It’s (finally) spring time, and that makes me think of Paris, which my wife, my daughters, and my folks and I visited a few years ago. Paris was someplace I had imagined for many years; it almost took on a mythological status in my imagination.
Sure, I had seen photos of it, and know people who had been, but I never thought I would actually get to go there: in my mind, going to Paris was almost like visiting Asgard or Shangri-La. I spent my first two days in Paris sort of awestruck, wandering around thinking, Wow, I’m really here. This is real.
Along the way, I learned a few things….
I found good airline food. No, really. Overseas travel is never easy, but our flight to Paris was downright enjoyable.* We flew Air France, and the food was actually really good —chicken in sauce, French bread, tasty veggies, wine—and there was plenty of it. As I leaned back in my chair, watching Sherlock Holmes (the movie was ok) and sipping wine, my stomach full, I thought, Now THIS is the way to travel.
*On the flight back, Ally-Jane got ill, but she quickly recovered once we were on the ground.
Traffic in Paris is for NASCAR wanna-be’s. The first thing I realized when we got to Paris is that there is not enough money on Earth to make me want to drive there. For those of you who have ever driven around Washington DC, picture this: you’re packed in as densely as you are in a traffic jam on the Beltway during rush hour, but everyone is doing like 70 miles an hour. When people want to change lanes, they don’t look or hesitate, they just go: apparently, it’s the obligation of the guy in the other lane to get out of the way.
Paris drivers are not required to stop for pedestrians, only to avoid them by 3 feet—I swear on my children’s lives, I am NOT joking or making this up. If Parisian drivers bump into each other’s cars, or scrape bumpers, they don’t stop and get out, they just keep going: “no harm/no foul,” I guess.
Parisians like motor scooters and motorcycles—they zip them up the painted lines that separate lanes. It’s a little startling when you’re in a car and some dude whizzes by you so close that you could literally put your arm halfway out the window and touch him.
Parisian driving is MUCH different from the “defensive-driving” style that’s taught in the U.S. (and ignored by drivers from Northern Virginia). We didn’t rent a car while we were there, relying on the Metro and the trains. We had a shuttle driver take us to and from the airport, and en route, I comforted myself (somewhat) by thinking, The driver’s a professional who does this every day: he probably won’t get us killed.
Despite what you’ve heard, Parisians are actually quite polite. Parisians have a reputation for being very rude, especially to Americans, but we didn’t experience anything like that. Almost everyone we met and talked to was very nice (there was one subway ticket vendor who wasn’t very helpful, but at least he wasn’t a jerk).
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we tried very hard—with varying degrees of success—to speak French, even when the Parisians would reply in English. In one way, the French are like a lot of Americans: they expect that if you’re in their country, you should at least try to speak their language. They don’t expect you to be very good at it, but they appreciate you making the effort.
Also, it helps to get a book about customs and traditions before you go and study it on the flight over (it’s an 8-hour trip: you have time). In France, you don’t just walk into a store and not say anything to the people working there (at a minimum, you say “Bonjour, monsieur” or “Bonjour, madame”); you never call the waiter “garcon” (despite what you’ve seen in movies); and you don’t smile needlessly (walking around with a big smile on your face for no particular reason marks you as an imbecile).
Parisians do dress well. In contrast to the stereotype about being rude, Parisians really do seem to live up to the image they have of possessing great fashion sense. The women never go out looking frumpy (though they wore a LOT of black–at least, that year): hair, makeup, nails, outfits, everything has to look good, no matter what their age.
I saw a lot of blazers and slacks on men, and even those guys with jeans had them pressed, also with blazers, and with leather shoes : no t-shirts, sneakers, or backwards baseball caps. Almost everyone, men and women, had neck scarves, the “in” European thing, which has made its way over here.
French women really are beautiful. Elaborating on this might get me in trouble with Joni, so let me just make like the Mythbusters team and say, “Confirmed.”
Parisians are very helpful to people with disabilities… Walking for a long time wears out my daughter Ally-Jane and isn’t good on her knees, so we brought her wheelchair most places. The staff at museums would usher us past lines and to service elevators so we didn’t have to deal with stairs; the folks at Versailles let us go “behind the scenes” through rooms and halls that the rest of the public aren’t allowed in.
