The Arc De Triomphe
Originally uploaded by rustedrobot.

Until last week, I had never been outside of North America – just the U.S. and Canada, in fact. Although my travel experience has been what I consider fairly extensive, it’s largely been limited to business travel with the occasional family trip when I was younger, mostly to driveable locations. There is the one glaring exception, that being the drive around the perimeter of the United States with a college friend in 1995, which was glorious fun and certainly educational enough to the point where I often find myself believing that it ought to be considered a requirement by law for anyone in their 20s to make the trip and perhaps again in retirement for purposes of comparison.

So the prospect of finally being able to flee the continent in my 34th year was both one of extreme anticipation and also a touch of apprehension. Would I hate the food? Or the people? Would they hate me? I imagined, or actually refused to imagine, what a rude French waiter who hated Americans might do to our food. Or maybe I’d be one of those people who came back pounding my chest and claiming the U.S. was the greatest country in the world? I hoped not, but the thought itself of international travel weighed heavy in the days leading up. You just never know. The anticipation was clearly the dominant emotion, though – I was totally psyched.

The trip was split up into 3 legs, really: three days on the south coast of England in Brighton (visiting some friends), three days in Paris and three days in London.

In today’s post, I’ll focus on the three days we spent in Paris. Oh, how I wish it were 30 days, because Paris is probably the best city I’ve ever visited. It’s sheer beauty and stunning old-world architecture probably would have been enough to claim that status in my book, but it was so much more than that. There is simply a different air there, a vibe that I’ve not experienced anywhere else.

Being a history buff (amatuer at best, btw), it was overwhelming to see things like the Arc De Triomphe in person. To take a cursory look at the monument is one thing – it certainly is unique and quite beautiful in and of itself, but to picture the significance of what’s happened there is really the treat.

Originally conceived as a tribute to one of Napoleon’s largest victories and, when finished after his death, celebrated for something else entirely, the Arc represents many watershed moments not just in French history, but in world history. You can almost picture the Germans rhythmic march down the Champs-Elysees after the occupation of France in 1940 and the subsequent flying the Swaztika flag at the Arc, certainly one of France’s darkest moments and marked brilliantly by this award-winning photograph. You just can’t write it off as a nicely- carved cinder block structure. The significance is just so….heavy.

That’s just one of Paris’s landmarks, of course. The most obvious one is the one that I never thought would take my breath away the way it did. Steph and I were told to get off at the Trocedero stop on the Paris Metro, then snatch a view of the Eiffel Tower from one of the higher points. It was, in a word, stunning. We turned the corner in near-perfect twilight after getting off the Metro and there we were, face-to-face with one of the most iconic structures in the world – and it caught me off guard. I didn’t think I’d be so….overwhelmed. It was just so completely stunning that we stood there for a few minutes like it wasn’t even real. I think the picture we took (click that link) captures that. Our look is one of triumph in that we had conquered a famous spot in the world and… of humbleness, I suppose.

I could go on and on – being inside the famous Notre Dame cathedral, built one thousand years ago, was an exercise in the realization that our lives are just a small part of such a larger world. The beautiful Seine River has seen it all.

Seeing the Mona Lisa and the Venus De Milo at the hopelessly large Louvre was great. They say it would take the equivilent of seven full days to walk the entire Louvre, but it’s little sister, the Musee D’Orsay was smaller and equally enthralling, as it has the definitive collection of impressionist paintings by the likes of Van Gogh, Renoir and many others. I’m not a huge fan of art persay, but when you’re standing there staring at history like this, well, it’s hard not to become more of an art fan when you’re in one of the cultural capitals of the world.

Speaking of culture, the warning from many people was that the French were rude. We did not experience this. We had one waiter who was clearly non-plussed by our presence, but certainly not rude by any stretch. All others were friendly and quite accomodating. The language barrier was evident, but manageable, as most Parisans seem to know some English (the whole thing made me feel slighly ignorant for only knowing one language) The food? Awesome. Each morning, as if it were required by law, we’d hit the corner bakery and get fresh croissants to start the day. The best I’ve ever had. The crepes? Delicious, both the sweet and the savory. I’m on the lookout for a good crepe cookbook.

The neighborhoods we walked through were completely charming and gorgeous. If you’re ever there, make sure you take a stroll down the Ille St. Louie, a narrow little strip of old school cheese shops, boutiques and pastry joints located behind the Notre Dame that drops you back into the 1930s. I couldn’t get enough of this place. Given a good opportunity, I’d live in Paris.

Funny story to sum up – I did mention the language barrier and I should pass on a rather amusing story of my own ignorance. While strolling through BHV, a ridiculously large department store, I decided to take a seat for a few minutes while Steph shopped. I’m still not entirely sure why, but no less than five people approached me, presumably to ask me questions about something in the store, I of course didn’t have a prayer of understanding a word of what they were asking me. Despite by coat being on and a few shopping bags at my feet, they apparantly thought I worked there. My response to all of them: “no parlez vous francias,” which I believed to mean “I don’t speak French.” Steph later informed me that I was actually saying to them “you don’t speak French.” So they were asking me a question about something in the store and I was telling them they don’t speak French! Classic.

Update: upon looking this up on the AltaVista translator, “no parlez vous francias” is translated to “No speak French.” I’m not really sure if it’s correct as I’ve seen some suspicious translations on AltaVista before. I’d like to think I was telling them they don’t speak French, if only for the pure comedy of it.