(Originally published Sunday Times Travel)
We believed in Google Maps like we had never been lost before. So strong was our drunken faith in Godfather Google that we had barely examined the route to the Opera district as we drank cheap Monoprix wine and staged a dramatic sing-along to the indecipherable music vibrating from our apartment block on the dodgy side of the Louvre.
It was New Year’s Eve in Paris and not a thing could be better. Not our Airbnb apartment with a damp stack of Le Monde newspapers and a sheet for curtains. Not our feeble Rand-to-Euro exchange rate. And not our mood after a day with more freshly-baked croissants than waking hours. This was the Paris I always knew that I would love, albeit on a budget.
In true millennial style, my boyfriend and I had found the New Year’s Eve party on Facebook. We wanted a decidedly non-touristy celebration (see cheap), and the obscure poster with the promise of “5 EURO WHISKEY!!!” seemed like a sign. When we finally left our apartment, the British man who lives inside Google Maps instructed us up the street beyond Turkish bakery and beyond the 24-hour KFC. The knife-sharp breeze sobered us as we walked, and the click-clack of my heels provided the soundtrack of our misguided adventure. As we passed the Turkish bakery, the smell of yeast and cinnamon cloaked us; and a young man with an old man’s expression muttered “Bonne année” as if it were a warning.
Before that fateful New Year’s evening, we had not ventured beyond the KFC for reasons that became abundantly clear as our journey continued. While the ETA indicated only 25 minutes, within 5 minutes it was pretty obvious that we were likely to be kidnapped, killed, or both. Well, that’s what we half-heartedly joked as we nervously ran-while-pretending-to-walk past several “bars” filled with only men who peered out like sullen prisoners.
When the 25 minutes elapsed, we found ourselves outside of a busy itsy-bitsy Italian restaurant with a neon red sign that read “PIZZ”. Like a scene out of a B-grade reimagining of Oliver Twist, my boyfriend and I longingly gazed inside the candlelit restaurant for longer than appropriate prompting two of the patrons to rush outside bringing the live music spilling onto the street as they opened the door. “Salut!” they sang in unison before embracing us tightly in a bear hug. The one, a young woman with intricate braids and a “Free Lauryn Hill” t-shirt, the other, a Benicio del Toro knock-off with a thumb-sized heart tattooed on his clavicle.
As if on cue, more people arrived and greeted us warmly before disappearing into the party. Seemingly keen to make up for lost time, the couple launched into a super-speed conversation that was all exclamation points and laughter until our shocked expressions halted their enthusiasm and the man, practically sweating with excitement ushered us inside and laughed as though we had pulled off the best practical joke ever.
After a swift conversation conducted purely through eye contact and wildly animated facial expressions, my boyfriend and I had decided on our escape strategy. After all, the British man who lives inside Google Maps would be worried if we abandoned our journey. And I swear, we were just about to leave the strange merriment of the party when the countdown to the New Year began and our new friends ready with drinks in hand shouted “Happy New Year” and we decided it was and shouted “Happy New Year” back before embracing our new long-lost friends in a bear hug.