“We are going to Paris,” she said, “damnit.” No doubt, we were. But there was one, big obstacle.
By David Stone
Table of contents
- The Problem In Going To Paris: Getting Out Of Rochester
- “The problem is getting you out of Rochester.”
- The trouble with Rochester…
- Going to Paris, but not so fast…
- We’re going to Paris, if we can get to Chicago.
- “It’s like they have a different word for everything,”
- My sniffles and lousy French
- I needed a handkerchief…
- It was a little like Monty Python
- Guess who laughed
- Getting out of Rochester made going to Paris even more exciting
The Problem In Going To Paris: Getting Out Of Rochester
My wife still laughs when she tells the story. We were going to Paris and met at the AAA to make reservations. It was a damp, chilly winter day, one of what seemed and endless stream.
Related: Going to Prague
We’d moved to Rochester from New York City, the year before. The change was unsettling. We needed a great vacation, and this was timed for our twentieth wedding anniversary in April.
April in Paris. Ella singing Vernon Duke and Yip Harburg’s lyrics made a soundtrack.
We hadn’t traveled to a non-English speaking country before, we’d been practicing French. My skills grew only a little.
The comic results were more than expected.
Luckily, my wife learned the second language well enough to not earn the puzzled looks I son got from Parisians.
There was one unexpected result from our trip: Travels with George: Paris
“The problem is getting you out of Rochester.”
With help from agent, we picked a hotel, but then, we smacked into living in a city not served by any airline as a hub.
“Getting you a flight to Paris is easy,” the agent told us. “The problem is getting you out of Rochester.”
My wife laughed. She still does every time she tells the story. She’d hoped to get out of Rochester since shortly after leaving New York.
My apologies to Rochester. It isn’t New York, and if you love cities, this is no comparison.
The trouble with Rochester…
I liked the area better than my wife did. I landed a job with a new career direction. With it came Larry Reeves, the best boss of all time.
In the months before our move, she earned a degree in Art History from Manhattan Marymount. Graduation came with enough awards to make going up and down the aisle an Olympic event.
Soon, it was clear that Rochester was a dead end for her skills.
My job got us out of Rochester, six months later. But for now, we were going to Paris for our twentieth, and that was exciting.
Going to Paris, but not so fast…
April came, and we arrived at Rochester International in plenty of time. Getting out of Rochester required flying west first, then connecting back towards Paris.
Because Rochester was not a hub, we had to fly to O’Hare. From Chicago, we’d transfer to Air France… and fly back over Rochester.
It was a redeye, but we believe arriving in Paris would rinse out any jet lag. That turned out to be true. Sort of.
But the idea of flying backward to Paris didn’t prepare us for the risks of, well, getting out of Rochester.
Any flight related to Chicago is inherently perilous. A spring shower in Peoria, say, can delay flights into and out of Chicago for hours, even days.
So, on a sunny spring day in Rochester, a band of storms in the Midwest rippled delays all the way to the East Coast.
As we idled, waiting for clearance to take off, we appreciated the planned four hour buffer before our Air France flight.
We set it aside as relaxed dinnertime inside the International Terminal at O’Hare. There was time for wine to lull us into semi-sleep over the Atlantic.
But our buffer dwindled to nothing while we waited for Chicago’s skies to clear.
We’re going to Paris, if we can get to Chicago.
Instead of a quiet meal and talk about Paris, we got a sprint through terminals, frantic to make our connecting flight.
A kind flight attendant reopened the jetway and let us, the final passengers onboard. We were hungry and rattled, and she took pity on us.
We were on the Air France jet only minutes before the pilot taxied to the runway. Safety instructions sailed by us in French and English, and we were breathlessly on our way.
As we passed rows of parked planes in rows of bays, I said, “Goodbye,” to Chicago and to our luggage.
“Any chance our suitcases made it to this plane in time?”
It was rhetorical.
We were tired and disoriented when we found our way to the baggage area at Charles De Gaulle, on a necessary but, we knew, hopeless wait for our flight to cough up the contents of it’s underbelly. You have to do this, just to be sure, before you can go to the airline and fill out a lost baggage claim.
So, our first hour in France was spent watching others gleefully collect their luggage and head off for Paris. I began to question the wisdom of this trip, but not in those words, around the time we got lost looking for the lost luggage claim office or whatever it was they called it in French.
I was reminded of Steve Martin’s hilarious monologue about traveling to France. “It’s like they have a different word for everything,” he protested.
They did too, and I didn’t usually know what it was.
Anyway, thanks to my wife’s language skills, honed at college, we were promised that the airline would deliver our bags at our hotel as soon as they arrived, and off we went by train into Paris.
“It’s like they have a different word for everything,”
Paris, I can tell you, is every bit as wonderful as its reputation, maybe more, and despite our lack of sleep and clean underwear, we came alive was we walked through Montparnasse to our hotel.
A confession: tyros that we were, we’d made accommodations at a Best Western, thinking it would be just like the places we liked back home. The sign out front was. But after a fruitless search for a showerhead, I determined there wasn’t much else.
What the heck! A country boy, I’d grown up taking baths. I could sit in tepid water again.
