Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
My Dad was a professional minister who usually had a heavy schedule of church camps throughout the summer. I spent a couple of summers traveling with him and in the process managed to pass through some 30 states before I turned 16. At 25, married with a young child and with the nation was mired in the last throes of the Carter economy, I enlisted in the Navy.
Through the next 10 years, I planted my foot in the soil of 18 different countries, and in the years since have added another 8. I’ve never lost that itchy foot and the curiosity that drives my desire to travel refuses to wane.
Earlier this year, the opportunity to visit France arose. Our daughter-in-law was going to take the kids to Korea for the summer to spend time with her family. The airline routing they chose sent them east instead of west, with a layover in Paris. She discovered that she could extend that layover into a week with no additional charge. After some discussion, my wife and I decided to go along.
All my globetrotting to this point has been confined to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. When you spend a certain amount of time in a region, you develop knowledge and expectations which remain level regardless of which country you visit. Neither of us had ever been to Europe, so we really were at a loss even as to how to prepare.
Fortunately, the Internet is an inexhaustible source of information and we assiduously plumbed the depths of travel websites, learning and preparing.
Our routing on SAS was not a direct flight, but had a brief layover in Copenhagen before proceeding on to Paris. I was somewhat dubious about the hour or so allotted for the transfer, knowing that was a slim margin in a US airport. My doubts were well-founded. When we showed up at our gate at Washington Dulles, we were told that the plane assigned had a maintenance issue. The time to get a replacement erased the narrow time frame and virtually assured us that we would be late getting into Paris.
But depart we eventually did, around 7 pm local. With the difference in time zones, the flight became the dreaded red-eye.
I have never been able to sleep on an airplane, so I had plenty of time during the 7-hour flight to look out the window. It was a week before the Summer Solstice, and the great circle route our aircraft flew took us north, leaving North America over Newfoundland, across the southern tips of Greenland and Iceland, and Scotland before reaching the European mainland. The time of year plus the high latitudes meant that, for us, the sun never really went down. All “night” long, a sliver of our star stayed stubbornly just above the horizon. I had never experienced a midnight sun before.
The flight, a little less than two hours, was uneventful and we finally arrived in Paris. We retrieved our luggage and headed for the attached train station. Our intent was to take the high-speed train out to where our hotel was in a place called Val d’Europe, just east of Paris Disneyland. But due to some confusion with the ticket machine, we ended up on the conventional RER train. So instead of a quick 10-minute run, it took us about an hour and a half to get to our stop. Fortunately, the hotel was right across the street from the station. We checked in and then headed for our family rendezvous in Paris.
A little note here about the trains and credit cards. Europeans have all gone to chipped credit cards, in the interest of security. In order to use a conventional card, we needed one with a PIN. We ended up using cash to buy the tickets. So, if you’re going, and you intend to use the machines to buy train tickets, make sure you take a chipped card.
We boarded the train, riding to the Champ de Mars station where we headed north along Quai Branly until we rounded the curve and our eyes fell on the signature icon of Paris.
The Eiffel Tower was constructed in 1889 as the entrance arch to the World’s Fair. The iron lattice structure lances 1,063 feet into the air. Everyone’s seen pictures, and I’ve seen the smaller copy in Las Vegas, but that really doesn’t prepare you for how utterly massive this structure is in person. The base, 410 feet on each side, anchors on both sides of the Champ du Mars. It was a cloudy day, but that didn’t detract from the awe-inspiring sight.
There was a very strong police and army presence in the area around the Tower. As those who have visited know, the Eiffel area is a hotbed for pickpockets. They use a variety of techniques, including trying to get people to sign any manner of petitions. I saw several of these folks plying their trade. Fortunately, most people seemed to have been well-briefed and fended them off. The other law enforcement problem is the presence of illegal vendors selling anything from souvenir towers to selfie sticks. They would filter in to the area, then after a few minutes, Paris Police would rush them, either on foot or bicycle, and they would flee wildly. After watching this for a few rounds, I figured out that this was a game of sorts, since I never saw anybody get cuffed and wagoned.
The tragic attack at the publication Charlie Hebdo earlier this year got the attention of the French government. I saw several trios of uniformed soldiers with automatic weapons patrolling the area. Unlike other troops, these men didn’t talk to one another. They walked slowly with their heads on a swivel. Their weapons were not slung over their shoulders, but held across the chest, trigger fingers on the trigger guard, ready for instant use. I saw this almost everywhere we went in Paris, underscoring the concern, as well as the commitment to keep terrorists at bay.
After several coordinating text messages, we finally rendezvoused about an hour after we arrived. By that time, it was dinner time. After consulting a couple of websites and map apps, Robbie led us on a pretty good walk to a sidewalk restaurant called Carmine Café on Avenue de Suffren. The clouds had cleared off, and it was a perfect evening to dine outside in Paris.
As it turned out, Robbie had rented a minivan for the week and he graciously drove us back to our hotel, where we fell exhausted into bed about 1 am, having been on our feet for 37 hours.
We had planned to be up early and meet in Paris for shopping and sight-seeing, but we slept for nearly 12 hours and didn’t get into the city until almost 3 pm. With the ladies dictating events, we went directly to the Louis Vuitton store on the Champs-Elysees.
Another satisfied customer!
I managed to find something expensive to look at as well.
The Louis Vuitton label was founded by Mr. Vuitton in 1854 in Paris, introducing flat-bottom trunks with trianon canvas, which made them water-tight and light. Over the years, the brand became well known worldwide, and by the 1980s became the de rigueur fashion accessory for women.
We spent about three hours there, but our ladies left with full bags and big smiles.
The elevator took us most of the way, and then we had to negotiate two flights of narrow stairs, no small chore with a stroller. But once we reached the top, Paris opened up at our feet. It was a grand and glorious view, taking in the Eiffel, and also Sacred Heart atop its own hill about three miles to the northwest. We stayed up there, taking dozens of pictures as night fell and the City of Light earned its sobriquet.
It had been a glorious (if exhausting) two days, but a fine start to a 7-day sojourn.