Paris, France: It's For Tourists

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do." - Mark Twain

After meeting a friend for a drink in Paris, she asked where we were heading to next. When I said, ‘the Eiffel Tower’, she commented that she had never been and had no desire of visiting the Eiffel Tower. Considering that she went to study in Paris, married a Parisian and had been living there for years, I found her comment surprising.  When I asked why not, somewhat embarrassed and with a half-smile, she said, "Because it's for tourist."

What is it about being a ‘tourist’ that suggests tawdriness? The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘tourist” as a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure.

While having my picture purposely taken in front of Rodin’s most famous work, ‘The Thinker’, the Eiffel Tower loomed in the background. One could not possibly visit Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. Even if you did not want to visit this world famous structure, you would see its top from all over Paris. For a tourist, the Eiffel Tower had been the very icon of Paris – a structure of elegance and beauty.

I have been to Paris many times and every time I return, I visit this most iconic tourist spot in the world. However, every visit gave me a different perspective – a lesson in mechanics, history, psychology, social grace and the structure itself. I first visited the Eiffel Tower while on a whirlwind tour to Europe. We had 2 days to spend in Paris. As a young girl, all I really cared about then was to be able to tell my relatives and friends back home that I reached the top of the Eiffel Tower, so I took the lift to the very top. Having done this, I learned a lesson about the mechanics of the lift used to take us to the top of the tower.

In my subsequent visit, I was in Paris for the weekend from a summer school break in England. Alone and not rushed, I soaked in the 360- degree view of Paris from the first and second levels. The views from the tower were splendid.  The monuments I saw from every corner of the tower were rich in history:  the Musee d’Homme, Palais Chaillot and Palais de Tokyo (Modern Art Museum), Palais de L’Elysee, Sacre Coeur in Monmarte, the metal foot and Alma bridges in the East side, the Ecole Militaire and Champ de Mars, the UNESCO Headquarters in the South side, the Statue of Liberty, the Grenelle Bridge and Allee des Cygnes Islet.
In the Shadow of the Eiffel
Another memorable experience was when I took my niece to the Eiffel Tower in the middle of August.  The tower was teeming with 'tourists', but despite the crowd I felt so alone and lonely.  Then it occurred to me, "Paris is life and everything in this fabulous city pervades you with romance and passion.  There must be truth to the cliché that Paris is for lovers."

On one occasion, I had the privilege of dining at an elegant restaurant at the Eiffel Tower. Noticing that we were so preoccupied taking pictures of our food and view, a customer from the next table volunteered to take our picture. Our volunteer photographer made every effort to make sure that she captured our best pose, the perfect smile and the perfect background. She took the task seriously like a true Parisian I thought. Then I realized that this restaurant was not just for tourists, but frequented by local Parisians as well.

My last Eiffel Tower visit with my niece was a unique experience. We did not eat at the fancy restaurant, but we sat on the bench outside the second level café and waited for the sun to come down while munching on le sandwich. We waited to capture the Paris sunset from the tower. Then we watched the light change on the trees and the buildings and rushed to the lift to catch a glimpse of the tower lighted in its full view. Like small children at Christmas time, we ran across the street to ‘Ecole Militaire’ and waited for the Eiffel Tower glittering lights to reveal its beauty. While I enjoyed the splendid view of the city of Paris from the tower in my past visits, on a recent visit,  I realized that the real beauty of the Eiffel Tower could be seen from the structure itself. Like the tower in its sparkling splendor, what we did that day was a bit over the top.  We eventually learned that Paris had so much more to offer after spending almost six hours chasing the sunset, the evening lights and the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower.  Indeed one could not experience the entirety of Paris in just one trip. Would I return? Most definitely and would gladly give my relatives and friends a tour guide and show them what lured me and the more than 260 million visitors to the Eiffel Tower.

So when it comes to Paris, I am your definitive tourist.  I enjoy my visits to the typical tourist spots – the Eiffel Tower, Montmarte and Sacre Coeur, the Luxembourg and the Tuileries gardens, the pyramid of the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre museums. Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” maybe a permanent fixture at the Louvre and Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” at Musee d’Orsay, but every visit to these museums gives me a different perspective. I take pleasure in small things, like dining at the museum café, where the waiters would slip some delicious chocolate covered almonds with the l'addition. I take pleasure in strolling along the Tuileries and stopping for crepes and sitting at the bench for hours while admiring the gardens.

For me, “Champ Elysee’ was the wide boulevard between two tourist spots – Place de la Concorde and Arc de Triomphe. And I try to avoid its sprawling malls and expensive shops where you would find luxury bags, jewelry and clothes that obviously a tourist like me would not be able to afford. I once explored the so-called non-tourist neighborhood, Bercy Village, an old wine warehouses converted into shops and restaurants, and found it disappointing.  It had a feel of a mall in my neighborhood in America.

What I enjoyed about Paris the most was the great feeling of appetite in the air – the smell of coffee and delectable pastries and walking around Rue de Buci market and savoring the spectacular display of food --- cheeses, sausages, pastries, fruits and vegetables of different shapes and colors.

If having my pictures taken in front of the iconic tourist spots in Paris or taking pictures of pastries so I could send it on Facebook and tag my young relative’s name on pictures of French pastries like religieuse café aux chocolate, tartellete aux framboises ou fraises, éclair and the family’s favorite French cookies from Laduree, or drinking kir aux muscadet with my meal, considered tawdry that only a tourist would do, then I’m guilty. Call me a tourist!

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