January 29, 2011

Flying Solo

When I said I was going to Paris for Thanksgiving week last year my friends and family smiled and nodded their heads. Sure you are, they thought to themselves. I can’t say I blame them, I’m full of grand plans that seem to fall through for some reason or another. What they didn’t know was I had no intention of letting anything come between me and Paris. Everyone was surprised when one by one the pieces started falling together. I purchased my airline ticket two days after my father’s funeral and after copious research booked a hotel room and made arrangements for my daughter to stay with family and friends while I was gone. What started out as a proclamation became a real trip.

At the back of everyone's mind was: Who flies across the world to a place where they don’t speak the language and don’t know a soul during the Thanksgiving week holiday? I do and it was one of the very best decisions I made in 2010.

On the eight hour flight from Washington, DC to Paris, France my mind raced with questions: Was I crazy? Why hadn’t I listened to my Coffee Break French podcasts with more discipline in the months leading up to the trip? Did I have enough money? What if I got sick while I was there? At some point, I just gave in and let my thoughts wander to nowhere.

This is when my journey truly began and I woke up in FRANCE!

There is no place on earth like the city of Paris. I fell in love before I even got out of the airport. As a photographer, I could hardly see the city with both my eyes since I was nearly always peering through the lens of my camera framing one shot or the other. The Champs Elysees became my outdoor dining hall and after my first night I abandoned restaurant dining to in favor of Nutella and banana crepes dusted with powdered sugar, mulled wine, and foie gras on warm baguette, among other culinary delights considered to be 'street food' by the locals.

There are few places on the planet that have as dense a concentration of the art masterpieces as Paris. The Musee d’Orsay, Museum L’Orangerie, and of course the Louvre house works by Monet, Manet, Gaugin, Rodin, Picasso, Renoir and a host of other artists... As much as I thought I was ready to see these famous pieces, I have to admit I started to practically hyperventilate before I entered the Musee D'Orsay. I couldn't believe I was actually there.

Paris overwhelmed me everyday in the best possible way. The Arc d'Triomphe. The Eiffel Tower. Notre Dame. The Sacre Coeur. I didn't miss a thing and I was awe struck at every turn. It is a fantastic thing to be in a state of wonder at 43. When we become adults I think we forget to just allow things to overwhelm our senses and take us for a grand ride. Paris took me for a ride and I enjoyed every second of it.

I reveled in the freedom that comes from having no plans and somewhere on the journey I found myself. I learned much about myself in the week that I spent alone in another country. A stillness descends over you when there is nobody to talk to and you have time to be alone with your thoughts. Sitting in the Museum L'Orangerie one afternoon in front of one of Monet's 'Water Lily' panels I was overcome with emotion at the realization that I'd really come so far, that my father was dead, that it was Thanksgiving Day in America, and that within the reach of my arm spread out across an elliptical wall was an artistic masterpiece that I've admired all my life ... in books. There was not a minute of my time in Paris that did not delight me in some way.

My desire to spend time in a place I'd never been where I didn't know anybody and didn't speak the language stemmed from a need to test myself. I felt a tremendous restlessness after my father's death and need to push myself to be a little uncomfortable because that is when I always grow ... and learn.

I noticed some things about the French people on my journey ...
  • The French wear scarves and they wear them with style. Not big bulky heavy woolly things, but sophisticated, almost ethereal ones that appear to be ever-so-casually draped around their necks, but mind you - the French do everything with care.
  • The French do NOT walk around the streets drinking their coffee. They drink coffee sitting in cafes because it is the civilized thing to do. However, they think nothing of eating warm baguettes whilst walking down the street or a sandwich for that matter.
  • You can actually eat food and drink beverages on the Metro in Paris! This was a real shock to me since you risk being sent to solitary confinement after you are arrested and handcuffed to a trashcan by one of DC's finest if you so much as eat a KitKat on the Metro in DC.
  • The average meal in Paris lasts upwards of two hours in a restaurant. If you think that you are going to sit down and get in and out in less time than that - forget about it. In fact, you might appear rude. This is a place where you have to slow down and you should. The food is fantastic and should be savored. There is no rush.
  • Crossing the street in Paris is a death-defying act not to be undertaken by the faint of heart. Stepping into an intersection just because it is 'your turn' might just get you hit. My strategy? - always wait for someone else to step out first. (Hey!, I had a 14-year-old to get back home to.)
Without exception, every single person I met was unfailingly kind to me during my visit. My French leaves much to be desired - no really, I am not being modest, but I really tried hard. I was able to get by without too many mishaps (we won't get into excruciating detail about my 2.5 hour trek from the airport into the heart of Paris via the Train and Metro - let's just say I definitely know my way around the Metro now and leave it at that!) People will help you if they see that you are trying. That said, I observed some truly atrocious behavior from some of my fellow countrymen and each time it happened, I pretended to speak no English (no,  I don't think that was wrong in the least.)

Will I go back? Absolutely! I'm now practicing my French in earnest as I am determined to be able to have at least one conversation the next go round. Travelling reminds me that for all that separates us as human beings what brings us together is greater - a smile, holding a door, sharing a good meal, getting lost in the smile of a baby, helping someone in need.

The barriers are in our minds.

A' la prochaine!


  1. We hope your Coffee Break French came in useful, and that your wonderful experiencse in Paris have filled you with renewed enthusiasm for learning.

    À bientôt,
    Mark and the Coffee Break French team

  2. I didn't discover Coffee Break French in enough time to fully reap the benefits of study in time for my trip this past November, Mark, however, I plan to return to Paris this summer and am listening, practicing, and giggling (in my car to the amusement of the drivers around me) EVERYDAY on my lengthy commute in and out of Washington, D.C. The program just magnificent. Thank you for helping we hapless souls out here.

    À bientôt,

  3. It is time for me to trek back to Paris as well -- solo again. It is probably the best way to view Paris the first time. I will have to employ the "civility" move of "you first" when crossing the street.