Friday, February 1, 2013


The Last and Best Day In Paris
There are days in every one’s life, snippets of a long (hopefully) journey, remembered for their extremes, despair or joy. This day was one of great joy.

The Opéra de Paris of Phantom of the Opera Fame delivers on its reputed mystic and glamour. Split into two groups we were led through this magical place by guides employed by the opera house, not by our own guide (can I hear an alleluia?). Not only was this young man informative, he was highly entertaining, turning us all into Counts and Dukes and Marquises as we improvised the superficial social shenanigans of those whose paths we now walked.

Considered an architectural masterpiece, the Paris Opera House, known as the Palais Garnier, was built as part of the Parisian reconstruction instigated by Napoleon III. Designed by Charles Garnier, construction lasted from 1862 until 1875. The circular theatre boxes are gilded in real gold.

One small decision changed the rest of our day and wrought the greatest of outcomes.

In May of 2005 I began research on a historical fiction novel set in the Chateau Versailles (the book that one become The Courtier's Secret) and for nine months I immersed myself in its history, its debauchery, and its glory. To be this close to it (barely 15 km) and not see it (it was not on the official itinerary) would have broken my heart. My mother and I decided to strike out on our own, to brave the French rail system unaccompanied. With eagerness, we welcomed my son and four of his friends (two more boys and two girls, a lovely bunch of young people from a sterling group) when they decided to join us instead of continuing with the troop to a tour of the sewers and the underground immortalized in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

My excitement to see a historical wonder I felt I knew as well as my own home was tempered by the responsibility I was taking on. I had served as a chaperone for years but never in a foreign country armed only with directions from a tour guide who repeatedly got us lost. Miraculously, each step of the way was hurdled with ease. We joined the group on the first leg of their metro trip. At a junction point, where they switched metro lines, we switched train services and boarded an RER (Réseau Express Régional) train. The RER is an urban transit line, a step up from the subway in terms of the physical size and surroundings with more, larger, and nicer seats that travels above ground. It was slightly more expensive, the round trip we needed cost 14 euros, but well worth it; it was a delight to travel in such relative opulence than what we were used to.

We exited the RER onto the Rue Royale via the Versailles-Rive Gauche exit; a stop easy to recognize at the very end of the RER C line. By this time it was well past noon and we hadn’t eaten for a while. As soon as we walked out of the train station, a large MacDonalds greeted us. We surrendered. We happily ordered our hamburgers and chicken sandwiches from French teenagers who spoke English quite well but felt incredible guilty to be ordering MacDonalds while on such a cultural excursion. We decided that if anyone asked, we ate at Le Donald du Mac, my mother’s creation.

Junk food sated we were back on the Rue Royale where easy to read, large signs pointed us in the proper direction for the Chateau. A quarter of a mile north west and we turned left as instructed on to the Avenue de Paris. The Chateau rose up before us, no more than another quarter of a mile away, sitting regally a top a low rise.

My eyes popped. I could hear my own voice in my head, “here it is, here it is!” I could feel my heart thudding against my chest, I felt tears welling in my eyes; I could not believe I was actually here.

Standing in the short line (the one for those not requesting a guide) but still taking close to a half an hour, I was surrounded by people from every corner of the globe. And yet I found myself in the company of a delightful couple and their stunning college-aged daughter who hailed from Andover, Massachusetts. That’s right…a town not two hours from where I live in Rhode Island. The time passed swiftly in their engaging company and I gave them some information about the Chateau while they listened with unfeigned interest in the plot of my novel.

I purchased tickets (only for my mother and I; students under 18-years-old receive free admission) for one portion of the palace, the most important to me as it served as the setting for my book. Our route would take us on the main tour of the State Apartments which included the Hall of Mirrors and the Kings and Queens rooms and apartments.

We finally made our way into the chateau and, although it was swarming with people, we were enveloped in its magnificence. (It was the middle of a Sunday afternoon and was swarming not only with foreigners but also with France’s own citizens visiting a momentous place of their history. The chateau’s website recommends visiting during the early morning hours, 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. or during late afternoon hours 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Tuesdays through Thursdays. Be sure to check ‘last admittance times’ as well as the different open times for the main building, the gardens, the Grand and Petite Trianon.)

