So, my trip to Paris doesn’t start in Paris. I met one of my best friends, Cynthia, in Miami in college and we became fast friends. We were both in a TV production class where we were the only two girls in a sea of boys that wore a lot of black T-shirts and just wanted to be like the next Spielberg. Cynthia and I just wanted to produce fun content and be popular.
So, right away, I was like, ‘Wow, we’re going to be good friends.’ We’re still friends to this day, by the way. We both had jobs while we were going to school: I worked at the mall in retail and she worked at a bank. It’s very important to have friends in your life that are good at math and have all the red lollipops.
So, when we got our income tax check, we were like, “We should take a trip,” and we went to Cancun. That’s right, honey. We spent our whole check and stayed at one hotel that was all-inclusive. And I’m like, “We have these pink bracelets, and we get to eat eggs and drink tequila? This is how real women do stuff.”
We were 19 years old. So, we decided: “We’re going to take trips, we’re going to be those b**ches, and we’re going to see the world. We’re gonna wear the same cool pair of Levi buttoned-down jeans and go to all the little vintage shops and buy all the shirts that smell like 1967 and rent a bike and do our thing. That’s right.” We’re going to look like Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz. (I was Lenny Kravitz because I had the broader shoulders.)
Our next trip, we went to Spain. That was an interesting trip for me, because I didn’t really feel connected to the people of Spain. They sort of looked at me like, “What in the Washington Heights is going on?” Truly. I would walk down the street and people’s faces looked at me and I could see their faces thinking, “What is this big-titty Puerto Rican American that doesn’t even speak Spanish?”
I mean, yes I have big titties, no I’m not Puerto Rican. Yes, I do look Puerto Rican because I’m light-skinned. Why? ’Cause of colonialism. What, is that too soon? Sorry, Spain. OK, look. I should have learned some Spanish, some basic Spanish, before I went there. But they don’t even speak Spanish [in that part of the country], they speak Catalan, right? So, it wouldn’t even matter. OK, it would matter because I do love orange juice and naranja is really hard to say when you’re hungover. But Cynthia speaks fluent Spanish, so it was really fun to be with her. Did I mention that she had the red lollipops?
And I will say, Cynthia and I felt very exotic in Spain. I mean, we would get every nationality except for the ones that we actually are, but we just went with it. We were just hooking up with boys left and right, writing poetry, going to parks, kicking balls, playing flutes, doing all this stuff, having maté tea out of a weird teeny tiny coconut and a metal straw that tasted like tuberculosis. (Ugh. How do they drink that stuff?) But, finally: We were cute and popular.
One night, we met these French guys in Spain. You know, they were cool and laid back and dirty, but not too dirty. You know, just a dollop of dirty. A dollop will do ya, you know? Like, they definitely hadn’t washed their jeans in a while but, they looked like they definitely had a home with a bed that had sheets on it.
My guy was taller and had dark hair and he sort of looked like Joaquin Phoenix and Leo DiCaprio had a baby—but also [like he had] an Indian mom. I don’t know. Is that what gypsies look like? I can’t describe it any other way because he also had these piercing green eyes and very olive skin. He kind of looked like that chick on the cover of National Geographic. You get it. I want to say his name was Pierre, I can’t really remember. I want to say Cynthia’s dude was Etienne, but did I just watch The Beach? I did. It’s a nice French name, what can I say?
But back to Pierre. He was so skinny, he looked like he was cold all the time and my body was a Tempur-Pedic mattress he was ready to lay on. He had a very big Adam’s apple, but I didn’t even know that [at first] because he had a scarf around it all the time. And I remember when he took off that scarf and I saw that Adam’s apple, I said, “Oh, I feel tempted. This is some First Testament sh*t. Is my name Eve?” And I just remember looking up and seeing his Adam’s apple and every time he swallowed, it moved. I was like, “This is so adult.”
Pierre and Etienne became our vacation boyfriends that week. We’d hold hands and ride bikes and whisper sweet nothings into each other’s ears. (Pierre definitely needed to clean his ears.) When we were getting ready to leave, we realized we were going to miss each other. We were like, “We have to see each other again. This could be true love.”
When Cynthia and I came back from Spain, we just looked at each other and were like, “Are those our French boyfriends? Are we going to have French citizenship? Are we going to move to Paris and figure out how to make bread and ride the metro with a little baguette under our arms? Like, who are we going to be? Am I going to be the big-titty Amélie? Maybe!”
This was before MySpace and Facebook, so truly the only way to stay in touch with someone was by writing a letter and then strapping that letter to a pigeon or a three-eyed raven. Those were your choices.
