Off to Foreign Shores

Essayist takes a trip to Paris and is illuminated in the "City of Light."

By Arthur H. Gunther III

PARIS -- It wasn’t  “Innocents Abroad,” but a just-completed trip to the City of Light and then to Amsterdam has given this country bumpkin a nice comeuppance, thank you: There is life beyond my parochial shores, and our great nation has lessons to learn from other countries.

I was on a journey with my wife Lillian, who has been owed this trip by a very much non-traveler for decades now, having been a stalwart companion, wife, mother and general fine human being. I went with half-certainty that I would not enjoy the getting to and getting from but would appreciate the sights and especially the people once I arrived. In the end, I surely liked those I met and what I saw, and I found the flights much better than I had fretted about. There were hiccups, yes -- the arranged pickup at Charles de Gaulle airport didn’t show for two hours, the Amsterdam hotel forgot to clean the room one day, and, oh, my knapsack was whisked from my side at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris, leaving me in the same clothes for several days. But Mark Twain could not have had a better experience once boosted to the great continent of Europe.

Paris is, as described --  magical, overfilling with life as it is being lived, not so much life before and after, but the very moment. So, it is exhiliarating. Food is eaten in small portions, the taste savored, the wine a matching partner. Parisians are not brusque, arrogant, indifferent. They are matter of fact, yes, civil, oh absolutely, helpful, especially if you offer a few words in their language, and polite. Most of all, they -- all French are -- proud. These are the descendants of the Bastille, the citoyen (citizens) who went to arms in the 1789 Revolution, the survivors of two world wars and the Nazi occupation. An obelisk marks the guillotine site; bullet holes from the World War II Resistance dot the limestone walls of buildings along the Champs-Élysées; frequent military parades include 90 year olds standing straight at the Arc de Triomphe. They live their history.

Paris is at peace now but seemingly always ready to react to controversial politics; to changing fashion, of which it is a master; to injustice, to threats against liberté, égalité, fraternité.

The Eiffel Tower, a “temporary” structure  set by Gustave Eiffel for the 1889 World’s Fair, looms over the city, a direction point for lost visitors, whether by geography or by emotion. A trip to its top, almost a must, gives views of Paris in the round, the arrondissements or districts and the history within so visible.

And then there is the Seine, the origin of Paris, with its two remaining islands, Ile St. Louis and Ile de le Citie.  Ile St. Louis  is where artists and other bohemians live, and now the upper classes. Ernest Hemingway wrote there, in a quiet contrasted to fast-paced Paris. Ile de le Citie is the official center, populated by many as Paris was settled and built up. Many of the famous features of the city are on it, including Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle and the Palais de Justice.

A visit to Paris can be made for pleasure, for love, for curiosity, to relax, to see historic sights. For me, the City of Light revealed life beyond my quite-ordinary, comfortable world. The Parisians we met set aside any stereotype unfortunately gained, as any such judgment is. This non-traveler would have tarried longer, as morning coffee at a sidewalk bistro table, light off the Seine and the frequent “bonjour!” in such beautiful accent began to clothe me in a comfortable jacket and shoes that I could easily wear for quite a spell. I wasn’t just American anymore, not just a proud American, but a citizen of Paris, too.  I was an innocent abroad, a pilgrim, but I am a lot less so now.

Merci, mes amis.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.

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Maureen October 24, 2012 at 05:15 PM
Robert and Art! Don't take me TOO seriously. After all I ended the comment with ;-) But, Art, you did say "there IS life beyond your "parochial shores"". Hence 'insular' and 'island'. ;-) And you didn't tell me anything new about Paris. However, I am serious about the French and the English! My experience in France, I understand French reasonably well, is that the waiters and the public are rude and disdainful about those they believe are 'American'. Ask for a minor thing and the waiters will go on in French to one another about the "American". On the other hand the Italians, Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, Irish are warm, welcoming and friendly. Ask the Italians for directions and they will practically walk you there - ask the French and they will say "I don't know". They DO know - they just won't bother to help you. Where is the Eiffel Tower .... I don't know! Really! And put the English and the French in a room together - just forget it - it's like to cocks circling one another for a 'hen fight'. There are three great cities in the World - London, Paris and New York - London has living history with its palaces - Paris has a dead history with empty palaces - New York has no history or palaces. But it is not the people of London or of Paris that make them great cities - the people of New York ... WOW!
art gunther III October 24, 2012 at 06:28 PM
Maureen -- yes, we all should watch our "seriousness" -- we all need to lighten up a bit. I found the Parisian waiters, clerks, etc., quite helpful and not rude at all. But that is just my experience. I did try to speak in French, and they seemed to respect that, though my language is Spring Valley High acquired (thank you, Miss Dismukes!). New York DOES have history -- the history of the world, as so many immigrants have come and do come here. Queens borough offers more languages than any one place in the world.
Miguel Hernandez October 25, 2012 at 12:43 PM
I spent three days in Paris last year and found the French citizens I encountered on the street and working in the hotel were pleasant and helpful. I only speak a few words of French and this did not put them off. One woman sat along side me on the bus and alerted me about my stop. This year I went to Madrid and several other Spanish cities. Again its citizens were uniformly helpful. Waiters, taxi drivers, bellmen etc do not have theier hands out for tips. In fact one bellman refused to take a tip saying that it was his job to help guests. Another thing no one rushes you at restaurants and you practically have to beg to get them to get the check.
Laura C. October 25, 2012 at 02:46 PM
That's interesting, Maureen, that you had this experience in Paris. I was there when I was younger and found the Parisians to be very friendly and helpful. I've also been to other areas of France and found the same thing. The first thing people asked us on returning was "OMG aren't the French RUDE??" No, no they aren't.
art gunther III October 25, 2012 at 03:15 PM
The people I have met from Valencia, Spain, are quite polite, to the point of taking it seriously. Long live Spain!


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