As an assistant tour guide, my job is to first and foremost help the tour members however I can, answering questions when I can, offering recommendations when needed, making sure there are no stragglers and that no one gets left behind, passing our tickets/brochures/what have you, finding out who wants what for dinner, setting up/cleaning up meetings and picnics – the basic logistics. I also try to get the pulse of the group and individuals to see if their needs and expectations (if reasonable and appropriate) are being met, helping to find a solution when necessary, and letting the lead guide know if there are any major concerns. In addition to those things, my job is to learn, learn, learn. How cool is that?!
I can already tell that Julie, my lead guide on this particular tour, is going to be a great teacher. Upon our initial meeting prior to the start of the tour, she reassured me that it was okay for me to ask a lot of questions and that she would help me understand any decision-making/procedural/practical concerns she deals with as a guide.
Tomorrow is the fourth day of our tour (which starts in Paris, works it way to the dead center of France, over to Loire Valley, up to Brittany, across to Normandy and back to Paris in 10 days), and already, we’ve done so much. We’ve done an historic walk of Paris through the Île de la Cité and le Quartier Latin, visited la Sainte Chapelle, and explored both le Musée d’Orsay and le Musée du Louvre. While I’ve gotten to know these places rather well over the years, there are still (and always) new things that I learn. With the benefit of an experienced guide – like Julie, our lead, and local guides like Elizabeth Van Hest who educated us through the Louvre – you always get a personalized perspective based on their specific expertise woven with the facts, histories, and stories traditionally associated with that site. They help us to help us understand our past so we can connect it with our present. No matter how often I visit a place, I learn something new, get reminded about things I’ve forgotten, and get the chance to reinforce what I may already know. In Paris in particular, I frequently have these light bulb moments.
Here are just some of the “new” bits of information that I learned (or remembered): the 13-knot cord can be (and was used for Medieval/Gothic structures) to create virtually any geometrical shape in order to design and do relative measurements and math in construction; because taxes on buildings in Medieval times were based on square footage of the ground floor only, the upper floors stick out farther than the bottom floor, making them look a bit topsy-turvy and not particularly good for keeping conversations private from the across-the-narrow-street neighbors; Sainte Chapelle, whose construction was funded by the wealthy King Louis IX (Saint Louis), took only 6 years to build, while Notre Dame de Paris (funded only by the Church) took roughly 200 years; and xxx Le Brun, the once portraitist of Marie Antoinette, is the only female artist whose work is displayed in the Louvre.
Tonight we had free time apart from the group. I met up with my new friends Antonio and Alex for dinner at their place. Home-cooked meals are always a welcome blessing when you’re traveling, so I jumped at that chance. It was fun to check in on them and see how they’ve been getting by in Paris over the last few days. Antonio found the artists’ association on Rue de Rivoli and is interested in renting some space there to do some work while in town. Alex has been functioning as the de facto translator and is most often practicing his skills with the pretty teenage girls he sees at their neighborhood boulangerie or bakery. I’m sure it’s not just his need for bread that’s motivating him to communicate.
Our conversations veered back and forth from the banal to the informative, from the political to the spiritual, and from the quaint to the artistic. Antonio is a modern artist based in Philly. His work reflects his approach to life. I saw some of his work, and they seem to emanate a harmonious calmness with the way the layers of color and texture interplay. The palette is earthy and cosmic at the same time, and his intent is to depict the universality of the human condition. His view on life translates well to his approach to travel. As an artist, Antonio is able to travel quite a bit, and he is choosing to share that experience with Alex. They are seizing an opportunity to live in Paris for one month, diving right into the culture, learning about the history, and engaging in the nitty-gritty everyday experience of their Parisian neighborhood. It’s a chance for Antonio to empower his son to connect with another culture and to broaden his world perspective.
Alex marvels me with his inquisitiveness and openness. His curiosity about language and customs, along with his willingness to try new things, is just refreshing. A simple example of this is when we were eating salad made from fresh ingredients from the farmers’ market. Alex was discretely avoiding the tomatoes. I asked him about this, and he said that he simply does not like tomatoes – never has. I asked if he had ever tried a tomato in Europe, saying that somehow, tomatoes here are more flavorful, more real than back home. His father concurred, and Alex said he was willing to give it a try.
That struck me. It may have been a small gesture for Alex to agree to try something he knew he didn’t like it, but how often do we ourselves refuse to try something because we know we don’t like it or think that it’s wrong or bad or stupid? I’ve lost count of the times that, in my arrogance, I’ve dug my heels in the ground and convinced myself that something was one way only to find out it was completely different than what I thought.
Now to be honest, Alex didn’t end up liking the tomatoes. But, he tried. Her really tried. And that simple act inspires me. I am making a promise to myself to try things, even if I initially think I won’t like it. I’m going to make a concerted effort to refrain from snap judgment and insisting on my own sense of being right. I’m not a difficult person, but anyone who truly knows me knows that I can be too self-assured for my own good. The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus is said to have written, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” I have so much to learn and so much to unlearn. This will be a summer filled with chances to do so.
Even though I was rather tired, after dinner I went for a walk along the river Seine, heading west along the Right Bank – partly to walk off my dinner, but mostly because it’s one of my rituals when I’m in town. Paris is so pretty at night and also relatively safe. I’ve never felt insecure about strolling by myself, even after midnight. The crime rate is much lower in the city proper than it is in the banlieues or suburbs (that topic could be a whole other blog entry). Lots of people were still out and about, despite the atypical chilly weather in July. I found myself lost in thought about my conversations with Antonio and Alex and with things I had to prepare for the next day of the tour, so, unlike my usual evening strolls in Paris, I wasn’t really paying much attention to my surroundings. I had wandered for quite awhile when I realized that it must have been pretty late. But just in the instant I was about to turn around to go back to my hotel, something twinkly caught my eye. After a day full of enlightening moments, the City of Lights gave me one last one: the dance of the sparkling lights on the Eiffel Tower, shimmering under a midnight sky.