It was mid-morning on a bright sunny day in September, 14 degrees Celsius in West London. We had been sitting around in our pajamas catching up and sharing stories of the goings-on in our lives over tea. The kitchen door was open so the cats could come in and out like the welcome breeze. My sister’s flat always felt like home to me. Her husband had already gone out for the day, but we were lazily preparing to head out to St Pancras International Train Station for me to board the Eurostar train to Paris. I had never been to Paris before, nor traveled through the tunnel under the English Channel to France. Of course I had been in France before, but never to Paris and never by myself.
The people in London walk so fast all the time. They hurry past you on the escalator like they are saying, this is MY city and YOU are in my way! I could have been on another planet compared to where I live on a Barrier Island in the Gulf of Mexico, twenty-five miles west of Tampa Florida. Rush-hour had ended, but the Tube was busy. A quick hug and kiss on the cheek and I entered a security checkpoint. I only had my rucksack, jammed full of what I thought I needed, and my purse. My suitcase, safely stored back in my sister’s bedroom behind the door, awaited my return. There were no issues as my bags passed through the x-ray scanner, my passport accepted, and online tickets printed back home, checked by French Customs Officers. The lines moved quickly. I looked back a couple of times and saw my sis smile and wave to me amid the hustle and bustle. I reciprocated. That feeling of belonging is such a beautiful, timeless thing.
Soon I claimed my window seat facing the direction of travel. I had planned the details of this trip from my sofa several months before. Today it was really happening. I plugged in my phone and pulled out the lunch packet I had grabbed at Pret-A-Manger at the station before boarding. It felt like I was a kid again going on a school trip without my parents. Primal excitement pulsed through me. The train started moving!
We flung along the track at an amazing one hundred twenty-five miles an hour. Quaint English country scenes flashed in the window and were quickly replaced, like in a video game, by brief moments of nothing. Short tunnels punctuated the tracks with darkness as we hurled in and out of them going faster and faster. A longer tunnel sucked us in and then another even longer one, without fanfare. Are we in France? I have only ever read about wormholes in the universe, but I imagined this to be a slow-mo version of what it could be like to travel through them. Suddenly, no more wind turbines in view and the electricity pylons took on a more stylish shape. We are in France, I concluded as the world of Claude Monet opened out before me. The romance of French country images kissed my eyes. My imagination soared.
We arrived on time at Gard Du Nord train station in the center of Paris. A little dazed, I made my way out into Rue de Dunkerque and Paris greeted me like a recurring childhood dream. That’s when my heart abandoned me. My inner compass shifted. I took a few steps forward and turned to look up at the majestic white stone facade from the 1860s. This train station is said to be the busiest station in Europe or indeed the world outside Japan. It sees 214 million passengers a year and it looked to me like they all gathered there for my arrival. Not surprising, the leading city in the world of beauty, fashion, and couture, gave the station a one billion dollar face-lift in 2015. The majestic beauty and sheer enormity of it with glinting statues along the top, took my breath.
Bundled into the back seat of a car, the hotel sent to meet me, I quickly discovered it is not a good idea to look through the windshield while being driven through the city. For as hectic as the inner-city commuters are in London Paris people have them beat by the power of ten. Add to that equation many high-speed scooters traveling randomly through an absolutely unorganized traffic flow. Meanwhile, a slew of quintessential Parisienne al-fresco-cafes, squashed onto narrow strips of sidewalk between tall buildings and congested traffic, harbored clutches of afternoon espresso drinkers and cigar enthusiasts. Yeah, this was Paris alright and my pulse leaped.
Endless red-lights on skinny avenues, piled high on each side with white limestone buildings in the Romanesque, Baroque, and Medieval architectural styles, choked me through the center of Renaissance Paris. A few minutes later, the route opened into rambling tree-lined parks that suddenly appeared and disappeared just as quickly. I saw a sign which read, Avenue des Champs-Elysees. Overwhelm filled my senses to bursting as the car cut through this city thick with history. We crossed over the river. Oh! My! It’s the Seine! Then I saw it – my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower piercing high up in revolt onto an iridescent blue sky.
