NOTE: The Author would like to gently point out that his observations are his and his alone, and they are not meant to be some sort of factual record on what Paris is. This is simply a collection of observations on what he experienced for 8 days in Paris during the summer of 2011. It is meant to be an honest account of his feelings and experiences, but should not be taken as complete truth to what Paris and France are. How could it? That's ridiculous. With that...
I've been anticipating this trip for over two decades, having succumbed to the romanticism of Paris at an early age.
I took French for four years, and despite the fact that I couldn't even properly put together a sentence by the time I finished, I'm still very much in love with what I think Paris is. Any good melodramatic man or woman is, and that certainly includes The Angel. The difference is, she's been there once before, so she knows what to expect.
I can only hope it lives up to the expectations in my head, because anything less will be a disaster of sorts, as you know how these things go. I don't want Paris to be The Phantom Menace of travelling, so I'm doing my best to temper my excitement, though part of me is wondering if they'll have a parade awaiting my arrival: Bonjour Jacobs High School French Club President of 1995!
Yes, I was the French Club President in high school. I even wore a fake mustache and showcased my spotty french to grade schoolers in what is no doubt the last puppet show I'll ever take part in. Truth be told, the ascension to French Club President remains as the shining example in my life where I reached Ferris Bueller-like levels of mischievous brilliance. My French teachers had warned me that senior year of French was serious stuff, and my dependence on extra credit to get me by in previous years would not be tolerated. I would have to... you know... actually know what I was saying. This was obviously an impossibility, something even my gangly teenage mind comprehended. So I figured out the one way they couldn't fail me- you guessed it, French Club President.
I won in a runaway campaign that largely rested on the preposterous notion that I, the guy who knew next to no French, could be the President. Ah, the sweet taste of an early look at a hipster driven democracy. Even my teachers couldn't fail the French Club President, and extra credit won out again in an epic C- bid.
Somewhere they must be proud I had made it to France, a concession for passing me years ago.
After lengthy flights which did nothing to aid my already ailing back and knee, I am about to land in France. Just outside Paris to be exact. I am with The Angel, her sister, and her parents. This is my fifth trip with the in-laws, and a casual routine has now developed between us. Despite the fact that I am constantly wondering if I'm acting like an ass, I generally can be myself around them at this point. Not to be trite, but I feel like I'm with Mom and Dad now. And without them, I might never have seen my dream of visiting Paris come true. I am without question, extremely grateful for the opportunity they are giving me, and I silently hope they know just how grateful I am. Mostly I wonder this when I'm potentially being an ass. At any rate, here we are.
The first thing I am struck by is the level of greenery surrounding us as we touch down at Charles De Gaulle. This is nothing like coming into LAX or O'Hare, which suffocates you with industry and concrete. Here there are fields of green and nary a traffic jam on the roads leading to it. It's beautiful. Inviting.
My eyes light up from what awaits me.
Just before our plane taxis into a stop, I read over the notes given to me by an avid visitor of France one last time. A considerate gesture to be sure, and one that I take seriously. My goal, whenever travelling, is to learn as much about local etiquette as possible before arriving. I was fairly ashamed of some of the behavior I witnessed in Italy years ago by American tourists, and it has haunted me since. The constant chorus of "but that's not how it is in America" was heard far too often for my ears. Our family has thankfully never been like that, and we always walk into a setting with total respect. We are guests, and therefore it is my opinion that we must adhere to their way of life.
Yes, we'll take pictures and no doubt stand out, but damn if we're not going to do that in humble fashion.
It's about respect, something my Father instilled in me long ago, and something I take as a sign of intelligence.
So these notes given to me serve as a guide to a pleasant and appreciative visit. And because the woman who gave them to me lived in France for three years, I assume them to be nothing but complete fact. She also visits there twice a year to this day, so it's safe to say she knows what she is talking about. Among the things written, several stand out, and become important to our story...
1. Be Quiet on the Metros. Paris is connected by a swath of underground trains which criss-cross in every direction and provide you with complete access to Paris. But riding on them is to be met with a polite and quiet disposition. I'm loud in general, and so abiding by this rule will mean complete silence.
2. Bonjour. My guide can't stress this enough. It's simple. When entering any public establishment, before uttering a word, stop and say bonjour to those in charge. Do this with meaning. Even before she had told me this, I thought of how wonderful that is. So many times I go into a grocery store, and before even getting acknowledgement, ask a question. Hey dude, do you know where I can find mashed potatoes? Saying hello seems incredibly easy and appropriate, and I immediately like this tradition.
3. Beggars. My guide informs me that beggars, gypsies, and street musicians are to be avoided at all costs. She claims that their real intent is to see where your wallet is, thus providing a direct line to pickpocketing. She emphatically states to never give money, or face the potential repercussions.
4. Restaurants. Americans tend to rush through a meal. I can say this generalization has complete merit, having spent many years waiting tables. You'd be amazed how many people come into a nice restaurant and ask if they can "get in and out in 20 minutes?" My guide told me to relax and realize that you'll rarely see a waiter sweating in quick movement. Things are more relaxed, and the savoring of food is expected. She also tells me that splitting of entrees, sharing, and modifications are not done in France. You get what the menu says, period.
5. Dress Attire. She tells me that people dress up in France, and walking into a restaurant with jeans, tank tops, or athletic apparel will be met with scorn, and possibly lead to complete dismissal.
These are the five rules that stand out to me, and I prepare myself one last time to be mindful of them. They'll come up throughout our journey, and I think you'll find my experiences interesting in comparison to what I had heard.
For now though, I am here.
I am in France. I am terrified, excited, and ready to begin the journey....