Light Bulb Moments in the City of Light

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.

King Louis IX built Sainte Chapelle to house the Crown of Thorns.

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.

New friends in Paris

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.

Making my own The Eiffel Tower at Night Light Show (just after she finished her own sparkling lights show)

My First Day on the Job

Do you remember your first day of work?  I’ve had several jobs since I was sixteen:  Tall Flag instructor, retail clothes salesperson/cashier, restaurant hostess, Pocahontas (true story), high school Spanish teacher, and now assistant tour guide.  I have vivid memories of my first day at Disneyland and my first day at Carlsbad High School, and I know that today – my first day as an assistant tour guide in Europe – will be just as memorable.

My first duty: greet our tour members and provide them with a welcome refreshment.  I tried to memorize their names as I met them, but by the time I got to the ninth person, all their names were like Scrabble pieces tumbling in my brain.   Thankfully, I had a roster where I could take notes as they introduced themselves to the entire group: interests, reason for taking this particular tour, where they’re from, or what languages they know.  But even with that, it’ll take me at least 48 hours before I have everyone’s name committed to memory.

Julie guides us on an orientation walk through our Parisian neighborhood.

After our introductory meeting, Julie (the lead guide) took us on a walking tour of the neighborhood, pointing out the local pharmaciebanque/boulangerie/fruitier/laverie and giving us historical and cultural lessons about the neighborhood church, the pedestrian-only market street – my preferred one in Paris and immortalized by Claude Monet– Rue Montorgueil  and the Châtelet metro station.  Despite being very familiar with this area of Paris (having lived here last summer just a few blocks away from our current hotel) I learned some new things from the wealth of knowledge that Julie shared with us.  There’s a lot that an assistant needs to pay attention to – not just the information the lead is sharing, but also the tenor of the group, making sure no one dawdles or gets lost, the physical surroundings, and the questions that come flying your way about what we’re doing, where we’re going or when we need to be somewhere.  I’m so grateful that I got to start in a city that I know well.

Watch your head at L’Auberge Café.

At the end of the walking tour, we headed to dinner at L’Auberge Café.  It’s housed in a half-timbered building that dates back to around the time of King Henri IV (late 16th/early 17th century for those who prefer a time reference).  Because of the size of our group (28) and the size of the restaurant (not big), we ate on the top floor where the ceiling was only about five inches higher than the top of my head.  For me – being only 5’1” – that’s not really a problem.  Now imagine everyone else in my group, many are at least 5’9” and the tallest being 6’4”, having to duck down in order to enter and shoehorn themselves into this room.  Fortunately they were forewarned so we didn’t end up with anyone with goose-egged head.  The owner claimed that that the height of the ceilings doesn’t matter because once we sit down, we’re all the same height.

Restored (the word restaurant comes from the verb restaurer) by our first meal together of traditional French food – I had foie gras, saumon au beurre et pommes purées, and a trio of mini desserts – many of us retired to the terrace for our after dinner coffee and conversation.  While the breaking of the ice is a bit slow going at the start of a tour, I did get to know several of the teachers on the tour (surprisingly there are five tour members in the education field).  Jeanne, a former high school teacher and reading specialist mentor-turned-administrator, was especially friendly and easy to talk to.  We talked about our backgrounds in education, how our roles have evolved and the twists and turns that life sometimes throws at you.

Pour l’entrée (starter), je prends du foie gras, s’il vous plait.

For thirteen years I taught high school Spanish and Dance in Southern California.  Two years ago, I took a Leave of Absence to move to Seattle in order to study French, earn a second Bachelor’s Degree and supplemental credential to teach French, and, most importantly for me, to be with my partner.  It became clear to me that I would not be returning to California and that I would need to resign my teaching position, which I did in April.  In June I graduated and accepted the opportunity to become an assistant guide.  It felt so light and easy to share this with Jeanne even though lately, right or wrong, I’ve been feeling like I’ve had to justify to others my choice to close that chapter of my life as a teacher in California.  Smiling and with pure sincerity, she said to me, “You’re still a teacher.  Your classroom has just changed –it’s expanded.”

Two sentences from a veritable stranger relieved me of this guilt that’s been weighing down my heart for so long and helped me to embrace with pride this path that I’ve chosen for myself.  Perhaps that’s part of the wonder and power of travel.  When you allow yourself to be open and let serendipity lead you to new experiences and new interactions, something (or someone) can move you and even change the way you look at things.  Today, my first day of work, I learned more about Paris, but most importantly, I learned more about myself.

Where It All Began…

            I’m about to start my first tour as an assistant guide, and I get to start in my favorite city: Paris.  Since 2000, I’ve managed to come back to this city at least once a year, and I can’t ever seem to get enough.  It never gets old, and I always learn something new with each visit.  Paris, and, in a broader sense, travel itself are two of my greatest loves.

It wasn’t always that way.

