Thursday, March 11, 2010

Before Holland We Went to Paris

Oh boy, did we ever go to to Paris.  It was an experience.  Not exactly a good experience, but an experience, nonetheless.

I've mentioned before that we spent a year in Germany when Endeavor was a baby.  It was a fantastic opportunity for us.  The Bionic Man was sent by his company to work with a company in Munich, sort of as an exchange.  They paid for our housing and transportation and lots of other expenses, and told Ben that he could take off any holiday the Germans took off.  Germans have A LOT of holidays.  The company leased a brand-new Mercedes Benz for us--the Bionic Man got to drive it off the factory showroom floor.  (There's a ceremony, and everything.  I'm not kidding.)  During our time in Germany, the dollar was very strong, so it was relatively inexpensive for us to travel, eat out, etc.  The Bionic Man speaks German fluently because he spent two years in Germany as a missionary for our church before he finished college.  Thanks to some high school and college German classes, I speak enough German to be able to apologize and say I don't understand what anyone is saying.  Thanks to voice training as a teenager, I can sing fluently in German.  We took advantage of all of that and packed as much as we could into that one year.  We saw soooo much and made lots of memories.

We also made Justone.  He was born a few months after our return to the U.S.  Would you believe that the entire time we were in Germany, I was nursing or pregnant?  (Actually, for about two weeks I was nursing AND pregnant.  Not something I recommend.)

My philosophy is that anyone who has an opportunity to spend time in another country should do it.  Do it while your children are young, because I think it would have been much more stressful if I had to worry about schools and playmates.  Endeavor was just four months old when we arrived in Munich.  She was very portable.  Don't ever turn down an opportunity to travel because you have a baby.  Take the baby with you and enjoy all the unique experiences you'll have in your travels because you have a baby along.  Your pace might be a little slower, but you'll see so much more.

But I'm getting off track, here.  Back to Paris.

During the last half of the year we spent in Germany, my parents went to live in the southwest of France, where they served as missionaries for our church.  They were asked to help lead a small congregation in a town called Angouleme.  The Bionic Man and I thought it would be fun to go visit them, and see some sights along the way.  We'd been warned that driving in France was not easy.  So, instead of driving there, we came up with what we thought was a brilliant plan.

This was our plan:
We would take a night train from Munich to Paris.  We would sleep peacefully as the train crossed the borders of Germany and Luxembourg, gliding through the summer night until the train arrived, at 7 A.M. in Paris.  We would rent a locker at the train station for our luggage, grab a fresh croissant or two, then spend the rest of the day strolling around Paris, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the City of Light.  We would tour Notre Dame, climb the Eiffel tower, float down the Seine, perhaps even make a stop at the Louvre.  Endeavor would spend the day in her stroller, as delighted to be in Paris as her parents.  We would sample exquisite French cuisine and be charmed by all things French.  Then, at the end of a magical Parisian day, we would return to the train station, collect our luggage, and travel a few more hours to find my parents in Angouleme.

Hmmm.  There were only a few teensy-weensy flaws in this plan:
Endeavor wasn't know for her ability to sleep through the night.  She was known for waking up at night, a lot.  I was pregnant.  Not enough that it really showed, but enough that I was feeling it.  The Bionic Man and I don't speak any French.  Zero.  I can't even utter the words bon jour with a reliable accent.  We didn't know the first thing about getting around in Paris.  We stupidly assumed it would be just as easy to get around in Paris as it had been to get around in Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Vienna.  And, finally, there are no luggage lockers in the Paris train stations.

So, here is how our trip to Paris actually went:
We boarded the night train and bedded down for the night.  Other passengers began to drift off to sleep.  Not Endeavor!  The whole idea of sleeping on a train completely freaked her out.  We spent the entire night trying to keep her quiet so that we wouldn't get kicked off the train.  This involved much walking up and down through the train compartments with a fussy one year old.  There was a hair-raising moment when we became locked out of the compartment where our luggage, our passports, and--this was major--Endeavor's sippy cup was stored.  We arrived in Paris, exhausted and disheveled, only to discover that there were no luggage lockers.  Anywhere.  I've learned to pack much lighter since, but I believe at that time we were carrying 3-4 heavy duffel bags, a pack-n-play, a large diaper bag, a camera case, and pushing a stroller.  We had no choice but to continue to take all of those things everywhere we went that day in Paris.  Actually, the Bionic Man carried most of them, since I was pregnant.  We could not figure out the city transportation to save our souls, and I think we might have rode one bus without paying and on another bus we paid for 10 people. 

