I didn’t know I was going to Paris until, literally, we drove into the city. I had been told earlier in the week that there was “a surprise.” I love being surprised. I am not the sort of person who tries to guess the surprise, so I waited patiently all week until I was told that in order to experience the surprise, I had to pack a suitcase. Then on Friday afternoon, I received the additional information that someone was coming shortly to pick us up in a car.
Two good friends showed up in their little European VW, and one of them was as confused as I was. We got on the road and it occurred to me that we were planning to be in the car for quite some time. Evidence included: 1. Tim had brought two huge water bottles. 2. And sandwiches. 3. The GPS didn’t have us arriving at its destination until about five hours later. This was an American-size road trip! We left the Netherlands and cleared Belgium, then continued into France. Incidentally, driving into France only involved passing through what looked like a deserted toll plaza that used to be border control. My friend kept saying, “I think we’re going to Paris!” but Tim can be sneaky, so I didn’t make any guesses. She was correct. And the kicker of the surprise was that when we arrived in Paris, we were joined by two other friends.
It was 10PM, we were in Paris, and we were off into the night.
If it is fall in Delft, it felt borderline winter in Paris. It struck me how the atmosphere of the city must fluctuate with the weather. To me everything seemed gray, dignified, gritty. Statues in the park looked somber. Green benches and chairs looked metallically cold. Parisians wore a lot of black and gray. Yet none of it was uninviting, and the weather does not chase Europeans inside. People will sit outside to eat and drink (and smoke) no matter the chill in the air. In one weekend we could only scrape the surface of the city, so mainly we walked—and walked—and walked. And we looked around, and took it in.
As the person who normally researches our travels, reads the guidebook(s), scours Trip Advisor, asks friends, and says, “How about today we see A, B, and C?” it was a liberating experience to have no knowledge. I knew zero about the city aside from being able to name several key landmarks. I had to ask in what neighborhood of Paris our hotel was located (the 6th arrondissement). Then when I had the answer, I had no idea what it meant.
Remember how I said I love being surprised? Occasionally the part of me that loves being surprised fights with the part of me that likes to have control. At breakfast Saturday morning I Kindle-downloaded a guide. Once I started reading, my inner efficiency guru started to creep up, thinking or saying things like, “Uh, guys, shouldn’t we be walking this way?” or “Wouldn’t the fastest way to __ be this?” But even as I felt it, I realized, that was not the spirit of this weekend. The spirit of this weekend was surprise, spontaneity.
And so in retrospect, the guide may not have been necessary. The biggest thing it did for us was explain that you don’t have to wait on the indefinite queue outside the pyramid of the Louvre—you can also buy tickets at machines in the nearby underground mall and enter through the mall. This saved us, probably, at least an hour.
On Saturday night after a delicious French meal at a restaurant we found using only our eyes on the street, we took the metro to the Eiffel Tower. It was around 11:45 and we had just missed the last call for rides up. It didn’t matter. We came up from the metro, around a bend, and BAM! the tower reared up in front of us, so much larger than I had imagined, and silhouetted against an ominous, cloudy night sky.
And so with a bottle of port (thank you, European open-container laws) we toasted the Eiffel Tower. We toasted a lot of things that weekend: Paris (repeatedly), friendship, and of course—a good surprise.