In the fall of 1998, I was fortunate enough to spend a semester studying fashion in London. At that time I was a student at the University of Rhode Island studying “Textiles, Fashion Merchandising, and Design” as my major. I was attracted to this degree mostly because I wanted to be a fashion designer back when I was twelve, and when it came time to choose a major at URI I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I figured if I was passionate about it when I was 12, I would still have a passion for it at age 20.
And I did have passion for it! I took courses in Historic Textiles, Clothing and Human Behavior, Fashion Merchandising, Costume Design, and Textile Science. I learned more than I ever thought possible about clothing. One day I saw an advertisement for studying fashion in London for a semester, and I became enthralled with the idea. The application process was easy, and my enthusiasm became contagious. Soon my best friend, also a fashion major, was signing up to study along with me. Eventually my boyfriend at the time also wanted to study in England, though I’ll never be sure if he was actually as enthusiastic about studying in England as he was worried about me leaving the country for ten weeks without him. Eventually he signed up for a program to study Communications in Reading with a few of his closest friends. Reading was a convenient 30 minute train ride from London so we managed to visit with each other every other weekend.
I’d love to tell you more about my experience in London, but this story is about Paris. Part of my study abroad program involved spending five days taking classes and visiting costume museums in “the city of Love”. I enjoyed spending a lot of time in London, but there was something about Paris that was captivating. Granted, when I first got there I was miserable. Since it was 1998 and grunge was still going strong as iconic American fashion, upon arriving in Europe most of my wardrobe consisted of zip-up hoodies and baggy, worn jeans. In London, I could get away with an outfit like this while sitting in class. In Paris, however, I immediately felt out of place among women as old as 80 wearing 4″ stiletto heels to the grocery store.
No one wears jeans in Paris unless they are American. This was true in 1998 and I’m sure it will still be true in 2018. Some of my more metropolitan classmates were savvy enough to dress appropriately for Paris (usually head to toe in black), but I was clueless. I’m sure no one in the city cared about my outfit as much as I did, but I still felt very out of place.
In addition to feeling embarrassingly American (but not as embarrassingly American as the Texan I saw on the Metro wearing a giant cream colored cowboy hat and equally gaudy cowboy boots… I refused to make eye contact with him) I stepped in a lot of dog shit. That’s not a metaphor; I really stepped in dog shit three times in one day (my first day there, after that I learned my lesson and walked much more carefully). Parisians have very small dogs that they often dress in tiny coats. This was not as common in the US in 1998 as it is now. Now that I think of it, I am certain that this is a French custom that eventually caught on like crazy here in the States. They not only dress their dogs in cute outerwear, but they also let them shit wherever they want and they never clean it up. I can’t stand it when people do this here, but in Paris it is the norm and it was simply my job to watch where I stepped.
On the first day in Paris, after we settled into our hotels and walked around the city so I could collect shit on my ugly American sneakers, we visited the house of Yves Saint Laurent. This was not a boutique, this was (and still is) a fashion house. This means that the luxury clothing is designed and often created there. Fashion shows are produced in this gilded, velvety “house”, where celebrities, royalty and the very wealthy decide what they will be wearing in the next season. I was enamored with the building, but then I immediately felt shame and out of place. I was dressed like a slob and I smelled like shit. I felt like hiding in a dark corner while our tour guide basically told us how lucky we were to be in that room, showed us a filmstrip about Yves Saint Laurent fashion, and then wouldn’t let us go anywhere or look at anything else. Probably because we smelled like crap.
Everything changed in the evening, and a lot of that had to do with the wine. My classmates and I went out for a delicious and relatively inexpensive prix fixe dinner on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées to discuss our upcoming trip to the Louvre. Wine is cheaper than Coca-Cola in France, not that I would have been interested in drinking Coke anyway. Even though the wine we ordered for the table, which never seemed to stop flowing, was only a few dollars a bottle, it was the best thing I had ever tasted. I was used to drinking the cheap Chianti my parents kept around the house in a giant jug, but that wasn’t really wine. This wine was syrupy and smooth. It made my cheeks flush and my smile widen, and suddenly I didn’t care that I looked ridiculous and had smelled like crap for the majority of the day. We were in PARIS! We were going to see the Louvre! The Mona Lisa! If there was such a thing as an emoji back then, my face would’ve looked like the smiley face with hearts for eyes.
After dinner our group leader took us for a walk around the city so we could get a good look of the Eiffel Tower all lit up at night. He had taken many students to Paris andseemed to know the city very well, even though he was originally from Ireland. He had a dreamy quality of his own, partly because of his rugged good looks but mostly because of his accent. We were just a gaggle of twenty-year-old girls, filled up with cheap French wine, absent mindedly following our teacher around the most romantic city in the world.
I have always been a romantic person by nature, which all of my close friends know about me. I can get swept up in a song, a painting, a film, a poem, or the eyes of a stranger. I can’t help this about myself, I think it’s part of what makes me a natural writer. I see a story in every little nuance. That night in Paris was no exception. Even though my boyfriend was in Reading with his friends, I was in the most romantic city in the world. I felt so lucky and in love!
