Courtesy Renata Sago

5AM struck the room like lightning. A cell phone alarm squawked a cheesy tune. Its high-pitched notes jabbed at the morning quiet like ice picks, chipping off layer after layer of silence.

Zeal lay in bed shaking her head.

“You’re joking,” she groaned.

“No, suga, I’m not,” the alarm seemed to emit in the form of an A sharp and G flat.

She pulled her blanket over her head and sighed. Another sleepless night had left traces of fatigue in her muscles and dark bags under her eyes. It had left frustration and a yearning for darkness.

For stillness.

The noise got louder.

She patted her sheets, contorting an arm behind her head, then lowering it beside her waist, and then down toward her knees. Fumbling ensued and, seconds later, she pulled a plastic black cell phone from under the sheets. She clasped the convulsive device with the tautness of a strangler, then made a sliding motion across the screen with her index finger. “The snooze button is the best thing that has happened to me today,” she thought.

She nestled herself in the warmth and stillness of a Wednesday morning in a dark room.

Five minutes later, the spirit of rambunctious melody repossessed the device, and pierced the delicate stillness in the room like sharp needles.


She opened her eyes and squinted at the ceiling and surrendered.

“Just remember that I’m the person who charges your battery when it gets low,” she grumbled, sliding her thin finger across the screen.

The noise stopped.

She peeled the thick covers off of her warm skin, exposing herself to the chilly draft leaking from the window. She lifted herself up with the heaviness of a sack of potatoes, dreading another day of train commutes and shouting matches with kids and diaper-changing.

Another day, she thought to herself, taking in a deep breath, then exhaling. She stood still, deep in thought.


Blocks away, prepubescent American students and camera savvy Chinese tourists were unloading planes with their overstuffed suitcases and expectations. They were walking the shiny floors of the airport in varsity sweatpants and fur-trimmed down coats. They were searching for bathrooms, employing their “Excuzay-mwahs” and “pardons” to ask for help. They were dipped in excitement, and the thought was just setting in that they had finally arrived in the place at the top of their bucket lists and on the poster of their walls. They had traveled far to set foot on the shiny floors of Charles de Gaulle, the gateway to a city that would nourish them with its authenticity, tradition, and renewal. Some had saved money for months; others had gotten their parents to write checks. However they had come, they had arrived. And they were ready for another day—one that, for them, wasn’t just another day. It was a new day in a new place.

A day in Paris was a sip from a cup of endless discovery for newcomers. It was 24 hours of orgasmic indulgence of the senses; the aroma of warm baguettes and fresh parfum; the sight of elaborate architecture and alluring gardens; the sound of accordions and water dripping from fountains; the succulence of tagliatelles au saumon and poulet rôti à la mangue; the feeling of a shoulder graze in the middle of the narrow, crowded streets.

A day in Paris was at the top of everyone’s bucket list—from bucktoothed car mechanics in the boondocks of Wisconsin and big-haired pageant moms in Alabama to thin-framed twenty-somethings in tea shops in Brooklyn and high-powered executives in Los Angeles. Paris was a phantasm of fashion, sophistication, and exotic accents that beleaguered the minds of the young and old, the rich and poor, the dreamy and practical. Everyone wanted to spend a day in Paris. And another day in Paris was even more coveted, for it was a chance to do all of that again. And here Zeal was, doing it…again and again.


It all started well before Zeal knew what bucket lists and baguettes were, a time when the only Paris she knew was a cheerleader who dated a guy on the football team. Zeal was a bubbly fifteen year old with big eyes and a small inkling that she would leave Woodlawn someday—for Chattanooga, Tennessee (because the name sounded foreign, she thought) or Smyrna, Georgia (because her grandfather lived there). She didn’t even think about stepping foot in the city of lights—and didn’t know she could even step foot there—until she met Ms. McGulliver.

The white woman pranced her brown-haired, stick-figure-frame into the French classroom of Morgan Park High School with the confidence of a lead dancer stepping onto a stage. She wore a fitted navy blue sweater and a pencil skirt with old lady shoes. “Bonjour,” she said, “Je m’appelle Madame McGulliver.” Like a magician entertaining children, she pulled out a bag of props and began to work her charm. She sprang up and down the rows of our worn wooden desks like a bubbly flight attendant in the aisles of a plane. Her words, a blend of incomprehensible phrases peppered with zés, tsks, and zhas plashed down on us like tiny drops of rain. Zeal and her classmates, a mix of junior high schoolers and freshmen, drowned in the wonder of her foreign tongue.  As the woman engaged them in her world, Zeal sat speechless and starry-eyed, excited about the newness of it all. From that afternoon on, Ms. McGulliver was her tour guide, transporting Zeal from her public school on the South Side of Chicago to the slums of Haiti, to villages in Côte d’Ivoire, and to quartiers of France. Little did Zeal know, she would be doing the same thing for young kids years later. The only difference was that she would find herself at a public school 1,000 miles away from the public schools she had known. She would become the guide of little Black French kids. She would walk up and down the rows of their classrooms, transporting them from an empty suburb called Villeneuve-la-Garenne to urban metropolises like Chicago and New York, San Francisco and Houston. She would become a thin black woman named Ms. Sago, who’d prance into the classroom with the confidence of a peacock.

She’d inspire, she’d engage, she’d challenge—

If only it were as romantic as it sounded. In the past few weeks, she hadn’t even been able to inspire herself to get out of bed without launching a war between the “Why mes?” and “Never agains” and the “Be thankfuls” and “It’ll get betters” on the battlefield of her mind. The Paris of art galleries in Montmartre, wine and cheese soirées, and shopping sprees on the Champs Élysées felt as out of her reach as French citizenship. The Paris she knew was a European landscape of ubiquitous vagabonds and abundant bakeries of cigarette butts and dog poo. It was where privilege and penury flirted in front of tourists, where sacrilege and sacrament coexisted. It was the city of lights and the land of bon chic, bon genre.

It was a smooth concrete and rocky cobblestone jungle that was eating her alive and throwing a piece of baguette every now and then.

And all she could do—hell, all she would do—is collect every piece it threw and relish it with a tall, cheap glass of wine.

La vie est belle.

About the author:

Renata Zahra Sago is a multimedia journalist specializing in global culture and politics. She has contributed to NPR, CBC, and Voice of America. Currently, she reports for 90.7 News in central Florida. She speaks French, Spanish, and is fluent in the South Side of Chicago.

Renata is excited to be part of The TRiiBE family.

See more from her at:


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