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Four Nights in Paris... While It Burns
I mentioned in this newsletter a while back that my wife and I occasionally piggyback a quick vacation off her work travel. Since her employer is already paying for her flights, we’re able to simply add a few days to her stay, and pay for a single ticket (and some extra hotel time) for me to come out and join her.
We probably don’t take advantage of the arrangement nearly as often as we should, but with all the international travel she’s been doing lately, we figured we’d finally pull the trigger on something overseas. She was scheduled for work-stops in the UK and France last week, and since neither of us had ever been to Paris (I’d never even been to Europe), it sounded like the makings of a fun, romantic rendezvous (which, as I understand it, is a French word).
Of course, the planning for this little getaway went down before things got terribly scornful in the City of Love. A few weeks earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron passed a pension overhaul to raise the retirement age for most of the country’s workers from 62 to 64. To you and me, that may not sound terribly tragic, but a lot of Frenchies, especially those tied to labor unions, disagree. Strikes began, including by garbage collectors (resulting in massive piles of stinky trash left in front of buildings). Protests raged, and fire in the streets was quick to follow. King Charles III’s planned visit to the country was even postponed.
I cringed last Tuesday when I took a break from packing for the trip to read the below headline in the Morning Dispatch:
But by then, we had fully committed. My wife was already elsewhere in Europe, and we had decided to just power through and hope for the best. The only other thing that made me a little nervous was that our itinerary had me — a guy who hadn’t been anywhere overseas since the 1990s (and that was to an English speaking country) — arriving in Paris almost a full day earlier than my wife. I knew very little about modern French culture beyond the basics. And by “basics,” I mostly mean stereotypes (like rudeness, wine-drinking, lots of smoking, hairy armpits, etc.)
One thing we did read up on was the crime. There’s a good amount of it in the city, and one tidbit my wife and I had some trouble wrapping our minds around was the supposedly popular local street-scam of walking up to a tourist, tricking them into placing their finger or hand in some kind of locking device, and then refusing to let them free until they coughed up some money. The notion struck us as so ridiculous that we half-thought the blogger was making it up. We joked over the next few days about possible counter-maneuvers we’d use if someone tried it on us.
Anyway, I made the long plane ride, and touched down in Paris Thursday morning. Beyond a little confusion at the airport (which I blame on a presumably new or temporary airport worker who ushered an entire terminal of arriving travelers in the wrong direction), and a longer than expected taxi ride, things went fine. And while I waited for my hotel room to become available, I let Google Maps guide me on a 45-minute walk through the heart of the city to the Eiffel Tower.
The architecture was impressive, of course, but as expected, there were lots of trash piles along the streets…
But there was a pretty solid payoff at the end.
I spent a lot of time at the Eiffel Tower, just walking around and taking pictures. It’s such a fascinating, picturesque area with the Seine river just a short walk away. I’ve heard visitors say that, similar to Mount Rushmore, the tower is smaller in person that what they expected, but that’s not at all how I felt. To me, the structure was absolutely colossal.
I also came away from it with a good story…
There were lots of street vendors in the area — some pushier than others — selling souvenirs. As I was leaving, one walked up to me and began peppering me with questions, including where I was from (typical sales-hook type-stuff). I shook my head and kept walking, and was surprised when the guy not only followed me, but started trying to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with me. My finger-trap Spidey Sense began tingling.
“No way,” I thought to myself, my eyes lowering straight to the man’s hands. Sure enough, this was not a drill. He was holding a thin rope, lassoed and ready. I shoved both of my hands in my jacket pockets, and took a sharp right as he reached for (and missed) my left arm.
I couldn’t believe it. It was a real thing! Anyway, the guy quickly retreated after that, and my next sleight of hand was to text-message my wife to properly memorialize the incident.
The rest of my day was spent familiarizing myself with the area around our hotel, including picking up some snacks and a Royale with Cheese, and practicing my deer-in-the-headlights look when asked questions in French by store cashiers. I also fit in a quick nap, after a fun conversation with an elderly Turkish-American couple in the hotel lounge; I wish I could remember their names, but I was pretty jet-lagged by that point.
My wife got in late that night, but not late enough to keep us from venturing back out to the Eiffel Tower, this time for the nighttime experience… which I must say was spectacular.