As we walked, I could hear my shoes clacking on the hard marble floors, all different colors depending on the room, and realized I tread upon the exact same place as the Louis I had come to know so well and the Musketeers who I had fantasized of being and all the glamorous Queens. The crowds were so swollen it was difficult to position oneself near the description placards in each room. But as I entered area after area, saw the embellished décor, the resplendent art, I knew where I was. I recognized these rooms as if I had actually been in them before. I could name them and the function they served during Louis XIV’s time. It was an ethereal experience I will never forget.

I gave my group some of the massive amount of historical information swarming my head, not enough to bore them (I hope), but enough to give them a sense of the place, where they were and what had taken place here.

The Chateau Versailles (here the main entrance is pictured and I before it in a state of shock and awe) was originally part of an abbey for whom one of the signatories of the charter was a Hugo de Versailles, giving the building and the surrounding village its name. While it was Louis XIII who built the first hunting chateau on this spot, it was his son, Louis XIV who turned it into one of the most resplendent and magnificent places on earth, construction and expansion that lasted well over fifty years and costing millions of dollars.

The square horseshoe shaped palace is designed in the European manner, with what Americans call the
first floor labeled as the ground floor and the next as the first floor. To really see the entire complex, all the buildings and all the grounds, a minimum of three days is recommended. Pictured is a diagram of the first two floors of the chateau. We followed the red line.

One of the most famous and grandiose rooms of the palace is La Galerie des Glaces, the Hall of Mirrors. 73 meters long and 10.5 meters wide, it is embellished with seventeen mirrors on one side that are mirrored by seventeen windows on the other.

The kids’ favorite story was the garden ghost story, not surprisingly, one they asked me to repeat when we returned to the group.

As legend has it, over thirty thousand men worked on the chateau at one point. As they prepared the estate for the intended gardens (seen here from the king's bedroom), a strange and noxious odor rose from the churned ground. None of the primitive science of the time could discern what caused the smell, nor stop it. And until the holes were refilled, thousands died, most believing from whatever came from the earth. It is speculated that if you stand in the gardens at night, you can hear the moans and wails of the souls who lost their lives in these gardens.

This visit to Versailles was the most amazing, most touching, most personally important moment of the whole trip. And, though we didn’t know it yet, Louis’ palace would turn out to have been our sanctuary.

The return trip from the chateau was even trickier. We knew exactly which RER to take, confirming it with a young female RER employee, who, though she spoke only a little English, made sure she gave us the correct information, but the switch to the correct Metro, where to get it and where to get off, could prove to be a little more complicated. In addition, we needed to make our rendezvous by a certain time, one fast approaching.

The train we needed sat at the terminal as if waiting just for us; it embarked five minutes after we boarded. The train was packed; mom and I had to sit a few seats apart from the kids. This only heightened my anxiety, the burden of the care of these young people made me sweat more than the 90+ degree weather.

We were once again surrounded by those whose external elegance belied the aromas festering beneath. I could see the real discomfort on one of the kid’s face; he leaned away from the offender until his face was virtually mashed up against the train’s large windows.

I kept checking the train maps repeatedly, making sure each stop we came to was on our line, assuring me we had embarked on the correct vehicle. Looking back over my shoulder, as I did with the same frantic frequency that I checked the train map, I saw one young man of my group animatedly conversing with the stranger he sat next to…in French.

I knew this young man had had many years of study in the language; was, in fact, enrolled in the honors class at the high school along with my son. But I also knew that, especially with languages, study and usage are two very different things. Still, his face was bright and untroubled and it looked as if the tête-à-tête was going well.

At the next stop, many passengers got off, including the one my young charge spoke with. After watching them part with a spirited, hip handshake, my mom and I moved down to fill the empty seats near them and ask about the conversation.

