Je ne parle pas français (I can’t speak French)

Abhinandan Pal
9 min readMar 31, 2023

Note: Although the pictures and story do not have an explicit correlation, I found myself unable to part with either element.

The door protested with a sharp squeal as I pushed it open, beckoning me into the unknown depths of dimly lit corridors. Restless and curious, I stepped inside, yearning for the comfort of my new bed after enduring a grueling 20-hour journey. This was my first time outside of India, my first flight, my first foray into a foreign city, and I was all on my own.

The stairwell was situated at the heart of each level, with two opposite doors leading to the square passage connecting the individual chambers on three sides and one facet branching out into a communal kitchen. It was pitch black, and I was in search of the room labeled ‘MA-4.14’. The door to the stairwell I exited was opposite to room ‘MA-4.6’, and unable to locate the light switch, I resorted to the one on my mobile. Advancing towards the ascending numerical sequence of room numbers, I arrived at ‘MA-4.13’ and then finally at my destination. French locks were marginally more intricate than what I was accustomed to in India, needing a bit more force to push it open. As soon as I succeeded in unlocking the door, I heard a sound of a plate falling. I took two strides towards the source of the noise to find a girl, using the oven. She appeared flustered and ashamed of having dropped the plate and upon noticing me, awkwardly scurried off to her quarters. Eventually, I did spot the switch to the lights of the corridor, which was located right next to the shared kitchen. I flicked on the lights and stood there awkwardly for a moment, perhaps due to my fatigue, or perhaps hoping to meet one of my new flatmates. After a bit, I walked back to my room and changed into my pajamas.

I dialed my mother and one of my professors back home who had significantly assisted me in the process of arriving here to inform them that I had safely reached the dormitory. After a while I heard someone in the kitchen, my room being the closest to it, I was alerted whenever someone was there. Eager to meet my first flatmate, I stepped out to find an Indian lad of medium height, with curly hair, dressed in three-quarter pants and a t-shirt. After a moment of sizing each other up, he inquired, “Are you from Yeandia?” in a thick South Indian accent. I nodded affirmatively, and we engaged in a brief discussion that lasted hardly a few minutes, for it was already too late, and he had to report to his laboratory tomorrow. He offered to guide me to the school and brief me on how to read the maps at the metro station the next day.

With this exchange concluded, I retreated to my room, which was much more capacious than I had envisioned. It was not particularly sizable, one could argue that it was quite small, but for a city notorious for its cramped quarters, this was a luxurious accommodation for a student on a budget. The room had an en suite bathroom with a shower and sink, while the toilet was communal and situated opposite room ‘MA-4.13’. I made the bed with the linens kept on the side and proceeded to revel in the thrill of the journey I had just undertaken, instead of getting a proper rest for the day ahead.

Upon arriving in Paris I had noticed that the city had a distinct aroma, one that I couldn’t quite place. I in later days mentioned it to my colleagues, but they seemed oblivious to it. Perhaps this was simply how Europe smelled. I considered it a privilege to be able to take note of such a feature, one that many on virtue of being born in Europe will never know. Later, as I became more accustomed to the scent, I realized it was a heady mixture of cheese and bread. Those haughty Europeans, who had insisted their city was superior to Paris, claimed it was the stench of urine. While, to an Indian on their first trip to Europe, the scent was as if the city had entrusted Domino’s to take charge of the very air we breathed.

The moment I first encountered the mistral wind, it made an indelible impression upon me. As I stepped out of the doors of Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, I was enveloped in a wintry climate that was entirely foreign to me, having never left the suburban confines of Kolkata. It was a shivering cold that caused me to retreat back into the airport shortly after stepping out.

From within the airport, I watched and waited for the arrival of the bus that would take me from the airport to central Paris. When it finally arrived, I was struck by its unusual appearance: two buses joined in the middle, like trains normally are. As I boarded the bus, I saw that it was nearly empty, and it stayed that way as it was designed primarily for ferrying passengers to and from the airport.

Alighting at Paris Opera, I found myself embroiled in a comical episode of my own making. I had mistaken the Route-68 bus for a metro and wandered the streets in search of its entrance, only to be met with confusion and bewilderment. After several minutes, I stumbled upon a square with two large entrances to the subway facing each other with a highway in between.

