Archive for the ‘France’ Category


Friday, November 14th, 2008

I love Paris.

I knew I would love it before I ever set foot in its streets. I knew it my junior year in high school (1961-1962) when I took my first French class. Last May 21, my wife Debbie and I stepped aboard the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse – France’s 200 MPH passenger train) in Strasbourg, France to begin the final leg of a journey that began in Springfield, Illinois 47 years before.

When I was 16, the French language seemed unspeakably sexy to me. The thought of learning it was wrapped in the vague, lusty fantasies of a Midwest teenager. Our teacher, Miss McFadden, did her best to teach us to read, write, speak, and understand French, and some of it stuck with me. I never forgot how to conjugate a handful of verbs. I still remember a brief tribute to the month of March and its often unexpected turns: O que mars est un joli mois, c’est le mois des surprises. The language worked its magic on me, hinting at a world beyond the corn and soybean fields, beyond the grand metropolises of St. Louis and Chicago, a world that revolved around – Paris!

I took two more years of French in college but they seem to have left no lasting impression on me. (To be honest, little of my squandered undergraduate career penetrated my indifference to higher education, at least little of an academic nature.) No matter; like Roy Neary’s vision of the Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I had an image planted in my consciousness. My mind harbored the ghost of a place I had never visited, a place that nonetheless beckoned to me over time and distance.

Oh, I had seen pictures of Paris. I had seen movies set in Paris. I studied paintings hanging on walls in Paris. I knew la Tour Eiffel when I saw it. I had read Sartre and Camus. I had sung folk songs that celebrated life in Paris. I knew a lot facts about Paris but I didn’t know Paris. I hadn’t experienced it on the ground, conversed with it (however uncertainly) in its native tongue, smelled or tasted it, absorbed its colors or its sounds. Like a fond memory, the longing to be there quietly occupied its corner of my mind, occasionally prodding me and reminding me of its presence.

After being invited to leave college for the final time in 1967, I lived in St. Louis and Chicago – and in New York, and San Francisco, and Provincetown on Cape Cod, and Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, and in a lot of places in between. They were all fun or interesting or satisfying places to live. I didn’t pine for Paris. I enjoyed those places; they just weren’t … Paris.

As the train crawled through the suburbs of Paris, I searched the skyline for the one landmark that I could not mistake. We had been in France – in Strasbourg visiting expatriate cousins – for five days. But only one thing would make my presence in Paris real. And then I saw that tall, familiar silhouette in the distance. I knew from my 47 years of preparation for this trip that the the grand Champ de Mars lay at its feet, and that just on the other side was the river that had been flowing through my dreams, la Seine.

My recently-resumed study of French (and the foresight to write down the address of our hotel) saw us from the train station to l’Hôtel Beaugency near the rue Cler without difficulty. That evening we celebrated our arrival in the City of Lights by dining at l’Altitude 95 restaurant on the first observation deck of its most famous structure. At any other restaurant in any other city, I would have said the food was good but seriously over-priced. But the end of a 47-year journey deserves a once-in-a-lifetime commemoration at a meaningful location. It was perfect.

I spent ten more days falling in love with this city. A normally picky eater, I resolved to eat whatever was put in front of me while in France. I was never disappointed. Six of those days were spent on a walking tour of the city. I have never been in a city where every street corner entices you away from your planned route. And when you finally tire of walking, the Metro waits a few blocks away to deliver you within blocks of your destination.

Debbie and I just returned from a visit with the cousins who have now been repatriated after four years in Strasbourg. Talking about Paris and writing about Paris are a far cry from being in Paris. But – for now – I can talk and write about where I’ve been, not just where I want to go.

These and other photos from Alsace, Paris, and Switzerland can be seen here (still many more to come).

Posted in France, Personal, Travel | 9 Comments »