Looking Back – A Beginner’s Guide to Paris, France

Paris, France

(Actual Trip Date: September 3 – 5, 2010)

Paris is one of the most romanticized cities in the world, but when I arrived, expecting glamor and lights and beauty, I experienced disappointment. But my emotions changed over time about this city of lights. It progressed from disappointment to excitement to disappointment to frustration to awe and to disappointment and finally, many weeks later –pondering about the days of Paris-, appreciation.

My second weekend required our whole group of students to make your own arrangements and travel down to Paris, France. The first day, Friday, would involve a group trip to Pasteur Institute named after Pasteur who is one of the figures we were all learning about in History of Medicine. Pasteur is known for creating the Germ Theory of Disease. He invented pasteurization and also created the second vaccine after Jenner’s cowpox-smallpox inoculation. The vaccine was for anthrax.

Odd how I was going to travel all the way to Paris for an education in the history of medicine. Usually when I think of Paris, I think of fashion and lights and romance.

A group of my friends and I took an early fast morning train to Paris Friday morning. Upon arriving, we decided to stroll across Paris to the Pasteur Institute. It’s not too big of a deal. Foolishly, we were arrogant from our latest trip to Belgium and proud how we hadn’t fainted walking all over the small Belgium towns. So there you have it: we walked across Paris from the northern tip to the southern tip to Pasteur Institute and arrived there, out of breath, pissed, tired, and frustrated. We were also the last group to arrive since we weren’t so smart to take the metro. We definitely learned our lesson. (It took us an hour and a half to walk across and we also stopped for lunch). So lesson to all those traveling: TAKE THE METRO. The metro is your friend.

Before coming to Paris, our professors and my cousins had warned me that the people in Paris are not as friendly as others would be. True to what they said, we encountered two rude encounters my whole time in Paris. The number two seems small but it’s huge in my head considering the zero rude encounters in other countries I’ve been in. Many of the French people know little to a great amount of English. You know they know they can speak by just initiating conversation with them. The problem is that they don’t have any desire to speak English with you; even if you need help. The first restaurant we sat down for lunch held an owner who refused to serve us just because we started to order in English. Or maybe was it because we asked for no drinks? Who knows? My second encounter was when I was buying tickets at the metro station. I needed to ask a question, and when English started stumbling out of my mouth, the lady glared at me through the window and said very tersely, “No English!” before shutting off the microphone on my side. Stunned, I gaped for a couple mini-seconds before moving to the ticket machines to figure it out on my own.

But the strange pattern for my group was that only the women were unnecessarily rude to us. There were several French men who came up to us and politely asked in English if we needed help. Hm. Do the women feel threaten by our presence? Ha! Just a far-fetched notion.

Ending conclusion: I wasn’t a fan of the social atmosphere of Paris. The air smelled polluted and dirtied by cigarette smoke compared to the rather clean Belgium and Maastricht air I was used to. Some people were rude, and everyone just radiated an aura of frigidness. The atmosphere in most parts of the city never felt friendly. Of course, I never felt unsafe. I just never felt extremely light-hearted. I think the only time I felt rather bouncy with an airy heart was under the gleaming Eiffel Tower at night, but I’ll get into that later.

The first day at Paris involved a mood of exhaustion. We had just literally hiked across Paris to Pasteur and then took a metro back to our hostel. We only ended up doing a couple things that evening, but looking back, I really wished I did the bike tour in Paris. Note to other travelers: the Fat Tire Bike Tour in Paris during the evening is a must!

Moving across the bridge built over the Seine River while trying to seek dinner was a lovely sunset walking excursion. The rays of the descending sun shone warmly and majestically, reflecting across the waters and illuminating the bridges. It was then I truly started to see the magic of Paris’s beauty. We passed by orchids in windows beaming with little glass figures and stumbled upon a castle-like structure near the restaurant we had dinner by. Later, we spent a great time just marveling at the Notre Dame Cathedral and its intricacy. Looking closer and closer at the structure, my eyes outlined figures complicatedly etched and preserved over so many years. It’s an amazing feeling to look at all these cathedrals across Europe that has lasted hundreds of years. Walking around Notre Dame and giggling and pointing out the different faces of the gargoyles while conversing about the long-ago Gargoyle show, peace started to enter my tired being after a very long day of walking.

