My father always told me that wine wasn’t meant to be enjoyed alone. As I stood on the Paris métro, bottle in hand, I’d tilt my head back and take a gleeful swig - clearly not understanding what his words wanted of me.
My first corkscrew was a sommelier, slim with a wooden handle stained dark walnut, almost black. I bought it on a whim as I wandered the streets by my hostel, having arrived too early to check in.
Every day at lunch I’d sit on a park bench with a fresh baguette, cheese from a local fromagerie, and a bottle of wine. After laying everything out around me, I’d take the out the corkscrew and press it into the mottled cork.
A simple four twists, and pull.
There, next to the small gated entryway patinated green by time, I’d listen to the snippets of conversation that floated my way. The lilting undulations of a father and child and the chatter of women reliving their youth through afternoon gossip. Sometimes I'd watch parents stare down at their phone while their child sits alone on a swing, gently swaying their legs back and forth.
Back and forth.
I flip open my book and begin to read, tucking my corkscrew back into my jacket pocket.
It's strange to say that I grew attached, but being alone in a foreign country I found a sort of dogged reliability in our routine. Unfortunately one day on my visit to the Saint Chapelle, my corkscrew showed up on the security's x-ray machine and was confiscated by a guard under the pretense of it being a weapon. After leaving, I immediately bought another one: cheap and plastic with another black handle - just something to get the job done. As I toured the 14th arrondissement, I stopped outside the Montparnasse Tower where I saw another security guard sitting behind an x-ray machine. Not wanting a repeat of the Saint Chapelle incident, I turned and found a small bench next to some sidewalk planters. There, I hid the corkscrew under the inner ledge of a small planter, burying it under a little mound of soil.
Sixty floors above the ground, I watched the Eiffel Tower shimmer on the hour while I stood with my tripod leaned against the glass barrier separating me and the night. A winter breeze buffeted me and blurred my photos ever so slightly. Sixty floors below, as I walked out of the building, I saw a couple sitting by where I hid the corkscrew. As they gazed into each others’ eyes, I made a beeline toward them. They both turned to look at me with apprehension and without a word I reached behind them and pulled out the corkscrew, trying my hardest to keep a straight face as their expressions turned to bewilderment, and they felt around for perhaps another hidden treasure.
I put it to heavy use that night, and as I stepped off the last evening métro with a bottle in hand, I can only imagine the looks directed my way, veiled behind dusty rectangular windows.
My last night in Paris, I had my first understanding of my father’s words. Under a streetlamp on one of Paris's many bridges, I met up with an old friend and we shared a bottle of wine. She brought out a pack of cigarettes - long and slender, colored darkly at one end. I’d never seen a cigarette so thin before.
She had moved from the United States to Paris during university, and we talked about acceptance in foreign environments - for her a new country and for me a new school. We reminisced over our high school memories, all the while choking down gulps of my wine - sickly sweet and completely inappropriate for the occasion. But there I was, sharing wine for the first time with a friend.
The next day I left for Colmar, a small town on the border of France and Germany. With the abundance of Christmas markets, mulled wine, and Italian sodas, my corkscrew rarely made an appearance. After exploring the micro-nation of San Marino, I took a train and sometime after dark, stumbled down a set of dimly-lit roads to a small hostel next to the Mediterranean. It was Christmas Eve, and I was five thousand miles away from my family in Nice, Cote d’Azur.
I spent the next few days walking along Les Promanade des Anglais, watching the waves of the Mediterranean caress the coarse pebbled beaches. Occasionally I'd stop to sit on one of the blue metal benches sprinkled every hundred-meters or so. I wove through light mortar and pastel colors of the old town, and took a peek at old remains of roman establishments.
One day as I sat on another blue metal bench facing the Mediterranean, a street performer began playing a melody on a soprano saxophone. With the sun shining down and the bustle of people gossiping in French around me, I found that for the first time in nearly a month I felt at peace.
I gave that performer all the change I had on me.
When I returned to the hostel I heard noises coming from the kitchen. Someone was opening and closing all the drawers, only to open and close them all over again in a cacophonous symphony of kitchen utensils. Their friend from the other room was asking for a corkscrew and overhearing, I lent him mine.
Four twists, and pull.
It was through that bottle of cheap merlot that I began talking to him and his noisy kitchen friend. It turns out that they were from my hometown - a small city called Sunnyvale about an hour south of San Francisco. They had just moved there for work and somehow we just happened to be at the same hostel at the same time, five thousand miles away from home.
Later that night, I scolded a traveler in the adjacent room for practically screaming on her phone. She quickly apologized. Then she introduced me to her family whom she was facetiming, as well as their dog Rugby which they had nicknamed "dog-face." It wasn’t until the next morning that I learned of her childhood encounter with cancer that left her near-deaf, which explained her loudness. She and her husband were doctors in anesthesiology and they shared the same calming demeanor. I later learned that they chose this path because as children they underwent many surgeries and the other anesthesiologists would not help comfort surgery patients, which prompted them to want to change this.
On Christmas Day, we all sat together and pooled our bottles of wine and made drinking games out of old Christmas movies. Before this trip, I thought it bizarre that my father would tell me, wine is not meant for drinking alone. That night, after having spent most of Paris drinking bottles of wine while walking, I finally realized what he meant.
This was how I met David, a traveler that had quit a stable job in Seoul to work in France. He became a life coach and was teaching himself French to find better work opportunities.
Helga, who had a watch with only the world map on its face; she was an economics major who played Quidditch for Norway, and had written her thesis on the rationale and repercussions of the black market of baby diapers.
There was a girl who had been traveling for 6 months so far, slowly photographing libraries from around the world, as well as someone else who moved from Michigan to Spain to teach English.
This was also how I heard first-hand accounts of the Flint Water crisis in Michigan, as well as stories of courtrooms and police brutality; people would come to court with their entire families, only to be sentenced to years in jail for smoking a blunt in the passenger seat of a car. I heard of a friend who was an amazing athlete and equally gifted in class, but her parents ostracized her for her sexual orientation and she began spending time with a different sort of crowd and eventually succumbed to heroin. We talked about the divide between treating addiction as a felony or a mental-health issue, and how those in charge of legislature were sitting on gilded thrones.
For someone who grew up in a sheltered neighborhood in the Silicon Valley, these conversations offered me a glimpse into the real world where police won't let you off with just a warning for drinking in a park, and your parents' love is conditional.
If the currency for travel is in stories, then the key to this wealth is a corkscrew.
Perhaps that was what my father was telling me.
Days later, after arriving back in Paris I got ready to take the métro to Charles de Gualle airport. Before taking the final escalator that would lead me back to my life, I walked along a small alley just outside the station. TSA doesn't allow corkscrews, but with everything that I had experienced I simply couldn't just part ways. As a symbolic final gesture, I wrapped the corkscrew in a plastic zip-lock bag and buried it under the grille of a street-side tree. After screenshotting the location on Google Maps, I turned and walked down the flight of stairs to the métro.
I hope that I can come back years later to find it. But in the meantime whenever I travel, the first thing I do is buy a corkscrew.