ends, places that mark where you’ve missed the opportunity to get where you want to be. Don’t miss the last train out before they stop running. Make sure to have enough fare if you make a mistake.
My second piercings have been grown over for years. I don’t smoke, and I never let a door close behind a stranger. People wonder why I don’t write more about the details of Paris, but what they don’t realize is I haven’t forgotten those things; they were never important to me to begin with. I was in a suspended mental animation. The world outside of my own ego and my connection to my peers were shadow places, hardly concrete and almost illusions. Stephanie wasn’t a real person to me, either. Yes, she was flesh and blood and in Paris with me, but her significance was as a doorway to claiming myself and walking into the adult world.
There were cigarettes and hip clothes, yes. Beautiful places and breathtaking things. The history and art and common elements of travel are what everyone wants to hear. But more than what everyone knows, there was and is my admiration for a young woman who was wonderfully nonchalant about what anyone thought of her. I didn’t have a flawless trip, but I made it out of adolescence in one piece. I don’t have four earrings or Dunhills anymore, yet I am a citizen of Paris in my heart every time I couldn’t care less about that. Paris became a piece of my soul, independence a part of my identity, and having enough fare is my way of life. Allons, enfants. Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Elizabeth Gaucher is a native of Charleston, West Virginia, and lives in Middlebury, Vermont. She graduated with honors in History from Davidson College and hold a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College with a concentration in Creative Nonfiction. She edits creative nonfiction for Longridge Review and fiction for The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016.