I have loved all things French since my very first day in Madame Melvin’s French I class in high school. I was hooked. Senior year brought French II with Madame Bjorkman, and a resolve to live in Paris upon my graduation.
“The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.” – Robert Burns, 18th century poet
Where It All Began
I was done with school and could start the Paris life my 17-year-old brain dreamed of for the last nine months! My $250 in graduation money would get me to Paris, and I would figure out everything else once there.
In my excitement or naivety, as others would call this time in my life, I didn’t think about where I would stay once in Paris, how I would make money, or how I would even eat.
It didn’t take long to realize that I needed a plan. I didn’t have enough money for a plane ticket, let alone to start a new life in a foreign country. Never mind that I could only speak enough French as my two years of high-school classes would get me. Paris will have to wait. I’ll work for a couple of years and save money, then I’ll go.
Rather than get a job, I start classes at the community college. My now, more mature, 18-year-old brain rationalized that I could get a better job, making more money, with a college degree. Paris will have to wait. I’ll get a good-paying job and save more money.
Fast forward three short years. I’m now twenty-one and about to get married. I have my first baby at 23, we buy our first home at 24, and I have my second baby at 25. My dream of living in Paris is now “someday, I’ll vacation in Paris.” Maybe we can go for our 10th wedding anniversary.
I blink. I’m now thirty and about to move to the other side of the country, away from my family and friends. It doesn’t look like we’ll be able to go to Paris for our 10th anniversary. Paris will have to wait.
Ages 30-45 were I blur. I raise my kids, get divorced, go back to school for two degrees, lose a parent, become a grandma, and move to another state. Something always came up and I had to use my “Paris” money to cover it.
I’m now forty-nine. “I’m going to Paris next year for my 50th birthday!” I start my Paris fund…again. The day before my 50th birthday, my mother has a massive stroke, in another state. I have to use my Paris money to fly out and be by Mom’s side – Paris will have to wait!
Have Spreadsheet Will Travel
Around my 51st birthday, I declare: “I’M GOING TO PARIS AND NOTHING WILL STOP ME!” I made arrangements to go the first week of October. I call my best friend, Tina, and invite her to meet me there.
I could only be in Paris for 5 ½ days, so I had to make them count. There were certain things I wanted to see and needed a plan. It took a long time to get to Paris, who knew when, or if, I would ever be able to go again? Enter the spreadsheet.
First, I list all the sites and places I want to see, their hours and days of operation, and which metro lines and stops to get to them. Next, I plot which days I would see which sites. My dream vacation turned into a carefully planned itinerary with no room for spontaneity. Incidentally, four years later and I still have the spreadsheet on my computer.
Paris will have to wait… then, eventually 5 ½ Days in Paris
I land at Charles de Gaulle at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. I make my way to customs and gave my best “bonjour” to the agent. He wasn’t as impressed with my French as I had hoped he would be and grunted and stamped my passport.
I’M FINALLY IN PARIS!
We take the RER train from CDG to the Gare du Nord metro station. Our hotel was in the 14th arrondissement, so we had to get to the Porte D’Orleans station. Thanks to my spreadsheet, I knew which lines would get us there. Unfortunately, my spreadsheet didn’t tell me which side of the tracks we needed to be on to head toward the 14th. After getting off the train and running back through the station, with all our luggage, we were on the right side of the tracks.
I grew up in the suburbs and didn’t have any experience with public transportation, so I was caught off guard when the train stopped and everyone got off except us. People were staring at us and banging on the train window. Were we doing something wrong?
We soon learned this was the last stop and everyone had to get off. We also learned that the Porte D’Orleans station was the previous stop. We had to get to the other side of the tracks to go to Porte D’Orleans. This feels familiar.
After some mishaps and settling in at the hotel, we were ready to go site-seeing…at 4:00 in the afternoon. We ended the day going to the Eiffel Tower and then walking to L’Arc de Triomphe.
Eiffel Tower, Diana Memorial, Arc de Triomphe – personal photos, Michelle Mason © 2018 – Paris, France
Day 1, Pere Lachaise cemetery
Due to unforeseen issues, we weren’t able to start our day until almost 3:00, getting to the cemetery around 4:00. The cemetery closes at 6:00, so we didn’t have a minute to waste. Jim Morrison’s, Oscar Wilde’s and Edith Piaf’s graves were on the spreadsheet.
We found Jim Morrison’s grave first. Next stop; Oscar Wilde’s.
We didn’t know at the time, but we were walking in the opposite direction of it. We walked the entire outermost ring of the cemetery, finding Oscar around 5:20. We couldn’t find Edith and had to go because the cemetery was closing soon.
Day 2, Rouen
Through my limited French and a store clerk’s series of hand gestures, we find our way to the Normandy ticket counter at Gare St. Lazare. I attempt to buy my “billet” in French. The ticket agent either took pity on me or couldn’t bear to hear me speak any more French and began speaking English.
I am a fan of the television show ‘Vikings’. Rollo, a character in the show, is based on an actual person in history. When the Vikings invaded Normandy, Rollo stayed, converted to Christianity, and became Robert, the first Norman king. Robert is buried in Rouen Cathedral.
Day 3, The Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral
Our first stop was the Mona Lisa. The painting is a lot smaller than you think it will be. The museum was so crowded that day that it was not enjoyable and we left after only a few hours. I recommend going in the off-season if there is such a thing.
We spend the afternoon wandering and find ourselves in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. We got there right before mass started. As a Catholic, attending mass at Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the neatest things I’ve ever been able to do.
Sadly, six months later, almost to the day I was there, the church caught fire.
Day 4, Versailles
We toured the palace and took the tram tour of the gardens. It was a beautiful, sunny day and we, along with many others, sat along the Grand Canal. We were there so long that I fell asleep. How many people can say they napped next to the Grand Canal at Versailles?
Day 5, Sacre Coeur and L’Arc de Triomphe
We made a wrong turn out of the metro station and walked around Montmartre until we found a sign for Sacre Coeur with an arrow pointing up a hill with about 100 stairs. It’s such a beautiful church. We didn’t know it at the time, but there’s a tram on the other side that takes you up the hill.
As we meandered back through Montmartre looking for a metro station, we meet an older woman walking her dog.
We spent the next twenty minutes talking to Mary Blake, an American expat and well-known Parisian artist. Check out her work. How cool!
When we got to the Arc we learned that the elevators were not working that day, so we had to use the stairs. All 284 of them. After climbing all those stairs at Sacre Coeur.
The need to stop and catch my breath coincided with the need of a group of Brazilian women stopping to catch theirs. They welcomed me and we became a sisterhood of out-of-shape, middle-aged stair climbers. For the next 90 minutes, we cheer each other on in a mix of Portuguese and English, as we make our way up.
At the top, I bid my Brazilian sisters adeus and search for a bench on which to collapse. A 360-degree view of Paris.
My magical week was coming to a close, and I grew sad. I went back to my hotel and packed for my trip home early the next morning.
It took me over 30 years to get to Paris, but it was worth the wait!
If you dream of one day going to the city of light, I hope I’ve inspired you to hold onto your dream.
Your time will come…
Do you have a plan to visit Paris or France that you’ve been putting off? When you travel do you plan your time to the nth degree? Please share in the comments section below.
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