During that semester, we couldn’t stop thinking about them. I realize now that you always have a vacation version of yourself when you meet someone. But I didn’t know that back then. I really thought these guys were our Prince Charmings. They would always get the next round and, oh my god, just whisper these French nothings in my ear. They were probably saying s**t like, “I just ordered a beer. I have to go to the bathroom.” I don’t know what they were saying! All I know is that it sounded very good.
And so, Cynthia and I became pen pals with Pierre and Etienne. Cynthia and I actually wrote them in French. We would try to figure out what to say together. Imagine crafting a whole letter to somebody that you’ve met for, like, five days in another country. It was really hard work. And then Cynthia and I would walk that letter to the post office, wait in line to buy stamps because there was no machine to buy stamps from. This was an old-school kind of love. This was our A Bronx Tale.
Pierre and Etienne would write us back and they always said the perfect things. If we said we missed them, they said they missed us more. If we said we were thinking about them, they said they were thinking about us all the time.
Finally, Pierre—or whatever his name was—asked, “Do you and Cynthia want to come see us? We have to see each other again! My heart can’t go on.” I was like, “What in the Titanic is going on?” I looked at Cynthia and said, “We have no money. How are we going to get to Paris? What should we do?” And she said, “Oh, we gotta get money.”
Like I said, Cynthia and I were going to school for TV production, and a lot of people would check cameras out and other equipment to shoot stuff for homework. But we [decided to] take our cameras out and shoot videos for little Argentinian bands or Haitian rappers in South Beach. We would put together a video and present it as homework, but we would also sell the video, so we made money. We had our own little low-budget production company called “Dalian Productions.”
That’s right, honey. We found the money to go to Paris. We were like Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers but without the six-pack and the pole.
Now that we had the money, we had to buy a ticket to go to Paris, and Paris was way more expensive than Spain for whatever reason. I knew early on that I could not do a connecting flight. Like I cannot be traveling for 27 hours, OK? Because I’m gonna be like James Franco in that movie [127 Hours] and cut my arm off and start eating it.
This was before MySpace and Facebook, so truly the only way to stay in touch with someone was by writing a letter and then strapping that letter to a pigeon or a three-eyed raven.
So I went to a travel company, an actual place that had paper tickets and brochures. I know this sounds like 1972, but just go with me because I age well. I talked to a travel agent—I think her name was Esther—for way too long. She was so sweet, and she had all these little white dogs that would sit on her lap. Esther explained to me that I could get on a flight on Air India to Paris for two or three hundred bucks, because they stop to fuel the plane in Paris, and then keep it going to, I don’t know, somewhere in India. Keep up! And I was like, “You know what, Esther, I’m gonna do it.”
Finally, it’s our big day to go to Paris and we board Air India. How can I describe Air India? It wasn’t exactly like Slumdog Millionaire, but it wasn’t exactly not like it either. I had a feeling that Cynthia and I were actually the only ones going somewhere and everyone else was just going home, you know? Which was cool, man! I’m cool!
Everybody was beautiful. The colors were popping. Everyone was from south or southeast India, I believe? There were a lot of fun spices. I think I woke up at one point and a really cute old Indian grandmother, who could have been like 29 or 99, had her feet nestled under my thigh, but I was like, “Girl, no!” but then it felt like good luck, so I was like, “OK, girl, yes.”
We got lots of food and drinks, maybe every hour, maybe every 30 minutes. Nobody sat down for take-off or landing. I watched a Bollywood movie the whole flight and it never ended and the flight was seven hours. Confusing.
At one point I looked at Cynthia and was like, “We’re going to Paris, right?” Because the first time you go to Paris with your friend you’re thinking, “Ooh, everyone’s going to have a beret and a striped shirt on the plane and we’re going to talk about croissants and baguettes and go into the Louvre and the jardin. You know, real Parisian stuff.” But it wasn’t that at all. Cynthia and I just shared our mango lassis and thought well, “We’re going to Paris for some dirty d**k.”
We land in Paris and get to our hostel which, now, I’m realizing why they call them hostels because, you feel hostile, you know? It looked like an episode of Orange Is the New Black. I’m like, “Are these our rooms because you’re punishing me? What is going on?” We had to upgrade to have our own toilet. But mind you, there was no sink, just a toilet. So, that was fun.
So, Cynthia and I unpacked, we found some naranja in Paris. We had this really long phone number on a piece of paper from the boys, and we could not wait to call Pierre and Etienne. The phone number must have been like 17 digits. I thought, “Is this a phone number or are we unlocking a vault at a bank?” Confusing.
We tried to call them on a public pay phone. Wouldn’t go through. We tried another phone. Wouldn’t go through. We spent our first afternoon in Paris just going to public pay phones. I don’t know if it was sad or inspiring. It felt like we were in the Amazing Race but we were getting nowhere.