In my youth, I had wonderful yet limited experiences with travel.  My family mostly did camping trips, road trips to San Francisco or Vegas, one cross-country road trip, and one month-long trip to the Philippines.  While I appreciated and still fondly and vividly remember many moments of those family trips, I certainly had no comprehension of what traveling really was.  I was just having fun with my parents.  Later, as a college student working two jobs, I never did a study abroad program.  I had no time, no money, and no sense of what an opportunity it could be for me.  It wasn’t until my second year of teaching that I traveled to Europe for the first time.  My friend and colleague Becky Wentland (to whom I am eternally grateful) invited me to be a chaperone on a student trip to Paris, Madrid and Barcelona.  To this day, I remember the series of moments when I fell in love with travel and with Paris.

When our tour director Brian picked us up from the airport, I already had a perma-smile on my face because I was just so happy to be in Europe. Everything was immediately fascinating: the signs in French, the cool escalator, the customs agents’ uniforms.  After having dropped off our luggage at our hotel, we headed straight away on the metro Line 1, direction La Défense.  Our destination: Charles de Gaulle Étoile.  Now those of you who are already familiar with Paris know quite well what we were about to see.  Leaving the belly of the metro, we ascended the escalator, our eyes adjusting to the June sunlight that penetrated the metro exit.  As the escalator leveled off, I saw her towering in front of me.  Elegant, majestic, proud, colossal, and perfect, Napoleon commissioned this in 1806 to honor those who fought and died for France in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.  This monument to fête his troops (if not himself) and their numerous victories wasn’t completed until 1836 under the reign of King Louis-Philippe, and it has since been the site of countless celebrations and also painful memories: the return of Napoleon’s ashes to France, a victory parade after WWI, Hitler and his troops marching underneath the arch as they came to occupy France, the victory parade after Liberation, Bastille Day parades, demonstrations and protests, and countless laps by cyclists on the Tour de France.  As soon as my mind registered what I was seeing with my own two eyes, I actually put my hand to my chest and I gasped.  I couldn’t believe I was finally here in Europe.  In France.  In PARIS!!!  On that day, I celebrated my own travel triumph under the Arc de Triomphe.

Not quite the Tour de France, a Vélib cyclist makes his way around the Arc de Triomphe

In the brief five days that we were in Paris, I had dozens of breath-taking, tear-running, and silent awe moments.  At Notre Dame, I could visualize the innumerable workers who worked since 1160 to build this cathedral, I imagined the devotion it took to persevere for 200 yeas in continuing the construction, and I felt the strength of my own faith as I entered this holy space with the centuries-long procession of visitors and worshippers.  Out of faith, out of love, and out of gratitude, I wept.

Paris worked her charms on me at every turn.  While it may have been love at first sight, it wasn’t just the obligatory sites that drew me in.  It was the daily life experiences that enchanted me the most.  Having a café on a terrace and watching the world go by, fumbling with my then-green metro tickets as I tried to get through the turnstile, buying in-season cherries from the fruit vendor at the open-air market, watching the lights of the city twinkle on one by one from the steps of Sacré-Cœur, and trying to decipher overheard whispers with the little French that I knew at the time.  Paris can be both simple and complex, depending on your point of view. To me, Paris is equally genteel and daring.  She is evocative and forthright.  She seduces yet is still traditional and demure.  She can whisper her secrets and boast her talents all in the same moment. She offers you her best and asks only that you respect her for what she is.  If you accept her on her terms, you’ll know why you can so easily fall in love with her.  And that’s just what I did.

For a decade thereafter, I was fortunate to bring students to Europe on my own tours every summer.  The itinerary was different every year: Paris/Madrid/Barcelona, The Grand Tour of France, France/Italy/Spain, Italy/France, England/France/Germany/ Austria, and others.  But you’ll notice that France – and Paris in particular – always makes it into the itinerary.  There’s something about Paris that always brings me back.  As much as in my own hometown, it’s honestly where my soul feels most at home.

Two important things I learned about travel since that first trip to Paris – 1) I want to discover and learn more about even more places and 2) there is nothing like seeing those places through the eyes of your students.  When history, literature, language, art, politics, and all the things that they’ve studied in a classroom finally come to life before their very eyes, it is a precious and magical moment.  Places I have visited on numerous occasions are still new to me when I remember to see it through the eyes of my students, to see it like it was my first time. Sharing that experience and learning what piques their interest bolsters my appreciation for that place and for the idea of travel itself.

So now I find myself in a position where, after thirteen years of teaching and two years Leave of Absence to earn a degree in French, I’ve resigned my position as a teacher and am now an assistant guide in Europe.   I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to do work in another field about which I’m passionate, but it’s still a big change for me.  I’m constantly trying to find my personal balance about the choices I’ve made and the path I’m now on.  Travel is an experiment in discovery — of other cultures, histories, art, cuisine, politics, or whatever interests you; but it is also a means of self-discovery.  I don’t know if I’ve found my niche, but that’s part of the personal exploration.  And to me, this blog will be a work in progress, just like the human experience.  We become more, reach farther, and expand ourselves because of the risks we choose to take and what we are willing to learn from our experiences.  And maybe that’s why I love travel so much – it challenges me to move beyond my own parameters, to learn from others, to challenge my own preconceived ideas, and to incorporate what I’ve learned into my own life.  I hope you’ll follow me as my world travels and personal journeys continue. 

