I traveled a lot as a young boy. I had been everywhere from Florida, to New York, to Arizona, to Minnesota. Name the state and I’d probably been there. Whether it be for a family vacation or a basketball tournament, we were traveling constantly.
And at that age it never really meant much to me. Being to all those historical places, or national parks with spectacular views, I never really cherished it like I now know I should have. I was so naïve that I would rather go to the ESPN Zone than to a day in Washington, D.C. But that all changed when I finally experienced the history and culture of another country.
I was in my junior year of high school, it was spring break and I had nothing to do. Most of my friends went to Mexico or Florida or somewhere warm for the chilly early-spring months in Chicago. My Aunt, being a flight attendant of 25 years, was going on a trip with her family to Paris for four days, and asked my cousin and me if we would want to join. Obviously, that is not an opportunity that I could turn down. So before I knew it, two days after I thought I was going to be bored to death for a week, I was on a flight to Paris.
Paris helped open my eyes to what the world was, outside of America, because of the parts that you don’t read about in your travel books. It took me out of my comfort zone for the first time in my life. I had been outside of the country where the native language was not English. But that was to Mexico, where I stayed at a resort with an English speaking staff and no access to local towns. So the moment I stepped off the plane in Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, I knew it was going to be a different type of vacation.
My disinterest in history changed when I got to Paris. The Eiffel tower was everything and more the pictures make it out be. Going up to the top of the 123-year-old tower and looking around in all directions makes you realize how small you really are. The tower had also seen its 250 millionth person come through that year.
The Place de la Concorde was the most shocking of all the places we visited. Place de la Concorde was the sight of the ‘Liberté’ guillotine during the French Revolution. Nearly 1,200 people, many of whom are famous historically, were beheaded in that square in a matter of two years. It was an eerie feeling. The crowded square felt so quiet and empty when we visited on our tour, as if people were honoring the past by not being too loud or inconsiderate.
Finally, the Palace of Versailles was unbelievable in so many ways. It was constructed in a time where French citizens were facing mass poverty. It took almost 10 years to complete the 37,000 acre palace and gardens. The land has now been reduced to only 1,976 acres, but even that is a large piece of land in itself. The palace was unlike anything I have ever seen, with its own cathedral built in, a bedroom for each person, and individual estates constructed for the royalty throughout the grounds. The marvel is still standing about 12 miles southwest of Paris and is a must-see for any traveler who wants to truly understand what life was like for the richest of families in European history.
The Unknown Culture
Not knowing the native language of a country is jarring. Coming to France as an uncultured American teenager, I realized quickly that I was out of my element. But that is OK. It made me excited to try and figure out the normalcies of the country and the city of Paris.
I was so intrigued by the metropolitan system, and learning how to become a part of the daily commute, even if I was just going to a normal tourist destination. Flowing with the mass amounts of people on-and-off of a subway train can be fun if you aren’t too serious about a schedule. My cousin and I missed a few stops every once in a while. We’d get off on the next stop and explore the city walking.
The architecture and art was unlike anything I had seen. The amount of incredible detail and effort put in to each design was picturesque to say the least. But the best part of learning the culture was the food. We never once chose to eat at an international restaurant. Every afternoon we would go into a bakery and get a baguette and fresh meat for sandwiches. Every evening, not knowing a lick of French, and our waiters usually not knowing any English, we would find a new restaurant and step out of our comfort zone. We only knew a few ‘main course’ words (pollo, etc.) that helped guide our decisions. But it was a fun experience not knowing exactly what you are getting and trying the local fare in an authentic French restaurant.
With many more things to do and just four days to do them in, we were not able to see and try everything. But the great experience made me want to explore even more and to see, feel, and taste the different wonders this world has to offer. I will always remember that Paris was the place that started my passion to travel.