Accidental Holiday (Or how to turn at 12-hour layover in France into a 4-day one)

27 Jul

Summer in the northern hemisphere is sublime. Particularly in a state like Minnesota where, for roughly 6 months of the year, our constant companions are snow, ice, and dark. The onset of summer means light. It gives us late evenings sitting at the end of the dock with family. It showcases some of the greatest fruits and veggies. For many people, it reminds them why they put up living in the cold for half of the year. For what it’s worth, Minnesotans yearn to hang onto the tethers of summer, feigning amnesia by the time the first bitterly cold days role around in October. I left Minnesota July 17th, right in the middle of one of the warmest summers that I can recall. Only 48 hours and thousands of miles separated me from winter. Which I was okay with. Summer 2012 and I had a good run. We shared a lot of wonderful times. It brought me closer to family and friends. Plus, winters in Cape Town are nowhere near as brutal as a Minneapolis one.

Despite having resigned myself over to the cold I was about to return, a minor travel crisis let me soak in 4 final days of summer in Paris.  The absurdly long travel time necessary to get back to Cape Town was mostly attributable to a 12-hour layover in Paris. Having read many travel blogs and forums about how to make the most of a long layover in Paris before departing MN, I felt prepared to jet off into the city for a few hours. I decided that rather than museum hopping and bicycle tours, I would just walk. That way, I wouldn’t put myself under any time constraints and I would get some much needed exercise after the long flights from Minneapolis.

The Long Story, Made Short: I missed my flight from Paris to Johannesburg. Admittedly, I was at first terrified. Unable to speak the language, I was left worrying about how I could rearrange my trip to get me back to Cape Town in time for class. I was alone, in a city where I really don’t know many people. After a stressful night spent at Charles de Gaulle, I had booked a ticket out of France for the following Sunday, four days after I was originally supposed to leave. I resolved to make the most of it. No one expects to have their first vacation in Paris alone. Despite that, I was bound and determined to make this trip (and the anxiety of missing a flight) worthwhile.

I purchased a 5-day unlimited pass for riding the trains and buses in Paris. Best decision I could have made. Public transport is a lifeline for Paris, and I was thankful for how extensive the system was. On Friday, I took the train out to Versailles and saw the palace and gardens. Saying it was “big” is a gross understatement. When my brother was attending the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the entire family went out to visit him. We toured the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, NC, the largest home in the US built by the tycoon of 19th century transportation, George Washington Vanderbilt, II. That place was big. The Palace of Versailles, where French King Louis XIV moved the Royal court in 1682, made Biltmore look like a New York City apartment that someone on my humble student budget could afford. Words such as magnificent, historical, ostentatious, tragic, absurd, and awesome buzzed through my head while touring it. I was there for 7 hours, which I sat down for maybe 20 minutes of it. There is so much to see and only a fraction of it is housed in the actual palace. The gardens themselves were like a state park. People from the community could park nearby, without having to pay a visit to the residences of the former royalty of France. People taking their dogs for walks, people riding bike, people just out for a hike. The Chateau de Versailles hasn’t always been a place where the public were free to meet. During the French revolution, attacks on the Palace and grounds forced the Royal family to return to Paris. After touring the grounds, I wandered the streets of the village of Versailles, the town that was built up around the palace. Today, it is one of the wealthiest areas in France.

I spent Saturday touring the area of Montmartre in the city of Paris. Many say that Montmartre isn’t what it used to be. Originally disconnected from the city, it has been incorporated into the urban landscape by decades of sprawl. Montmartre made a name for itself in arts and culture, being a place where the likes of August Renoir, Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso would call home. The famous Moulin Rouge and Sacre Coeur are iconic symbols of Montmartre. Here, I experienced the old artists quarters on foot. My favorite part of the day was visiting the Montmartre cemetery, where Alexander Dumas and Renoir are buried. As you would expect, it was quiet, and served as a good retreat from the Disneyland-like streets of the City in July.

