To travel is to be uncomfortable. It’s been part of every adventure I’ve taken, but each time, excitement wipes my memory of past discomfort and I end up surprised when every moment of a trip isn’t sipping wine on sun-drenched patios. My trip to Paris was no exception.
In November, my little sister and I spontaneously bought cheap flights through WOW and finally came through on my promise to visit my favorite Parisian, Salomé, one of the first friends I made when I moved to Pittsburgh. We’ve visited each other over the years when we could, but I knew I couldn’t let the chance to see Paris from a native’s perspective pass me by. My sister and I saw the opportunity and seized it!
Unfortunately, quite like my last trip abroad in September 2017, our timing was a bit unfortunate. Last year, Dave & I found out about the Parsons Green tube bombing while speeding through the Belgian countryside on our train to London. This year, we arrived in Paris during the height of the “Yellow Vest” protests. Although I stay up on the news as best I can (sometimes my mental health claims victory over being in the loop), I’d missed enough NPR over the last weeks to be pleasantly oblivious to the movement in France.
Until the metro skipped multiple stations on the line, until we noticed those stations were empty except for a few nervous-looking, plain-clothes Parisians and a handful wearing bright yellow vests, until Salomé told us to avoid the Champs-Elysse area, I didn’t realize the gravity of our timing. I’m grateful to say the protests didn’t limit our time in the city of lights like the tube bombings did in London, but it did cast a peculiar spell on the long weekend. It also afforded us a unique opportunity to talk with Salomé about French life and the current political climate.
Sometimes, it’s okay to believe the hype
Generally, I try to resist hype of all kinds. I prefer to make my own opinions, for better or worse, but Paris was just as breathtaking as every person who’s ever visited will remind you. Despite the chill and the rain, millions of Christmas lights brought an extra cheer to the tree-lined streets. The wine, the cheese, the bread, the pastries – nothing disappointed.
Perhaps the only exception was our experience with some of the locals. Just as I try to resist hype, I also resist making judgements about people as best I can. Every French person I’ve met until now has been the friendliest, most generous and kind you could imagine. I hoped a few bad apples had spoiled the bunch and earned them a bad name. Unfortunately, a few apples fell into our path in Paris. There were plenty of friendly shopkeepers and waiters, but a surprising number helped me realize how the French earned their reputation. As a sensitive American from the Midwest, I tried my best not to take it personally and if nothing else, view the experience anthropologically. Dipping a toe into a culture you assume is similar enough to your own only to discover such glaring differences can be quite jarring, so looking in from an outside perspective helped me come to a better understanding. After a bittersweet discussion with my sister over a warm baguette and cheese, we decided the trip helped us see our own country in another light and breathed appreciation back into (parts of) the culture of the US. Although I still can’t say we were thrilled to make the flight home 😉
I should note: We accidentally frequented Australian brunch spots and coffee shops more often than seemingly statistically possible. Perhaps we were called to their sunny personalities without even knowing it.
Your eyes ARE bigger than your stomach.
You can’t eat as much of those pastries as you want, no matter how desperate you are. Paris requires multiple trips, if only to consume the appropriate amount of baked goods.
Travel is uncomfortable.
24+ hours without sleep leaves no one in peak form. You may find your adapter kit is missing only one piece, which just happens to be the one you need, and you have no idea where to buy one. You may find your social anxiety heightened by the fact that you barely speak French and when you try, you risk a side eye that sends you back to the 3rd grade. But being uncomfortable doesn’t make travel unpleasant or not worth the trouble. In fact, I’d say it’s the opposite. When have you ever learned anything worthwhile from within your cozy little bubble? The fun is in the learning, the laughing at the frustration, the wide-eyed wonder, the thrill of the unknown, the absorbing of the unfamiliar, the reveling in your growth. Of course, travel isn’t all discomfort (otherwise, only masochists would venture outside the city where they were born). But I find the food and wine taste even better in the wake of expanded confidence.
If you’re a public transportation enthusiast like I am, Paris will be your heaven.
After studying in Madrid during college, I feel pretty confident getting around on a metro even without a working knowledge of French. Nothing did more to restore my confidence and help me settle into the city than zipping around from line to line. I desperately wish it could be my everyday. Like many Millennials, I’d be more than happy to ditch my car for energy and cost-efficient public transport. I do love the outdoors, but part of me has always felt called to the city. I never feel more in touch with that side of myself than when I’m immersed in the rattle of carriage cars, the hum of thousands of people with their own lives making their quiet ways through the tiled corridors. Sure, there may be rats, sometimes you’re packed in so tight you have to focus on your breathing, but there’s still something romantic about it to me. Something quietly powerful and yet so blisteringly ordinary. It’s one of my favorite things about European adventures.
After just a few days, I fell in love with Paris, its’ baked goods, its’ plethora of warm Australian hospitality and coffee shops. I caught up with an old friend, meandered through cobblestone streets and covered passageways, tried escargot and witnessed the upheaval of a Western society. Visiting in December gave a unique twist on our sister adventures, but I’d return again in a heartbeat. If only to take another stroll along the Seine with my belly full of choux pastry.