I checked-in to my eleventh-floor premiere room – with complimentary robe and slippers – did I do that – must have checked the wrong box when I booked it! Oh well! I dropped my bags and hurled myself onto a comforter atop crisp white linens, and tried to center my self. Wine, I will have wine with dinner tonight for sure, I thought as I flicked on the remote and the TV started to spawn out Homer Simpson dubbed in French. Oh brother! Reaching in my purse I pulled out my pre printed ticket for 7:45 pm no-waiting ascent of the Eiffel Tower. Pinch me I must be dreaming. The hot shower felt so good against my skin and the provided shower gel filled the space with a spicy fragrance. I pulled on a change of clothes, but no perfume. I had entered the world-center for such and planned to load-up with perfume right there in France. I would buy the newest one! At the front desk the concierge gave me directions to the meeting point on my ticket and off I strode into a warm Paris evening.
Two short blocks from the hotel I joined a joyful group of sightseers at the designated office where our Tour Guide joined us and lead us toward the enigmatic iron marvel, the iconic symbol of Paris, the Eiffel Tower. As we walked, he divulged all the specs and secrets of its inception and history, but my brain had already been saturated that day and besides, my heart was in charge of me by then. I did not retain any of it. Pinch me again! We passed effortlessly through the large crowd gathered at the base and through the security checkpoint to board the elevator. Did I mention I’m not good with heights! Yikes!
Slowly the crammed carriage slid up the rail to the first floor and on to the second. The sun was just about to set as all of Paris stretched out in every direction below us.
It had been a beautiful day, but the evening air had a chill to it. Lines to the gift shops and restaurant were long, but I waited to fill a bag with purchased trinkets to take home. While I was busy doing that, the external lights came on. Magic filled the air and Paris came alive. On the way down, sparkly lights randomly darted all over the tower in some sort of orchestrated light show – amazing!
On the ground, I realized abruptly; darkness had fallen. Oh No! Suddenly aware of my isolation, I shuffled through the crowd in the general direction of my hotel only a block and a half away. Voices of friends back home telling me not to go out alone after dark swirled around in my head. Many of the people around me seemed to be headed in the same general direction where I was going, so I kept close to a middle-aged couple, smiling and nodding my head agreeably like Diane Keaton in many of her films, and moved fast. Before I knew it, I was back at my hotel. It was already 9:30 pm. I headed for the dining room to be ushered to a romantic little candle-lit table in the Jardin-restaurant amidst an array of fragrant flowering shrubs. I ate well; fresh fish and leafy greens with a couple of bites of garlic bread, all washed down with sips of the recommended white. Brie on toast-pieces with a little red berry garnish complimented the meal. I took my glass with me and the elevator whisked me up to my cloud where I slept a beautiful sleep.
I was already awake when my alarm went off the next morning. I ran from the shower to silence it. Saturday came fast and I had my tickets for Le Louvre and the Hop-on Hop-off City Big Red Bus Tour out on the dresser all ready. Continental breakfast fit with my schedule and before long I was heading to the taxi stand outside the front lobby of the hotel. We got there fast. Once again, a Tour Guide escorted the group along a few tight avenues and into the world-famous square. Morning sun glinted on the glass pyramid as we neared the entrance.
Security behind us and armed with our maps we descended the escalator into the heart of one of the most famous museums in Europe. Crowds of people congregated here and there along the many huge hallways and inside gigantic rooms aligned with art works of all kinds which included life-size marble statues and framed art masterpieces bigger than my house. My ultimate rendezvous, however, burned in my heart forcing me through long hallways and off into anterooms galore. Finally I looked at her – the one and only, the Mona Lisa. Was she looking back at me? What a thrill!
I ate lunch in one of the many cafes in the museum and wandered through the floors and up and down stairs and escalators in awe until I had no appreciation left in me. Fascinated by the shopping mall two floors down, underneath the museum, I made a couple of purchases before attempting to leave. I got lost. Since I had travelled from the USA to London only a few days before and hit the ground running, Jet-lag started to weigh me down and I could not find the way out. A few seconds of almost panic slammed me amidst gilded furniture and ornate rugs. I couldn’t breath. I found the information desk and made it out exhausted. Up on the streets, the temperature had climbed up with the sun to 26 degrees celsius, just under 80 farenheit. Paris was abuzz and in full swing with tourist hoards and the regular weekend shopping circus combined.
