Well, of course we went to the City of Love, the City of Light. We were in France. All trains go there anyway. Who wouldn't spend a few days in Paris?
Paris needs no introduction from me. However, it was my privilege to introduce her to Mike, since I was the expert, having been there...once...when I was 11.
Mike, on the other hand, had never been. I wanted him to experience the Paris I remembered from girlhood, a beautiful sophisticated lady of a city, scintillatingly cosmopolitan, ridiculously, indulgently French. My memories undoubtedly fused with movies and things I read in the 25 years between my first visit and this one, making it near impossible for Paris to live up to the Paris I had in my mind.
And of course, the one in my mind was the one I wanted to share with my husband.
Still, Paris is Paris.
First stumbling block: the hotel. I made calls to the B&Bs with the highest ratings on Tripadvisor.com but no one would answer or call me back. This was très frustrating. Finally I booked one online, one near the Arc de Triomphe, on a friend's recommendation. However, when I called to confirm our reservation, the woman on the other end of the line spoke only French, and after I didn't speak enough French to make the cut, or perhaps it was my deplorable accent, well, she hung up on me.
I decided to trust in the great god of Expedia, that the stars would align, my faith would not be misplaced and that there would be a room for us, nicely held in our name. So we presented ourselves at the front desk and I held my breath. Please, please please let us not be in Paris without a place to stay.
We belatedly remembered: they stormed that, silly us.
Oh, yes, we had a reservation, said the very cheerful woman, whose name was Anna. She showed us the tiny one person elevator and then led one of us up the stairs to our room while the other took our backpacks in the lift. The room, by Parisian standards, was relatively large. You could turn around in it and everything.
It was, perhaps, slightly dingy, and maybe there were some bits in the bathroom that were broken or didn't work, and the safe, when we tried to set it, beeped incessantly while we fumbled ineffectively until I fetched Anna, who then fetched housekeeping, who turned it off, but overall we were pleased with our expensive base of operations.
On our way out the door, I hesitated at the front desk and made the mistake of asking the friendly Anna (who, I found out later, didn't usually work there. The rest of the front desk staff were somewhat more off-putting, including, one must assume, the one who hung up on me) about getting to the Seine. She talked...and talked...and mothered me until I thought about throwing myself to the floor and faking a seizure. Which would have been wrong. She was very sweet, but in Paris, you pay by the minute for the experience.
We needed to get a move on to get our money's worth.
This is a terrible (and ungrateful) mindset, I know. Begging and pleading our need to escape, we turned in our key before leaving. You must do this, and then you retrieve it each time you come back to the hotel. I found this policy annoying. Hooray, already annoyed in Paris.
Feeling guilty, ungrateful, annoyed, and a terrible desire to dance the can-can, I was hustled by Mike, the ever reliable husband, out onto the streets. Except that they weren't "the streets" they were "the streets of Paris." When we stopped for a coffee it was in a Parisian cafe.
Oh, the pressure to be enamored.
And while I wished the city looked like this:
most of the time it looked like this:
Now, Paris cannot be blamed for being popular. If there are more tourists than pigeons, there is little one can do about it, but for Mike and me, well, we realised afresh how much we prefer places with fewer people milling around.
So...we want to go to amazing places and have them to ourselves. I know. Good luck with that.
It has happened...but it wasn't going to happen in Paris.
While we are discussing our family's vacation preferences, let me illustrate with a "possibly bad parenting -possibly even a bad American" confession: the only time we're taken our children to a Disney institution (OK, so Thomas was still months from being born but I carried him) was to Florida's Disney World in 2005...as Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans. Animal Kingdom was practically a ghost town. We didn't have to wait in a single line for rides or food or anything. Mickey and Minnie were really happy to pose for photos with Bethy, as many as we wanted.
In other words, and with abject apologies to the residents of Louisiana, perfect.
What the heck, though, we were in Paris (is this starting to sound like an existential problem?) and standing beneath the Arc de Triomphe, in the centre of the Place Charles de Gaulle, looking up at that incredible monument. The detail in the arch was astounding, a monument well worth the fuss made over it.
It is the world's second largest triumphal arch* at 160 feet high, 148 feet wide and quite thick at 72 feet deep. (*the one in North Korea was deliberately built to be slightly larger, but the French do not acknowledge such silliness. Or so I have heard.)
Fortuitously, there was some sort of ceremony in the works, so we stood behind and waited. A gendarme band marched and played and the flame of the unknown soldier buried beneath the arch was lit as veterans carried flags with much solemn dignity.
It was enough to bring a girl to tears.
We'd just time for an al fresco dinner from a nearby bistro, which was regrettably forgettable, though the frankly obnoxious Americans around us were less so (merde!) before our Citroën 2CV was scheduled to pick us up at the hotel door. Bonsoir!
Oh, didn't I mention that? I had arranged a "Paris Authentic Sparking Nighttime Tour and Seine River Cruise" for our first evening. I thought it would give us a sort of look at the lay of the land, and the reviews online were more rave than critique.
Sure enough that funny looking little car pulled up, albeit somewhat late, to take us on a shortened 60 minutes of personalised tour, just for the two of us, that would make us "feel just like a real Parisian." It was raining, smearing the lights of nighttime Paris into an even more impressionistic painting through the windshield. Our tour guide, who was an authentic Parisian but did not wear the promised beret, ordered me out of the car within minutes of the tour's start, after I (mostly inadvertently) voiced a comment that could have been considered insulting. You get out of zees car immediately, he hissed.
Apparently he didn't really mean it. Which was a good thing. I would really have been lost, and it would have been awkward for Mike.
If feeling authentically Parisian means that you are whipped around Paris in a delightfully rattling car (that isn't sarcasm, it was charming) to get quick glimpses of famous things before speeding off again and hearing how your driver was set up by the police to take a fall for a planted drug charge and how he had every right to yell at these stupid gendarme who are wasting his time, those bastards, and also to tell us about his mother's cooking, and to stop and ask his friend what is the time for the party tonight, oh yes of course, and there you must have breakfast and now here is your boat please get out au revoir, well, we got the authentic tour.
Strangely, I didn't feel all that Parisian. Maybe Mike did. I'll have to ask him.
But again, should we care one way or the other? Look at the sight where we were dropped off:
Wait, let me move the viewfinder up just a smidge, as we saw it from the Seine, aboard Les Bateaux Parisiens:
Now THAT is a view.
We were a bit bemused at the unceremonious dumping at the dockside, but got dutifully into line with all the other tourists pouring off buses and settled in for an hour of cruising the Seine at night, along the Latin Quarter, beneath the beautiful bridges
and past 18th century buildings that are so very Paris. There was a recorded narrative in several languages that one could listen to, very informative, if, again, very touristy. But to sit back and pretend to know it all seemed the epitome of foolishness, not to mention that the best seats outside were all soaked, so we listened on and off, waved to lovers and musicians and rowdy groups on the riverbanks, and stared in awe up at Notre Dame.
There are few prettier sights than that.
Back on the dock, we decided our Citroën driver had no intention of coming back for us and trusted in Mike's navigational skills instead, walking through the darkness up some long hills back to our hotel. I wondered about being out so late at night, but there were few others at that hour, mostly leggy prostitutes, some of whom were so tall I inwardly questioned their gender, but who, regardless, cared nothing about us. In fact, I felt rather invisible the entire time we were in Paris. I don't know why.
On the other hand, I didn't wear a beret and little red scarf with a striped shirt, so I think we should get points for that.
Regardless, no matter, what with the sparkling Eiffel Tower doing its glamorous thing, 20,000 lightbulbs flashing on the hour, who could feel anything but lighthearted our first night in Paris?