“We are going to Paris,” she said, “damnit.” No doubt, we were.
The Problem In Going To Paris: Getting Out Of Rochester
My wife still laughs when she tells the story. We were going to Paris and met at the AAA travel agent’s office after work, one damp, chilly winter day, to make reservations.
We’d moved to Rochester, New York, from New York City, the year before. The change had been unsettling, and both of us were eager for a great vacation, this one timed to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary in April.
April in Paris. Ella’s voice singing Vernon Duke and E. Y. Harburg made an elegant soundtrack for our plans.
Because this would be the first time we’d travel where English wasn’t the first language, we’d been studying French, gearing up. As I feared, my skillset expanded in only a tiny way, just enough to keep from offending the natives.
The comic results to come, however, I hadn’t expected. Fortunately, my wife learned the second language well enough that she did not generate the puzzled looks I’d soon be getting from Parisians.
Anyway, we met with the AAA agent, easily picking a hotel, and then coming to terms with living in a city not favored by any airline as a hub.
“Getting you a flight to Paris is easy,” the agent told us. “The problem is getting you out of Rochester.”
My wife laughed. She still does every time she tells the story.
Since the travel agent never be able get us out of Rochester in the way my wife really wanted, he had to figure the best way out for just a week.
My apologies to Rochester.
I liked the area much better than my wife did. I’d found a job with a brand new career direction and the best boss, Larry Reeves, I’d ever work for.
She, on the other hand, had worked her way through Manhattan Marymount College with a degree in Art History and enough awards to make going up and down the aisle to collect them at graduation an Olympic event.
It took only a few months, if that long, in Rochester to understand that the city was a dead end for the skills she’d worked so hard to learn. In the end, my job got us out of Rochester. But for now, we were going to Paris, and that was a thrill to anticipate.
April came, and my wife and I got to the Rochester Airport in plenty of time to catch our first flight. Going to Paris – that is, getting out of Rochester – required that we fly hundreds of miles west first, in a direction directly away from our destination.
To get to Paris, we had to fly to O’Hare in Chicago, then connect with an international flight that would reverse our first flight, taking us back out over Canada to Europe on a redeye. Whatever trouble we had sleeping on the plane – at 6’2”, I had plenty to deal with – our arrival in Paris would be exciting enough to overcome it. That turned out to be true. With conditions.
Even accepting the idea of flying backward to Paris didn’t prepare us for the risks of, well, getting out of Rochester.
First, we weren’t as ready as we should have been for the well-known fact that any flight even tangentially related to Chicago is inherently perilous. A light, spring shower in Peoria, say, can delay flights into and out of Chicago for hours, even days.
So, on a sunny spring day in Rochester, we were unprepared for a band of storms in the Midwest that rippled delays all the way to the East Coast. As we idled, waiting for our flight to get clearance in Rochester, we consoled ourselves with the four hour buffer our planned connection layover would give us in Chicago.
That layover had been designated as dinnertime at whatever cool restaurant we could find in the International Terminal at O’Hare. We’d eat slow and have enough wine to lull us into semi-sleep over the Atlantic. Dreamers, we were.
Instead of a quiet meal and an excited discussion of all the things we would do in Paris, starting the next morning, out brief passage through O’Hare amounted to a sprint through the terminal, carryon luggage in hand, desperate to make our connecting flight before it soared off without us.
We’ll always be grateful to the flight attendant who reopened the jetway door to let us be the final passengers to board. We were hungry and rattled, and she took pity on us.
It seemed we were on the Air France jet for only minutes before the pilot began taxiing to the runway, safety instructions sailing by us in both French, which I didn’t understand at all, and English, of which I retained a slight grasp.
As we passed the rows of parked planes in rows of bays, I said, “Goodbye,” to Chicago and to our luggage.
“Any chance our suitcases made it to this plane in time?”
This afforded my wife another chance to laugh.
“Have you,” she asked, “ever seen a baggage handler run?”
Here’s a tip. Always keep one full change of clothes and essential toiletries in your carryon bags. If you travel much, delays and baggage-handling snafus will give you one or more chances to use them.
That is, don’t do what we did.
We were tired and disoriented when we found our way to the baggage area at Charles De Gaulle, on a necessary but, we knew, hopeless wait for our flight to cough up the contents of it’s underbelly. You have to do this, just to be sure, before you can go to the airline and fill out a lost baggage claim.
So, our first hour in France was spent watching others gleefully collect their luggage and head off for Paris. I began to question the wisdom of this trip, but not in those words, around the time we got lost looking for the lost luggage claim office or whatever it was they called it in French.
I was reminded of Steve Martin’s hilarious monologue about traveling to France. “It’s like they have a different word for everything,” he protested.
They did too, and I didn’t usually know what it was.
Anyway, thanks to my wife’s language skills, honed at college, we were promised that the airline would deliver our bags at our hotel as soon as they arrived, and off we went by train into Paris.
Paris, I can tell you, is every bit as wonderful as its reputation, maybe more, and despite our lack of sleep and clean underwear, we came alive was we walked through Montparnasse to our hotel.