“That was so cool. I did pretty good.” S said with a well-earned, self-congratulatory smile.

He went on to explain that the other French young man had heard S and the two girls speaking in English and was curious.

“He said the girls were pretty and wanted to know if they were my girlfriends.” S said and everyone laughed.

“Did you say yes?” My son asked.

“No,” S gaffawed.

“Too bad,” retorted Devon.

I was thrilled. This is what traveling with young people was all about. To get them interacting with people from afar. It is in this way we will make the world a smaller, closer place. In the journal in which this story was hand written is a quote from an anonymous source:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.

At our stop on the RER, we looked around and were immediately confused. The only egress from this platform was down an escalator that lead further underground. We followed the large pack of people heading that way, we really had no other choice, and almost cheered when we found it led us directly to an underground metro link.

I thought I was in a Legend of Zelda game (not necessarily a bad thing as far as I’m concerned…ah, the challenge). There were many tunnels leading to many lines and it was a little unclear where to get the tickets. Instead of guessing, I asked…everyone. I asked the two people at the information booth, who responded cordially in English, which way to the line we wanted, then went to them again to find out where to purchase tickets. At the ticket counter I confirmed the line and the direction and was answered with a little less patience and kindness by a teenager reminiscent of those I see everyday back home at the coffee shop or grocery store.

Getting to the correct platform, though pointed in the proper direction, was still thorny; which one you board from determines the direction of the train. You may get on the right line but be headed in the wrong direction. I had told the kids at the beginning of our excursion that we were following directions from our confused guide, so I needed all their help and their best behavior to get through without mishap. I got both by the ton.

We checked the wall maps again and again and found our line with a big black arrow pointing to our destination. It couldn’t get much clearer so we jumped aboard and the train came to us in minutes.

The kids chatted merrily and I tried my best to join in but the dark, heavy cloak of responsibility was once again making me perspire. Part of me celebrated; we did it, we made our own way through a strange, foreign city and without getting lost…so far. We made it to our stop and then had to figure out which street exit to take. We all stared at the map with the address of the restaurant we were to meet the rest of the group. We were fairly sure we knew where we were going and with a half-hour’s time to get there. I shared my excitement with the group.

“How great would it be if we beat them there? If we made our way to the restaurant before our guide?” I know it was petty, but such was my angst against him. What I didn’t share is my need to prove myself to the teachers. I had seen their assessment of the physical me, the same false, belittling superficial conclusions I had seen for most of my adult life, in their eyes. My need to erase it was as strong as my anger at the guide for ruining our trip. My impetus was contagious and soon we were rushing down the dirty cement tunnels with B in the lead, yelling over his shoulder, thrusting his fist forward, urging us on like a soldier taking an enemy’s hill.

“Come on, come on. We can do this!”

We climbed the stairs, the bright sun hit us and we all squinted and blinked. Where’s the restaurant? It should be right here.

“There it is!” C pointed gracefully.

Yes, there it was, barely a half a block away. We saw the large “Flams” sign on the side of the multi-story building in the heart of a very modern area. We ran.

“Are they there yet?” I know we were all thinking it. We rushed into the open door and found an empty place. Greeted by a handsome young man, we told him we’re with an EF Tour and asked:

“Are we in the right place?”

“Oui, oui.”

“Are the others here yet?”


We cheered, we laughed, we high-fived. We did it! This truly was one of the best days of my life. And it wasn’t over yet.

We decided to sit at the outdoor tables in front of a metro egress (probably the one we should have used, but we were close enough) and wait. As time passed, three of the kids mentioned home and parents and they went to the phone right in front of us to make contact with these icons. If I had made them miss their own parents, persuaded them in some small way that parents can be cool to hang out with, I’d done very well for a day’s work.

As the heads of the main group popped up over the rail of the metro stairs, we called out a cheery bon soir and saw the expressions of surprise. It was a satisfying moment, especially when Ms. S personally congratulated me on a job well done.

My mother and I were invited to sit with the teachers and tell of our day and began to do so with gusto but it wasn’t long until I felt a heavy, tense undercurrent from them and the rest of the group as well.