With nothing to unpack or fresh clothes to change into, we were back on the street quickly and hunting down a place to eat. We found a quiet place, something like a diner in America, and grabbed a table.
I was really hungry. I was really unable to read the menu. For the first time, I was reduced to a baby. My wife had to help me order. It was embarrassing but, I hoped, maybe only in English.
I was soon deluded by illusions of confidence.
Days before we got out of Rochester, I’d figured out a cool stroll for our first day, one that would take us by most of the really exciting spot in Paris in a big circle.
My sniffles and lousy French
If you’re in shape, Paris is a walkaround city, best appreciated slowly and savored. Soon, we were approaching the Eiffel Tower through Champ de Mars. The structure just sweeps up, like nothing we’d ever seen.
We crossed the Seine and talk the first leafy street to L’Arc de Triomphe, under which victorious American soldiers marched at the end of World War II, and followed their path down the Champs Elysees, passing elegant stores, sidewalk cafes, McDonalds and Chinese takeouts. Fears of the Americanization of Paris were well-grounded.
The Tuileries may be the most pleasant gardens on Earth. They were especially appreciated after risking our lives getting across the traffic circle at Place de la Concorde, which was anything but.
I needed a handkerchief…
After the Tuileries, the love and, then, into the gut of Paris and Les Marais. Before night gathered, walked through Luxembourg Gardens, and back near our hotel, feeling the evening chill, we bought sweatshirts from a kiosk along the Seine to use as pajamas.
One thing I forgot to tell you. I was just getting over a bad cold when we got out of Rochester, and as much as I needed something warm to wear until our luggage arrived, I needed a handkerchief.
My nose was still running, accelerating the chill actually, and to top that off, I was getting nosebleeds. You had to see me cowering in corners to disguise the effects of my lingering cold.
Another thing I forgot to tell you is that my wife is eight years younger than me and, blessed with her mother’s genes, she looks younger. On our honeymoon, we had to carry our freshly signed wedding license as we travelled to New Orleans, fearing I’d be detained for violating the Mann Act.
So, with my sniffles, lousy French and our accented age difference, I believed the Parisians thought my wife an angel for bringing her dimwitted older brother to Paris.
It was a little like Monty Python
I’m happy to say our luggage was waiting for us at the Best Western the next day, and we spent one of the best weeks we’ve ever had, going from museum to museum, walking through the neighborhoods, appreciating the beauty of Paris and eating great food.
One day, we decided to take Rick Steves advice and get off the beaten track. We wandered into an unfamiliar, un-touristed neighborhood and picked out a pizzeria, confident we couldn’t go wrong.
The pizza was great, but when the salad we ordered did not arrive before it was done, I spoke up. It was the first time my French language skills worked. “Ou est la salade?” I asked.
I knew I scored because my question began echoing around the nearby kitchen, the tones getting more agitated. It was a little like Monty Python, and I expected the waiter to be fired and, then, killed.
Guess who laughed
My wife thought I was overreacting. More likely, she thought they were alarmed that the dumb American actually knew enough French to point out an error.
We had one other small incident like that. Determined to exercise my French skills and a little disoriented near Les Halles, I approached a serious looking woman with this question. “Ou est la louv?”
Although a little shocked, she tilted her glasses and responded, “Le louvre?”
“We,” I said.
In perfect English, she instructed me to “walk two blocks south and, then go right.”
Guess who laughed. Again.
Because I keep hearing how rude Parisians are supposed to be, I want to be very clear that, to us, they were unfailingly kind and helpful, even if a little amused at my language. Friends in Rochester referred to Parisians as “New Yorkers with an accent.”
They seemed to think New Yorkers were rude too. And they might be right, if you and your whole family are consuming an entire sidewalk in Times Square, looking up and walking slowly in that way only out of towners have mastered. New Yorkers are kind and helpful, but like the Parisians, we expect visitors respect our hometown and remember that we have lives to live here and places to go.
But I digress.
Getting out of Rochester made going to Paris even more exciting
What I wanted to do was tell you about the night we jumped on a subway near L’Arc de Triomphe on a Sunday night, thinking it would take us as it usually did to our transfer toward Montparnasse. Instead, somewhere in a station under the Tuileries, it stopped and everyone got off.
Everyone but us. We sat on the train, trying to comprehend the rapid fire announcement crackling out of the public address system.
Just before panic set in, several people who’d boarded a train across the platform quietly began signalling us to follow them. We did and got to Montparnasse without delay.
It may be that getting out of Rochester made going to Paris even more exciting. For my wife, I’m sure it did. But it did something more. It made travelling to Europe seem just as easy as travelling to Los Angeles (with better food.)
In the years that followed, we got into a twice a year habit of seeing Europe. We explored my wife’s family’s roots in Naples, sipped hot chocolate in a cafe beside the Rialto Bridge, toured Amsterdam in a canal boat, hiked in the Vienna Woods and much more. That first trip to Paris opened doors to our curiosity and imagination.
And, yes, we went back to Paris again for our twenty-fifth anniversary. The truth is, you can scratch Paris off your bucket list, but it will keep finding its way back on.