We’re in the middle of planning our next getaway, which means two things. There’s not a lot a lot of time to write something new and I started reminiscing about one of our biggest trips. This essay was written a couple of years ago and the trip took place just over six years ago. It was an amazing trip which took me four years to write about.
Our next journey will be through Germany and the Czech Republic. I plan on taking notes along the way. I should mention that as hard as I tried, both languages (German and Czech) are totally lost on me, so I also plan on doing a lot of miming.
A few years ago, my wife and I went to Paris for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and I’ve hesitated to write about this trip for several reasons.
1. Paris? Are you some kind of liberal, America hater?
2. Paris? Don’t they hate Americans?
3. Paris? The one in France or the one in Texas, because the one in France is in France and … well, you know … France.
Well, the simple truth is that Mrs. G. and I love to travel, and we arranged and saved for this trip for quite a while. This was one of those bucket list destinations that was finally going into the bucket, so with our passports up to date and our finances in order, we got on a plane (several of them, actually) and eventually pointed ourselves towards the Charles de Gaulle International Airport.
The first thing that popped into my head after a few hours in the air was: Are we there yet? No, really … are we freaking there yet? The New York to Paris flight certainly isn’t the longest flight in the sky but we actually saw the sun set and then rise again while seated in a jetliner. When we finally landed in Paris twenty-something hours after we left, I was ready to kiss the ground, which no doubt tasted like soufflé.
My first impression of France was the airport, where I expected a modern, glassy vista with comely French women offering us hot towels and croissants. What we got instead was a crowded, dumpy airport with long lines, directions that were Scotch taped to the walls and the same portable partitions they have in a high school guidance office. The whole thing made the tiny Rochester, New York airport look like something out of the Buck Rogers future.
The thing that I didn’t immediately consider was that Europe is old, and aside from a handful of buildings, it is really old. They don’t use a building for fifty years and then tear it down and build a new one. Europe is the equivalent of your son wearing your grandfather’s pants because they have enough thread-count to still be called pants. Once everything was put into this perspective, things became charming rather than old.
Over the course of the summer leading up to our trip, I tried to learn enough serviceable French by listening to a language program on an iPod while cutting the lawn. That was several hours each week of nothing but simple French that, as far as I could tell, any French three-year old was capable of doing. My wife speaks passable German, but that wouldn’t help us much unless she wanted to bark out commands for large crowds to throw up their hands and surrender, so I thought I’d give it a shot.
My adept command of the French language came in handy when we finally made our way out of the airport, or the port de aeroplane building (See? That’s some good French) to the cab for the ride to our hotel.
“Um, bonjour mousier. Ey … lecteur de … hotel Concorde Saint-Lazare, s’il vous plait?”
At least this is what I thought I said, but it actually came out more like, “Bon Jovi, mouse catcher. Corduroy the lazy saint, viewing the houseplant?” The cab driver looked at me as if I should be wearing a bib.
Luckily, my wife had written both the name and address of the hotel on a piece of paper and showed it to the cab driver, who then drove us directly to the hotel. This differed greatly from any New York City cab driver would not only be unable to speak English, but would take you to your hotel by way of Pennsylvania and leave you smelling like a combination of incense, deep fried goat and some kind of fruit. I was still trying to come to terms with euros, so I paid the cab fare and probably handed our driver a tip that was large enough to use as a down payment on a Renault.
The hotel was nice and in a pleasant area, which was lucky because we picked it out of a hat. It was built in 1889 and was within walking distance of stores, coffee shops and bakeries. This isn’t saying much because everything in Paris is within walking distance of stores, coffee shops and bakeries. French people have coffee shops and bakeries in their linen closets. Suffice it to say that if you don’t enjoy robust coffee and pastries, you should probably avoid a country synonymous with baked goods.
Our room was on the seventh floor, and had a postcard view of the street below. It was great being on the top floor and as it turned out, we would take the winding stairs up and down the entire time we were there simply because the ornate wrought iron railings were so pretty.