As the sky enveloped in darkness and we headed back over the bridge, ice cream cones in our hands, laughing about some silly inside joke, I began to believe maybe Paris will have a happy ending after all.

The next day, we woke up bright and early, intending to hit many tourist attractions as possible while finding time to study in the park. We were leaving early Sunday morning back to Maastricht since we wanted as much time as possible to study for our upcoming Epidemiology and Pathophysiology tests. The first test week was approaching! My room mate and I already had plans to come back to Paris anyways during our last three weeks of travel to hit up the remaining sights, see Versailles, and let my roomie go to a ballet performance.

The bridge over the Seine River in the morning was probably one of my favorite sights during our time in Paris. The sun just lights up the whole world of Paris and despite my thoughts on the social atmosphere, everything feels warmer and more amiable. And to make any morning better, we had a steaming mug of hot chocolate and decadent chocolate croissants.

The Louvre Museum was the first place we went in the morning. Needless to say, it was amazing. There were so many sections to choose from that we didn’t know where to start, nor did we have the time to see everything. Browsing through the extensive map, we decided to run through two levels which had most of the artwork and statues we wanted to see. In about two hours, we walked through Ancient Greek, Egypt, and Italian paintings. The common theme in my group was our constant excitement over the mother-baby relationships depicted in the carefully-drawn portraits. Biggest disappointment? The Mona Lisa hidden behind a bullet-proof glass wall. Very tiny.

Just an advice to all travelers: I’ve learned that usually the things most raved about are usually the most disappointing. Instead, try and find beauty in the smaller things – the objects most tourists’ eyes don’t feast upon and you’ll find a jewel. Like we did in all the gorgeous warm-colored Italian paintings of angels, women, pale faces, and babies.

The garden behind the Louvre was where we ended up relaxing for a while, taking out our notes or just taking a nap. The air felt rather clean there, filtered by Mother Nature. Traveling, I figured out very quickly, takes a toll on you. I would think vacation means relaxation but back-packing is a whole other version of traveling. There are many times where I just want to find a park and chill.

For some reason, we ended up walking all the way across Paris again to another station to buy train tickets for the next day. There we figured out we had to get up at the crack of dawn if we wanted any chance of leaving Paris tomorrow. Yay for the surprises of traveling! Also, another obvious note to any traveler: don’t try and break in boots while traveling. My poor aching feet.

As evening set in, we picked up our pace of sight-seeing, walking over to the Arc de Triomphe before hiking over to the Eiffel Tower. By the time night fell, our mood had fallen into great graces again with light humor and smiles. It’s a great feeling to see everyone get over their initial frustrations of traveling. I always, somehow, end up feeling like a mother in any group I travel. I always make sure people are happy before I am, because if they’re not happy, how could I be?

Best time in Paris? Our time under Eiffel Tower! While laughing over stupid jokes and hilarious moments of the past, we stood below the gleaming tower and joined hands while grinning for pictures. The tower by day from afar doesn’t feel impressive, but by night, it’s as though everything had changed. Being under the tower left me completely speechless. The structure was far larger and taller than I ever dreamed the tower was and just walking underneath it felt like a dream. Not too long ago I was in America packing for this trip and now I’m walking under the Eiffel Tower?! There are so many surreal moments on the trip that makes me appreciate what I have so much more. Every sight is humbling.

Then the tower started glowing and glittering in blue lights. (“the tower is having a seizure!”) The fresh air whipped our tendrils of hair around our faces and the blithe glow soaked into our bones. Energy filled each and every one of us and a liberation feeling set in.

Having nutella crepes later before heading to our hostel, wonderful conversation, and listening to French people party all night long set the last pieces to the puzzle of a perfect night.

Looking back at my experience of the city of lights, I can’t help but grin and think of the joyous, completely carefree moments under the Eiffel Tower and the aweing beauty of the bridge over the Seine River by morning.

I was definitely annoyed with Paris at first, but now I’m satisfied. I’m looking forward to going back and letting my roomie experience the Paris ballet and giving me time just to sit, breathe, relax, and write.

I own all photography


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