There really isn´t a way to sum up Paris.
My first impression of the city was its smell. It´s impossible to walk even a block without catching wind of some divinely inspired pastry or baked good. Even in the subway system, there are stands that battle back the usual subterranean stench with buttery sweet concoct ions of flaky crust and tender doe. The French really know how to cook.
I came in from Amsterdam early, having had my fill of the city and never making contact with the friend I was supposed to meet up with. I arrived in Paris as rested as one can be on an overnight train. Particularly when one must clean up the vomit of a drunken Swede at the French border.
Paris in the summertime is overrun by tourists, backpackers and romantics. As such, I was briefly panicked about a possible place to stay, but a flyer from the airport lead me to an affordable and pleasant Pub/Hostel. The only flaw were the seven stories of steep stairs to the room. (Alliteration is your friend)
After depositing my bag, I sussed out the subway and proceeded to get very lost on the streets. The hardest part of navigating a new city is reconciling the map to the view. Without landmarks, navigation can often be pure luck.
Regardless, I found my way to the Museum in Picasso´s House and had a hearty laugh at the careful layout and order of the gallery. Picasso would´ve too.
Now for some extremely good advice. Buy La Carte Musees et Monuments. It´s the best deal in France, covering entry fees and allowing you to leap frog lines. Virtually indispensable and available in 1, 3 and 5 day passes. The only major attraction that doesn´t accept it is the Eiffel Tower. (More on this shame later)
Picasso is, in general, grotesque. I´m usually hard pressed to find beauty in his constructions, as interesting as they might be. That said, I found a single portrait of a girl that was genuinely pretty.
I then wandered through the tiny alleys and broad streets of Paris, I followed the Seine until I rounded a corner and was confronted with the rear of Notre Dame.
Wow really doesn´t cover it. It was then that I realized the true difference between European cities and American cities. Besides the foreigners.
Paris has Grandeur. So does London and I´m certain every other capitol and European city does to a certain extent as well. American cities are large, rich and exciting. I´ve lived in New York and Los Angeles and I can say that both are great cities.
But they aren´t Grand. New York is big, LA is energetic. But they simple don´t possess the anachronistic scale and masonry of Paris. And they never can, because that frivolous and inspiring time has passed. Grandeur is reason enough to travel.
Anyway, Notre Dame is a sight. I´d never considered the scale, but it boggles the mind and certainly justifies the two hundred year construction. As I shuffled through, grudgingly accepting the endless chatter and meaningless snapshots surrounding me, I realized that in thousand years you couldn´t see it all. Ever. Anywhere. The most you can hope for is to experience and appreciate these things.
From the great old church I wandered through the Latin Quarter. Stopping to pick up a small lunch from a tiny market, I discovered the refugee du jour in France are apparently Arab women. A woman surrounded by her children came to the shop begging but was brusquely turned away by the owner. From what I could discern, she worked the street often enough.
Now´s a good time to mention my stone age French. I say stone age because it would take a thousand years of evolution before it could be termed rusty. Even still, I would run my limited vocabulary and sentence structure through my head constantly, plucking new words and phrases from billboards and signs. I figure with a year or so of immersion I could speak it fairly well.
Using French is compulsory. Unlike Amsterdam, no one speaks it. I found this obnoxious, not because I expect the world to accommodate me (although that´d be nice) but because the same person who couldn´t meet me halfway would turn around and speak fluently in Italian or Spanish to another tourist.
I'm told the French are fiercely protective of their culture and learn no second language in school, but then it means they obstinately refuse to learn even pigeon English to accommodate tourists. This extends to workers at museums, train stations and hotels. One would imagine someone who was in contact with tourists regularly could pick up a word or two.
And there are tourists from Japan, Russia and other places who attempt to communicate with their own limited English. For them, Paris is almost unnavigable without a guide.
Returning to my first day, picnicked in the Jardin de Luxembourg which is a fantastic garden surrounding a palace currently used as a congressional meeting place. A note of warning, keep off the grass except where posted. This is not something to take lightly.
Anyway, I continued to meander until I found my way to the Pantheon. Again, this is a building you will never find equaled in the New World. The extravagance and scale is awe-inspiring and humbling to even the most ardent patriot.
The art work and sculpture of the Pantheon is difficult to describe, safe to say it is large. Sadly, falling plaster has struck much of the building off limits, greatly reducing how one might appreciate the art. Beneath it are the tombs of many great Frenchmen, including Descartes and Voltaire.
The sun was on the decline so I elected to finish off the big sites right away. Taking the metro to the Louvre, I walked up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triumph. The Champs Elysees was not what I expected, dense with traffic noise and being prepared for Bastille Day, it was not the charming boulevard I had anticipated. As I approached the Arc de Triumph, it became a crowded shopping area in the same vein as Times Square.
Again, the only word I can apply to the Arc de Triumph is grand. It´s magnificent in its scale and execution. Also in its stairs. This is probably the most pleasant of the cliches I encountered. No crowd, and every bit fulfilling as I could´ve hoped. The sun was approaching the horizon, and I was going to settle in to watch from the top of the Arc when it occurred to me there was still one landmark to go.
I raced the sun to the Eiffel Tower and hopped on the shortest line of the four bases. No surprise, this was the stairs only entrance. I climbed like never before and reach the first and second floors respectively bone tired. Which is when I was disgusted to find a second ticket required to ride the elevator to the top. Without the spare change to buy a full priced ticket, and grudgingly refusing to break a bill, I bought a child's ticket and hoped in line.
Another beef about the Europeans is that they don´t respect a queue. Americans understand the basic tenants of order, wait your turn patiently. When a knothead gets out of line, you dress him down. (unless he outweighs you by more than 20 pounds) Why this concept of fairness, first come, first served has passed the Europeans over, I don´t know. I´ll actually come back to this later.
When I mercifully reached the top, I was stunned. Correction, I was stunned all the way up and the shock wore off as I watched the sun sink. The tower is a tourist trap in the truest sense, every bit the cliche as a ball of twine or the Grand Canyon. Obligatory and overpriced.
But God what a view.
I settled down and ate French bread with Nutella left over from lunch as I awaited sundown. As you might expect there was a crush of tourists as the sun dipped toward the horizon and I noticed something dismaying.
So many people stood on the West side of the Tower I thought it might tip over. But they were all so consumed with snapping a photograph, jockeying for position or taping the sunset they missed it! Fools!
This leads me into another beef, this time with tourists. Those chattering ninnies are going to go home with spectacular photos of a tiny red thing dropping behind an indeterminate line. Their snap shot cameras and video cameras simply aren´t going to record a meaningful image. And in the meantime the sheer beauty of it passed them by.
The sun sets approximately every 24 hours. It´s no different on the Eiffel Tower or the coast of Maine or the shores of Maui. You can buy perfectly wonderful photos, professionally taken and flawless, of just about any scene, painting, building or scenic view in the world. So why waste the small iota of time you have taking your own? Why destroy the painting you want to remember? Why see the world through a tiny plastic viewfinder? Your eye is a thousand times the camera, the resolution infinitely more meaningful, than anything mankind can produce. So why?
I can´t imagine. But I did watch the sunset, and it was beautiful.
Now, after all this climbing and walking and wandering, you´d think I´d say, “To hell with sleep! I´m going out tonight!” Well, you´d be dead wrong. I slept the sleep of the dead, after climbing the 200+ stairs to my hostel bed. By my rough estimation, I climbed a total of 6,000 stairs in that one day. Probably conservative and not including the subway.
<To Be Continued>