With our teacher we walked up what seemed to be a thousand steps at night, and there at the top we saw La Tour Eiffel. There were stars in my eyes, and it didn’t hurt that someone was playing the accordian off in the distance. The Parisians know how to woo their tourists. Behind us was a crêpe stand and the air smelled like butter. Though I was still dressed in shabby clothes, I felt beautiful, ecstatic and light.
It was only natural that because a spell was cast on me, I would fall in love with the first person I saw. That is how spells work in fairy tales, non? I wasn’t hungry, but I turned to look at the crêpe maker, and lo and behold I saw the most supernaturally handsome man I have ever seen in my life. Yes, I was under a spell of the Eiffel Tower and delicious wine, but the man I saw was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome. He had rich, almost black hair swept over his big, warm brown eyes. His broad chest was accented by his tiny apron and as I drank him all in I noticed that he was looking at me, too.
I blushed, of course. This was no normal man, he was a demi-god disguised as a crêpe maker. He could very well have been the French version of Superman now that I think of it. Within seconds I decided that I needed to kiss this man on the lips, and that it was just as important as seeing the Louvre. I am not the “kind” of woman who kisses strangers, no matter how much wine I’ve had to drink. However, it was essential that I complete this task. I approached the French Adonis and attempted to ask him – in French – how to get to the Louvre. I did not understand what he said to me, but then again it didn’t matter. I wasn’t really paying attention, and I knew that our Irish tour guide would be bringing us to the museum in the morning. I looked at him in the eyes and without words (I’m not sure how) he knew that it was time to kiss me. He smiled, leaned over, and gave me a very gentle kiss on the mouth with his plush, pink lips. I don’t exactly remember what it was like but I’m going to say for the sake of the story that it tasted like cigarettes and Nutella. I was happy and I told him, “Merci”.
I returned to my friends, some of whom saw what I did. No one really said anything about it, at least not to me. It felt romantic and culturally appropriate, and of course I wrote all about it in my travel journal when we got back to our hotel room. I had to! I didn’t want to forget about it. The catch was that I wrote it in French, or as best as I could. I did this partly because I felt ashamed about kissing another man when I had a very serious boyfriend that I loved very much. It didn’t feel like cheating to me because I was swept up in a romantic moment, but I feared that he would not feel the same way if he found out. He wasn’t the snooping kind but I wrote it in French for an extra sense of safety. When we returned to London and got back to school, I didn’t think about Monsieur Sexy Crêpe again.
Until I had no choice. A few weeks later my boyfriend and I spent a weekend in Amsterdam. I know the city is not exactly the same now, but at the time there were about 350 “coffeeshops” in Amsterdam that sold a lot more hash than they sold cups of joe. This was the primary reason we visited the city, as it is for many people. We wandered to a few different coffee shops and tried their selections and thoroughly enjoyed putting a dent in our brain cell count.
Towards the end of the trip we were sitting in one such cafe and I was attempting to write about our experiences. My brain was pretty mushy and I was distracted by people watching with my boyfriend. He asked me what I wrote about in my journal and I told him that there wasn’t much, just relaying what I did on a day-to-day basis so I could remember it. I don’t remember if he asked if he could read it or if I offered to let him read it, but whatever the case he eventually found the entry that was all in French.
As Woody Allen once joked, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”. I had planned that, if my boyfriend had ever read this entry, he would have ignored it or asked me to explain it because he didn’t speak French. However, I did not plan on the fact that he took French in high school, and though he wasn’t an “A” student, he was good enough that he figured out exactly what I wrote about. He was incredibly hurt, and I tried to explain that it really meant nothing. He pointed out that I wrote it was a “moment très romantique“, which it was, but I didn’t really see it as cheating because it was only one kiss, and as I tried to explain it was really just symbolic for the moment. I did not know this man and I was never going to see him again. I had a lot of wine and I got “caught up” in the ambiance. It was completely innocent.
He did not see things this way, and wouldn’t talk to me for a few hours. I know he was pouting because he was not a part of that very romantic moment. I did not feel guilty about the kiss, but I did feel bad about hurting his feelings. There was nothing I could do to change it, I told him. I was still wildly in love with my boyfriend, I just stepped out of that role for a brief amount of time while remaining fully clothed.
Once we returned to England neither of us mentioned it again, and I assumed I was forgiven. I went back to classes and pub-hopping with my classmates while he went back to Reading. Two weeks later he came to visit me in London, as he often did, but this time he brought two American friends he made at the University of Reading. I happily invited them to my flat and worked very hard (for a twenty-year-old) at making them all a chicken curry dinner which was something I was quickly becoming addicted to. His friends, one male and one female, both seemed nice though I don’t remember their names or what part of the country they came from. What I do remember is that his female friend commented to me in the kitchen (such a cliche) while the boys were in the other room that she had heard about my scandalous kiss in Paris. She told me, without me asking, that this had deeply upset my boyfriend. I wasn’t really sure what she was getting at and why she was saying this to me, but I did tell her that it was none of her business. I couldn’t believe that someone who I had invited into my flat and cooked dinner for had the audacity to judge me for something she was just obviously jealous she didn’t do herself.
It’s amazing how one simple kiss with a stranger can mean so many things, depending on who is doing the kissing and how you feel about them. Eventually my boyfriend got over it, well enough to marry me about four years later. That, dear readers, is a story for another time.