The tragic and horrific events in Paris this weekend have left the world riled and in an uneasy state. That’s not to say there haven’t been other atrocities occurring in the world simultaneously, such as the bombing in Beirut, Lebanon. But, as this excellent essay from Cosmopolitan (you read that right, they’re actually doing some great journalism these days) points out, Paris holds a special place in the hearts of people who love to travel. For many, it’s the first foreign city they visit, as it was mine when I was 14 years old. Many Westerners have been to Paris, very few to Lebanon or Kenya. While that doesn’t negate the suffering that happens in the non-Western world, it might answer the question as to why the events in Paris might affect some more than others. There’s a sense that we’ve come to expect these things to happen in places like Lebanon and Kenya, but if they can happen in Paris, they can happen anywhere in the Western world, and while the strong people of the Middle East might be used to that, we’re not ( even after 9/11), and I hope we never get used to it like they’ve had to.
So this post is not to get into foreign policy, war strategy, or religious debate, but rather relay my memories (and fuzzy cell phone pictures of glossy film prints) of the City of Light.
I should preface these memories by saying that Paris has never been one of my favorite cities in the world. I took French throughout middle and high school and in the summer between 8th and 9th grade, I went on a school trip with other French students to Switzerland, France, Monaco, and Italy. It was my first trip out of the country, my first trip out of my home city of Philadelphia that wasn’t to somewhere on the Jersey shore, and the experience ignited the travel fire within me.
During the trip, I wasn’t wild about Paris. That’s not to say there wasn’t anything to love about it. I remember that I loved Notre Dame, I loved trying new and weird foods, I loved exploring tiny streets and old, old buildings. But I loved the smaller towns more. I loved Chartres, Tours, Avignon, and Nice. I loved the country. I think mostly I also loved being away from home, away from my parents, in a foreign country with a bunch of my friends, being the jet setting world travelers that teenagers can be. I was more excited about visiting Italy than I was anywhere in France. I felt the same way when I visited the south of France just a few years ago; I clicked more with the country than I ever did with the city of Paris. Which is weird, since I’m such a city person.
But perhaps I was just an ignorant kid who didn’t appreciate where she was and how amazing it might have been. I’d love to visit Paris again, have my mind blown, and fall in love with it like many of my friends do. Heck, many of my favorite places in the world are hated by others. One of my favorite travel writers absolutely loathes Florence, Italy, which is the city I’ve probably loved more than any place I’ve ever been to in the world. I can’t imagine not loving Florence; the very concept is insane to me. When I was there for the first time in 2012, I wrote on my Facebook, “Have you ever loved a city so much that from you moment you left you needed to go back? That your very being required you to return? A place you’ve always wanted to go, except now the desire is so much worse than before because now you’ve had just a slight taste of it; a short visit that was not nearly enough? That’s me and Florence.”
So perhaps teenage me didn’t give Paris a chance, and perhaps one day I’ll get there again and fall helplessly in love. But for now, over 15 years later, here are some memories, many of them simple flashes that I have in my brain of the city on our minds this week:
- The hotel we stayed in was called Hotel Aida Opera. It apparently still exists!
- The Louvre was CROWDED. Very crowded. I remember running up and down a grand main staircase, where it was less crowded. But once we got to the room that held the “Mona Lisa,” the people were jammed packed in like a NYC rush hour subway car. When we left the room, one of my fellow travelers asked if I had seen “The Last Supper,” which was hanging across the room from the “Mona Lisa,” and I hadn’t even known it was there. Not knowing that, and not seeing it, devastated me.
- I also remember running up hills and stairs to Sacré-Coeur Basilica. Running seems to have been a theme for me in Paris; I had more energy then.
- I remember thinking the Centre Pompidou seemed too modern and high tech a place for such an old city.
- We went down into the catacombs, L’Ossuaire Municipal, which hold the remains of about 6 million people. It scared the living crap out of me. I’m not really sure why our teachers thought it was a good idea to take a bunch of 8th graders to a giant, underground tomb full of ornate skeleton sculptures. Perhaps the others weren’t as frightened as I was.
- The faces of Notre Dame were haunting. I tried to count them all, but was ushered inside before I could finish. The rose window stunned everyone into silence. We took a Bateaux Mouches boat ride in the Seine at night and rode by Notre Dame again, it’s glow in the light haunting me yet again.
- Though we were only 13 and 14 years old, our teachers managed to talk a bouncer into letting us into a “nightclub.” Actually it was more like a tiny concert venue, and there was a modern rock band performing. The other adults who had actually come to see the band stared at us, wondering why there were a bunch of teens interrupting their night out. On the way back to the hotel that night, we saw some prostitutes.
- We went to the Paris Opera House, the Palais Garnier, the setting of “The Phantom of the Opera,” which I was obsessed with in middle and high school (and still love.) We took a brief tour inside, but I wanted to go down into the depths of the cellars and dig backstage, hoping to find evidence of the Phantom.
- Two gal pals and I went to the Champs Elysées and went shopping. We bought blue mascara, because that was the cool thing to wear in 8th grade in 1997. After we left the store, we spotted someone famous on the street. It was Christian Slater! “Robin Hood Prince of Thieves” was, and still is, one of my most favorite movies, and there was Will Scarlet! We started following him down the street and the girl he was with eventually turned around and started laughing. We followed him for quite a few blocks, and then finally got up the courage to run up to him and ask him if he was Christian Slater, which he confirmed, and then we took his pic. I DO have this photo, but it’s in an album in my parents’ house. I will gladly find it and update this post next time I’m there.
- Things I recall seeing, thinking they were beautiful, breathtaking even: The Fountain of Innocents, The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, L’Arc de Triomphe. Doors, windows, and towers. Cafés with wicker furniture. Paintings along the river. Escargots. Saucy entrées. And even a splash of wine.
Justqu’à ce que nous nous reverrons, Paris. Until we meet again, Paris.