The dormer windows in both the bedroom area and the bathroom opened outward on hinges, and if we looked to the right over the steeply angled slate roof, we could see the Eiffel Tower. We squared away our luggage, stared at each other for a second, and then took off to figure out the city.
This is our usual modus operandi when we travel, and just because this was in a foreign country, that didn’t change. We were fueled by excitement, but it didn’t take long for the lack of sleep to catch up with us. Still, we got on the subway and went to see la Tour Eiffel. It was late, it was dark, we had no idea how the subway system worked and we were dog tired, but we only had a week and neither one of us wanted to miss anything. FYI—while most people in France speak at least some English, all of their signage is in French, including subway stops, subway maps and anything having anything at all to do with directions. After our initial misstep in going down the wrong stairs at the Metro (which would have taken us in the opposite direction of where we needed to go) we figured it out.
The Eiffel Tower was originally built for the 1889 World’s Fair with the intention of tearing it down afterwards. At the time, the French thought it was a monstrosity, and if you use your imagination, it’s easy to envision it pulling its legs up and out of the ground and lumbering across the countryside. If one asks a contemporary Frenchman what he thinks of it, he will simply mumble something indiscernible, adjust his scarf and take a bite out of a bichon au citron. Unfettered by his seeming lack of indifference, I would thank him for his time and try not to let him know that his tower looked exactly like one of those electrical towers that dot rural highways all across America.
My first reaction when I saw the Eiffel Tower from the street was the same as when I first saw the Empire State Building or Niagara Falls. It’s iconic, so that was very cool to see, and I tried to decide if I was impressed because of the design or because this was such a symbolic structure. Points were scored because it was otherwise pitch dark, and the tower was lit up like a ten thousand ton iron Christmas tree.
We walked down the long flight of worn stone steps that led to the base of the tower, past guys who were juggling flaming torches, past vendors who were selling the usual collection of souvenirs, and past a handful of other street performers. It was the same group of people that gather around the National Mall in Washington or in any tourist attraction in any major city. Everybody minded their own business and was clearly enjoying the surroundings.
At eighty-one stories tall, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest structure in the world from 1889 until 1930, but it is now dwarfed by dozens of taller structures. You could just about stand one Eiffel Tower on top of another, on top of another and put them inside the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Conversely, the tallest building in Rochester, New York is the Xerox tower, and you could stack about three of those inside the Eiffel Tower, so it’s still pretty darned tall.
When I view something like this, especially something that was engineered and built before computers and most hydraulic construction equipment, I’m simply amazed. I’m further amazed that it’s still standing in spite of a pair of pretty aggressive world wars and the elements of nature. This is an iron structure and considering that France still can’t build a car that will go fifty miles without some sort of mechanical failure, this was quite an accomplishment. We hung around for a bit, took some pictures and then made our way back to the hotel. It was well after midnight.
The next morning, we discovered that French people don’t eat eggs and bacon for breakfast, or even cereal for that matter. They eat fruit, cheese, jam and bread. It didn’t take long to fall into this diet, and I was amazed at how quickly a wheel of Brie the size of a large pizza vanished from the buffet table. I have to admit that with a strong cup of coffee, it was a very satisfying breakfast.
Once we finished and went outside, we soon recognized that the narrow streets were jammed with cars that were tiny enough to tuck under your arm. The traffic was horrendous, so most people used some sort of public transportation—subway, bus or train—or they simply bicycled or walked. There didn’t appear to be an obesity epidemic in spite of a daily cheese consumption that is probably measured in poundage. Everybody was moving, which is not unlike any modern metropolitan area.
Mopeds were everywhere. Businessmen in suits, young people and women in dresses rode these swoopy scooters. I thought it was hysterical to see business people dressed in expensive clothes covered from the waist down with a snap-on canvas skirting that enveloped their legs. This removable cowling protected them from getting dirty, but it looked like a fancy Snuggie.