When the Hop-on bus showed up – I did just exactly that – I hopped on. Glad of a seat and a little breeze flowing through the open windows, during what had become a humid ‘last day of summer’ in Paris. I hooked up my ear buds to the overhead gadget in preparation for guided tour commentary. There might not be much of the Hop-off part of this joy-ride going on here today, I thought smiling contentedly to myself. And off we went. I chose my language and, in perfect English, the French male voice described each building and monument on the tour. Passing in front of my eyes were Notre-Dame Cathedral, Moulin Rouge night club, Trocadero Museum, and Arc de Triumph Monument. I was in heaven.
Beautiful music complemented the soundtrack between stopping points in the form of Gary Moore Parisienne Walkways. The solo guitar tore through my blood and rendered me senseless plunging me into an unreal dream state – I fell in love with Paris right there.
I perked up on Champs-Elysees as the tour guide told us it was the most sought after area for leading designers to have their flagship stores. I looked and looked and even got off the bus to look some more, but it was too hot with droves of people and I could not find Channel nor Dior anywhere. I got back on the next bus for the end of the line. We headed back to the Eiffel Tower where I disembarked for the night.
After my ten-hour day of pure tourism I was dragging. Dinner became a sleepy affair in the hotel dining room and off I crawled toward the elevator and up to pack. From the eleventh floor window, Paris sparkled all around as the Saturday night party people came out to play, while this weary traveler crept under the duvet to rest and prepare to leave in the morning. An all-consuming sleep came easily and took me away.
Again I had set my alarm to wake up early and check out by 9:00 am to get to the station in time for the train back to London leaving 12:55 pm, with required check in 45 minutes before departure. Not many people were at the desk so check out was a breeze. At 9:30 I stepped outside to the taxi rank, but to my astonishment found no taxis! In fact, there was no traffic at all, anywhere to be seen. The entire area around the Eiffel Tower hotels and roads, along the banks of the River Seine on both sides, were closed off with barricades! Help me God!
I took off hurrying as fast as I could, fully loaded with my stuffed backpack, shoulder purse, and several gift bags of souvenirs clutched in my clammy grip. The temperature had climbed up already to a balmy 26 celsius. As I got to the bottom end of the road I saw people running in groups with brightly colored shirts on behind a barrier. OMG! It was the Paris Marathon – a very worthy cause, but less than perfect timing for me. I hurried along the side of the barrier in desperation.
Four blocks later, there still was NO way to cross the road. I was struggling painfully along in the same direction as the runners, but found myself weaving through thick crowds gathered on sidewalks to watch the marathon. Making little headway, I back tracked a bit and crossed over the river via a footbridge. On the other side, I started to climb up a hill, three blocks long, to reach a road where I could see moving traffic glinting in the sun. Thank you Jesus!
At the top, a taxi appeared, but it had its red light on, not green like I needed. It was already 11:08. Suddenly, the taxi pulled in and people got out of it. Thank God for marathon spectators! I asked the driver if he would take me to the train station. He nodded and flashed a grin at my ‘pigeon French’ as I clambered into the back. It was a mad dash through Paris with seconds to spare. It felt like I was in a James Bond movie. I had previously discovered it’s best not to look through the windshield when riding in a taxi in Paris. The previous day, I had planned to go to the station in a more leisurely manner and take pictures of the many designer stores I had been informed lay just off the Champs-Elysee, but instead found myself strapped into the back seat of a taxi with a formidable G-Force as Channel, Gucci, Dior and other glamorous store fronts whizzed past me. Not in tourist mode anymore, I had fallen into survival mode, slammed by panic same as I had been the day before when I couldn’t find the exit two floors underground in Le Louvre. Unable to even muster an ounce of energy or enthusiasm, to reach for my phone and start snapping pictures, I surrendered to the will of the Universe. Paris had me in her clutches; her spell forever cast.
We got to the train station with a couple of minutes to spare – I dashed in to the Duty-Free shop and exchanged the last of my Euros for a bottle of Dior Joy – eau de par fume! This was to be her parting gift to me because that is precisely what Paris gave to me on this visit – joy.