While we were exclaiming over the wonders of Louis’ palace, the rest of the group had gone on a Les Miserables tour of the sewers. Except in this case there was a whole lot of sewer and not much Les Mis. What they visited were actual, working sewers. Floaters (yes, exactly what that word brings to mind in conjunction with a sewer) and the mechanisms that separate the two types of refuse were the highlights, along with the odor of course.

The adults were able to find the humor in it.

“This girl really knows her shit,” Ms. Y proclaimed about their sewer guide, but the kids were mostly disgusted and nauseated. Not only had some kids gotten physically ill, some of them hadn’t made the rendezvous point and were missing. One of the teachers and her husband had stayed behind to search for them.

We quickly stopped gushing, instructing the kids who’d come with us to do the same. I actually felt guilty, a kind of survivor’s guilt, I suppose. We tried not to make too much of our day but it had been just such an amazing experience and now all the more superlative for having dodged the sewer bullet.

The meal we enjoyed that night was one of the better ones we’d had though still a bit Americanized. It began with a tomato dominated salad and then pizza…and more pizza. Thin crusted, the different pizzas came out every ten minutes or so and varied each time with two or three toppings. Even dessert was pizza with either a cinnamon or chocolate topping. The décor and atmosphere were fun, funky and modern, the waiters were charming and there was ice in our drinks.

The world at the base of the Eiffel Tower (seen here in one of the favorite pictures that I took while on the trip, all 112 of them), our next stop, located on the Seine River, is distinct in its character. The most visited monument in the world, the tower is named after its designer and engineer, Gustave Eiffel. Taking three years to construct, 1887 to 1889, it was originally intended for the entrance arc for the Exposition Universelle, a world’s fair. Like the Pyramide du Louvre, many of the city’s inhabitants considered the tower unsightly at the time. Today it is considered to be a striking piece of structural art. As a monument seen by millions of people every year (6,719,200 people visited in 2006 and more than 229,623,812 million since its construction), it takes on a global carnival atmosphere merely by virtue of the number of people from around the world milling at its feet. With them are street dancers and musicians, souvenir hucksters and food vendors. Moving unobtrusively yet simultaneously conspicuous are the machine-gun-totting soldiers. Granted there is something appealing about them: men want to be them, women are attracted to them and both feel secure to see them in our terrorist laden world. Bur there is something sad in the need for them just the same.

I was astounded by the organized efficiency of the tower workings. Of course our own ever efficient guide had not purchased our tickets in advance as had all the other guides who led their groups past us as we waited for our ridiculous leader to figure out where to get us the tickets (had he ever even been in Paris before?). However, in consideration of the number of people around us, the wait was still an easily bearable duration of approximately 30 minutes. And once again I found the Parisians manning the tower charming and helpful.

Our group reached the doors of the elevator that would take us up to the first level and a sign above the doors give us fair warning to keep our belongings close. It seems that pickpockets make good use of the close confines of the elevator and the massive number of people mashed together with each and every ascent.

I am afraid of heights, always have been, and watching the ground speed away from us while standing in a small box crammed like sardines with strange people was difficult for me. But like flying, I refused to allow my fear to limit my life’s experiences. The elevator automatically went to the second floor, or rather what is a mezzanine-like level for the first floor. Stepping out on this platform, it appears that nothing but a waist-high railing separates you from the ground so very far below, 57 meters below, in fact.

My heart slammed against my chest cavity, sweat burst from my pores, my all-too-quick vertigo spun me around and my mind screamed at me, “Are you crazy? What the hell are you doing up here? Get down…get down…get down!”

I launched my body two feet to the right and wrapped my arms (one leg as well I think) around a large girder and closed my eyes. Through the panicked buzzing in my ears, I heard people chiding and laughing at me in multiple languages. I truly didn’t care.

My mother, what I would have done without her on this trip (in life) I don’t know, talked me off the beam, telling me about the platform one floor below us that was totally enclosed with a floor to ceiling cage.

