I was standing at the check-in area for international flights watching people trying to maneuver gigantic pieces of luggage onto baggage carts like they were playing 3-D Tetris. “Your bag is over 51 pounds,” an airline attendant told one man. “The charge for that will be $200, but we can sell you a bag for $25 and you can check that in separately for $75, which is still less than $200.” He gave a pained look. I think I caught her off guard when I approached the ticket counter with my small, solitary carry-on, causing her to repeat her question: “Are you sure that’s all?” Yes, I answered again, almost adding thank you for not adding me to the No Fly List.
“Is this an early honeymoon?” seemed to be everyone’s first question when I told them about the trip. Well, no. In fact, Phil worried that any honeymoon plans would now be hard to top. After all, this is Paris. The Capitol of Romance, no?
Tell it to the Romans, baby!
No, this was a family trip. Our first overseas all together. The four of us. Spending our every waking moments together. For a whole week. Normally, that would be a tricky situation, especially given our dynamic: Tom is usually the nervous one; Grandma, the impatient one; my brother the sometimes oblivious one; and I’m in the outfield, trying to keep things neutral when I’m not chasing butterflies. But actually, our threshold for chaos is pretty good because you know, being family and all, we’ve had ample practice. Even with Grandma and Matt getting sacked by nasty colds towards the end of our vacation, the only real meltdown happened over a mistaken dinner order that our waitress described as fish, her rudimentary bar napkin sketch implied lungs and a spleen, and in the end turned out to be a plate of muscles.
Fishy crustacean: now there’s a taste that stays with you for days!
But it was a great time. Any opportunity to escape the mind-numbing routine that consumes our daily lives usually is, especially if you’re traveling to someplace new. That absence of familiarity, particularly if you don’t speak the language, allows you a little anonymity. A little time to disappear. To recalibrate. To simply, breath. After all, isn’t that the point of taking a vacation?
“I didn’t think about work once this entire week,” Tom blissfully reported our last day in Paris. (I’d have fist-bumped all of Paris at that moment if I could because if anyone could use a break from workplace stress, it’s Tom. And no, you can’t Eiffel Tower in France, it’d disrupt everything!).
Paris was actually a surprise as far as the roster of places Tom (who organizes all these trips) has piling up on his To-Go list (traveling is our only real vice), so I wasn’t sure what to expect. At least with someplace like England, I’ve consumed enough of their modern culture to say that, except for driving on the left side of the road, using the metric system, and making horrible food, those guys are just like us.
But the French? For the sake of selling it as one of the one of the world’s most romantic travel destinations, we tend to reserve it for charming imagery of the “Old Country,” like the way you see those photographs of rustic homes of Italy’s countryside hanging on the walls of an Olive Garden. It’s all cobblestones and baguettes and the Eiffel Tower. And not even watching news coming out of France in the last few years seemed to convince me otherwise.
Meanwhile, the Republic had been advancing in time with the rest of the us. I actually taken back to see a horizon full of skyscrapers. Wait, when did this happen?!! Paris is just as modern as any other city. Even the historic part. And just as expensive. A little worn looking, too, thanks in large part to the growing graffiti epidemic. Really, the only difference is that the French are better dressed (though penguin pants are still present), they smoke more, and they’re always running into you. Although, I guess I can’t fault on the last point when millions of tourists descend upon the city each year.
I joined the family in Washington and we boarded a direct flight to Paris. “You know how this goes,” Tom would later remark about the boarding process, “it’s First Class, then Second Class, and then the steer.” We were the steer.
Things on this trip seemed to operate in two extremes: massive or cramped. As we piled into our tiny seats, we were instructed not to leave the curtained section. This, the stewardess explained, was for “security purposes.”
Well, that Comment Card just filled itself out… Dear United Airlines: I realize that we paid the least money for economy class seating, but could you give us the courtesy of not treating us like flaming retards? If they had said, First and Second Class passengers paid a lot of money for those seats, which includes the privilege of not having to look at you slobs. Now that kind of honesty I could appreciate. But, the saving grace was that insults, tight spaces, and shitty food aside, it was just a tolerable eight hour flight that started and ended on time unlike one Olympic Airlines, who shamelessly let us sit on the tarmac for two hours before even thinking of pressing the Take Off button (yeah, I’m calling you guys out!).
But, departing from Washington in the middle of the afternoon and arriving just before sunrise in Paris felt like traveling in a time machine. With France being six hours ahead, it felt as though we just fast-forwarded through the sleeping hours to arrive in time just as the sun was coming up and things were opening for the day’s business. And who wants to waste any time sleeping when there new things to be discovered?! Well, Grandma. And, secretly… me. But rather than admit to any kinks in my armor, I joined Tom and Matt for preliminary sight-seeing around town, clocking something like twenty-six hours awake (just enough time to avoid any lunacy!) before resorting to mercy naps. And it’s weird how that works – with anything else, I would have had zero motivation to follow through. But, this business of getting up early after like five hours of sleep, walking for ten hours straight, and skipping regularly scheduled meals all seems much easier to comply with as long I’m doing it on vacation.
We stayed in historic Paris near the Cadet metro, but even with the close proximity of the hotel to the train, we had Grandma and one heavier-than-usual suitcase to consider lugging around, and thus resorted to taking a taxi to the hotel. Our chauffeur was a burly black man with a red skin tone like I’d never seen before. Like red clay. He sort of sang along to pop songs on the radio and didn’t speak much English. We were a little confused when he approached us at the airport, asking for “Monsieur Toe-Mass.”
And… cue momentary blank stares! Toe-mass?
Oh!! You mean Tom!
This was really the first time I’d experience that – where not everyone was so accommodating to our language, even as we were in one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. Amsterdam, Greece, Italy… they not only spoke English, they wrote things in English, too! Oo la la! But, the French take their language pretty seriously. They appreciate a little effort on your part to at least try speaking French. In fact, there was an article in Maximumrocknroll where even skinheads asked some asshole who trying to insult them in English to say it in French.
But alas, this is exactly the moment I had been preparing for, having fulfilled all those language credits in high school and college with courses in French. See kids… school is important! Unfortunately, the my memory of those days were clouded by all those versions of Cyrano de Bergnac we were forced to watched. Seriously, you’d think the French never made anything else! Um... Madam Lang? Ou est la Truffaut?!!!!
But really, so long as you know some basics, you’ll be alright.
(TO BE CONTINUED)