The regional RER train sat on the track at the Gare du Nord station, stripping the romance out of double-decker transportation. It loomed over me, covered in city soot, and let out a big sigh of dirt. A dramatic, French sigh—if it could have shrugged, it would have. I walked into the carriage, searching for a seat that wasn’t torn or already taken over by French youths eating McDonald’s, or as the French say, McDo. I could not handle that greasy fast-food smell for the next forty-five minutes.
I found a window seat, and an older woman who seemed to have a gentle spirit sat next to me. We politely and quickly said, “Bonjour,” rearranged our belongings so they wouldn’t touch, and settled in for the journey. My tense body sank into the seat back of springs, broken from the daily grind of commuters, living their lives of métro, boulot, dodo—subway, work, sleep.
As the train pulled out, I cocked my head and looked out the window into the never-ending Paris gray. I was no longer in the postcard version of the city, with the enchanting Louvre and the immaculate gardens. Instead, I was surrounded by graffiti-stained walls, electrical wires criss-crossing overhead, and building after building dissolving into a gray, concrete blur. If I closed my eyes, I could at least block out the somber colors outside, if not the noise of the train and the smell of Le Big Mac.
The RER slowly picked up speed. I was headed to the airport for the second time that week. Four days ago, my husband, Philip, and I had returned from the States after visiting for Thanksgiving. We’d only lived in France for three months, and coming back to our new home after the holiday was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. I told everyone back in America, “Yes, things in Paris are great. I love it!” But was I lying to myself? To them? After spending only a few days in New York City, I was reminded how desperately I missed it. I missed after-work drinks with my girlfriends and the energy of the city. I missed being understood while ordering coffee to go and knowing where to find things in the grocery store. And, most of all, I felt sad that even though we’d only been away for a few months, the city was obviously no longer our home.
I lived in Paris, but the problem was that my life was not in Paris yet. After visiting New York, I realized that it was going to take more than a few months for the City of Lights to feel like it was where Philip and I actually belonged. And now our new home, after a beautiful Indian summer, was dark, cold, and rainy—weather that I would soon learn was more typical than not. My mood followed suit. If Paris wanted to be consistently cold and depressing, then so would my disposition.
The reason I was returning to the airport didn’t help my mood either. I needed to recuperate our, or should I say my, lost luggage. Philip’s bag had arrived safe and sound, but mine had not. And I had a sneaking suspicion why.
I had yet to find the leafy green in Paris. Not at a single market or at any grocery store. Farmers and maraîchers who sold a wide variety of vegetables didn’t even seem to know what it was, and after an extensive Internet search, I’d come to the conclusion that kale was nearly impossible to find.
So while I was in New York, stocking up on the vegetable at Whole Foods seemed like a great idea. If I couldn’t find kale in Paris, then I would bring kale to Paris. I reveled in the shopping trip, patting myself on the back for buying bunches of it—grown by my own uncle’s farm no less—to take back with us. I chose several varieties of the cabbage, from curly to lacinato to red Russian, filling the shopping cart with glorious shades of green. The height of foliage rose tall, allowing me to breathe in the earthy scent that was not so familiar anymore. I packed each bunch carefully in Ziploc bags, sealing them tight for the twelve-hour journey. I was already dreaming of the salad I would prepare for our first dinner back in Paris. What could go wrong?
The train slowed, about to arrive at the airport, and my palms began to sweat. I could see Philip, a few days earlier, standing next to the baggage claim conveyor belt, his suitcase next to him. After what felt like an eternity, the belt slowed to a stop.
“You had to pack all that kale, didn’t you?” he asked, trying unsuccessfully to maintain his cool. He had a right to be irritated. Even though he would have enjoyed the soup, salad, and smoothies that were floating around on the menu in my head, he was the fluent French speaker, which meant that he was the one who would have to deal with the airline staff—and the line for lost baggage was not getting any shorter.
A phone call from the airline had triggered this journey back to the airport, and this time the responsibility was all mine, regardless of whether I spoke the language—which I did not. Philip told me it was my “French homework” for the day, but I was in no position to navigate this situation. It wasn’t just the speaking that made me apprehensive; I knew why my bags were stalled and almost a week late, and I still didn’t have my carte de séjour to legally stay in the country. Would a few bags of soggy kale get me kicked out of France?
By the time I reached the airline desk, I was so nervous I could practically smell the incriminating scent of spoiled cabbage. “Oui, Madame Heimann,” the woman said, pronouncing my married name without the H. I handed her the paperwork and boarding pass. She stared at the papers, at me, and back at the papers.
“Ah, oui,” she said, a long, exasperated sigh bubbling at her lips. “There it is,” she pointed to her left, turning up her nose with a look of disgust.
I smiled at her sheepishly, signed a form, and, relieved that nothing worse had happened, quickly rolled my luggage into the main hall. I couldn’t handle the putrid smell for the taxi ride home, so I opened my bag and discarded the soggy leaves and warm kale juice into a nearby garbage can.
I had a serious problem on my hands. Kale was impossible to find in Paris, and we would be living there for the next five years. Could I go that long without my favorite vegetable? Clearly, my smuggling plan was not going to work. There had to be another solution.