This past week I have watched in disbelief as events have unfolded in Paris. As images of iconic landmarks flashed across the TV screen, I was reminded of my first visit to this grand city. In the midst of so much shock and sadness, some might say my story is inappropriate. But in defiance of those who would destroy all happiness and freedom, I choose to write about the Paris I remember, the Paris where people embrace life, and the Paris where sometimes tourists do silly things.
In 2000 I had taken a group of students there as part of an EF (Education First) tour. We were very excited to be in this famous city and wanted to take in as many sites as possible during our short stay. So I was very disappointed when our guide decided that instead of touring us around during a two hour break, we could have some down time.
Down time? We hadn’t flown half way around the world for down time. What about a close-up view of the Arc de Triomphe? Or a stroll down the Champs Elysees? He just shrugged his shoulders, so we decided to strike out on our own.
Armed with a sketchy map and some vague directions we prepared to venture out, but only after some stern warnings from the guide that we were to meet at the Glass Pyramid by the Louvre and that we should be there by 2:00 pm or we would be left behind. (And he meant it!)
“How hard can this be?” I thought as we set off.
The first job was to get to the Arc de Triomphe from a side street where we had left the bus. It didn’t take long for us to get completely lost since Paris is not built on a grid system. Instead, all the streets converge on town centres. After wandering in circles for a while we decided to take the metro. Thankfully our French teacher was along and she was able to read the directions and purchase tickets.
After some photos at the Arc, it was time for lunch somewhere along Champs Elysees and then head down the length of the street to the Louvre at the far end (which was visible in the distance). But the adults wanted a sit-down meal and the students wanted fast food, so I agreed that if the students stayed together, watched the time, and then headed directly to the museum, we would meet up there.
So the adults enjoyed a delicious lunch, but typical of European restaurants it took a while to be served. I looked at my watch, then the map and felt we would be okay if we didn’t stop along the way. But after ten minutes of walking I started to get concerned. The Tuileries were the halfway mark, but where was it? Finally, after walking for another ten minutes we arrived at the far side of the huge Garden. It was at this point that I knew we were in trouble.
“I’m going to run ahead to make sure they wait for us,” I told my fellow teacher and I started to jog.
I’d like to say that I loped along like a gazelle down that fashionable street, but as I puffed and panted, I probably looked more like a lame, old work horse. After fifteen minutes of running my lungs were burning and my legs felt like water, but I dared not stop for fear I wouldn’t be able to start again.
Finally the Louvre was only a couple of blocks away and I felt some renewed energy pump into my system. The end was near at hand, or as it almost turned out, my end. All I heard was the screeching of brakes as a car skidded to a halt mere inches away from me. In my haste (and probably delirium by that time) I had run straight through an intersection into the oncoming traffic.
Thankfully our group was still there waiting for us and, miraculously, I was on time.
On my next visit to Paris I plan to leisurely stroll the entire length of Champs Elysees, as my first venture down that street is pretty much a blur!
Just to clarify – EF is a great travel company. We just happened to get a rather laidback guide on that trip.