This post was contributed by Carla Abreu.
Evading scattered cigarette butts, I rush past unwashed hair tucked into cashmere turtlenecks, lovers on benches, and old men buried in leather-bound journals.
More than four thousand miles from the Chicago suburbs, I’m reminded not of my hometown—but of my colorful home. After my sister’s wish five years prior, years of savings, and an agreement to skip our quinceañeras, I follow my family to creaking metro doors. They promise to whisk me from starry Paris to golden, glistening Versailles.
I hear a creak; the doors have shut.
Oddly, I’m left standing on the platform. My frantic mother and sister bang the doors at 20 kilometers per hour as I, at twelve-years-old, remain motionless. The gust from the cars blows up my skirt and I stand alone.
Alone: where my thoughts wander without distraction, where they may drip or flood.
I realize that absolute solitude can be wonderful, but getting lost is pure bliss.
Getting lost in the City of Light is a rite of passage when in Europe. Getting lost in an urban underground, however, is a mistake. Two options arise: dwell on the prospect of becoming the newest subject of a “Have You Seen Me?” campaign or embrace this faux pas with intrepid curiosity.
“Pardon, parlez-vous angl—”
“Huh? Need somethin’?” her New York attitude, leather jacket, and fire engine hair appear bolder than I, but I persist.
“Are you going to Versailles?” I ask, hoping my Midwestern accent holds enough grit to match hers.
It does not. Her husband, cloaked in black and a thick wool scarf, and daughter, rocking in a cold, shiny wheelchair, stare at me. I stare back. Moments pass and I am, reluctantly, permitted to follow.
Twenty minutes remain until our metro comes and forty-five minutes until it arrives at its destination. Sixty-five minutes remain to absorb a new world.
Twenty minutes are spent observing those around me. It’s unlike anything in Elmhurst, IL — where my color often meets surprised, discouraging eyes. At home, the darkness of it often gives me away, or the thickness, or maybe the way water beads up on it upon contact. Nevertheless, my hair makes me even more conspicuous than any of the few brown girls at school. It’s the source of inquiry growing up in a town that is 95% white, of having to choose between “white” and “black” (the only answers to “What are you?” my peers will accept). But here in a foreign country’s metro, no more lost than I was in my identity, my appearance ceases to be a conversation-starter.
The distinctive characters around me are comforting, diverging in size, color, and tongue. Though limited by language, we converge towards the same destination. We pack into the car with hopes of embarking on a true journey, where the destination struggles to be of equal importance.
In these forty-five minutes en route, we discover that everything is undeniably French yet universal to us foreigners. We see a conjunction of luxury and the grimy underground. The black turtlenecks, the smokers, the suitcase-carriers all ride — alone and together — with nothing to do but breathe and ponder.
The doors creak one last time. My mom runs to me with tears streaming. Travelers rush to the Palace. Only a little shaken up, I coolly tell my family we should take our time. My mother grows impatient.
I turn to the redheaded New Yorker who reassuringly exclaims, with map in hand and in broken French, “Bon voyage!”
I turn to my family, with their tan skin and curled hair, and break into a smile.
Inhaling, I take one last look at the Versailles metro station. I see colors all over and watch the songs of different nations fly from sundry tongues.
Four thousand miles away, I reach a state unguarded by creaking metro doors and irrevocable by xenophobia (however plain or slight): I am home and I belong.
Meet Carla: My name is Carla and I’m a university student from Chicago, currently living in Paris! Growing up in the suburban Midwest, the 10 square miles I called home sparked an early interest in discovering a world beyond that which I knew. Thanks to my Latinx roots and nerdy tendencies, I’ve always had a passion for learning languages and experiencing other cultures. Follow me as I try and form my own definition of success, being forever-overdramatic and moody along the way. For a look at the places I see, check out my personal photography on IG.