Even ordinary Parisians, perfect strangers, would take it upon themselves to point out to us easier ways into, out of, or through whatever building we happened to be visiting, which was very helpful, because…
Jusepe de Ribera’s Boy with a Club Foot, believed to be
a portrait of a boy with arthrogryposis,the same condition that Ally-Jane has
…Paris itself is not very accessible. It’s odd to think that Paris is 20 years behind somewhere like Pittsburgh or Baltimore, but apparently, they don’t have the equivalent of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Hence, it can be REALLY difficult to get around Paris if you have a handicap: lots of stairs, not many ramps, very small, out-of-the-way elevators.
In particular, the Paris Metro is a nightmare for people with disabilities, with no elevators that I saw, and lots and LOTS of steep stairs that I had to carry Ally-Jane’s wheelchair up and down. Fortunately for us, she can get out and walk, even if she is tired: what if she couldn’t walk at all? I don’t know how Parisians with disabilities get around the city.
French food really IS that good. Another stereotype that I am happy to confirm. Breakfast at our hotel every day was croissants, baguettes, several type of cheese, jam, coffee and tea—seemingly nothing special, but my, was it filling and tasty. I think the only better bread I’ve ever had was in Germany (though being from Heidelberg, I may be biased).
For lunch and dinner, we had a lot of ham and cheese baguettes (the Parisians eat a LOT of ham): a foot-long (or so) piece of bread, a little bit of butter, a slice (maybe two) of ham, a little bit of cheese.
It doesn’t sound like much, but in this case, less really was more—those baguettes were delicious. If Subway did them, they’d have more meat and more cheese and a veritable salad stuffed between bread you can roll into Silly Putty, and it wouldn’t be a tenth as good.
Going to Paris turned me into a cheese snob: if it says “Kraft,” on it, it isn’t cheese. Cheese is one of Ally-Jane’s favorite foods, so she found paradise in Paris.
I ate a lot of croque monsieurs and croque madames—tremendously good—and had an outstandingly tender and juicy steak at this restaurant down the street from the Louvre. Beth did have some andouillette that didn’t taste that bad, but it was hard to get past that funky odor.
Ironically, one of the best meals we had was at an Italian place not far from the Seine, across from the Eiffel Tower. Go figure.
Joni and Beth quickly got hooked on the taste and the kick of the extra-strong coffee the Parisians have, and we all really liked crepes with melted chocolate inside. Yum!
Now that I’m back, I eat less. Portions are smaller in Paris, but oddly, are more fulfilling. Because the food is so good, you don’t mind that you’re eating less than what you would be served in the States: quality over quantity, you know.
Between the smaller portions and all the walking I did (and carrying Ally-Jane’s wheelchair up and down those frickin’ frackin’ stairs in the Metro), I think I lost weight. One thing I know for sure is that now that I’m back, I don’t eat as much as I did before.
Paris really IS beautiful… Paris is like what Washington D.C. wants to be when it grows up: really wide boulevards, huge museums, monuments everywhere you go, gorgeous architecture, swanky shops, and gold, gold, gold all over the buildings.
I really can’t adequately describe to you how magnificent Paris is: you’ll just have to go see it yourself one day. It’s not hype, it’s truth: Paris really IS the most beautiful city you may ever see.
…but I understand why the Revolution happened. Strolling around some of the sights of Paris, especially Versailles, makes it easy to comprehend why people would get bat[poop] angry and overthrow the king. If I were a starving peasant who got a glimpse of even the outside of Versailles, I’d be slobberknocked over how much money was spent on that place. I can’t even begin to calculate how many millions and millions of dollars in gold, silver, silks, furniture, and paintings Versailles has.
Walking through Versailles was like taking a visit to a whole other world of over-the-top extravagance
And how many people did it take to make all that stuff, prepare all the food for the thousands of nobles who hung out there, keep the place clean, do the laundry, etc? Looking out over the vast grounds, I wondered how they managed back then, in the dark ages BJD (Before John Deere), to keep the grass mowed. It was staggering to think about.
You can’t do Paris in one trip. If you go, your trip will be too short. There is simply too much to see without missing something really cool. We went to the Louvre and the Orsay, but we didn’t get to the Musee de l’Orangerie, or the Musee de l’Armee. We went to Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle and Sacre Coeur, but there were plenty of other cathedrals we could have seen, and we didn’t even get to go inside Sacre Coeur, or up into the famous bell towers of Notre Dame.
We only went past the Opera House and the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, and we didn’t get to the Latin Quarter, the Invalides, the Pantheon, the Catacombs, and the Tuileries Garden. And while it was awesome to go to Versailles, and great fun to go to Parc Asterix, we missed out on Normandy and Chartres.
We really enjoyed visiting Paris: it’s much different from life here in Scenic, Convenient-to-Nowhere Maryland. I hope some day we can go back!