At 8pm on a Wednesday night I stand outside my friend Laura’s apartment building, waiting for her to let me in. She is about to give me, along with her single host mother and about six of her host mother’s friends, a salsa lesson. Yes, in this salsa lesson, the instructions will be in French. Laura, a fellow Hoya, hails from Puerto Rico and graciously organized this fun cultural exchange at her host mother’s request – and somewhere along the way I got lucky enough to score an invite!
Laura’s home this semester is located in the 15th arrondissement (or neighborhood) in Paris. Despite the fact that it borders the 16th, where I live, it has a much more relaxed, artsy feel compared to the quiet bourgeois grandeur of my block. She is the Greenwich Village to my Upper East Side, si vous voulez. The evening’s warm temperature hinted of summer’s approach, and as the sun literally doesn’t set until about 9:30 post-Daylight Savings Time, I was delighted to be ushered to the outside private garden of Laura’s apartment.
After being introduced to the four thirty-somethings who had already arrived, I sat down in front of a punchbowl of sangria, excited but not quite sure of what to expect. To my surprise, it quickly became apparent that Martine, Laura’s host mother, had invited friends who came from completely different social circles. For once in the past five months, I was not the only stranger in the room! I breathed a sigh of relief as each guest took turns asking others about their occupations, where they live, etc. A few hours later, another four guests arrived, including Laura and Martine’s neighbor, who, after waking up from a nap, showed up in a formal tulle dress, platform heels, fully done make-up and her hair up in a ballerina bun complete with braided headband. It appears you can never be overdressed in Paris, and I think this has rubbed off on me – since I’ve come back to the U.S. I’ve felt so odd donning flip-flops anywhere outside of my home!
Before long, dinner was served – pastelón, or Puerto Rican lasagna. The dish is made with plantains instead of pasta and it was TO DIE FOR. After months of almost nothing but typical French cuisine, it was such a nice change of pace to have a dinner that exploited some new flavors – this dish was the perfect blend of savory and sweet, and I am ever-so-thankful that Laura and her cooking skills will be joining me back at Georgetown.
As the sky grew dark and as we lit tea lights sitting on the table and hanging from the garden’s fence, the magic of the evening continued. Conversation was easy, full of laughter, and even touched on deeper topics, including consumers’ appreciation of hand-made goods by artisans, Franco-American relations, and the role of women in 18th-century France vs. today. This night, it became clear, was the Parisian experience I had been missing: delicious food and drink surrounding intellectual banter among relative strangers, peppered with vulgar humor and funny stories. And just as I was thinking the night couldn’t get any better, we headed inside to begin the salsa dancing.
We all gathered in Martine’s living room as Laura adjusted a colorful disco globe light that could’ve come from my Oriental Trading catalogue and reverted iTunes back to the first song on her playlist. A few short instructions later and we were all practicing the basic steps, me doing my best to make the most out of the skirt I was wearing (the sassiest in my closet) and make small figure-eights with my hips. My French went down the tubes as I squealed with delight at how much fun we were all having, and before I realized it, we had been salsa-ing around the room for 45 minutes. Once the room cleared, we all took turns fetching water and marveling in the mirror at how red-faced we’d (okay, I’d) become. Rob, who served as my dance partner and was the only other CUPA friend who could make the soirée, joined Laura and me back in the living room, where we gushed about how much fun the evening had been and marveled at how bizarre it was to have so little time left in Paris, especially after the eternity of time we felt like we had in front of us back in January or February.
I think this evening was so special to me for many reasons. First, I was proud of myself for having so much fun in such an authentically French environment, especially among Parisians who treated us like we were any other new acquaintances they might meet at a friend’s home. The experience was also so culturally dynamic that I couldn’t help but be proud of how snobbishly enlightened I felt; there was something undeniably cool about the sharing and the connections that were taking place around that punch bowl. And finally, it was honestly a relief to spend some quality time with French adults whose behavior dissented from the stilted and often petty atmosphere of dinner parties chez my host family. This night was about camaraderie, wit, food, laughter and new cultures, Paris-style. This was the Paris I remembered and fell in love with three years ago when I did a week-long exchange with my high school. This is the Paris I cherish. This is the Paris I’ll forever fondly remember.