In the world's most fabulous cities, there are experiences that must be had. Here, the requirements include a stroll along the Champs Élysées, a tour of the Eiffel Tower, contemplation at Notre Dame Cathedral and a day of art discovery at the Louvre.
All worthy, though obvious, and you can hardly say you've been to Paris if you haven't done these things. Paris routinely turns up in the Top 5 on most rankings of the cities travelers most want to visit.
For me, Paris is revealed in quieter moments that have more to do with letting the journey unfold and taking it in with all your senses. Even that sixth sense called street smarts, which is so important when you travel. On a recent visit, I was tickled that I wasn't fooled by nefarious types who twice tried to scam us by covertly dropping a gold ring, picking it up and then offering it to us. It's a way to get money or create a diversion while pockets are picked.
I had read about the trick in a guidebook and waved off the ringbearers by firmly saying désolé (sorry) without breaking my stride. It hardly seems like a trip highlight to have seen through a potential swindle, but to me the memories of adventure are the sum of all experiences, not just what the Chamber of Commerce pushes.
Most of what I carry with me about Paris has nothing to do with bad guys. Still, I am as drawn to what's happening around the famous places as I am to the iconic sites themselves.
Language is no barrier
It was cold, dreary and delightful in mid November when we spent five days in Paris, a good amount of time to get acquainted with the city. Forget what you've heard about Parisians being rude. A friend who has lived here and returned many times since moving away says that the younger generation is much more global in its attitudes, connected to the world through that great equalizer, the Internet. They don't have quite the insular viewpoint as their grandparents, she says. We found them willing to speak English and help with menu translation when we were fortunate enough to find ourselves in restaurants where everything was in French. The taxis are equipped with GPS, so a written address was all we needed to get where we wanted to go when words failed. Really, it was more an accent issue.
My French is limited but I found that offering bonjour, s'il vous plait and merci beaucoup elicited courtesy. Au revoir, too. Think about it; everyone likes it when someone attempts to speak to them in their native language, no matter how mangled.
There was at least one place where no one cared what language was spoken because, well, everyone was dead. I felt like I might be joining them 6 feet under as I stumbled along the higgledy-piggledy cobblestones at the 200-year-old Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Pere Lachaise has one of the world's most interesting collections of departed souls. Singers Maria Callas and Edith Piaf; writers Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde, plus Gertrude Stein next to her partner, Alice B. Toklas; composer Frédéric Chopin; artists Camille Pissarro and Max Ernst; and mime Marcel Marceau are all in eternal rest at Pere Lachaise.
Esteemed residents for sure, but there's a steady parade to the grave of Jim Morrison. The Doors' lead singer and randy muse died in a rented Paris apartment in 1971, a victim of rock 'n' roll excess at 27. It's not the most glorious headstone in the cemetery, tucked out of the way and fenced off. Apparently spirited devotees were using the granite as a perch for illegal tributes. We were sorry that we hadn't brought a small Florida State University memento to toss over the fence, since Morrison went there for a time (and to St. Petersburg College when he lived with his grandparents in Clearwater).
Visitors to the grave varied in ages, many of them born well after Morrison's death; he would have turned 70 last month. Someone held up a phone and that lustful voice cooing "C'mon baby light my fire" could be faintly heard. Visitors seemed bemused. No one chimed in.
The nearby dead must be really tired of that song.
Picture the Louvre and you
The Louvre is one of the world's largest museums, and it is also a historic monument. It was built as a fortress in the 12th century and visitors can see what's left of the military stronghold in the basement of the sprawling complex.
The entrance to the Louvre is through the glass pyramid designed by architect I.M. Pei in the late 1980s. There was much controversy over the structure abutting one of France's most esteemed and proper buildings, but since its completion, attendance at the museum has doubled. It has become the symbol of modern France.
On our visit, the people-watching was nearly as good as the study of art.
In the plaza in front of the museum, there is a line of small platforms that the agile jump upon to pose for photos. From that vantage point, a picture may be taken that makes it look like they are stomping on the pyramid or picking it up by its point. (Think of those trick photos made at the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy where it looks like the human subject is pushing the structure upright.)
One by one, people hopped on the platforms, their photographers moving in place to capture this trompe l'oeil, mostly on smartphones. Within seconds, the results are uploaded to the Web via Instagram and Twitter. (You can see many by searching #louvre or #louvrepyramid.) For 30 minutes, I sat at the base of Bernini's Louis XIV sculpture in the plaza and watched the scene repeated over and over.
There are a lot of famous women in the Louvre. Aphrodite, known as the Venus de Milo, and the headless Winged Victory are just two. Vermeer's Lacemaker and the ladies of La Tour's The Cheat With the Ace of Diamonds are among the masterpieces. But no one at the Louvre has more callers than Mona Lisa. There are signs pointing the way to da Vinci's work, because plenty of people come to the museum just to see her. They are almost always surprised by the painting's size, only about 30 by 21 inches. Her stature in the art world looms so much larger than the actual size.
She is behind bulletproof glass and in dim light, and what's surprising is that you can take photos of her. So hang back and watch as the iPads and smartphones snap away. Seems like everyone wants a selfie with this famous 16th century lady. Somehow that sly smile, the subject of so much scrutiny, takes on a different meaning when confronted by all this 21st century technology.
Thing is, she looks good in every photo. It's the rest of us who are aging.
It's 8:30 in Paris
One evening, we headed for the Montmartre, the hilly district that overlooks the city and is home to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica and many of the city's nightclubs, most notably the Moulin Rouge. But on this night, we visited neither. Our mission was Le Consulat bistro, on a triangular corner surrounded by cobblestone streets. I wanted to eat escargot swimming in butter, herbs and garlic. Trite I suppose, but somehow fitting in an area that provided the backdrop for the movies La Vie en Rose (2007) and Amélie (2001).
The Montmartre was a favorite of artists, among them Salvador Dalí, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh, who painted and played in what I think is the most Parisian of Parisian places. Now, like much of Paris, it's quite expensive, and starving artists have been pushed out.
By American standards, it was late when we arrived for dinner: 8:30 p.m. In Paris, that's practically early bird territory. For a good long time, we stood outside and observed people — mostly couples — walk the lanes surrounding the restaurant. Above Le Consulat peeked the dome of the Sacré-Cœur. It was cold, but we wanted to soak in the scene, staying outside as long as we could stand it. There were clouds in the sky and a bright light strained to break though.
It was the moon, full as a juicy peach. What did we do to deserve this good fortune? If only Woody Allen had been so lucky when he filmed Midnight in Paris, a movie you must see and one that will have you yearning for a Paris sojourn.
Those buttery snails were divine, each sitting in an herby pool of deliciousness, but nothing could compare with that white moon shining on Paris. Another experience that came from standing still, and watching, in a city full of opportunity.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.