Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mercy, Merci!

Ah, Paris. Gay Paris, the City of Light, the city on the Seine. Growing up, my mother frequently spoke French around me and the language sounded beautiful, almost magical. I took two years of French in high school and was convinced that I was in love with France and that all things Parisian were the epitome of style, class, and culture. When the stars aligned and Mom and I had the time, the money, and a guided trip all planned out for us, we ecstatically booked our tickets and were giddy at the idea of finally strolling the Champs-Elysees! This was going to be the trip of a lifetime. And then our plane landed.

My first inkling that all was not as I had dreamed was on the shuttle from the airport. I leaned against the window, waiting to see the beautiful French countryside--perhaps cobblestone streets and flower carts as we got closer to the city--and instead was greeted by prefabricated metal warehouses and overpasses littered with gang graffiti. The shuttle dropped us off somewhere near/close to/around where the driver thought our hotel might be, since he had never heard of the place. As it turns out, no one had. Thank God for all those French lessons Mom and I had under our belts, because we stopped every person on the street we could flag down in search of what our guide had told us was a  small, "boutique" hotel right off the Champs Elysees. Two hours later, we stumbled up our *very* modest accommodations.

As it turns out, "boutique" in this case was a term descriptive of Motel 6 quality lodgings. The Ritz Carlton it was not. The elevator was only big enough for two people at a time, so we took turns going up to our rooms, which were just large enough to hold a set of twin beds and about a foot of space around the perimeter to navigate. I was glad to have small feet, because anyone with a shoe size of 8.5 or greater would have struggled for a foot path. I won't even get started on the bellman who lurked around every corner giving us long, disturbing stares (you had to be there and feel him literally breathing down your neck). Even still, we were in Paris! Let the sightseeing begin!

The trouble with the sightseeing is that our very expert guide, who had (allegedly) visited Paris  numerous times, got us lost every time we ventured out of our hostel motel little boutique hotel. Even in my (ahem) stylish touristy walking shoes, we trudged exhaustively through that city from tip to tail and back again. Every. Single. Time we went out. I have seen alleys and side streets and avenues that are oblivious to the average Parisian visitor. We would walk north for 20 minutes, only for our guide to "remember" another route and then we would U-turn and walk south for 35 more minutes before finally arriving at our destination. The City of Light can be quite taxing that way. Do you remember the Family Circus cartoons that showed Billy's footprints all over the place during the course of his day? I shudder to think of what ours would look like if they had been documented.

But all that walking would help burn off the wonderful French food in which we were indulging, right? Only our breakfasts consisted of dry toast at the Motel 6 (also known as the Hotel Galileo, if you are ever looking to punk someone who is traveling to Paris. Be sure and tell that bellman I sent you). Someone had taken all the small jars of jelly as souvenirs, and no one thought fit to put out any more, and so we enjoyed plain toast or a bowl of Raisin Bran (ooh, la, la: how French!) before each glorious day's adventures commenced.

Here we are at the Eiffel Tower. On the outside: smiling. On the inside: dy-ing.

I have heard that there are wonderful open air markets all over Paris where one can buy fresh baguettes and cheese, but they were but a rumor during my trip--we searched but never came across one. Almost every lunch and dinner had been prearranged by our savvy tour guide, and we were left without any choice of what we would dine on at every meal. Apparently, salmon served very rare (read: still swimming) is a popular cuisine in Paris, or at least it was for our group. Salmon for lunch, salmon for dinner, bon appetite, repeat. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the McDonald's corporation for their franchise located on the Avenue de Champs Elysees, or I might have died from starvation. The Royal with cheese was a true lifesaver, and worth every euro I paid for it. By day four, I thought it only fair to warn our travel companions that I would kill a man with my bare hands for a Little Debbie snack cake.

On the last night of our long, strange, trip, our guide had arranged for us to see an authentic French cabaret show. She deemed the Moulin Rouge too seedy and instead booked us a "much classier" evening at a place called the Lido. If you have never been and are yearning to go, let me help you travel vicariously by setting the scene: this classy show we were treated to consisted of women of every shape, size, and color dancing, jumping, bouncing, and jiggling wearing nothing but headdresses and bedazzled thongs. And I'm pretty sure that the table mates next to us who were joyfully ogling this very tasteful display were Saddam Hussein and his cronies. That, mon amies, is entertainment.

I could go on and on (and on), but there are so many details from our French fiasco it would take days to fully disclose. And I'm afraid that if I delve too deeply, my post traumatic stress might come back. It has been five years next month since we took that fateful trip, but we still grimace when someone mentions it as if it were yesterday.

Maybe you went to Paris and you loved it. Maybe, like us, you begged the customs officer to please, for the love of God, let you back into the good ol' USA. I did get to see the Mona Lisa, Napoleon's tomb, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. I also got to see plenty of bums, pickpockets, dilapidated buildings, and Parisians who openly scoff with disdain at Americans. Quaint, it ain't, madams and monsieurs. If you still haven't been and you want a genuinely unforgettable experience, I have just the travel agency for you. And take it from someone who has been there: pack a few Little Debbies in your carry-on. My hairdresser summed it up perfectly when she heard about the trip and said, "Girl, I knew if Carrie didn't like it on Sex and the City, it couldn't be much." Carrie and I are in total agreement on this one.

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