Back during my final semester of college, I was living in Paris with a host family. Within the first month of being there, one of their daughters, Mathilde, asked me if I’d join her and her friends for dinner. Elated that I’d be included in a real French gathering, I accepted.
She said everyone would be coming from work, so I shouldn’t dress up too much. But there would be about 15 people at dinner. I thought, “where could you go with 15 people for dinner?” In any case, I figured it would be fun and I’d make a bunch of new friends.
Little did I know, that dinner would initiate a chain of unexpected events and subsequently change the course of my life.
I was so surprised when we got to the restaurant, El Pueblo, in the 9th Arrondisement. Being from California it felt oddly familiar. It was Mexican food!
And like many Mexican restaurants catering to the tastes of a foreign patronage – it was pretty over the top. Reams of colored paper hung from the ceiling, large, highlighter-pink margaritas adorned the tables, sombreros were pinned to the walls and Mexican music blasted from the speakers.
As soon as we walked in, Mathilde and I joined the long, cafeteria-style table where everyone was already seated. Mathilde introduced me saying, “this is my new American, Kate.” And then she went around the table introducing each person, shouting over the music: Marie-Celine, Caroline, Anis, David, Sami, Wissem, Clemence, Amel, and on the list went.
I smiled and waved as that was the only thing I could think to do. And I swiftly ordered my own highlighter-pink margarita to help my French. I figured, at some point, I’d try to strike up some primitive conversation with my immediate neighbors.
I ordered chicken tacos with rice and beans. And as I had my first bites, it struck me that I’d never had such flavorless tacos in my life. And the hot sauce was anything but hot. You see, French cooking is not spicy – buttery and delicious, yes, but not spicy.
As I was trying to explain to my neighbor, Marie Celine, that the food was very inauthentic, something caught my attention. The music had stopped and lights came on, illuminating a dance floor. And it appeared people were crowding around to take a salsa dancing class.
Craning my neck from my seat at the table, I watched as the teacher had everyone pair up. He began to walk them through the basic steps. I’d never danced salsa before and I thought, “this would be a great time to learn. Salsa dancing in a Mexican restaurant in Paris? Makes perfect sense.”
So I let my wishes be known to Mathilde. She laughed at me. And she said, if you want to learn salsa you have to talk to Sami. She pointed down the table. And I saw a young guy with a shaved head, dark eyes and big, goofy smile.
Mathilde summoned Sami over and we got to talking. He said that he would love to take me out dancing that very next night. And I agreed.
So that Saturday, I met him at 8pm at La Coupole, a night club in the 14th Arrondisment and underneath a famous restaurant of the same name. I found Sami waiting in line in front of the club. And as we kissed on either cheek hello, I realized I wasn’t sure if he thought we were on a date.
Once past the bouncer and coat check, we entered the main dance room that was packed with people of all backgrounds, it seemed. And we arrived just in time because up on stage the teacher was about to begin a salsa lesson.
But it soon became not so basic with turns and shimmies and shuffles. And then we had to partner up. I think I stepped on Sami’s toes maybe ten times before the instructor shouted out for us to find a new partner and practice with them.
I had fun. But the honest truth is that I was terrible at it. And it seemed everyone else was so good at picking up the steps and moving to the music. It was overwhelming and that night was the last night I danced salsa in Paris for a long time.
Once that semester was over, so was school. I’d graduated. And I moved home and got a job. I became an assistant at a television production company where most of my day was spent sitting at a desk, answering phones, filing, photocopying and making copies of dvds. This was the first rung to moving up the ladder in the entertainment business.
Needless to say, I was going stir crazy. I thought, “This is torture!” And I was fantasizing about going back to Paris.
One day, I was reminiscing about that night dancing with Sami. I emailed him just to say hi and reconnect. He had become one of my dearest friends in Paris. And then I thought, why don’t I try salsa dancing here in LA?
So, that’s what I did at a dance studio in Hollywood every Saturday.
The lessons were very basic and everyone in class was kind and helpful. They became my friends. And soon I found out about other dance schools and clubs around town.
It wasn’t long before I was going out to salsa clubs throughout Los Angeles 4 to 5 nights a week. I was addicted. And so was everybody else, it seemed.
Through salsa, I found this whole new community of people in my hometown that would never have been a part of my life otherwise. And when I would invite my family and non-salsa friends, people were resistant to join me. They generally felt like they would be intimidated and uncomfortable.
And I realized, they are probably not the only people that don’t know anything about the LA salsa scene and the warm community of people that make it up.
That inspired me to make a short documentary about it.
I majored in film during college and had produced scripted shorts before. But I’d never made a documentary. And as it turned out, I loved the experience of it. I ended up selling the film I made to Current TV. And buoyed by that success, I applied to journalism school in New York to follow this new career path.
A few years later I graduated from NYU journalism and then worked in video production for AOL and the Huffington Post. I went back to Paris to shoot a travel series that will be appearing soon on this site. And I am pursuing my career as an on-camera travel host, expert and journalist.
If it wasn’t for that semester abroad in Paris, that invitation from my host sister, that bad Mexican food restaurant and, of course, Sami, I would not be doing what I am doing today.
It is crazy how life is. It seems everything that happens to us has roots in something else we experienced. That is why I think it is so important to pursue exciting adventures, explore new communities and learn new things. Because if you break out of your shell, you might get a little shell shock at first, but you will find interests you never even knew you had.
To that end, travel is one of the most life changing experiences you can have. I don’t believe that a trip is just a trip, an isolated experience or a frivolous use of time and money. Your journeys outside your own immediate world can create new and unexpected avenues in your life like nothing else.
So, I encourage you to get out there and travel. And see what new hobbies you acquire, career paths that inspire you or perspectives that enhance your state of mind. But be patient, big life changes often don’t happen over night!
By the way, I hear the Mexican place closed. But La Coupole is still going strong.