Finally, we asked our hostel manager, who definitely looked like she was the French version of [the band] 4 Non Blondes—just dreads everywhere, black clothes, black socks, black nails. She was probably a vampire. I’m for sure certain that she wanted to drink my blood. I said, “Can you please help me call Etienne and Pierre?” and she was like, “Cool, let’s do it.” She called them and we got through. It was amazing. It was like we won bingo at Drag Bingo night.
We land in Paris and get to our hostel which, now, I’m realizing why they call them hostels because, you feel hostile, you know?
The boys answered the phone and they were so excited to hear us and we were so excited to hear them. They were like, “Hello, ça va, how was the flight, how are you doing? We cannot wait to see you!”
We were like, “Yeah, dude, the same! Cool! Did you know they don’t have tequila in Paris? But whatever! This red wine is really hot. We have purple lips, let’s hook up!”
They said, “Absolutely, we cannot wait to see you guys. We missed you so much. Meet us in front of the Eiffel Tower tomorrow at 12 p.m.” We were like, “Oh my god, the Eiffel Tower! Is this going to be a rose ceremony?” We couldn’t wait.
The next day, Cynthia and I were so excited to meet Pierre and Etienne at the Eiffel Tower. We wore our best, shortest dresses that we found in the Miami mall. Red lipstick—because nothing says you like a boy than red lipstick on your teeth.
We go to the Eiffel Tower and we wait in front and just look around nervously. For about 30 minutes, and then an hour, and then two hours. We got a little hungry so we went to get a hamburger and come back. We went to McDonald’s because that’s what you do when you’re an American in your 20s in Paris. You go to McDonald’s. I mean, the burgers did taste more French.
We waited some more. Then we got an ice cream cone and came back. After three hours, we went through a whole roller coaster of emotions. These moments were way too real. We were like, “OK, they’re late. That’s really rude.” Then we were like, “Wow, they’re not here. Do you think they’re coming? Oh my god. Do you think they’re coming now?” And then it turned into, “Are they OK? I hope nothing happened because something could have happened to them.”
And it was at that time that Cynthia and I made a little pact: For sure we can’t stop traveling, we’re too good at it.
And then the sun went down and it was nighttime and we had been there all day and we just looked at each other and were like, “I don’t think they’re coming at all.” Like, we’re still wondering if they’re coming. They’re definitely not coming, Michelle and Cynthia!
And so, Cynthia and I decide to go to a bar around the corner from the Eiffel Tower and we got really drunk on red wine. We had purple teeth and purple lips and ended up making out with some other French dudes. And then the next day we tried to call them. Again! And they answer their phone.
Etienne and Pierre are just like, “Oh, we’re so sorry we did not come. Honestly, we did not even plan on coming. We did not know you would come to France. That’s kind of weird. You know, Etienne’s girlfriend is pregnant. And my mother would not let me go to Paris.”
And Cynthia and I just looked at each other like, “Y’all got somebody knocked up? You live with your mom? I thought you had a roommate! The roommate’s your mom?” We looked at each other like, “Did we just pick these dudes that are basically on a French Maury Povich episode? I mean they live on the outskirts of Paris, but we just flew over an ocean and y’all can’t just make it work with a handful of trains?”
Cynthia and I just had a whole come to Jesus moment. This was our Fried Green Tomatoes moment. This was the end of The Color Purple. We looked at each other and we were like, “Wow. We flew across the ocean to try to meet up with losers.” We had to take that in, because yeah, we did that.
And it was at that time that Cynthia and I made a little pact: For sure we can’t stop traveling, we’re too good at it. We’re fun, we’re adventurous, and people wanna give us free drinks. We have to keep going. But we’re going to be better at making decisions. Especially when tipsy.
Never again will we take a trip to meet a boy. OK? We don’t go somewhere to meet a boy. We take a trip and then we meet a boy. Yeah. And we also said that our husbands have to be friends so they can go on trips with us. And you know what? Cynthia and I are both married now and we both have two kids. And our husbands are both white and aloof. And they’re both friendly with each other, so I guess we kinda did it!
I love Paris, I do. I really do. I’ve done stand-up there, I’ve visited France multiple times with my family, and my husband and I have really great memories there. But every time I take that little boat past the Eiffel Tower, I just look at that dumb tower and I’m like, “Mhmm. That’s right. That’s where I got stood up. By skinny boy with a big Adam’s apple.” —as told to Ninna Ganesler-Debs
Michelle Buteau is an actress and comedian (you may have seen her Netflix comedy special Welcome to Buteaupia). She’s also the host of the new Discovery Plus show, Weekend Getaway with Michelle Buteau, a three-episode series about quick trips in America, as well as the author of Survival of the Thickest (Gallery Books, 2020).
Listen to Michelle Buteau’s Travel Tales episode