Most of our trips are last-minute affairs, with activities and even accommodations arranged at airports or on arrival. This has gotten easier as data has become more accessible. Before connections were widely available, we had some charming impromptu experiences, but there were also bad moments. One of the lowest was trudging around Barcelona with a beach bag and wearing flip flops, unable to find our way to the waterfront. (I am remembered on that trip for packing one pair of pants and dozens of socks.)
When we had a chance to go to Paris, I decided to do more advance preparation. I spent hours touring the city in Google Street View, revisiting streets that I had wandered aimlessly on previous solo trips. The Palais Garnier near our hotel had interior imagery, so I explored inside. Floors from 7 down to -2 were available, affording views from the rooftop down to the basement.
Being able to navigate without consulting a device was quite helpful. It's a great place to get slightly disoriented, enjoying the sights on the way to the next attraction. When I did find a data connection for a map lookup, Google turned on the charm.
Approaching the destination from a random direction was delightful.
Tourists are part of the landscape, and people freely walk into traffic to get their snapshot.
I think the views are best from the 2nd floor, and you can take the stairs. We also took a boat tour and stopped for refreshments here and there. We had a meal on a sidewalk near the place where Giacometti had his accident. A cat guarded the way to the restrooms.
The kid wanted to take the train whenever possible, so we took a rainy day trip to Disneyland Paris. Rebranded after struggling as Euro Disney, the resort brought back childhood memories from Florida, of waiting forever so the adults could fork over staggering sums for the privilege of waiting in more lines. The thirty-second thrill at the end somehow redeemed the wait, at least for the underage customer whose opinion mattered.
Parental duties dispatched, I went out that night for an after-hours promenade. I wanted to stop in at one of James Bond's favorite spots.
Harry’s, after midnight, did not disappoint in authenticity and I sensed I was the only tourist in the place. But it was quiet and I didn't have to order food, so I mumbled some French and got a drink or two. William Least Heat-Moon was my travel companion, and Blue Highways promptly took me back to 1978 Cedar City, Utah, where he discussed the Hopi Way with Kendrick Fritz, a Native American chemistry student.
Something clicked. Things made sense. I marked page 193 with the receipt, to remember the Hopi Code, to make it my code, and went outside.
On my first visit, to see the 1999 eclipse, I spent days wandering aimlessly. At some point I stumbled into Shakespeare & Company, not knowing its significance. After Harry’s, I wondered if I might accidentally find it again. I walked back and forth across the bridges, trying to remember which was Pont Neuf.
At some point, completely unexpectedly, an Audrey Tautou lookalike approached me and sweetly asked for directions. I stammered out some kind of semicoherent apology in faltering English for my ignorance of my own whereabouts, and she walked off into the night. To this day I congratulate myself for escaping a close call with the notorious tourist-organ-harvesting organized crime trap.
Next day we went to the Louvre. They say the Musée d'Orsay is better, but when you come back from Paris no one asks you if you went to the Musée d'Orsay. We followed the herds following the signs for La Joconde.
Recently the painting was moved, leading to chaos, but I don't know how it could be any worse.
The Mona Lisa experience is one of elbows and close quarters. Everyone has the same objective, to force their way as near the front of the crowd as possible, in order to capture on a five-inch screen a digital image of a painting everyone has permanently memorized, with resolution far inferior to what you could get by tapping the words Mona Lisa into a browser.
Mum, I saw the fine art
Of course the Louvre is huge, and we made sure our kid soaked up as much cultural heritage as his attention span would tolerate. This is not exactly an aesthetic experience, though there were brief moments. Marching down some corridor, we passed “The Raft of the Medusa,” the unforgettable fold-out centerpiece of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters.
It is also a familiar image, but familiar in books. Larger than life, it looms from the wall, arresting the weary tourist with a few moments of transport, before pressing on to the next wing. We will have to go back again, before long, just as we said about Paris.
• • •
“At breakfast you said you hunted rabbits and pigeons and robins, but I don't see how you can shoot a bird if you believe in the union of life.”
“A Hopi hunter asks the animal to forgive him for killing it. Only life can feed life. The robin knows that.”
“How does robin taste, by the way?”
“The religion doesn't seem to have much of an ethical code.”
“It's there. We watch what the Kachinas say and do. But the Spider Grandmother did give two rules. To all men, not just Hopis. If you look at them, they cover everything. She said, ‘Don't go around hurting each other,’ and she said, ‘Try to understand things.’”
“I like them. I like them very much.”
Thanks for sharing this. I enjoyed reading it. How long were you there in total?
Your pictures make me want to go, especially that shot of the Eiffel Tower with the tourist in the road. It's a reminder that this is a real thing with people and not just the same picture we always see.
How packed was the Louvre away from the Mona Lisa? I walked through the National Gallery of Canada in 2006 and enjoyed it. Those big galleries with famous artwork can be very impressive. Was the the Louvre much less busy in other areas?
I chuckled at this:
You and I seem a lot alike, but finally here is a clear difference. I'm the traveler who arrives with a folder of printed directions for each step, organized in order along with printed hotel and flight confirmations at the appropriate step. This has changed with data, too.