Meatball mishap

On a bustling Monday morning, I eagerly dragged my suitcase towards the London visa processing center to collect my passport, all set to head straight to Heathrow Airport afterward. As I flipped through my passport, I couldn’t help but feel disheartened to see I was granted only a two-week Schengen visa for Switzerland. Reflecting on the hassle of preparing and submitting my documents, I vowed never to give the Swiss Embassy my money again! In my huff, I almost forgot I was hungry. I decided to grab a meatball wrap from Pret, choosing takeout over dining in to save a few quid, and munched on it while waiting for the bus. Just as I opened the packaging, one of the massive meatballs tumbled out, rolling pathetically on the dusty ground. My eyes welled up with disappointment, but a nearby girl caught sight of my speechless expression and the fallen meatball, and she couldn’t help but giggle. Her laughter somehow made the meatball mishap seem less tragic, and I found myself joining in with a chuckle.

Bewildering French train service

My impression of France began even before I set foot in the country. As I hurried into the Zurich train station with my luggage in tow, I was informed that the ticket I had purchased for my Zurich-to-Paris trip from SNCF could only be collected at a French train station. The question arose: If I were already in France, why would I need to travel from Switzerland to France? As I helplessly watched the minute hand tick past the departure time, I sat in the ticket hall, staring at the slowly moving queue numbers, feeling a myriad of emotions rushing through my mind.

Finally, it was my turn. The ticket agent’s black eyeliner seemed to hover just above her jingling hoop earrings. Learning I was off on a solo adventure, she mentioned her own solo trip to Amsterdam, a liberating experience where she didn’t have to consult anyone on what to eat or see. Her glittering eyes filled me with a sense of anticipation for my time alone in France.

The train first arrived at Basel on the French-Swiss border, where everyone disembarked to catch the high-speed train to Paris. With only a 10-minute transfer time, I had my luggage ready for a quick sprint. Little did I know, the train’s punctuality was short-lived. I sat on the platform, waiting and waiting. Forty minutes passed without a hint of a train in sight! The other passengers appeared unfazed, seemingly accustomed to such delays. As the sun shone down, my towel draped over my suitcase began to dry. At least there was some gain in this waiting game.

Fontainebleau: Beware the Poetic Misconception!

“White dew on the red maple leaf” – such a beautiful Chinese name for Fontainebleau, despite its French name holding no particular meaning. I excitedly shared this stunning moniker with my friend who had come to pick me up, eager to see his picturesque hometown. However, upon arriving, I couldn’t help but feel a little let down. Apart from the magnificent Château de Fontainebleau, the town itself was just an ordinary place. Don’t let the name deceive you!

Mona Lisa or a kitten? Finding joy in simplicity

After wandering around the Centre Pompidou, I came to terms with the reality that I simply couldn’t appreciate modern art. Compared to Picasso’s various abstract masterpieces, my favorite sight was a sculpture and water feature on the rooftop terrace of the fifth floor. The black, abstract statue connected to a sleek black surface covered in a thin layer of water. The sun blazed overhead, making everything sizzle, as pigeons occasionally flew down for a drink. The water was too shallow, so the birds had to lean forward, pressing their entire chests against the ground – a sight that was irresistibly amusing. In my eyes, this scene outshone all the grand works within the museum.

Pigeons, prone on the ground, drinking water from the fountain at the Centre Pompidou.

The Wonders of Illiteracy: Embracing Surprises in Foreign Lands

My illiteracy experience in Zurich hadn’t improved much upon arriving in France. However, as the time spent being utterly clueless increased, I began to embrace the various surprises that came with not being able to read a single word.

The Ultimate Friendly Face

On a subway platform, a lady wrapped in a headscarf tried to ask me for directions in French. I gestured “No French,” amused and puzzled at the same time. Did I look like someone who knew their way around, or at least someone who could read? Perhaps my amiable demeanor triumphed over other passers-by, making me stand out as a rare, approachable option for assistance among the crowd!

Happy meal from Paris MacDonald

Mother Nature’s Drink

Embracing my goal to try McDonald’s around the world, I once again stepped under those familiar golden arches. With a thin wallet, I opted for a €4 Happy Meal that came with a toy. The drink menu’s pictures were incomplete, so I chose a word that closely resembled “nature” (perhaps it was some sort of organic, freshly-squeezed juice?). To my surprise, I received a cup of water. Well, what could be more natural than water?

An artist at the Place du Tertre

The Customer is King

As I passed a sidewalk café, a woman was sitting patiently while an artist painted her portrait. Curious, I sneaked a peek from behind the artist and almost burst out laughing – the woman in the painting bore no resemblance to the woman sitting there, except for the hat. The artist was clearly painting a heavily made-up young woman, while the lady before me was middle-aged, with no makeup, and had gently curled light hair that matched her light-colored eyes.

She smiled at me, and the wrinkles at the corners of her mouth and eyes formed a gentle curve. Her lively appearance was far more captivating than the made-up woman in the painting. As a passerby, I didn’t linger for long, so I couldn’t tell whether she’d be disappointed or thrilled with the final result. Perhaps the artist knew that everyone wants to see themselves at their most beautiful and added a ten-fold beautifying filter to his imagination? I have no answer.

The Place du Tertre

“I’ll Wait for You!”

Near the quaint Place du Tertre in Montmartre, there were many artists ready to paint people’s portraits. The cartoon-style portraits, being both fast and affordable (20 euros, 5 minutes), seemed to be the most popular option. More realistic portraits cost significantly more. I wandered among the easels displaying still-life, portrait, and caricature paintings, as artists and onlookers chatted while trying to attract customers.

On my second pass by the easel displaying a painting of a girl wearing a hat, the curly-haired artist still hadn’t found any business. He watched the bustling caricature stall next door, his blue shirt looking a bit dejected. I loved the painting of the girl in the hat – her shy and innocent smile captured beautifully by the artist’s brush. Having previously turned down his offer to paint my portrait, I couldn’t resist asking for the price this time. He only accepted cash, but I hadn’t withdrawn any money since starting my journey. His spirits immediately lifted, and he directed me to an ATM just 50 meters away around the corner. “You’ll come back, right? I’ll wait for you!” His curls seemed to dance with excitement. I smiled, agreed, and headed to the ATM.

Upon my return, clutching 70 euros in cash, I found that he had already started painting a portrait of a young boy. I suddenly didn’t know where to put the money, feeling a mix of amusement and mild disappointment. As I walked past the artists’ stalls once more – those painting watercolors, sketches, caricatures, and realistic portraits – almost everyone had found business. I paused for a moment, before slowly descending the sunlit slopes of Montmartre.