Upon reaching the station master’s office, I requested a new Navigo Pass and loaded it with a 5-zone weekly pass for 22 euros. I then asked the station master for directions to the metro 68. He pointed in the direction of the passage that led to the exit. Near the exit, I saw signs pointing to various route numbers, including 68, but they all pointed outside. Upon exiting I noticed the other entrance on the other side of the highway. Thinking that was the entrance to the Route-68 metro, I crossed the road, only to find myself back at the station master’s office.

Undeterred, I asked him again, and the kind man even came out of his chamber to show me the way, speaking partly in French and partly in English. But still, I was confused and unwilling to bother him more I exited the metro, taking the same route. Feeling lost and uncertain, I turned to the passersby for help. Some were unhelpful, while others simply didn’t know. One man shrugged rudely, then came back a few seconds later to apologize, admitting that he didn’t know. It was only when a young man, perhaps a student, informed me that the Route-68 was actually a bus that I finally realized my mistake and set out in search of the elusive Route-68 bus stop.

After numerous failed attempts, I finally found myself at a bus stop for Route-68. Relief washed over me as I boarded the bus, but my joy was short-lived as I soon realized I had been traveling in the wrong direction. I tried speaking to the bus driver, but he didn’t speak English, so we resorted to using the translation app on my phone. He was kind enough to stop the bus midway, although he normally wasn’t supposed to do so.

Lost once again, I searched for another Route-68 bus stop, only to find myself traveling in the wrong direction yet again. Eventually I found a bus stop with an elderly French couple waiting. I confirmed with them that this was indeed the correct bus, and shared the story of my misadventure with them. They laughed heartily at my tale of woe and welcomed me to the charming yet confounding city of Paris.

When I finally boarded the correct bus, my troubles were far from over. The bus stops at three oddly close locations, the third of which was the closest to my dorm’s main entrance. I waited out while it stopped at the first two. And finally when we came close to the third, the bus skipped it, and I was once again thrown into despair. I tried to plead with the driver, my desperation mounting after hours of travel and navigating the unfamiliar transport system alone in this new city. One of the passengers informed me that I should have pressed the button to signal the bus to stop at the next stop. But the driver was initially unyielding, citing his obligation to adhere to the scheduled stops. Finally, with much persistence and pleading, I managed to persuade him to stop the bus as the next stop was quite far and I had a lot luggage.

After a long journey of over 20 hours, and the added challenge of navigating Paris on my own, I found myself standing on a footpath with a texture that made it difficult for my bag’s wheels to move on. I struggled on, tugging my trolley bag behind me, until I finally gazed upon the École normale supérieure, the institute of my dreams, the place where the most brilliant minds in all of France gathered to pursue their studies.

But my ordeal was not yet over. I pushed at the gate, only to find it locked. Normally, the gate locks at 8 PM, after which one needs a key to open it. I had been informed of this over email and had notified them of my estimated arrival time of 10 PM, keeping an hour’s margin. It was 11 PM now, I dialed the Dorm Admin number, but my calls rang out unanswered. Panic began to set in as I imagined the possibility of spending the night on the cold Parisian streets. In desperation, I turned to my advisor, leaving a message on her voicemail with the hope that it might reach her.

As I waited, the minutes ticked by like hours, each second stretching out to eternity. It was then that an elderly couple appeared. I explained my predicament, and to my relief, they were able to open the gate with their key. As I entered the hallowed halls of the École normale supérieure Dorm, I felt a sense of wonder and awe wash over me. The couple directed me to the registration desk, where I was given the passcode a single key that would open the main gate, the tower, and my room. Everyone had one such key, and for everyone it opened the main gate, but the tower and room it was spefic, a techonology that amazed me then.

As it turned out, my advisor had received my desperate message, and when she called the office my arrival had already been noted. With a heavy heart, I realized that my journey had only just begun, and the road ahead was fraught with challenges and uncertainties. But I was ready to embrace the new chapter in my life, to immerse myself in the vibrant energy of Paris, and to discover the beauty of my newfound independence. From tomorrow, the City of Lights awaited me, and I was eager to fall in love with its many charms.