Reflections on Paris

Funny, we’ve been back from Paris not quite a week yet, and I can’t seem to get this smile off my face. Nor can I shake this feeling of relaxed contentment. I have to admit that the week or so we spent in Paris was one of the most incredible weeks I’ve ever had in a number of ways. I’ve always found that traveling was a great way to clear my head. To shake the cobwebs from the everyday things that seemed important or critical or necessary and really sort out what is important to me.

I haven’t truly been out of North America in six years and that, I’ve learned, was about five years too long. The last time I was in Europe in 1999, Bill Clinton was president. We were all wondering if planes were going to fall out of the sky at midnight on January 1st, 2000. We were off by a little less than two years. It was a time that even though one of our Air Force planes had clipped a gondola full of Italian skiers and caused them to fall to their deaths and our government had just recently cleared the pilots from any negilgence, much to the Italians ire, Americans were pretty much considered okay by the rest of the world.

Times have changed. I’ll admit I did consider buying the Canadian camouflage kit that consists of lots of red Maple leaf patches, T-shirts and hats to help ashamed Americans travel incognito abroad. I think one of the reasons that a trip to France was so appealing at the moment was simply because the French have endured a completely undeserved ridiculing by Americans who should know better. Just because they didn’t want to play in our Iraqi reindeer games. Freedom fries. Surrender Monkeys. How embarrassing.

We were very quick to remind the French that we helped show their German occupiers the door back in ’45. We reminded them about that a lot. But what we failed to remind ourselves in our frat-boy-like state of teasing is that way back during the Revolutionary War, it was the French who gave us the cash and hardware that it took to fight off the British Redcoats and start this country that we’ve been so blindly patriotic about during the current administration.

Okay, enough of a rant. I’m really in much too good a place right now to get myself worked up over politics at the moment.

Traveling to France always comes with the caveat from well meaning but ill informed people of, “You know they hate Americans there, or at least anything that isn’t French.” Before this most recent trip, the only time I had set foot in Paris was back in ’94 or ’95 when I spent an all too brief day there on my way back from Greece. I showed up dressed like an American speaking only English in the middle of the night. I managed to take a bus from Charles de Gaul to the Paris Opera where I sat on the historic steps for a few minutes without a map trying to figure out what I should do. I didn’t get much help from the people passing by, but it was my own fault. If you were walking down Michigan Avenue and you saw an under dressed person sitting on the steps of the Art Institute speaking to you in Dutch at 1am would you stop to figure out how to help them? Not many of us would I think.

Eleven years later I returned with Morgan, dressed properly, and with enough French vocabulary to interact with the Parisians in a polite manner. The difference was day and night. You get back what you put out there and Paris proved that theory of mine again and again. Paris is perhaps the most beautiful city in the world. The people who live there are rightly proud of it. If visitors from the US have a bad time there, they have only themselves to blame.

Morgan and I spent days walking the 17th century cobblestone streets, winding alleys, glorious gardens and parks. We took our time and stopped often to enjoy a park bench for a half an hour or watch the people pass at one of the dozens of cafés that we frequented. AS the week went on, our French got good enough to completely abandon English when we were speaking with the locals. That was quite a victory for both of us. One of my favorite moments was when Morgan and I were walking past one of the small shops where I would buy fruit and cheese and having the owner yell a big “Bonjour!” across the street when he recognized me. It felt like home somehow.

Did we go to the Louvre? Yes… but we didn’t go inside. Did we see the Pompidou? Yes… but we only went as far in as the W.C. (the Water Closet for you non-European types). The fountain art was amazing enough for us in the square outside as we relaxed in the sun and people-watched. I think we really never wanted to be far from the life on the street. We’ll go into the Louvre next time, we would say. Put the boat ride down the River Seine on the list for next time as well.

It’s not that we didn’t explore any Parisian interiors. We climbed the 300 narrow, winding, winding, winding, dark stairs to the top of the dome of Sacre-Coeur. The reward of an unreal sky full of clouds that looked like they were painted over the beautiful city below and rays of sunlight surrounding the Eiffel Tower was more than we could have imagined, and certainly more than I can describe in words here. Hopefully the pictures will do it justice.

As we were enjoying the near solitude and quiet of the dome at Sacre-Coeur, we could hear English heading toward us, getting louder and louder. It could only be Americans we both thought. Sure enough. Nice people, but as they counted off their long checklist of Parisian sites they had seen that day or were going to see, we realized that we really had managed to successfully stop and smell the roses. In less than a minute, they were gone and we had the beauty of a quiet summer day in Paris below us to consider once again. And we sat in silence on one of the stone benches and thought how lucky we were to be there.

One night we decided to do the single most touristy thing in Paris and that was to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower. After walking around a city with beautiful stone buildings and intricate marble architecture, the iron work of the tower was stunning in a completely different way. Bathed in the golden glow of light, it is impossible not to stop and look up at it whenever you see it poking through a space between two buildings or over the tree tops.

The night we chose was near the end of our visit and we agreed it was better that was because we could see everywhere we had been during the week. At the ticket booth at the base, you can decide if you want to do up to the top or stop about half way up at one of the middle levels. The sign said it was a 30 minute wait to go up to the top, but really, how many years had we been waiting to see Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower? 30 minutes seemed like nothing. However, that logic didn’t seem to matter to another group of American girls who after waiting in line for 20 minutes to get to the ticket booth decided that 30 more minutes was just more than they could muster and they got out of line. Has everyone who speaks English forgotten how to stop and smell the roses?!

In no time, Morgan and I were at the top, looking down on the glittering city with our own eyes, the warm breeze reminding us that we were indeed on the top of this amazing icon of all that is Paris. We may have stayed up there for two hours walking from side to side, taking more pictures, talking and not talking, just soaking it all in. It was beautiful.

More on Paris… soon.

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