Three years ago I knew I would someday soon write this post. As a teenager I had visited Paris and then thirteen years later I returned while in graduate school. I thought it would be fitting to return yet again after another thirteen years, this time with my daughter. Though I missed the mark by three years, C and I did make it this year, and what a trip it was! So many things that could go wrong did. I could not have foreseen how either this year’s trip or this post would turn out, especially how digging into my memories would reveal some surprising similarities — it turns out that every trip to Paris has had its hiccups.
Summer 1989. My sisters and I spent a month with my aunt and uncle in Frankfurt, Germany. This was my first time traveling overseas–the trip that would launch all the rest. For the July 4th weekend we took the train to Paris for a four day holiday. If you know Paris in summer then you know it is hot and crowded. If you know your Paris/French history, you then realize July 1989 was the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the start of the French Revolution, and French independence. Also, the 100th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower. Perhaps not the best time to visit Paris. Yet we did.
It has been so many years but I still remember quite a few things. We stayed in a B&B on Montmartre. I noted in my journal “we trudged up steep hills and stairways, dragging our luggage…but it [the hotel] is quaint and the owner is a kindly, cheerful man whose wife will serve us breakfast to our room in the morning.” Yet that merry man and his wife later locked my sisters and I out of the hotel. They did not want to give keys to children and one evening while my aunt and uncle caught a show at the Moulin Rouge, we went to wander the artist stalls. Returning just after 8 PM we found the front door bolted tight, all the lights off. What could we do but ring the doorbell? Again and again, til finally they grudgingly let us in. We were on their sh*t list after that, but the croissants they brought in the morning were still buttery soft and delicious.
At the Arc de Triomphe we were, for some unknown reason, unable to find an underground passageway so we ran across the roundabout, all six lanes or so of traffic. Probably not our brightest idea, but it was certainly exhilarating! We then walked to the Louvre. It is not actually all that far, but at the time I thought it took forever! Temperatures were high and we were sweating; the Champs-Elyses and Jardin des Tuileries were lined with flags from across the world as many foreign leaders and tourists were in town for the 200th anniversary celebrations. I saw a Tale of Two Cities chess set in a store window along the way and wanted to buy it, fancying myself a budding chess player or at least chess set collector (neither of which was borne out). We arrived at the Louvre to find the line so long we did not even go in!
Also, although we visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame, we spent little time inside and did not go up to see the gargoyles or the view. Instead, we hung out in the park behind the cathedral feeding the pigeons. At some point, while waiting on a subway platform, we were subjected to tear gas wafting in from above. That was my first tear gas experience (I had have two more, both in Korea).
Fast forward to Spring 2002 when on a lark I decided Paris would be my graduate school Spring Break destination. Seeing Paris alone as a 30 year old is very different than as a 16 year old with family. I am sure that does not come as a surprise to anyone. And yet once again things did not all go as planned.
Six days was the perfect amount of time in Paris. I visited the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the Musee d’Orsay, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Picasso Museum, the Dali Museum, the Rodin museum, Montmartre, Notre Dame, the Montparnasse and Pere Lanchaise cemeteries, the catacombs, took a river cruise and a bike tour. I think I covered just about everything.
But I was so tired when I arrived and then the airport was confusing. There were signs, but I do not think they told anybody anything. I changed money at a terrible rate with a horrible charge, and could not work the phones (although truthfully I don’t think anyone could — foreigners were staring blankly at payphones all over the airport), and was treated rudely by some guy at the tourist information counter who surely thought I must be a moron given I was unable to work the phones Welcome to France!
My visit to the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, and the Musee d’Orsay went off without a hitch. At Notre Dame I not only spent more time inside the church but even ventured to the tower. The Louvre though was a different story.
On Monday I went to the Louvre. It is a really big place. It is said that if one spent one minute before each of the art works exhibited it would take 200 days, 24 hours a day, to see it all. I arrived just after 9 AM and took a break at 12:30 for lunch in the Louvre cafe. After lunch I planned to spend another hour there and was on my way up to the 2nd floor, when a siren went off. Whir-whir-whir. Then an announcement: “All patrons should now exit the Louvre immediately. You will be notified once the security situation has returned to normal and you can return.” The elevators and escalators were shut off as well as a number of rooms sealed. [This was a year before the Da Vinci Code came out – but I saw those security doors come down] What was happening? When I reached the foyer, people were still being sold tickets and entering the museum. I asked a guard and he said he did not know what was going on but that it seemed okay to go back in. I spent another hour on the 2nd floor; there was no other announcement about the “security situation.”
And then there was the visit to the Arc de Triomphe. As I arrived in front of the Arc and starting towards the underpass, a police caravan rode up. Two motorcycles and about five trucks of police. The police jump out, in full riot gear, with helmets and shields and such, and stand in formation on the circle facing the Arc. What is happening? I look around for snipers or a jumper or any situation that would warrant this response. Nothing. Just other tourists milling around. The underpass is closed to I walk to the other side. The police in the tunnel do not do anything to stop walkers. Turns out there was a strike of hospital personnel that day and the police were there for them. After 15 minutes the stairway to the Arc reopens and the police caravan turns on the sirens and speeds away.
A last minute trip to the Cemetery of Pere Lanchaise ended in a frantic rush. I made it to Jim Morrison’s headstone before two guards approached me to let me know they were closing. There was still 25 minutes left but they told me at 5:30 the gates were locked and they let the dogs out. I tried to find the grave of Frederic Chopin with their directions but I was too preoccupied with being locked in a cemetery at night with dogs hunting me, so I just headed for the exit. And the search for Victor Hugo’s home took far too long wandering small streets only to find out it was closed.
What really stays in my memory though is my bicycle tour. I barely remember where we went but only that I loved seeing the city from a different angle. I had walked, and walked, and walked around the city for hours on end (Oh how I loved all that walking! I miss being in a walkable city), so a few hours on wheels was very refreshing. The weather was quite warm for March–I was in a t-shirt–and the sky sunny and clear.
I found myself on the airplane waiting on the tarmac about to head home. I sat staring out the window. And then there was this strange sound. A ticking sound. Several passengers around me could hear it. And the flight attendants were looking for something. The plane continued to sit just a little way past pushback. Tick. Tick. Tick. The flight attendants rushed down the aisle. We sat there a good 10 minutes and we began to move.
Fast forward to April 2018 and as we sat on the airplane bound for Addis Ababa listening to a deportee yelp in the back of the plane, flight attendants rushing up and down the aisles, and concerned passengers looking around and I thought of my past and present Paris trips – of the tear gas, the labor strikes, unpredictable weather, closed for renovation museums, odd airplane events, and other out of the ordinary experiences. Though heading home again, I already looked forward to the next Paris adventure and hope it will not be so long in coming.