I timidly let go of my anchor, hesitantly tip-toed to the railing (because not putting my entire weight on the floor would keep the tower from crumbling) and looked down. Although I still felt a touch of vertigo, the sense of immediate impending doom dissipated when I saw the metal platform about 15 feet below me. I quickly turned around (let’s not push it) and had my mother snap a picture of me at the railing with the magnificent view as the backdrop; it would be a forever reminder of how high I once voluntarily went.

With real bravery, once I descended to the level completely enclosed by the protective cage, I walked all the way around its parameter, taking a few pictures of the magnificent views (one of my favorites pictured here), calling out to those truly courageous souls just above me who waited in line for the elevator that would take them to the tippity-top. Having performed above and beyond the limitations of my acrophobia, it was time to return to terra firma.

While waiting for the rest of the group, we sat on benches at the very base of the tower eating ice cream. The discovery of lemon (or citrine as the Europeans call it) ice cream was a dangerous event, one to encourage the middle-age expansion already occurring across my mid section. The delicious confection combines the flavor of Del’s Lemonade (a truly distinct ice lemon beverage and a Rhode Island delight worthy of a trip all its own) with the creaminess of ice cream.

As we sat, dusk began its slow, late descent and the tower’s regular lights were turned on; the skeleton-like structure began to glow from within with a soft gold illumination. Being the first one’s at the rendezvous point, we were regaled with stories as the rest of the group joined us, the enthused and cautionary, of their trips to the top. Part of me almost wished I had really overcome my fears and gone the whole way. A very small part of me.

Just a short walk from the base of the tower is the boat launch for the sight seeing tours on the Seine River. Boarding quickly we were fortunate to snag some of the most coveted seats outside right along the rail. As we wait to launch, as the sun sets behind us, we listen to the French music and stare at the Eiffel Tower rising majestically above us.

The sightseeing cruise down the Seine River was provided by Bateaux Parisien. Though many types of cruises are available, we enjoyed, as perfectly described on their website, “a one-hour cruise accompanied by a clear, lively commentary together with passages of music evocative of the places and periods on the route.” The commentary is broadcast via individual handsets and is available in 13 languages. Each language version has specific anecdotes and cultural references.

Suddenly, as if touched by a magic wand, the Eiffel Tower begins to shimmer and sparkle. A set of twinkle lights, surely one of the world’s largest, festoons the entire structure. The air filled with oohs and aahs as everyone near, especially those on board for in the instant the lights began to glimmer, we began to move. We sit back with an enchanted smile; no doubt the illuminations were ignited just for us, a benevolent portend of our ride. As the cool waters lapped against the side of the tour boat, the historical, dazzling and romantic sights of the city flowed by as the music so particular to this distinctive place floated in the air around us.

There is no better way to see this breath-taking city than via the deck of a craft on the Seine.

We approached the 400 year old bridge and I wondered as I passed beneath…are we building anything today that will be looked upon with the same awe as I felt in that moment, 400 years from now. The Pont Neuf, Paris oldest bridge, connects the Ile de la Cite to the Quai du Louvre, just east of the Louvre Museum and took 20 years to construct (1578-1598). Originally called the Bridge of Tears, legend holds that Henry III was crying when he laid the first stone, bereft over the loss of two beloved courtiers who had killed each other in a duel the night before. The bridge remained unscathed through all the bombing of World War II.

One of the most romantic sights is the outdoor open dancing grottos where they do everything from line dances to waltzes. All the women around me sighed at the dreamy appeal of it. I feel the warm evening breeze on my skin and feel cool out off doors for the first time since our arrival.

Regrettably, the boat aimed its prow back to the dock. This was our last night in Paris, among the place that had seen so much of the world’s life occur. It is almost sad to think of leaving it with out seeing more, without immersing myself further into its depths and layers. I vow to return, hopefully, as I too crossed the Point Zero.

Then again, it is the last night on the metro, the last night in the sweltering hotel, the last night walking for miles. Let’s go!

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