A confession: tyros that we were, we’d made accommodations at a Best Western, thinking it would be just like the places we liked back home. The sign out front was. But after a fruitless search for a showerhead, I determined there wasn’t much else.
What the heck! A country boy, I’d grown up taking baths. I could sit in tepid water again.
With nothing to unpack or fresh clothes to change into, we were back on the street quickly and hunting down a place to eat. We found a quiet place, something like a diner in America, and grabbed a table.
I was really hungry. I was really unable to read the menu. For the first time, I was reduced to a baby. My wife had to help me order. It was embarrassing but, I hoped, maybe only in English.
I was soon deluded by illusions of confidence.
Days before we got out of Rochester, I’d figured out a cool stroll for our first day, one that would take us by most of the really exciting spot in Paris in a big circle.
If you’re in shape, Paris is a walkaround city, best appreciated slowly and savored. Soon, we were approaching the Eiffel Tower through Champ de Mars. The structure just sweeps up, like nothing we’d ever seen.
We crossed the Seine and talk the first leafy street to L’Arc de Triomphe, under which victorious American soldiers marched at the end of World War II, and followed their path down the Champs Elysees, passing elegant stores, sidewalk cafes, McDonalds and Chinese takeouts. Fears of the Americanization of Paris were well-grounded.
The Tuileries may be the most pleasant gardens on Earth. They were especially appreciated after risking our lives getting across the traffic circle at Place de la Concorde, which was anything but.
After the Tuileries, the love and, then, into the gut of Paris and Les Marais. Before night gathered, walked through Luxembourg Gardens, and back near our hotel, feeling the evening chill, we bought sweatshirts from a kiosk along the Seine to use as pajamas.
One thing I forgot to tell you. I was just getting over a bad cold when we got out of Rochester, and as much as I needed something warm to wear until our luggage arrived, I needed a handkerchief.
My nose was still running, accelerating the chill actually, and to top that off, I was getting nosebleeds. You had to see me cowering in corners to disguise the effects of my lingering cold.
Another thing I forgot to tell you is that my wife is eight years younger than me and, blessed with her mother’s genes, she looks younger. On our honeymoon, we had to carry our freshly signed wedding license as we travelled to New Orleans, fearing I’d be detained for violating the Mann Act.
So, with my sniffles, lousy French and our accented age difference, I believed the Parisians thought my wife an angel for bringing her dimwitted older brother to Paris.
I’m happy to say our luggage was waiting for us at the Best Western the next day, and we spent one of the best weeks we’ve ever had, going from museum to museum, walking through the neighborhoods, appreciating the beauty of Paris and eating great food.
One day, we decided to take Rick Steves advice and get off the beaten track. We wandered into an unfamiliar, untouristed neighborhood and picked out a pizzeria, confident we couldn’t go wrong.
The pizza was great, but when the salad we ordered did not arrive before it was done, I spoke up. It was the first time my French language skills worked. “Ou est la salade?” I asked.
I knew I scored because my question began echoing around the nearby kitchen, the tones getting more agitated. It was a little like Monty Python, and I expected the waiter to be fired and, then, killed.
My wife thought I was overreacting. More likely, she thought they were alarmed that the dumb American actually knew enough French to point out an error.
We had one other small incident like that. Determined to exercise my French skills and a little disoriented near Les Halles, I approached a serious looking woman with this question. “Ou est la louv?”
Although a little shocked, she tilted her glasses and responded, “Le louvre?”
“We,” I said.
In perfect English, she instructed me to “walk two blocks south and, then go right.”
Guess who laughed. Again.
Because I keep hearing how rude Parisians are supposed to be, I want to be very clear that, to us, they were unfailingly kind and helpful, even if a little amused at my language. Friends in Rochester referred to Parisians as “New Yorkers with an accent.”
They seemed to think New Yorkers were rude too. And they might be right, if you and your whole family are consuming an entire sidewalk in Times Square, looking up and walking slowly in that way only out of towners have mastered. New Yorkers are kind and helpful, but like the Parisians, we expect visitors respect our hometown and remember that we have lives to live here and places to go.
But I digress.
What I wanted to do was tell you about the night we jumped on a subway near L’Arc de Triomphe on a Sunday night, thinking it would take us as it usually did to our transfer toward Montparnasse. Instead, somewhere in a station under the Tuileries, it stopped and everyone got off.
Everyone but us. We sat on the train, trying to comprehend the rapid fire announcement crackling out of the public address system.
Just before panic set in, several people who’d boarded a train across the platform quietly began signalling us to follow them. We did and got to Montparnasse without delay.
It may be that getting out of Rochester made going to Paris even more exciting. For my wife, I’m sure it did. But it did something more. It made travelling to Europe seem just as easy as travelling to Los Angeles (with better food.)
In the years that followed, we got into a twice a year habit of seeing Europe. We explored my wife’s family’s roots in Naples, sipped hot chocolate in a cafe beside the Rialto Bridge, toured Amsterdam in a canal boat, hiked in the Vienna Woods and much more. That first trip to Paris opened doors to our curiosity and imagination.
And, yes, we went back to Paris again for our twenty-fifth anniversary. The truth is, you can scratch Paris off your bucket list, but it will keep finding its way back on.