travelling... straight on until morning

My friend WMM, who's just back from Paris and Provence, is still decompressing.  She'll be sharing her own travel impressions later, but the thought of someone's first trip to Paris - inspiring!

So I thought it might be fun to share some of the impressions of my very first trip to France: all those years ago, and they're still with me.

As we set off, I had une liste of sights I had to see, experiences I wanted to have, foods I wanted to taste. Most of all, I wanted to know if the language I'd worked on since age 11, slavishly following the instructions of teachers who claimed to be ex-DOD language school, would in fact work: would a French person understand me? Would I understand a French person? Would, for example, the response to a request for a café au lait be a cup of coffee, a blank stare, or gales of laughter?
warm brown water

surprise no. 1: I was understood! More: I was complimented! Oh, what a relief to learn that those hours in front of a mirror checking how lips were pursed or jaw relaxed, had paid off!

surprise no. 2: French teachers can lie.  Café au lait is awful, especially if you like coffee. It's a morning drink, and to this day in many places is made by heating up the remains of last night's coffee and diluting it with hot UHT skim milk. I consider it an accessory for those who want to sit in a cafe with a morning newspaper and try to look French. I don't consider it food.

We arrived on an overnight Channel ferry and picked up our car at sunrise. We had to call the rental guy at home, since his little office wasn't open, but he was courteous and helpful, and wished us a happy journey. At that point Himself decided that he couldn't start the day or  drive without a glass of orange juice (not the place to discuss my relationship with citrus). We found a seaman's bar/tabac that was open, the barman thought it was très amusant but found the only orange in the place, and let's just say, it was a very expensive glass of OJ.

Maybe hotels have those peculiar shutters that keep out the air so when you get up, you can throw them open and see rooftops, fields, waterfront, flowers... in case overnight you forgot where you were. I later learned of the French horror of drafts. How long ago was this? Mont St Michel wasn't crowded.

I've already discussed my raptures on seeing the Bayeux Tapestry in real life, and I still count myself lucky to have been able to get up close and touch the texture of the stitches before the preservationists got hold of it. Pavé de chocolat for dessert that day, in the Lion d'Or. I checked, it's still on the menu. Probably still good, too.

Chugging through Brittany on roads that were still not paved, behind horse-carts, madly consulting guidebooks to see if we were anywhere near a village that might be celebrating something - anything! - so that we could observe Bretons in local costume, these are very expensive handmade outfits, sometimes hundreds of years old. Each village has its own style and they are family heirlooms. True Celtic pride.

Favorite chateau: Azay-le-Rideau. Best part: being turned loose on our own with a mimeo'd outline of the contents and purposes of the rooms, oh, vous parlez français, vous, allez-y...  We took turns reading aloud from the Michelin Green Book for Chateaux of the Loire, to let the history of the empty rooms resonate.

And on to Paris, where I encountered surprise no. 3: everyone in Paris was slimmer than I. The opposite had been true in the country. I considered reversing the course of the trip. Then - Paris happened. It's true that you get dressed up every day. This is because every day there's something to get dressed up for, even if it's just to walk down the street. This was the spring that blue jeans came to Paris, but like no jeans I'd ever seen: pressed, with crease! Stitched in strange colors! Fitted! Hemmed! Made fancy! As one who'd grown up in real jeans, I was horrified. French jeans have improved and I've gotten more broad-minded, but I still remember the shock. I may have thought everyone should wear close-fitted skirts or blue work shirts,  and carry baguettes.

After all, the buildings looked like the pictures in my textbooks...

Lovely surprise no. 4: Sainte Chapelle!

Lovely surprise no. 5: Sainte Chapelle!

Some early impressions:

They park on the sidewalk!

The whole country smokes those smelly cigarettes, not just college kids who want to look cool.

Waiters love to tell you what's in a dish and what else you might like with it.

We figured out the Métro in about a minute. We still haven't figured out the busses.

The plumbing was, um, different. The necessary vocabulary had not been covered in any of my coursework. I learned fast.

This first trip took place in April. We expected the weather to be soft, mild, spring-like. It was cold, damp, bone-chillingly windy. I invented the layered look: I wore everything I brought, all at once, topped off by a "packable" raincoat. If I could have figured out a body part to keep warm with the envelope of the packable raincoat, I would have worn that too. I later learned that the song is about April in Paris because the composer insisted on a two-syllable word at that point. The lyricist, having actually been to Paris, was pushing for June. Or at least May.

How to say "magic" in French: Paris.

Welcome home, all you tired summer travellers. Enjoy your memories.


  1. Love these illustrations. I remember my first trip to Paris - I got drunk and wanted to sleep under the Eiffel Tower.Thankfully, I'm now satisfied with the wonderful views from the Tower. I remember being shocked by the French ability to park on a postage stamp and their do-or-die driving skills. Some things never change!

