This is one post in a series of articles about our visit to Paris.
Our trip to Paris got off to an awkward start. After arriving by train from Hamburg, we found the Métro link to our hotel. It was rush hour, and waves of Parisians were moving through the station and into and out of the cars. I thought I had the whole Metro-riding thing down cold—after all, we’d been in Europe for a month now and were on our fourth country—but the car was packed, I was one of the last ones on, and my bulging backpack got caught in the door. It closed on me like the clenched jaws of a bulldog, stubborn and unyielding.
I was trapped.
I tried to squelch my panic but instead cursed a blue streak in front of a whole crowd of Parisians as I looked frantically for the release button. One was not to be found, and Dale had to pry the door open before the train shifted into motion. A young man jumped up to help him, and I was saved from the clutches of the automatic doors.
Dale looked at me, unnerved, and reminded me under his breath, “You have to pay attention.” My face burned with mortification; our first moments in Paris and I’d shown myself to be gawky and graceless, and that’s the last thing one wants to be when visiting the capital of art and beauty and grace. I just knew that the whole of Paris would dismiss me with a haughty shake of its glorious mane and the utterance of a single word—“American.”
When we arrived at our stop, we disembarked from the Métro car without further incident and climbed the stairs to street level. It was dark by this time. We didn’t know anything about Boulogne-Billancourt, the suburb of Paris in which we were staying, but it seemed to be a vibrant area. We passed restaurants full of people eating and laughing, heard the tinkling of silverware against porcelain, and warm lights spilled onto the sidewalk as we walked past. We were too encumbered by our backpacks to stop and eat, and that was fine—after my brush with the jaws of death, I was not yet ready to face this city of graceful people who slip into and out of Métro cars with ease.
The next day we got up early, excited to explore. Our hotel was two miles from the city center, but the path took us along the Seine for much of the time, giving us our first taste of this beautiful river and the elegant bridges that span it.
We came across a small version of the Statue of Liberty (there are several in Paris), near the Grenelle Bridge on the Île aux Cygnes, a small manmade island in the Seine. While it was nothing like the American Lady Liberty, this statue was still impressive, standing more than 37 feet tall. Nearby was a tablet bearing two dates—the U.S. Independence Day and “XIV Juillet 1789” (July 14, 1789), Bastille Day, the day when fed-up Parisians stormed the prison Bastille and ultimately started the French Revolution.
Once we reached the city center, we made a beeline for the Eiffel Tower, the first site that we both wanted to visit. It was breathtaking! And enormous—at 324 meters (1063 feet) tall, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest structure in the world at the time it was built and continues to be the tallest structure in Paris. In a few days, we would stand in the long line to go up to the observations decks, but for now it was enough to admire this beauty from the ground.
We then discovered what would become one of our favorite places, the Garden of Luxembourg, the grounds that accompany the Luxembourg Palace. We would return here almost everyday, drawn to the park’s beautiful gardens and to the sight of Parisians enjoying the everyday pleasures of sitting next to a pond, playing chess or tennis, or strolling down the tree-lined paths. It was a haven of quiet and beauty in the middle of the busy city.
And it seemed as if there were amazing landmarks around every turn. By accident we happened upon the Church of Saint-Sulpice, the second-largest church in Paris and now one of the city’s most visited, thanks to The Davinci Code. Author Dan Brown used Saint-Sulpice as one of the book’s settings.
We wandered through I don’t know how many neighborhoods, walking who knows how many miles. Paris is one of the most aesthetically pleasing cities we’ve ever seen, and at least one reason is that it has had strict urbanization laws since the 17th century. Street-front alignment, building height, and building distribution have all been strictly regulated. The overall effect is to create a sense of consistency that is pleasing to the eye, with homogenous buildings nestled one against the other, most of them built from cream-colored Lutetian Limestone, nicknamed “Paris stone” because it’s mined in the area around Paris.
And beautiful touches of art were everywhere, in the most common of places. Here’s an example, on these random doors that we passed, somewhere near Notre Dame:
Look closer, at the door knockers…
The lion is biting the snake, and the snake is biting back.
We eventually crossed the Pont Neuf (meaning “new bridge”), constructed in the 17th century and now the oldest bridge in Paris. The Pont Neuf links the city to the Île de la Cité, one of two natural islands in the Seine (the other is the Île Saint-Louis). The medieval city center, the oldest part of Paris, is on Île de la Cité and includes a few of Paris’ most precious gems, including Notre-Dame Cathedral and Sainte-Chapelle (meaning “Holy Chapel”), considered one of the most beautiful chapels in the world. The Conciergerie is also located here, which is the prison that housed Marie Antoinette while she awaited her execution. (“Off with her head!”)
After a long day of wandering the city we headed back to our hotel. The Louvre was on our way home, so we cut through its enormous grounds. A visit to the museum would come in a few days when my mother and sister arrived from Texas to join us.
It didn’t take us long to realize that Paris was magical, and not just because of its beautiful buildings and parks and museums. There was something else, some intangible quality that was as ethereal as an Impressionist painting and just as hard to put into words. If I wrote a book about our ten days in Paris, it could be a thousand pages long and still not capture exactly what was so special about the city. The best I can do is share some of our experiences with you, so I’ll be doing that in the next several posts.
And by the end of that first day I managed to let go of my embarrassment at making a fool of myself on the Métro. I realized as I watched Parisians going about their daily activities that they’re not perfect either; they just seem to let things flow off of and around them seamlessly, a good skill to cultivate. Travel teaches you lessons, and some of those lessons come after making mistakes. It’s OK to make mistakes. It keeps you humble and reminds you of the importance of being gentle with yourself and accepting that you’re human, and of knowing where your backpack ends and the sliding doors begin!