They also had a system of bicycle rentals that looked extremely efficient. One could subscribe to this service and be issued a key card. This key card would allow you to unlock one of a series of identical bikes that were locked up in special racks all over the city. You’d ride one of these bikes to work, park it in the special rack, lock it, and somebody else would then ride it to the store and repeat the process. This bike co-op worked out fine and we saw people on these gold colored bikes weaving in and out all over the place.
The Metro system includes trains, subways and buses and a daily, weekly, monthly or annual fee gets you on any one of them as often as you like. We opted for a three-day pass that took us all over France. This came in handy when our tour group left without us while we were wandering around the gardens at Versailles. Without much effort and only a basic understanding of the language, we combined a train, bus and subway to get back to the front door of the tour company that stranded us, where I promptly beat the tour manager into a whimpering heap with a crusty baguette.
There are two things that every city has that are usually their crown jewels. I don’t care if it’s in Arkansas or Paris or Rochester, New York. Those two things are museums and zoos, and if you’re going to Paris, you aren’t going for the zoos.
We opted for museums and went to the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Musée de L’Armee and the Pantheon. The Van Gogh Museum was also squeezed in there someplace. Now I know what many of you are thinking—museums equal boredom, but there was way too much history and artwork for boredom to even have a chance. I could have spent days in any one of them, but the Musée de L’Armee, with the detailed accounting of not one, but two world wars was both sobering and fascinating. Of the art museums, the Musée d’Orsay, which was built in an old train station, was amazing both for the collection of artwork and the detail of the building restoration. Next to the Notre Dame Cathedral, it was the most beautiful example of architecture I have ever seen.
OK, French food. I don’t know because I didn’t eat any. I mean, I ate food in France, but that was just a technicality. We ate food that we could have gotten at just about any restaurant in the States, only prepared with a little more flair and with better wine. I’m sure we could have found some amazing gourmet food someplace, but that wasn’t our intention. More often than not, we just grabbed something on the run or ate in a café, although we did end each night with a glass of Moët in the hotel bar.
On our second day there, we stumbled into a boulangeries that was across from our hotel where we ordered a traditional French sandwich called a jambon beurre.
This is simply ham with butter on a baguette. It sounds awful, but it was incredible. I think I had one every day. Several days later, my wife would try a croque monsieur at a café, with tables that were mere inches from traffic. This is a ham sandwich, buried under a lava flow of melted cheese with a sunny side up fried egg perched on top of the whole mess. She picked at the crust a bit but couldn’t get past the tiny school bus yellow yolk that was staring up at her.
The rest of our trip was filled with a slide show of history and fun. Notre Dame is simply amazing for its beauty and its rich history. The multi-layered enormity of Napoleon’s tomb seems shocking when compared to his itty-bitty hat and boots that are also on display. The Mona Lisa is smaller than I expected, the Winged Victory of Samothrace is larger and the Venus de Milo is still missing her arms.
As our week in France was ending, we never did make it to Normandy. I wanted to go there because I had an uncle who fought there as a teenager and was wounded on those shores, but it was just too far away. We went over to see Paris, but both of us had had enough of the city after a few days. If we ever get back, our destination will be more rural than urban.
I don’t know where we’ll go next. France and Alaska were on our travel bucket list and both of those have been checked off. A dozen or so years ago, when we were planning a family trip, I was pulling hard for Iceland while my wife and daughter wanted to go someplace tropical. I was outnumbered for that round, but it’s still on my list of places I want to see, along with Ireland, Bali, Greece, Italy, Seattle, England, Texas, the Grand Canyon and oh yeah—the cross country train ride trough the Canadian Yukon territory sounds awesome, and Boston (again) and Maine in the fall and, well, it’s a long list. I have a great traveling companion in Mrs. G. and if we can just figure out how not to get lost, we’ll be OK, but then again—sometimes getting lost is half of the adventure.
©Rick Garvia 2013. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited.