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Maiden Voyage: Adventures in the Land of Wine and Cheese

Maiden Voyage: Adventures in the Land of Wine and Cheese

Maiden Voyage: Adventures in the Land of Wine and Cheese

Versailles, July 1995, Personal photo from our first trip to France.

Rouen Cathedral, France 1995.

After completing my B.A. in Communication Arts, my mom and I prepared to depart for our first trip to France. With a recent Lyme disease diagnosis, she wasn’t feeling her best. It was the summer of 1995, and Europe was in the throes of a record-breaking heatwave. Despite the sultry temps, a tick-borne illness, protests over France’s nuclear testing in the Pacific, and bomb threats by The Armed Islamic Group, we set out undeterred, not wanting to miss our long-awaited trip.

Armed with a copy of Rick Steve’s latest guide book and tips from a French teacher-friend, my mom had carefully planned every detail of our itinerary. With our traveler’s cheques and pocket dictionary in hand, we boarded for Paris. Our promising start lasted precisely the duration of our flight from Minneapolis. From the moment we stepped off the plane in Paris, we were as dazed and confused as Dorothy and Toto arriving in OZ.

My brain raced, trying to keep up with the conversations happening all around us, picking out only a handful of words here and there. The pace was dizzying and so very far from the carefully practiced phrases of the classroom. All those semesters of French seemed to evaporate in the Parisian heat and suddenly felt as useless as a TGV ticket on the Metro.

Château de Fountainebleau, Summer 1995, Personal Photo

The journey from Charles de Gaulle airport to our Paris hotel seemed far more ambitious than the flight we had just made across the Atlantic. After retrieving our luggage, locating the train station, determining which tickets were necessary from the myriad of lines and choices, we schlepped our bags on and off three Metro lines. We eventually surfaced in a quiet corner of the 16th arrondissement, supposedly very near to our hotel. Honestly, it had looked quite close on the map we had obtained before leaving the states, but we soon realized the actual distance was a bit further than we had anticipated. Despite it being the middle of the day, almost everything appeared to be closed. By the time we reached our hotel, we were sweaty and exhausted, looking rather more like we had just swum the Atlantic than flown over it in air-conditioned comfort.

The little Parisian hotel we had booked was far more shabby than chic. As is not uncommon in small Parisian hotels, even today, it required yet another hike up three flights of narrow winding stairs. The small, plainly decorated room that greeted us had a single window overlooking a tiny interior courtyard that offered neither light nor air to the room’s dim, stuffy interior. When we inquired about a fan, the young man at the desk shrugged apologetically while an older man, who we took to be the proprietor, fiddled with a table in the adjacent breakfast area. Without looking up from his task, he made a sweeping gesture in our general direction mumbling something about opening a window.

We spent 5 nights in that hotel, often sleeping with dampened towels draped over ourselves in a desperate attempt to escape the heat and sleep for a few hours before venturing out again. With daily temps pushing 100 degrees, we cooled off by eating lots of ice cream and learned that finding even a single, random ice cube in your Coca-Cola was a genuine cause for celebration.

“London is a riddle. Paris is an explanation.”

G. K. Chesterson

Dinner on our first night in Paris consisted of Chinese take-out from a tiny place on the corner, which appeared to be the only spot open. Tired and hungry after a long day of travel, we pointed and smiled and nodded as we ordered at the counter from a cheerful couple who didn’t seem to notice, or mind, our limited vocabulary.

I wish I could say things improved from there–that we strolled along the Seine and took in the stunning museums, gardens, and gothic cathedrals of Paris. We did, and it was thrilling! Less so was being evacuated from the world’s largest art museum only moments after finding Mona due to another bomb threat. Unfortunately, the museum remained closed for the rest of the day, and with an already full itinerary, we were unable to return.

We got lost–a lot–and usually while searching for the rare and elusive public “toilettes.” My mom refused to use the coin-operated Sanisettes scattered around Paris, too afraid the automated door would malfunction, leaving her locked inside.

 

In Paris on my first trip to France in July 1995.

“Eventually, my eyes were opened, and I really understood nature. I learned to love at the same time.”

– CLAUDE MONET

Nymphéas, 1906 by Claude Monet, Art Institute of Chicago, Image in the Public Domain

The day we visited Versailles, it was so hot they were handing out bottles of water at the entrance, trying to prevent tourists from passing out with heat-stroke. We gratefully accepted as we followed the throngs of visitors through room-after-stifling-room of The Sun King’s royal residence. While gazing up at one gilded ceiling or another, I clumsily dropped my water and suddenly found myself surrounded by grimacing security guards who had heard the plastic bottle splat on Louis’ 17th-century oak floor. I awkwardly mumbled my apologies, doing my best to wipe up the water with my hand before hastily moving on.

After enjoying the treasures of Versailles, we boarded the train to return to our hotel only to find everyone quickly disembarking after an indiscernible announcement over the loudspeaker. We decided it was best to follow suit and soon found ourselves dumped out into the street along with everyone else, somewhere between Versailles and our hotel. The trains, it appeared, were suspended due to new threats. Thankfully, it was a lovely evening for a very long walk and more Chinese take-out when we finally made it back to our hotel. After a terrifying lunchtime encounter with a beady-eyed crustacean-encrusted salad, we decided egg rolls and orange chicken sounded like the safer choice.

Another evening, after a full day of sightseeing, we discovered a tasty and affordable roast chicken and vegetable plate at a Brasserie with a pretty view onto the Place du Trocadéro. As Trocadéro was our final Metro transfer on our evening return to our hotel, we made it our dinner stop on more than one night, happy to have something familiar and recognizable.

Claude Monet’s home at Giverny, France, Summer 1995, Photo by Kristin Blakeman

We tried to see and do it all, cramming as much into our two-week vacation as we had into our bulging suitcases. Paris, Normandy, Brittany, Le-Mont-Saint-Michel, Chartres, Versailles, Fontainebleau. We got around on foot and by train. After mistakenly boarding a clattering TER train with its hard plastic seats and half-open windows, we quickly learned the critical distinction between the faster regional trains and the local variety that meander through every hamlet and pause at each whistle-stop on the line.

A few days later, while visiting the medieval walled city of Saint-Malo, we found ourselves locked in a tower that housed a musty maritime museum. The woman who’d collected our entrance fee not an hour earlier had, apparently, decided to close up early, leaving us and a French couple locked inside. After looking at each other in disbelief and exchanging a few shrugs, the Frenchman, clearly incensed, put his shoulder to the door and forced it open. I will admit we were relieved to be sprung after briefly facing the prospect of spending the night in that dusty tower.

Later that evening, when my mom felt feverish, I asked at the front desk for a nearby pharmacy. The proprietor seemed convinced it was an ambulance we needed. After assuring him the American woman in Chambre 12 was not going to die in his hotel and that all I wanted was a thermometer, he finally set down the phone, pointing me in the direction of a pharmacy.

After failing to find favor with French cuisine, sudden evacuations, and five sweltering nights in that tiny Parisian hotel, France felt decidedly different than the chic paradise of our dreams. I’m sure there were moments in the restless delirium between jetlag and heat stroke when we would have happily traded in our tacky American tennis shoes for a pair of magical ruby slippers to transport ourselves home. Fortunately, we persisted, sustained by croissants, jambon-beurre sandwiches, and Chinese take-out.

Despite the setbacks and missteps during that first trip, we had a marvelous time. Had everything gone perfectly, it would not have been nearly as memorable. We still get a good laugh remembering our adventures. Little did we know then that more than 20 years later, we would begin another chapter of adventures together in France.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR  |  KRISTIN BLAKEMAN

I help others discover France’s storied destinations with curated travel experiences. I divide my time between Chicago and France where I’m always in search of exceptional experiences to share with my clients and the armchair travelers who journey with me via my blog I Dream in French.

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