A French Connection
We walked the streets of Bastille, in the 11th arrondissement, my sister inhaling her vaporizer and exhaling a strawberries-and-cream-scented smoke every 10–15 seconds. I was jet-lagged and already weary, just 10 hours into a ten-day vacation. I had originally planned on doing this trip alone — a full notebook of solo activities already full — when my sister decided to come in an attempt to break open a travel and adventure shell of her own creation. I was so proud of her for the decision, I forgot a few fundamental differences in our personalities and travel habits — namely that that she hates to fly, eats very plain, and doesn’t drink nearly as much as I do.
Ten hours prior, precisely as we were boarding, my sister turned to me with a panicked expression and whispered she didn’t think she could get on the plane. That she was having a panic attack about needing to traverse the Atlantic Ocean to get to France. Having once suffered from acute anxiety myself, I told her she had three choices. One — get a drink, calm down, and get on the goddamn plane. Two, calm down and get on the goddamn plane. Three, take my keys and go back to my apartment where she could rest and then get home to Florida. She chose a modified two — wherein she didn’t necessarily calm down, but got on the goddamn plane. The trip across the Atlantic was not as restful as hoped, but was without incident. My laissez-faire approach to finding hotels in cities with which I was unfamiliar had not gone over well, though; while we had just put our bags down in a beautiful and brightly lit apartment on Rue Daval, it had failed to advertise the very old, very creepy building in which it was housed. None of the above activities had helped panic attack matters.
We were now meandering in an attempt to calm her. In doing so, we passed a group of French street ragamuffins (“They’re French. Are they more glamorous than regular ragamuffins?” I wondered to myself as we walked by) many of whom had large dogs on loose leashes. The dogs, as the ragamuffins, were all wild-eyed. As we passed, exactly as I attempted to explain how it takes a few beats to settle into the rhythm of any foreign country, a Rottweiler mix, foaming at the mouth, lunged at my 98-pound, five-foot-zero-inch sister, with a ferocious series of barks that we could only interpret as its desire to eat her whole.
She screamed bloody murder and ran across the street. I followed. From the safety of the corner, we observed the dirty and disheveled ragamuffin screaming at his creature in loud, indecipherable French. Finally, her anxiety fully gave way. The dam broke and she began to cry. I looked around helplessly as exactly no one paid a single bit of attention to us.
I attempted to explain to her how very bizarre this beginning to our trip was. That being attacked by a pack of French dogs within minutes of arriving in France was just not a thing that has ever happened to anyone. That our apartment wasn’t haunted. My words fell on deaf ears and felt empty coming out of my own mouth, but it was then I saw a man, carrying a baguette as one would carry a newspaper. I stifled a laugh. I had not believed anyone regarding the fact that the French carry baguettes, as one might the newspaper in New York City. And yet, I watched the baguette go languidly by. For one moment, my joy was complete. After that moment, I returned my attention to my sister’s misery.
Thus started a series of days and events that showed my sister and I — not for the first time in our lives, but for the first time in a foreign country — that just because two people can come from the same parents, and share DNA, does not mean they are alike. It also showed us that sisterly bonds are an otherworldly thing. Not prone to weak spots. Not easily breakable. Able to withstand an honesty that would permanently rip apart regular friendships. Be comprised of psychic connections that — with just a side-eyed glance or a tilt of the head — allow you to communicate hundreds of things without the need to speak.
To wit, even though I have traveled a fair amount, I’ve always had a giant travel backpack that allowed me easy maneuvering. Sadly, I lost the backpack in a breakup, so I found myself borrowing a giant suitcase for this trip from a friend. Because it had been a few years from my last international trip, I sort of forgot just how many stairs are involved in the European travel system. Two sisters — one blonde and one brunette — with an average height of 5’1” between them, carrying an average of 70 pounds of luggage per girl, stand out in such a system. And not in a good way.
We spent our first five days at the apartment in Paris before going to London for a few days. Upon our return to France, we booked a hotel in Montmarte. This required not just a decent hike through the Metro — but the ability to clean-and-jerk 70 pound suitcases with ease. I, used to the NYC subway system and having slightly more upper body strength, was able to handle my bag with something that could, if viewed out of peripheral vision, appear to be grace. My sister had more trouble.
Struggling up and down flights in one particular stop, we both noticed — our sister radar on instant alert and confirmed via side-eye — a man, who for lack of a better way to describe it, appeared to be hugging one of the underground advertisements. This included having one leg up on the billboard at a 90 degree angle. He was very skinny and very dirty, and something about him put our sixth senses screaming into overdrive. Something about him made me feel like the only thing missing on my person was a giant red arrow pointing to the front pocket of my tiny travel backpack that said “MONEY AND PASSPORTS LOCATED HERE!”
Not two steps past the man, he decided the affection he was paying the billboard was sufficient and started following us.
Every bone in my body screamed with the certainty we were going to get robbed. I could all but see the waves of energy coming off my sister that confirmed she felt the same. We might be jetlagged, exhausted and near our breaking point, but — and I can’t explain it — I knew were going to save each other. Between our two brains, I felt us both weighing the options — 1) fight, 2) scream, or 3) cause an enormous scene and claw ourselves out of danger. Ahead was a staircase down to the train and I knew, just knew in my deepest lizard brain, that we’d have to make our move by the time we reached it.
At that moment, though, like a gift from God — I truly can find no other way to explain it — four of the largest men I have ever seen appeared from the stairs ahead. They were Gendarmes, fully-outfitted and carrying machine guns. They ascended the steps and made their way right toward us.
The largest of the four, an 8’6” blonde as I remember it, somehow locked eyes with me immediately. I swept my eyes over my right shoulder to indicate the man behind me. With an imperceptible nod (a term I never understood until now. If someone was nodding, how could it be imperceptible? To nod is to be noticed, I thought. But this is wrong.) back at me, the man said a single word to his three comrades, who picked up their gait a crisp half-step. Neatly, they slid between the man, and us. They reached him as we reached the stairs. They surrounded him as we we dragged our suitcases down. The train arrived at the very moment we both landed on the platform and we stepped into the car. Our eyes wide, we looked at each other, the feelings of luck and relief mingling with the residual adrenaline.
“What the actual f — -,” my sister said, and I nodded. It was the only statement to be made. Both the question and the answer.
The rest of the trip passed without incident. The worst had (almost) happened. Ironically enough, all of my sister’s fears about foreign travel had been confirmed, but not in a way that actually caused us harm. We found ourselves drawn to the tourist mecca of the Eiffel Tower night after night to eat ice cream and people watch. I smoked from her vaporizer. We found a tenuous but workable balance.
This past summer, the Timehop app reminded us both of our trip. We texted each other the photos, and in that way that only sisters can…we finally laughed about it.