On Sunday, my final day in Paris, I arrived into the city around 9:00 am. It was the final day of the Tour de France, yet I had no idea what time the riders were expected to role through and frankly, I wasn’t going to rush myself into another crowd on my last day in Paris. Instead, I spent a while walking around the island of Ill Saint-Louis. Another good decision. It was so quiet and peaceful down there. Paris on a Sunday morning… ahhh. Got myself a latte at a coffee shop nearby. Then, I decided it was about time to shimmy down to the Champ d’Elysees to see how things were coming together for the end of the race. It certainly was busy. Great people watching! I finally walked up to one very popular area for view the end of the race. It was at that huge round-about (“Place de la Concorde”). Super popular because it’s one of the places where you see the bikers go by 8 times. This was at about 11 am. When I asked an English couple nearby what time the riders were expected to show, they said 4-5 pm. I was like, “Well, okay. At least I got a taste of this major event.” I wasn’t about to miss my second flight on account of le Tour de France. Besides, I really don’t follow competitive biking all that much. So I went down and sat on a chair near a fountain. Started reading my book and fell asleep. I awoke from my noon-time sunny slumber au Paris with a hankering for something cool. By god, a gelato stand! They were everywhere. Ordered my cone in French [“Bonjour! Cornet Petit. (Point at desired flavor with unpronounceable name) Merci!!!] Walked down to Invalides, actually read some more. Then decided to wander back to the train station, maybe eat some food and drink on the sidewalk.

On my way back, I saw a crowd really starting to take form along the Seine. I plopped myself amongst them, thinking, “I’ll stay only until 3:30. If the racers don’t come past by then, I’m out of here!” Met a very friendly family from California and another from Toronto. The former offered me sunscreen. By the time 4 pm rolled around, the masses had descended upon where we were standing. It was quite warm (probably about 83 degrees), and the spectators were joined by a battalion of food and beverage vendors. Official tour vehicles were whizzing by us, the world’s fastest and worst parade ever; so much anticipation was building. Standing there, murmurs of “Do you know when they’re coming?” were heard throughout the crowd, repeated in many different languages. At 4:20, I had just about given up hope, nearing the point of retreat. After all, I had a very important plane to catch. Then, a nice French man next to me told me they were in town and would be passing us in 10 minutes. Sure enough, at 4:30, I started hearing cheers erupt from the crowd many blocks away. Then, I heard the video chopper. Time to turn the camera on that I had been holding tightly in my hands for the past hour. Lead cars started coming past as the cheers grew louder. This is it! Aim my camera so as to shoot an epic photo. “Out of Memory” scrolled across the screen of my Nikon. “You got to be kidding me!” I said. The mother of the Californian family said, “Don’t worry! I’ll send you ours!” Instead of deleting a photo of the Montmartre Cemetery or one of the Versailles gardens to create data-room for this moment, I just looked up. And saw the peloton go passed. It was really cool. Although it is a lot of standing for just one brief moment (I didn’t stay to watch the other bikers).

I had experienced an event quite similar to that once in my life before. New Years Eve, 2007, Times Square. Standing 8 hours in the bitter January cold of New York isn’t entirely the same as a beautiful summer day in Paris, but the role of anticipation is similar. A lot of bravado, a lot of build-up for one solitary moment. And then it passes and you’re like, “WHOA! THAT WAS AMAZING! Once in a lifetime experience… that was it?” What I enjoyed most about seeing the Tour de France was the atmosphere around the event and meeting some really delightful people. The whole time in Paris, I had been a bit sad about being alone. It didn’t stop me from experiencing this city for what it’s worth. Still, I can’t help but thinking that this experience would be so much more meaningful if I had someone to share it with. For the first time on my accidental holiday, I felt like I was able to share a bit of Paris with another. Or many, thousands upon thousands of others.

I’ve been thinking a lot  about how I really wasn’t supposed to be there at that time. I wasn’t supposed to be alone for four days in purportedly the most romantic city in the world (Cape Town is a strong contender for that title, though). Even during the course of  my last day there, I had decided that I wasn’t going to watch the race, that it would make me late for my flight. Well, I made it (obv, as I write this from Kloof Street in the city centre of Cape Town). And most of the reason why it was so good because, really, I wasn’t alone. I had so much support from home. The “First Response Team” to my travel crisis recommended places to stay, things to see, and people I could contact. Those people really made this sort of serendipitous experience possible. Physically, I wish I would have been able to share the joys of my final days of summer with them. But they must know they were in my heart.
Let it be known, though, that the next time I wind up in Europe, I aim to make it a little more deliberate. And with a partner. 🙂

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