Wednesday, March 26, 2008

It's enough to just go and "be"

It occurred to me last night as I talked to my sister about our upcoming trip to Paris and Vienna that I may be a bit spoiled. When I admitted to her that I hadn’t done any reading to prepare for the trip and she responded with a pregnant pause, I said to her “it’s like when you go to New York City, you just go and 'be' there, you don’t even think about it anymore.” And I realized that on this, my fifth trip to Paris, that is exactly what I was planning to do: go, be and enjoy, with the added benefit of seeing Paris through my sister’s eyes. This will be her first trip to the City of Lights. So with that in mind I tried to remember when I was first in Paris and what it was like for me. And this led me to wonder whether she might find it the same or different than I did.

In 1999, my mother and I spent a week in London. For both of us, it was our first trip together and for me, it was my first trip to someplace that was not Ireland or Scotland. So London itself wasn’t much of a stretch for me (Mom had been to Ireland and Scotland years before). Most of the UK and Ireland, at least the city parts of it, are pretty reminiscent of Boston and everyone speaks English and the food is pretty common with maybe a few things with different local naming conventions. So a week in London wasn’t too taxing on our minds. But a day trip to Paris, via the Eurostar train through the Channel Tunnel would be all the jolt that our systems needed to fuel future travel dreams.

We left London on the train and whisked our way to Paris, losing an hour on the way due to the GMT vs CET timezones. We arrived at Gare du Nord and made our way to the metro. Our first metro ride was memorable in that a homeless bum proceeded to urinate on to the floor in front of us all (a half-packed subway car) and then fall back to sleep. Somehow, working in Boston steeled me for things like this, but both of us, I’m sure, wondered if this is what the rest of our day had in store for us.

With only about 8 hours on the ground before our return to London, we had to prioritize our sightseeing. And in that time, we decided to visit the Louvre, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe and Champs Elysees, all of which were clustered somewhat close together, at least in theory. The day was a gloriously warm sunny spring day in March, (especially as compared to dark, damp and ultimately flu-inviting London) and we were blessed to be walking the Champs Elysees and seeing the Arc de Triomphe in all of its blinding white concrete splendor. The brighter the sun, the brighter the Arc shone. As we passed sidewalk cafes and noticed French people with little dogs on their laps, in their handbags and pooping all over the sidewalks (a unique feature that still exists today), we were instantly enamoured. We both had a vision of what Paris was, and here, on one of the most famous commercial and stereotypically Parisian boulevards in the world, we lived out that vision.

It was also here that we found a pressed sandwich that fueled us for the rest of our afternoon. A street vendor used a hot press to grill a long skinny loaf of bread filled with jambon et fromage (ham and cheese) and wrapped it in napkins for us to eat as we walked. We may have managed to find a rare empty spot on a bench and enjoy what was certainly to be one of the best sandwiches we ever had.

Moving on to the Louvre, we navigated our way through the throngs (it was a free Sunday at the Louvre, as I recall, so crowding was worse than usual) to find the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and Winged Victory. Unlike other travelers, we were impressed with all three, not finding Mona disappointing or Venus and Victory over-estimated. Not knowing any better, however, we left the Louvre after seeing the Big Three and not enjoying any of the other masterpieces therein. Time was wasting and we had an itinerary to get to. Getting out of the Louvre was another thing in itself. I recall being cramped into a small elevator with several other people and the doors kept opening on to the same floor. We could not, it seemed, make our way to where we came in using this elevator. My Type A personality and a case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has erased how we eventually exited the museum.

From the Louvre, we walked along the Seine toward Notre Dame, marveling at the outdoor bird and domestic animal markets. How unique and interesting that in the late 90s, people still bought pets (and books, and art, and food) in street markets. We visited Notre Dame and admired it both inside and out (although it is gorgeous, we’d just seen Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, so comparatively speaking it was not the highlight of the day) and headed back to find some dinner before returning to the train.

It was here, along the Seine, heading back toward the Louvre, that I caught my one and only glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. It was only the top half of the structure and it was a silhouette only due to the haze and bright sun, but I saw it off in the distance and right then I knew, I’d be back. How can you not love all this? How can you not admire the height and beauty of the buildings (all significantly lower than the Eiffel Tower), the treasure trove of art, churches, culture, statues, history just sitting here waiting to be seen? It may seem criminal not to have experienced the Eiffel Tower from anything other than miles away, but the day wasn’t long enough and our priorities were otherwise. Oh, we’d be back, next year for sure (and the year after…). We had a case of "je ne c'est quoi" that only complete, weeks-long immersion was going to cure.

We wandered back along the Seine and found what I’m sure is the most touristy restaurant around, where we ordered something French that we recognized immediately on the menu. I have no recollection of what my meal was, but Mom had beef Bourguignon, which she loved.

Other than ordering food (and we took the safe route with instantly recognizable plates) we didn’t suffer much from the language barrier until it came time to buy cookies. We found a bakery across from the Louvre that had cookies sold by weight. My mother picked some out by pointing through the glass case and the cashier told her, in French, what the bill was. I had already headed toward the door, but I heard my mother say, “Just take what you need,” and I looked back to see her holding out all her change for the cashier. I intervened, and we enjoyed some really good butter cookies on the way back to London.

As we made the journey back to England, gaining back our hour lost that morning, we both knew we’d been bitten and were now officially smitten with Paris. I’ve seen it in other people who have made the same one-day journey. It’s as if they’ve cut their European Travel teeth in the UK and take the next logical baby step and then they are head over heels. On future trips we'd eat much better (yes, better than the pressed sandwich), give proper attention to the art, see the hidden gems we'd passed on that one-day journey, take daytrips to the surrounding areas, but we'd never, ever lose the magic that causes that intake of breath like it did when I spotted Le Tour Eiffel off in the distance. For me, it stays magical, but just more familiar with time, like returning to visit an old friend. Reliably the same, reliably beautiful, reliably magical.

So while I’m looking forward to whatever new adventures lie ahead in Paris in three weeks’ time (Auvers, L’Orangerie, etc.), I am more curious to watch my sister and see if she falls in love too. I know Amsterdam will be a hard act to follow and it will always be her first love, but I think it’s safe to say that this is one instance in life where you can indeed fall in love more than once.

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