It was a long flight from Spokane to Europe, I began to lose track of the hours with all the time changes. I got to sleep just a few broken hours. We had a slow cultural transition. We flew through Canada, where sometimes English was spoken, and sometimes French. When we got to Toronto, though, it was primarily French. And in Paris, I started wondering how we could survive when we could hardly understand anything. Everyone said reality would set in when I got on the plane, it didn’t. It didn’t even feel real when we landed in Paris. I think we were too focused on trying to figure out what we were doing. You begin to realize the things you take for granted being in your home country, like the basics of transportation or ordering food. Some people were really nice and helped us along the way, while others completely ignored our presence. It felt really strange and was frustrating at times.
As our taxi driver brought us into the heart of the city, I couldn’t help but notice the grafitti lining the sides of the freeway. Colorful, bold, and artistic. The paint covered every inch of wall. I kept looking out the car windows, waiting to see the famous tower. I thought you could see it from everywhere! The land is so flat, you can hardly see past the first row of historic French apartments. But finally, it came into view. Beautiful crisp lines sticking out against the sky.
When we got to our hotel, we walked up five flights of stairs in a spiral with all of our luggage in hand. The room was fairly small — a queen bed filled most of the room and the bathroom was just big enough to stand in. But the room was clean and cozy and when you stuck your head out the window, you could see the Eiffel Tower a few blocks away. My eyes were burning from the lack of sleep. Despite our tired eyes, we decided to freshen up and make the most of our first day. We started by walking through our neighborhood to the Eiffel Tower, and as we got closer, I began to realize just how massive and tall it is. Its four legs reach across the park, arcing in and resting on large concrete blocks. The iron crosses back and forth, and it is dizzying to see just how much iron it is made of. Flowering trees of vibrant purple line the park’s pathways and frame views, the tower peeking through the foliage.
We got back on track and determined our first destination — Notre Dame, but can’t quite find a map or ticket station. Taxis and tourist buses surround every street. I have read all about the metro and bus route, but in this moment I feel overwhelmed with all the options and complexities of each of their routes. It feels like an hour passes before we jump on a double-decker tour bus and buy a 2-day pass. The bus stops at all the main attractions, so we figure it is the best option despite the cost, and it gives us security in the chaos of our travels. Eventually we arrive at Notre Dame, with a long line coming from its entry doors. We wait, and when we finally get inside, it is a sanctuary from the busy-ness outside its doors. Darkness and quiet whispers, structural columns and vaulted ceilings frame the space, providing the most majestic place for worship.
We wandered the surrounding areas like the river and art vendors, a park, bridges full of locks declaring everlasting love, and nearby architectural facades. Then we decided to eat. We found a corner restaurant and the host seated us with American menus. We chose a tomato-basil pasta to split, but the waiter was a bit side-tracked as we ordered and seemed a bit uninterested in helping us. Throughout our meal, if we asked for things, he would laugh or mimic our voices in a mocking way, and walk away. The second waiter eventually helped us and grabbed our check, but by this point, we felt totally uneasy about the rest of our trip, wondering if we would always be treated this way. We continued to our next stop, the Louvre. But it was closed, so we wandered through some shops and then spent the evening on the tour bus, viewing the city while resting our feet. We learned that the last stop is at 8 before you need a special “night ride” pass, so we made our way up the Champs des Elysses, around the Arc de Triomphe, and back to the Eiffel Tower to return to our hotel.
When we got back several hours later, we were hungry again, so we walked to a nearby cafe and shared a pizza. We sat on the patio on the sidewalk in a fairly enclosed space, trapping the cigarette smoke from the people sitting next to us. It was overbearing, but we made it through our meal with tired eyes and a much friendlier waiter than the one we had earlier. At bedtime, I barely made it to the room before I laid on the bed and fell asleep, not waking one time until my morning alarm.
The next day, we made a new game plan since we have gotten the hang of transportation. We start the day with breakfast from a patisserie, I got a crepe (that was a little burned) and my mom got a raspberry beignet coated in sugar. I feel happy that I packed ritz bitz snacks from home and I find a market to buy bananas. If there is one thing that they have going for them, it is the fresh produce. The fruit is soo delicious. After breakfast, we made our way back to the Louvre. There are many different sections, but we chose the denon wing, which holds the Mona Lisa.
Making our way through room after room, we find ourselves lost in the Greek and Roman sculptures and French Renaissance paintings. Mona Lisa was small and surrounded by hundreds of people, but amazing to see nevertheless. We used the Rick Steves audio guides I downloaded to my phone, but quickly decided to ditch the guides after some tasteless comments about the art. I was apalled by some of the remarks, one in particular where he states that a statue would “make a good candidate for a wet t-shirt contest.” I found it disgusting that he could make such perverted comments about ancient and authentic art. After that, and several other misleading tips from his guidebook, I decided I was never going to use his books or guides again. We finished the one wing of the Louvre after several hours, tired and hungry. We bought a sandwich and “fromage blanc” which looked like a yogurt parfait, but tasted nothing like one, (“fromage” means cheese in french, which I remembered after trying it) but wasn’t too bad once you got used to it.
