“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Romantic Parisian Notions

Last night I watched two Samantha Brown episodes about Paris.  This morning as my alarm clock sounded, I dreamed that I was awaking in Paris.  I'm coming to find that once it gets under your skin, it's tough to get Paris back out.  And I've never been there.

While we were planning the Italy trip, we were vying for a side trip outside Rome and Naples.  Malta was a strong contender until we discovered logistically it wasn't possible this time around.  Carrie threw Paris out into the universe as a possibility, and before I could blink, it was confirmed.  I won't say I never had plans to visit Paris, but it wasn't at the top of my list.  I'm an archaeological girl.  I like ancient ruins.  But hey, when someone taps me on the shoulder and says I'm headed to Paris in a few months, I'm not turning down the opportunity.  It certainly came out of left field.  I had been in a Rome-state-of-mind up to that point.  Paris?  I hadn't done any research.  I knew nothing.  Eiffel Tower, Louvre, cheese.

Luxor's missing obelisk on the right,
now in Place de Concorde, Paris
Next was the research.  I had to find something in Paris that wasn't ancient but still stirred my soul.  I had to search for a new meaning and passion in Paris.  I soon discovered that not only does the Louvre house a remarkable Ancient Egyptian collection, but it's also the home to the Hammurabi Code of Laws stele.  We're off to a good start.  Of course there's also the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and Napoleon's Apartments.  Soon a plan started to emerge... This was getting exciting.  I read a fascinating book years ago - Measure of All Things - which was the true story of two Parisian scientists that set out to measure the exact length of the meter.  The history of the modern Western world owed so much to Paris.  The Place de Concorde holds an Egyptian obelisk that used to rest outside the Temple of Luxor, where I visited a few years ago.  I now feel like I'm on an international treasure hunt.  Napoleon's expedition to Egypt was a ground-breaking journey and the dawn of modern Egyptology.  In his failed conquest, he brought with him scientists, botanists, artists, geologists, astronomers, and together they chronicled the first thorough written catalog of Egypt, the Description de l'Egypt.  This massive volume set stirred the imaginations of explorers and travelers, including that of Jean-Francois Champollion, the man who deciphered the Rosetta Stone.  Napoleon's army discovered the stele in Rosetta, Egypt, but when the British overwhelmed France in North Africa, the final settlement agreement was to surrender the Rosetta Stone to the British, which is how it ended up in the British Museum in London.

When I was growing up in Rhode Island, we'd spend nearly every summer touring the mansions in Newport.  I'll always have fond memories of running around the ocean-facing lawn in front of the Breakers, and marveling at the extravagance of that estate.  To the Vanderbilts, that was merely a summer "cottage".  So seeing Versailles would be a sentimental journey.  I grew up visiting the "palaces" of Industrial American royalty; it would be equally as exciting to compare it to the ultimate example of opulence.  Luckily, I believe this will happen.  The way we've configured our few days in Paris, by knocking off the Louvre on the first evening, we'll have 3 full days of sightseeing, of which we could probably easily spend a morning at Versailles.  Some of my family grew up in France and have highly recommended visiting Versailles, often comparing it to Newport, and then some.

There's also Napoleon's tomb, Louis Pasteur's laboratory, Chanel's atelier, charcuterie, unpasteurized cheese, inexpensive wine, the Catacombs, and Pere-Lachaise Cemetary, the eternal home of famous artists, musicians, and writers.  Throw in some ice skating, cafes, possible Segway tours at night through a twinkling city, and then there's the food... Hotel Ritz, home of Auguste Escoffier, and more Michelin stars in town than I have fingers on which to count.  We promptly attacked the Top 50 list and managed reservations at #19.

I've traveled to many countries in which I haven't been able to speak the language.  Before I travel I try to get the basics down, like "please", "thank you", "hello" and "goodbye".  However, I'm a freaking out a little bit about Paris.  Will I remember my 5th grade French?  I could care less about learning much Italian.  That is, I can cram for some in-flight Italian on the way there.  It's not a far departure from Spanish and comprehension hasn't been difficult.  But Paris?  As Rex Harrison said in My Fair Lady, "The French don't care what you say, actually, as long as you pronounce it properly."  Egad!  And manners, let's talk about French etiquette.  I'm terrified of sticking out like an American tourist, and/or offending someone such as a shopkeep or a waiter.  I feel like I'm cramming for a test.  French movies, French music, travel programs, language lessons on the iPad, to name a few.  Fortunately many friends have visited Paris and have given me some great advice.

Granted, Paris in the springtime would be beautifully ideal... if other tourists didn't also agree.  But I'm also very glad we're going in the dead of winter.  A seriously low season in the tourism industry, fewer crowds, season-ending sales, shorter lines, and warming up in a cafe over wine or coffee, a hot croissant, and some beautifully gooey brie.  These are my romantic notions of Paris.  Will it live up to what I've constructed in my imagination?  I'll be blogging once again from Rome and Paris (on my own iPad this time!), and will keep you posted.  I'm sure lovely Paris won't fail to disappoint.