(in no particular order):
1. When you stop to take pictures of buildings and monuments, Parisian passersby actually halt, on either side of your shot, until they see you lower your camera, content with your photo. They’re so respectful of their own culture and your admiration of it that they pause for you. Those pauses resulted in my ability to get shots like this:
2. Parisians seem to love our president. Whenever someone inquired about our nationality, they’d exclaim, “Barack Obama!” with these huge, impressed grins. One particularly wistful boy named Sam, who was the waiter at our favorite eatery on the last night of our stay, said his dream is to come to America and pursue his professional boxing dreams. He ran down a list of Paris’s flaws, scoffed at his president Nicolas Sarkozy, and ended his merry diatribe with, “I prefer your Barack Obama.”
Here were a few places where our fine commander-in-chief’s likeness appeared:
Even the souvenir shops sold Obama trinkets:
3. Patisseries, cheese, wine. I was looking forward to all three and none disappointed.
5. Pere Lachaise cemetery.
Two regrets: not looking harder for Richard Wright’s space and not prioritizing Edith Piaf.
7. Quality Hotel Paris Orleans.
8. The Latin Quarter.
9. The smile. Admittedly, it’s dreadfully awkward and embarrassing to visit a country without knowing its language. (Well, sometimes. See #10.) And after dozens of “Bonjour”s, “Bonsoirs,” “c’est combien?”s, and the biggie: “Parlez-vous anglais?,” you’re kind of mortified. But whenever we did the “parlez-vous anglais?” thing, the people would answer, “a little bit” or “of course,” which alleviated tensions–especially since they didn’t seem particularly scornful about it.
That said, there were moments when words were unnecessary (my favorite moments): on trains, on streets, in restaurants… and during those moments, I’d look up to find someone offering a faint smile.
On our way to Pere Lachaise, for instance, I wrote my mother and grandmother a postcard. I filled it with purple ink, every centimeter of available space. I’m sure my face bore a look of intense concentration. I wanted to make sure not to smudge the ink, to do justice to the trip itself, and make sure my penmanship wasn’t too sorely affected by the bump and jolt of the train car.
When I finished, I grinned down at my achievement: a smudgeless, legible postcard, my very first mailing from another country. When I lifted my head, I was still grinning and so was the lady sitting across from me, very faintly. She seemed to be saying, “Aw. Isn’t that quaint?”
You can intuit a wealth of info from nonverbal communication in France, and it’s awesome.
10. Not speaking the language. I know it’s egregious to enter a country unable to communicate with its citizens, but there’s also something so freeing about it–at least for the first few days. There’s constant conversation, no matter where you are and all the while, you feel like you’re walking under the dry arc of a waterfall. You’re under something at once beautiful and incomprehensible. You are unplugged from a society and without obligation to it. You miss no one and long for nothing. It’s really an indefinable sensation. I love not talking, though, so if you’re social, learn some French before you go.
11. Finally? The most quintessential of all Parisian experiences: the Metro.
I didn’t get lost in the Paris subway system *once.* As a non-driver, I really appreciated how frequently the trains arrived and how logical the train lines were. I felt like there wasn’t a single arrondissement that wasn’t accessible via metro and that’s simply unheard of in most subway systems. There’s always some area you just can’t quite reach on the train. Not so here, it appeared. I was grateful and highly impressed.
Stay tuned for more. There are at least two other Paris-related blog entries on the way….