Dirty Old Men Make Questionable Tour Guides
We arrived in Paris anxious to see the “city of lights.” It was like any other metropolis (i.e., heavily congested, dirty), but as picturesque as I imagined. And given the city’s romantic reputation, it wasn’t much of a coincidence that the previously barely begun twosomes amongst our ranks were now a more regular sight, including the obligatory and more evident PDA that solidified their status as our “official couples.”
Our hotel was nestled somewhere north of the Seine and relatively close to the Bastille, conveniently centering us relative to the major landmarks. In retrospect, I didn’t appreciate how nice a perk that was given the sheer size of the city until I re-experienced it again in October 2011. The hotel manager was an ill-tempered Parisian who seemed perpetually in need of a shower and made no secret of his distaste for American teenagers. He routinely scolded us for no apparent good reason, though with the hindsight and benefit of age and maturity, I’m absolutely certain we said or did something then that deserved his (probably intentional) murder-of-the-English-language wrath.
Our bus driver was the same since we arrived on the continent, and a few broken-English chats with him confirmed that he shared little affection for teenagers (American or otherwise). He also shamelessly and repeatedly hit on one of the teacher leaders, who blew off his quasi-romantic overtures as “typical European men.” The driver offered an eagerly-accepted and unscheduled night-time bus tour of Paris. This included sites on the next day’s itinerary (e.g., Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower) and a few not on it (e.g., Conciergerie), offering us some “okay” night shots (if only digital cameras were around then). The tour ended with his “shortcut” back to the hotel…through one of Paris’ red light districts. I don’t know if he was attempting a strangely misguided/innuendo-laced go at enticing his would-be conquest, or irritating her for snubbing him by giving teenagers a peek at Paris’ not-so-family-friendly attractions.
The last pic was my only “decent” photo of one particular red light district.
Paris Syndrome and a Lesson in Architecture
Since arriving in France, the weather was noticeably improved (i.e., much sunnier and warmer) – it finally felt like Summer in Europe. The teacher leaders reminded us to dress up a little, arguing that France maintained a higher expectation of those on an official group tour. At the very least, we shunned wearing jeans, but usually wore nothing dressier than nice t-shirts when out on official tours. In Paris, I couldn’t help noticing the multitudes of tourists who were wearing whatever the Hell they wanted. My realization from other travels is that visitors can and will wear any and everything under the sun, further validating my argument for overall comfort when on the road.(1)
Our first tour stop was a photo op at the Arc de Triomphe and then the Eiffel Tower. We spent time at the Palais de Chaillot, enjoying the sunlit vista before ascending the tower (21 years later, I arrived at the it from the opposite side via the Champ de Mars). In general, I’m not a fan of heights (i.e., less of a “phobia” and more of a “strong dislike”), and generally avoid those experiences. The elevator car conveniently included windows, providing a grand view of the world shrinking below while simultaneously and proportionately raising my anxiety level. Fortunately, that immediately subsided as the doors opened and we were hit by unusually high winds. White-knuckle gripping the railing now served a dual purpose – attempting to relieve my apprehensions and not blowing away. I kept in mind what one local said (“the best view of the tower is from on top of it”) as a distraction and made the most of the Paris cityscape in photographs.
Next up was the Louvre, and the sometime artist in me was hot to trot for its art collection. Arriving at the main entrance is a bit perplexing given the very modern Pyramid greeting visitors in contrast against the French Renaissance architecture surrounding it. At first glance, the steel and glass pyramid is jarring and out of place, yet at the same time elegant…a new-introducing-the-old kind of quality (and even literally since the pyramid was completed the previous year). Years later, I’m still on the fence regarding whether or not I like it.
Our tour wandered through the main sections of the museum, delving through part of the understructure and the excavated foundation, and stopping for special commentary on a few of the more noteworthy works (e.g., Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, Coronation of Napoleon). My biggest anticipation was seeing the Mona Lisa. Like most, I read up on its history, composition and enigmatic reputation, and was a little impatient to see it. As we approached, there was a swarm of tourists surrounding it, all kept in check by museum staff and security. We fought our way through the crowd (who expressed its displeasure at us in more than one language) for our turn up front. At last, I inhaled deeply, laid my eyes upon this iconic piece of art, and realized…it’s not that big. All the time, attention and fascination associated with it, and…that was it? Encased under bullet-proof glass and anti-theft deterrents, you could barely see that mysterious smile. I know and heard others complain on their disappointing travel experiences (e.g., Grand Canyon isn’t that “grand”…though I respectfully disagree), but this may be my closest (and nearly literal) experience with Paris Syndrome.
As the afternoon waned, the setting sun provided beautiful light for capturing Notre Dame on film. Our tour guide led us in and around the cathedral, first with an outdoor tour and pointing out the architecture and history of its construction. The highlight of this was the guide demonstrating the physics behind Gothic building design, and especially flying buttresses. Imagine two rows of students facing one another with their hands up and pressing against each other (i.e., simulating arches), and two other sets of students standing behind them, pressing on their shoulders (i.e., simulating the buttresses). To this day, I still remember the nuances of that lesson in medieval architecture, though I never found any practical use for it (kind of like Calculus). The guide also commented on the rose window from the outside, noting how it was so dark and drab, then once inside pointing out how brilliant and beautiful it was lit by the sun.
