When I left Los Angeles for a month-long trip to Paris last summer, I expected to study art and French at the Sorbonne. Instead, I got an inspiring African surprise.
My first stop on the metro as I introduced myself to the City of Lights was the massive Lourve museum to find the Mona Lisa or La Jaconde as she is referred to.
After a trek beneath the glass pyramids, I found her, making my acquaintance with her wicked smile. I began to cry. Standing in the midst of a crush of people from all over the world, tears were streaming down my face in front of Mona.
Tears, because that morning I had decided I would not be defeated by a confusing subway system and skillfully negotiated the metro to find the Lourve and I finally did.
In that tearful moment, I realized that I could do anything. And so it was. I plunged into the sights, sounds, and cultural masterpieces of the city of lights.
As I traveled confidently, I was startled by the revelation that art in Paris is not necessarily the graceful masterpieces and monuments that dot the metropolis. It is also in the canvas of faces and bodies in grand boubous in the African quarter of Chateau Rouge.
Parisian art was also not necessarily just the flawless French of my Sorbonne professors, but in the graceful notes of the brothers and sisters who walked by on the Champs Elysees.
I was surprised to learn that Paris has one of the largest African populations in Europe. With a je mapelle Kymberly et je suis americaine [translation: My name is Kymberly and I am an American], to the brothers and sisters, the invisible barriers were shattered. And I entered into Africa in Paris.
Symphonies began to play, as Bambara, Mossi, Dioula, Baoule, Kongo, Gourmantche and Wolof words fell from their lips, much more melodious than any opera I could have gone to.
One evening while strolling through the predominately African neighborhood called Goutte dOr ["drop of gold"], in the 18th arrondisment, I passed an open door with an unassuming facade.
I was awestruck by the ornate interior of a mosque on rue Polonceau and stood mesmerized as worshippers were called to prayer.
Eating out, a Parisian pastime for me now meant voyages to the continent. I put aside the foie gras and escargot for ndole Massai at the Massai Mari restaurant-cum-art gallery in the Marais, a place where Kenyan and Tanzanian dishes abound. Sumptuous yassa from the Dogon and thiebou dien from petit Dakar are available for those with a taste of West African cuisine.
Shopping at the markets, I discovered, became a treat. The markets had a vivid array of produce, fish, exotic condiments, and the fabrics, particularly the popular "Dutch Wax" textiles, seduced me. Cameroonian and Nigerian fabrics were particularly appealing, with whimsical names like "My husband is able" and "My husband goes out, I go out."
Tiny music shops like the one on Barbes boulevard that blared the latest hits by Papa Wemba and Kofi Olomide, or Senegalese Mbalax, called for instantly grabbing a partner for a spontaneous quasa quasa dance in the middle of the store.
An African American teacher Dr. John Henrik Clarke once said, "when you look in the mirror, if you don't see God, keep on standing there until you do." I love Paris because in so many faces I was looking in the mirror. I kept seeing my beauty and kept hearing my music and languages that I did not even know were mine. I was enraptured by the art and language of a Paris I never knew existed.
To find out more about some of the establishments mentioned in this travelogue:
Massai Mari: 66 rue Aramand Carrel- 75019, Metro, Jaures Tel.: 01 42 08 00 65www.massaimara.com
Petit Dakar: 6 rue Elzevir- 75003 Metro, Saint Paul Tel.: 01 44 59 34 74www.csao.fr