Senses Working Overtime

If there are two things I know about myself when I travel, it’s that for my own health and mental wellbeing, I need to get on local time immediately, and that I need to exercise. Last night, despite wanting to sleep right away, I powered through until about midnight and then went to bed so I could get up at 7:15 to go for a run. In addition to getting to know my neighborhood, running gives me a chance to combat jetlag and, of course, stay in shape. I have a tendency while traveling, especially when in Paris, to indulge in pastries. Oh, who am I kidding, I indulge in all kinds of food. The negative motivation for running: I need to lose or at least maintain my weight. The positive: I do it so I can continue eating that way (like 15th century Catholics who paid Indulgences to the church so they wouldn’t burn in hell). But this time, I found a new positive source of motivation: running from bakery to bakery. Don’t worry. I didn’t eat a pastry at each one. I just inhaled the sweet and savory scents of just-baked bread. It’s a scent that, unlike that of the bakery in my town back home, somehow manages not only to tickle my nostrils but also, like Marcel Proust and his tea-dipped madeleine, can suddenly transport me to vivid memories of past Paris experiences.

A grand café crème always hits the spot.

In fact, whenever I come to Paris, my senses go into overdrive. While I’m always beguiled by the visual aspects of the monuments, art and architecture of the city, I’m often more intensely struck by the smells, tastes, and sounds of Paris: the aforementioned smell of fresh-baked bread; the taste of a buttery, flaky croissant dipped in a rich, hot café crème; the metallic, screechy rumbling of an approaching metro train; the warning buzzer you hear as the doors slide shut just barely after a man makes a flying leap into your train car; the constant hum of cars, motorcycles, bicycles bells and the chorus of various languages that are so commonly heard in such a cosmopolitan city. Paris is meant to be experienced. It’s not a series of photo stops and checking off lists of which paintings you’ve seen, which monuments you’ve climbed, or how many churches you’ve visited. There’s nothing wrong with doing those things, of course. In fact, it can be quite fun and educational. But traveling to Paris means becoming a part of the city, if temporarily, and letting it seep into you through all your senses. No other city feels like Paris. No other city sounds like it. Nowhere else can you get this combination of culinary, artistic, historic and cultural sensory stimulation that can at once make you feel part of the tradition, grounded in the moment and propelled towards an exciting future. Hyperbole? Maybe. But it sure feels real.

I can’t wait to share my love of this city with my tour members. This is going to be a great summer.

Good to Go

Rick and I flying off to do some work in Europe

Getting ready for a trip is always exciting: thinking about your itinerary, planning the right combination of outfits, making sure you have all your toiletries and making everything fit it your suitcase.  I tend to wait till the day before I leave to get it all together, and invariably, I end up forgetting something.  This time it was no different.

Everything fit just fine in my carry-on suitcase (I roll my clothes instead of fold them), but it was still too heavy for my liking.  I eliminated a light sweater, then a shirt, then a tank top, then another tank top, then a scarf, and then this and then that.  I got it to where I wanted it, lined up my suitcase, my day bag and my jacket.  When it was time to go, I grabbed my suitcase, my day bag…and forgot my jacket.  Typical.

Well, no matter.  It was off to the airport with the family, eating berries, reminiscing, and discussing plans.  At the airport, Rick and I took advantage of our time by sharing some chowder, practicing our Skype skills with each other and reviewing our respective trip plans.  Since we were fortunate enough to head off to Europe on the same flight (his final destination: Vienna, mine: Paris), we enjoyed our last seven hours together with engaging conversation, watching The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and indulging in 3.5 hours of sleep.   As we said our goodbyes at Heathrow, we affirmed how happy we are for our togetherness, how excited we are for the other to have wonderful adventures, and how good it will be the next time we’re together.  (As a sidenote: Rick gave me a copy of his Europe 101 book so I could brush up on my art and history for my tours.  He signed it saying, “I know you’ll be a great guide.  I am so proud of you.”  Even now, reading that makes my eyes well up.)

I continued on my way to Paris and met an Indian-American (born in India) named Antonio and his 14-year-old and very mature for his age son Alex.  We struck up a great conversation and chatted all the way to Charles de Gaulle Airport.  They’re planning on staying in Paris for a month while Antonio works on his artwork and plans upcoming gallery showings and Alex brushes up on his newly learned French skills.  We decided to take the RER together into the city from the airport.   To help Alex work on his speaking skills confidence, I had him buy the tickets speaking only in French, and he passed with flying colors. As we rode from the outskirts of the city to Paris proper, we worked on other skills that will come in handy for the rest of trip: reading maps, understanding the train/metro system, basic expressions and cultural differences and similarities.  While this may have been helpful to them, it was extremely helpful to me to practice my teaching skills to prep me for my upcoming tours.  This chance encounter was a great omen for the start of my new adventures as an assistant tour guide.  I think I’m good to go.

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