A Festival of Artists
After dinner, several of us were up for checking out a collection of artists and street performers at Sacré-Cœur, which was one of the landmarks we missed during our stay. After navigating the Paris subway system and an uphill hike and tram, we were looking down on the whole of Paris from the basilica’s steps on Butte Montmartre. As twilight descended, we clapped and marveled at the army of amateur acrobats, jugglers and magicians, as well as painters and sketch artists bartering for ad hoc portrait commissions. In fact, one of the girls in my group did exactly that and spent the remainder of the journey taking exquisite care of a rolled-up sketch portrait of herself that made it back to the U.S. without suffering any damage (given all of our running around, that was quite the accomplishment on her part).
“Vur-sales” and Dancing in the Streets
Our final day in Paris fell on la Fête nationale (i.e., “Bastille Day”), and with more than a little historical irony, our big tour for that day was the Palace of Versailles. We began with a cringe-worthy moment at breakfast when one of my group commented on her reading about the spectacular grounds “…at that place called ‘Vur-sales.’” Later, standing in the Cour Royale and then walking in and around its grounds, you begin understanding and appreciating the level of opulence and ego behind building such an expansive palace. Unlike the Mona Lisa regarding size, Versailles did not disappoint – from the Hall of Mirrors to the Grand Canal in the gardens. After our guided tour, we wandered around on our own, and a few of us tried walking the length of the Grand Canal, not really accounting for it being so long. I estimate we walked roughly a third of the way before time and
the need for a bathroom other concerns deterred going any further.
That evening, the teacher leaders encouraged going out and enjoying the city on our own with strict orders for returning by midnight (because telling teenagers what to do ALWAYS works). After dinner, the streets were full of
probably drunk celebrative Parisians, with music drifting from somewhere down the way. Given the energy of the crowd, we couldn’t help being caught up by its infectious energy. Trouncing down the street, I saw at least several bottles of whatever being passed around, but don’t remember if any of my group accepted offers for a swig (I declined). Before long, we were at the Bastille with an even larger crowd of people cheering, dancing and drinking as a band played incomprehensible music mixed with the roar of the celebrants.(2)
For the life of me, I don’t remember how we made our way back or what time it was when we crawled into our beds, but I’m absolutely certain we were out well past curfew and not even close to the last of us returning that night. The disapproving looks on our teacher leaders’ faces the following morning said it all.
Rest and Reflection
The ride to Strasbourg the next morning was a relatively quiet one. Roll call for boarding the bus was met by bleary-eyed teenagers collapsing in their seats, still recovering from the previous night’s festivities. Clearly, the celebrations took a toll on us, but so was the wear and tear of galivanting around multiple countries. Perhaps it wasn’t quite as demanding as a roadie on a big concert tour, but travel fatigue was gaining a foothold on some of us. Days packed with activities and nights sleeping in strange beds was getting a little old, and I was personally missing familiar surroundings. Thankfully, our next destination was a welcomed respite for catching our collective and figurative breath before the final major leg of our journey. As an added bonus, we were provided single accommodations for the first time on the trip (not counting homestays). We arrived by lunchtime and spent the afternoon on a mixed on-and-off bus and walking tour of the city, seeing the Église Saint-Paul de Strasbourg (i.e., Saint Paul’s Church) and Quartier des Tanneurs (i.e., La Petite France).
The next morning was our brush with international diplomacy as we visited the European Parliament at the Palace of Europe. The tour provided a brief history of the European Union and viewing of the Palace’s hemicycle for a lecture on the importance of the EU by one its representatives. In retrospect, I wish I paid more attention to this speech given the upheaval in Europe today, especially regarding the Brexit ordeal.
The afternoon was at our discretion. Some went for walks and wandered around, others caved to exhaustion and spent their down time reading quietly outside or disappeared in their rooms for naps. I rested, reorganized my now hopelessly chaotic suitcase (also realizing that I badly needed a laundromat), and wrote down new trip notes or revised older ones. I was definitely feeling a little weary and homesick. As a creature of habit, familiarity and routine are refuges for me – I ground and comfort myself around certain habits. I was missing the daily rigmarole of school, joking with friends during study hall and lunch, doing homework and chores, and sitting around the dinner table with my family. It’s then that it hit me – those routines were now a thing of the past. Once I returned home, there were a few weeks of Summer left for working whatever hours I could and earn some money, goof off with friends, and then it would be time for college. The end of my time as a carefree teenager was just around the corner.
(1) My other trips included seeing travelers whose wardrobe choices might give the People of Walmart a run for its money. I hope I’m not coming across as too hypocritical here, especially after some my true confessions regarding questionable fashion choices.
(2) I am absolutely certain that I shot pictures that night but cannot find the negatives to save my life. Of course, the quality of my nighttime photos from this trip were frustratingly poor, so I’m pretty sure that the ones from this night were probably just as bad.