Croissants and escargot?  Hardly.  We couldn't even get water!  The Bionic Man tried to purchase food at roadside stands and street cafes, but was met with cold stares.  He couldn't speak French, and no one was going to bother to serve him if he wasn't going to bother to attempt to speak their language.  Late in the day, we stumbled into--again, I'm not kidding--a McDonald's, where the Bionic Man was successfully able to order a couple of value meals by holding up his fingers.  (Two fingers for the #2 value meal, right?)  It may also have helped that his starving, pregnant wife was standing next to him, sobbing.  The French are not completely without feeling.

There were two things we really wanted to see while we were in Paris.  The Cathedral of Notre Dame (me) and the Eiffel Tower (Bionic Man).  Oh, and pigeons (Endeavor).  Lucky for us, the subway we stumbled on and off soon after we arrived in Paris took us right to Notre Dame.  And there were pigeons there.  Getting to the Eiffel Tower was not so easy.  Something happened on the bus (which involved much yelling and hand gestures towards us by the driver and several passengers), and we ended up walking for miles and miles.  When the Eiffel Tower was finally in sight--but still blocks and blocks away--we stumbled upon a small playground, full of children and nannies and benches.  Then and there, the fatigue of of a sleepless night and the nausea of early pregnancy made me decide I'd seen enough of Paris.  I plopped down on a park bench and refused to go any farther.  The Bionic Man left me and the pack-n-play and various duffle bags there, where I promptly fell asleep, while he and Endeavor went to see the Eiffel Tower up close.  I personally don't know anyone else who has slept on a park bench in Paris, it was truly a unique and unforgettable experience.  After the Bionic Man and Endeavor returned, we found our way to McDonald's and eventually back to the train station, where I curled up on the floor and slept until the train to Bordeaux arrived.  Yes, I slept on the floor of a train station.  In Paris.  Few "vacations" have been quite so unique and unforgettable.

The rest of the trip wasn't so terrible.  It was, in fact, quite delightful.  We were warmly welcomed by my parents, and enjoyed traveling with them in the French countryside very much.  It certainly helped that they had a car and my father spoke French fluently, and that my mother was more than happy to feed us.  They helped us rearrange our return trip so that no night trains were involved.  In fact, I don't think our return trip took us through Paris, at all.  Paris was nothing but a bad memory.  A very bad memory.
Then, a few years ago, Ben and I were watching the Travel Channel.  A charming hostess documented her week enjoying the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Paris.  It all looked wonderful.  "You know, we should go to Paris sometime," the Bionic Man said to me.

"Yes," I agreed.  "We really should.  I think we could have a lot of fun, there."

And then we laughed, hard.

Perhaps someday, we will have a chance to go back to Paris and try again.  Our first trip there wasn't a complete disaster: it taught us an important lesson.  Any experience can be made better by preparation.  Whether it is a trip to a foreign city or a trip to the local emergency room or your first day at a new school, your overall experience will be less stressful if you know a bit about the language, the people, the customs, how to get there, how to navigate once you are there, where you can go to eat, who you can go to for help if you are lost or confused.  You might even have a chance to enjoy yourself, or at least learn something.  Something better than how it feels to sleep on a park bench.

For those of you who find yourselves on an unexpected journey, take heart.  Take time to read a few guidebooks and talk to the locals and learn about what you can do and see and enjoy at your new destination.  After a while, you may be able to write a guidebook yourself.  Certainly, you'll be qualified to help the other accidental tourists.  Joy can be found in any journey, I'm convinced of that.

Even if the joy comes after the journey.....when you marvel at the pictures and say, "Did we really do all that?" and think back to the park bench where you collapsed, exhausted, and remember that there were flowers blooming all around you, that day.  French flowers.  What an adventure!

1 comment:

  1. I love reading your blog! I sure miss actually being able to sit around and talk though! keep writing! :)