  2. WFF - I love this! You captured these essence exactly. I felt like a besotted lover in Paris. It was all so magical and everything tasted and seemed better than anything had ever looked and tasted before...In the end, we only had 4 days in Paris, as the rest of the trip was Provence, but it has whet my appetite...

  3. Hi, Sulky, last spring Homself and I were walking home from too much dinner, and he said "Stop, something's terribly wrong!" I looked around, and I saw it too - no cars on the sidewalk! Well, all I could say was, in the voice of world-weary travelers everywhere, "I'm just glad we got here when we were kids and Paris was still Paris."

  4. Hi, WMM, welcome back! Your adventure inspired this post, I found myself thinking, well, this is still the way it was. What has changed since that first trip? No smoking laws, mostly obeyed; doggie pick-up laws, also mostly obeyed; English a requirement in most schools; ethnic restaurants proliferating, well, not like London or New York but proliferating for Paris; sandwich shops everywhere, making it possible to save on lunch and splurge on dinner... oh, and those bikes! There were still lots of bikes all over Paris on our first few trips, then they vanished with prosperity. and now the Vélibs are everywhere. I look forward to your impressions!

    1. and I forgot to say, coffee has improved! the Paris food bloggers have been ecstatic over the advent of real espresso, real on-site roasters in real bean shops - and the enthusiastic presence of real Parisans happily slurping real brew has proved my initial impression!

    2. I agree - we saw so many Vélibs - they multiplied like rabbits! The coffee was good, though I think my husband makes a better cappucino than most I had there! And we saw no evidence of dogs on the sidewalks at all, despite the horror stories I had heard along the way! My biggest issue now is staying awake! It is 7:30 and I just want to climb into bed again!

  5. What a lovely post, wellfedfred! You and WMM are really making me wish I was there right now. How nice it would be to actually live in a city where getting dressed up everyday is something that everyone does, not just a select few.

    Btw, when is your trip?

  6. Thanks, FFM! we have tentative plans, but no reservations yet, for mid to late October. I think part of the reason so many people look good in France, especially in cities and sizable towns, is that clothes care is part of the culture, and so are alterations and repairs. After two world wars, invasions, occupation, rationing, taking care of your shoes and clothing and looking good is almost a matter of national pride.

  7. This was lovely to read. I also loved Saint Chapelle, we went on our first trip too. MrBP insisted, I didn't want to stand in line, in the end I was happy we did: worth it!
    I can't wait to go back, I've got a month, the countdown begins!

  8. Thanks, Dani, I wish we had "dates certain," but right now we are waiting for the Coumadin levels to stabilize. We do want to go in October, though, wild game season, chestnuts, fashion... Wouldn't it be fun to meet "by chance" on the Faubourg St. Honoré in front of Hermès' fall windows? I'll keep you posted on our dates!

    1. Let's not leave it to chance, we are there until the 11th, staying one block from the Louvre, email me when you get your dates!

    2. Ladies you remind me of my dear husband, who heard that Scarlett Johanssen, and then Pippa Middleton were in Paris the same time we were and kept hoping to meet thenm them "by chance", but to no avail...

    3. ok, I will!

      WMM, see, we're not leaving things to chance...

  9. I love Paris in the Springtime.
    I love Paris in the Fall.
    I love Paris......
    Just sayin'

  10. Just great! What memories you must have-- you must have spent some significant time there. People rent apartments for 2 weeks, I hear. Anyone done that? Mr Lane and I have still not been there together-- must correct this.

    My favorite memory of Paris was from a school trip with my eldest during a gorgeous sunny week in April 3 weeks into the Iraq war. Most of the kids withdrew, but 5 of them and 5 parents noted that in the absence of a State Dept warning, we were there ( Remember "freedom fries"?) I took her on her birthday to the bar at the Ritz where we were one of only 3 parties. "Where are the Americans?" We had 3 drinks, one with alcohol for me and took turns going to the gorgeous ladies room, the staff fussing over us like royalty. Best $50. ever!

    1. What a delightful memory, and good for intrepid you!

  11. WFF, as usual I wanted to pull out my suitcase and print out a ticket the moment I finished reading. That title always reminds me of Beryl Markham's enduring spirit of adventure. Thank goodness an impromptu student train jump to Italy improved my opinion of Euro coffee culture after that first dishwater lukewarm "vrai" cafe au lait. (The buttery day 1 croissant did live up to rep.) Trust Himself continues on the mend so you can organise your latest Paris details promto!

    1. Thanks, GetFresh, we're workin' on it!

  12. I do not have memories of my own yet, I have never been, but it is on my list of places to go. I will enjoy yours and WMM's for the time being. Thank you! Really, thank you!

  13. I've been lucky enough to go to Paris twice, though I felt like I really saw any of it once, and would love to go back. Best thing about Paris for me was the food. Did not have a bad meal. It is the first and only city where I will have steak tartare.

  14. hi, Lisa, yes, anywhere that's new makes me want to rush to see and taste and hold and try everything. I have to force myself to move at a pace that allows for memory ... I'll be doing more food posts soon!


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