We decided to take the metro back to our hotel, and boy was that an experience. I’d heard that the train cars tend to fill up, but even Barnum and Bailey would have had a hard time squeezing anyone else into ours. And for every five or so people that would spill out at each stop, at least ten more would pile on. It would have been comical if we hadn’t been exhausted (I had been up for over 24 hours to get used to the time change).
In a way, the train stuff foreshadowed what I would later recognize as a big cultural difference between the United States and France. The French (or maybe it’s more broadly a European thing) don’t seem to have a whole lot of regard personal space. The theme continued throughout the trip, especially inside museums. If there was less than two feet between me and whatever exhibit I was looking at it, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to bump and slide their body in front of mine to get an even closer look. It was crazy.
Anyway, the next morning (Friday), we walked around the city, weathering some occasional rain as we took in some sights (including the Arc de Triomphe) and enjoyed some local food.
Up until that point, the trash situation was the only apparent effect of the strikes. But that changed when we returned to the Eiffel Tower for a guided tour we’d scheduled weeks earlier. More than half of the staff had failed to show up to work, so while we got through the security gate pretty quickly, we had to stand in a very long, painfully slow-moving line at the base of the tower. What usually took 15-20 minutes (or so we were told) took closer to an hour and a half that day, with the weather fluctuating between a drizzle and what seemed, at one point, like a typhoon. Our nine-euro umbrella took one heck of a beating.
What made the wait bearable and actually quite fun was another American couple we met in line. Well, we thought they were a couple anyway. The nature of their relationship became a funny guessing-game for my wife and I as the weekend continued (more on that later). Kevin and Vanessa were a joy to talk to, and were downright hilarious (Kevin could be a standup comic). We soon discovered they were staying at our hotel (a remarkable coincidence in a city the size of Paris).
The top of the tower was off limits that day due to the wind, but we were pretty happy with the view from the second floor, after a unique elevator ride.
We took the stairs back down, which I’m embarrassed to admit was hard work for this 50 year-old. Those two days of walking around the city had really kicked my butt (or at least my calves, ankles, and feet). That too was an ongoing theme of the trip: me showing my age.
Saturday morning, after meeting Kevin and Vanessa for breakfast at the hotel (where our confusion over their relationship status continued, but by then it felt too awkward to ask about), my wife and I toured the Louvre. It’s an impressive place, to say the least, and we of course couldn’t leave without the Mona Lisa money-shot. Though the museum had been shut down a few days earlier because of the strikes, it was open for weekend traffic (of which there was a lot)
Next, it was off to Sainte-Chapelle, Notre Dame (which is still closed to the public from the 2019 fire), some outdoor shopping along the Seine river (where we picked up a cheap but very cool oil painting), and a little lunch at an outdoor cafe (which may or may not have evoked memories of an early-90s coffee commercial).
Back at the hotel, we met up with Kevin and Vanessa for drinks, where I finally came up with a creative way of discovering that they were in fact… cousins. Confessing our prior confusion gave them a good laugh. They’re great people, and we were fortunate to get to know them a little before they flew back home. We got their contact information, and hopefully we’ll meet up with them again in the future.
We capped the night off with a nice dinner cruise along the Seine, which I’d highly recommend to anyone.
Sunday was our last full day in Paris, and we decided to spend the morning at the Musée d'Orsay, checking at the work of Van Gogh, Monet, and other classic artists. In the afternoon, we went up to Montmartre, including the Basilica of Sacré Coeur. We did a lot of walking around the city in between.
All and all it was an excellent trip. The weather was mostly cool, cloudy, and wet (probably typical for that time of year), but it didn’t cause us any problems. More importantly, we didn’t run into anything on fire that shouldn’t have been on fire. The strike situation was only a minor hindrance, so the risk we felt we were taking by following through with the trip very much paid off.
I don’t know if I’ll ever return to Paris, but I’d definitely encourage others to check it out at some point in their life, even if the timing doesn’t seem ideal. I’ll be posting more photos of the trip on Instagram over the next week or so, if anyone’s interested.
Have an oddly timed vacation story? Tell me about it in an email or in the comment section below. (Regular features will return next week.)
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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