We were too tired for the second museum (Orsay) so we took the tour bus on some other routes around the city. We go to the Luxembourg Garden, which is a huge area full of grass, trees, flowers, sculptures, food, playgrounds, tennis courts, pony rides, and more. Not to mention a palace and large pond where children push little boats around. It was a relaxing walk around the garden and rejuvenated us to keep going with our day. We got back on the bus to go to Hard Rock Cafe, a family tradition, but at our transfer stop, the bus driver says our tickets are invalid and expired yesterday. We try to explain that we bought a 2-day pass and have been using the tickets all day, but he takes the tickets from our hands and rips them up, yelling at us to get off the bus. He is extremely rude and makes me want to cry. We are stranded in some random area of the city, far from where we needed to be. So we walk. A really long way. We finally get to Hard Rock Cafe and buy a few things for my dad, who collects the pins. We then walk back to a McDonalds that we saw along the way. I know, it’s horrible. But at this point, we felt discouraged by the way we were treated, not just in restaurants anymore, but on the tour bus as well. So we take a break and eat, try to regroup and come up with a new plan. We decide to learn the metro system and buy tickets to practice. Sometimes, you just need some comfort or something you are familiar with before you can take the plunge and have an adventure.
We take the metro (which was really easy to figure out and soo inexpensive!) to Champs des Elysses, a main boulevard with shopping that leads to the Arc de Triomphe. We hit a few stores and watched several street dancing performances before approaching the grand arch. Once inside, we climbed the spiral staircases to get to the first level. There is a restaurant and gift shop, and then you can continue to the top. I never really thought of what the inside of the arch would look like, but it was cool to think I was inside such a famous place. The rooftop overlooks the city, and eventually the sun began to set and the lights of the city turned on to brighten the main street paths and monuments. Car lights shined on the road and zipped up and down the boulevard. We also looked up at the Eiffel Tower, and as we did, it started to sparkle! It was such perfect timing.
Our last stop before the hotel was the Louvre. I had seen pictures of how the glass pyramid glows at night, and I knew it was a must-see. So we rode the metro back again. The streets were less crowded now, only a few others were on the sidewalks. Many people who were out seemed to be the French enjoying the night life, some were a little scary, and what was by day a popular tourist stop, by night was the place for drunks and drug users. We quickly took our pictures of the Louvre and made our way back to the hotel. It was almost 2am by the time we got back! Again, we had a night of good sleep.
At 7am, the alarm went off. I was so tired, so we kept falling back asleep, several times before we got up. Actually, we slept until 11. We were exhausted! It was going to be our day trip to the Palace of Versailles. We rode the RER out of Paris and ended up in a small tourist-y town. We walked to the palace, which was easily spotted with its golden gates, statues, and mass amounts of people in a zig-zag line. We eventually got inside the chateau. It was huge, and we really only looked at some of the main buildings. I can’t imagine how the king made use of all the space, and how people didn’t get lost inside! The main part that sticks out in my mind is the Hall of Mirrors. Everyone stops in their tracks when they reach the doorway. It is stunning. The mirrors reflect the daylight, and the windows look out to the gardens. The gardens were my favorite. I could imagine the king riding his horses, especially far out in the grass where soft-looking trees line the edge of the ponds. There were layers of flowers, fountains, statues, and trees. I had learned about the Palace of Versailles in school, and to be honest I wasn’t sure if it would be worth the trip out of Paris, but it was definitely a highlight and one of my favorite parts.
When we got back to Paris, it was our reservation time to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Even with the reservation, we stood in line on the upper floors for a really long time. When we made it to the second level, my knees began to wobble and shake. Then, to the top. My brain kept giving me flashbacks of a rollercoaster ride called “Panic Plunge” which brings you up to the top and drops you straight down at the sound of a click. On the elevator, I kept waiting for that click while my stomach was turning. We got to the top, and although I felt like the tower occasionally swayed, the heated room offered some comfort.
Although we had hoped for an early bedtime, that proved to be a hard-to-reach goal. We got to bed around 11, and setting the alarm for 3am was hard to do, but we had a flight to catch to Venice the next day. It made me realize why everyone in Paris seems half-asleep. I know I was tired as well, but I watched a lot of people falling asleep — tourists on the bus or security guards while on the job.
Overall, Paris was nice, but I enjoyed it more when we didn’t have to communicate with workers, like the waiters in restaurants, bus drivers, ticket-takers, etc. Once we got through the “checkpoints” and were allowed to be on our own, we had a good time. My mom and I had fun watching the traffic and crazy drivers; people honking and trying to merge was scary from an outsider’s view, but at the same time they looked so graceful. Looking for the stereotyped fashion trends was a bit of a disappointment, at least for women’s fashion. The men all dressed so nice, but I was a little unimpressed with the women, especially when they walked so slowly on cobblestone roads in high heels. Lastly, I will agree that you can make it around Paris without speaking French, but sometimes you are discriminated against, very obviously. I took French in high school and can’t speak it very well anymore, but I know how to read some. Even when speaking a little French, in some places as soon as I said one word in English, some people would completely ignore me. Not everywhere, just some places. Little things like this were very discouraging, but as I said before, once you get past these situations, you are good to go. I don’t want to sound negative about any of the time spent in Europe, but I also don’t want to sugarcoat it like I feel like some people have done for me. Luckily, my mom and I were able to roll with the punches and still have a good time! Seeing the famous sites and wandering through the beautiful architecture and streets was a great experience, but I was ready to move on to Italy.