Paris feels like somebody took Rome and stretched it out. Paris has wide boulevards in place of Rome’s winding alleys, verdant parks instead of cobbled piazzas, and speedy subways rather than wheezing buses. I noticed a lot of similarities between the cities, but Paris felt distinctly more like a working city. It seems like everyone in Rome must work in service or tourism because the city’s industrial, commercial center is invisible. There are no skyscrapers in Rome. There are no skyscrapers in the heart of Paris either, but the tall buildings of the La Defense financial district pop up at the eastern end of the Champs Elysees.
When my parents visited me in Rome, I realized just how much Italian is spoken in Rome and how difficult Rome would be for non-Italian speakers to negotiate. Paris was very French – even in areas that were highly populated by tourists, the vendors and ticket agents spoke French. Maybe they were just reluctant to speak English – the French have a whole academy dedicated to preserving their lovely language from the bastardizing influence of English and words like “iPod” and “weekend.”
I took French for four years in high school. Switching to Italian in college caused me to promptly forget nearly all of the French I had learned, so I was curious to see what French would come back to me during my visit to Paris. Not much. Out of the seven boys I was traveling with (we picked up a few along the way), I was the only person who had any remote experience with the language, so I suddenly became chief translator and navigator. Miraculously, I managed to remember my polite French (greetings, how to order at a restaurant, etc.), and that was almost enough to get by for three days.
Paris was my only non-negotiable this semester. When the semester began, I knew I didn’t want to visit cities that I might be able to see later in life; that’s why I came out so strongly against visiting London. Having never been to Paris, I knew that it was absolutely essential for me to visit during my semester in Europe. Yes, there is a good chance that I’ll go back to Paris later in life, but there is also no way that I would have felt satisfied in my travels if I had skipped it now.
–Eiffel Tower: Wow. In pictures, we usually see the Eiffel Tower as part of the Parisian skyline, normally far off in the distance. Up close and personal, it’s really big. I’m not one for heights, but standing underneath gave me a good sense of what it might have been like to climb the stairs and take the elevator up to the top.
On our first night in Paris, we took the Metro over to the Eiffel Tower and arrived at 10:40 p.m., just after the last elevators went up, so we made our way to the adjacent park to take pictures. We were goofing around and taking all sorts of silly photos in the dark when all of a sudden, the Tower erupted into a million flashing lights. Surprise! None of us knew, but each night, there is a five-minute long light show every hour, on the hour at the Eiffel Tower after nightfall. It was stunningly beautiful. The unexpected light show was just magical – it absolutely made my trip.
–The Louvre: I went to the Louvre by myself, and it completely stressed me out. It’s one of those sublime things, knowing that it is just too big for one person to handle and appreciate at once. I saw the Mona Lisa. I had been well prepared to expect it to be small, so I actually thought it was bigger than everyone made it out to be. It pretty much looked like every picture I’ve ever seen of it. More interesting was the “Wedding at Cana” painting on the opposite wall. I saw the Venus de Milo, I saw the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Check, check, check.
In a fervent and frustrated attempt to evade umbrella-brandishing groups of Asian tourists, I ended up in a rather empty wing of the Louvre, surrounded by lots of tapestries and cabinets. I think the only way I would be able to do the Louvre the right way would be with a guide and a lot of time. Never again will I go to a European city without a guidebook – preferably one by Rick Steves. I can’t imagine how much more I would have gotten out of the Louvre with a good guidebook. The audio guide for the Louvre was kind of useless, but I suppose it would be unrealistic to have substantive commentary for more than 35,000 works.
More than anything, the Louvre made me realize how fortunate I am to be living in Italy. Most of the Louvre’s most famous pieces are Italian works. Living 20 minutes from the Vatican Museums and three hours from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence has spoiled me. I barely gave the Louvre’s two Michelangelo “Prisoners” a glance on my first pass – I had seen six or eight of those at the Accademia in Florence, right down the hall from the David! On my way back from the Mona Lisa, I sat down on a bench near the Prisoners and punched in the audio guide numbers, mentally scolding myself for being so bratty about art. Six Michelangelos is better than two Michelangelos. Really? Any Michelangelos are better than no Michelangelos, which is what South Bend and Raleigh have got. Even though the Louvre was a bit of an overload for me, it really made me appreciate the amazing quality of the museums and galleries that I have easy access to in and around Rome.
–Musee d’Orsay: I preferred the Musee d’Orsay to the Louvre not only because of its vastly more manageable size, but also because the Orsay’s impressionist collection was more to my taste. It probably helped that I had a Rick Steves podcast tour to walk along with, too. The smaller crowds at the Orsay made it easy to get up close and personal with works by Monet, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Degas, Renoir, and Cezanne. I have to credit my parents for exposing me to great art when I was young, for we spent many weekends wandering the halls of the Art Institute of Chicago. I have vague memories of visiting Van Gogh and Degas exhibitions in Chicago, and I have clear memories of the big Monet in Normandy exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art a few years back, so it was fun to be able to see those types of works with fresh eyes.
Now that I’m painting, I feel like I can appreciate the amount of work that goes in to that sort of thing. For example, Van Gogh used a ton of paint – just gobs and gobs of it. I’m definitely not the first person to notice this, but Van Gogh’s heavy hand really stuck out to me now that I have experience putting a brush to canvas.
–Notre Dame: Finally, I was in a place where saying “Note-rah Dahm” didn’t sound pretentious! Of course, one of the boys wore a Notre Dame (that’s “Noder Dayme”) t-shirt on the evening we visited the famous church. The façade was pretty much what I expected (no hunchback sightings), but we approached the church from behind. In the back of the church, there is a lovely little park/garden area with swings and trees and benches. It was full of happy families and kids frolicking in the shadows of the hulking flying buttresses. I’d definitely recommend walking around the back to see the apse (or, as our tour guide unintentionally but hilariously and rather accurately called it, the “ass”) of the church.
Notre Dame is Gothic and arch-y inside, complete with massive rose stained glass windows. When we entered, a Mass was about to begin. We thought we might be ushered out, but we were allowed to hang around the perimeter of the church and take pictures. After a few minutes of terrifying organ prelude, the Bishop of Paris began processing down the main aisle towards the altar. No kidding!
–Dinner: On my last night in Paris, I went out to a fancy dinner with the boys because George’s parents had offered to take us all out for a great French meal, and what a meal we had. George picked the restaurant, and we enjoyed six courses paired with four different wines. We were all very thankful for the opportunity to experience such an important part of French culture that we wouldn’t have done on a student budget.
We saw lots of other wonderful things in Paris, like Sacre Coeur, Moulin Rouge, and the Arc de Triomphe. Three days in Paris was a good amount of time for a first visit, but I still have a lot to see. I missed out on Centre Pompidou, the modern art museum, and I didn’t have a chance to go out to Versailles. Paris definitely improved on certain aspects of Rome; it’s cleaner, greener, and easier to get around, but it misses some of the character of Rome. Paris is probably a slightly better city for tourists, but I don’t think I would ever want to live there – it would lose some of its shine and magic.