Our bus driver and tour guide in Paris was Antoine. My mental picture of him is that he was bald and wore sunglasses, but I’m not too confident in my memory of faces. He was experienced with the sometimes chaotic traffic of Paris, weaving the giant bus through gaps as easily as if it were one of the tiny cars zipping around. Traffic jams could develop quickly, producing a cacaphony of horns and raised voices, but Antoine was usually able to anticipate and avoid them.
He shared a few facts about the city of Paris as we neared the hotel, including the fact that it was divided into districts, and the one where our hotel was located was known as a “red-light district.” This produced nervous laughter from the students. Our professors issued a friendly reminder not to be tempted by establishments selling sex. “Once they have you inside, they will get you to give them as much of your money as they can.” I don’t think we were tempted– in fact, we were a little nervous about possibly being in a rough part of town. We made sure to only go out in groups.
The hotel was an old building with plenty of charm. There continued to be lots of honking and shouting from the intersection outside, and as the hour got later, voices from the buildings joined in, presumably yelling for them to keep the noise down. Believe it or not, I still got a good night’s sleep. In the morning, we went downstairs for a breakfast of tea and croissants served by a delightful old lady.
I feel bad that this post so far has dwelt on the negatives of the part of town we were in. I was impressed by the friendliness and warmth of the Parisians we interacted with. Overall, our time in Paris was the most relaxing part of the trip– there was a laid-back attitude to the city that permeated everything. Yes, people yelled in traffic jams, but that almost seemed more like a sport that people embraced with gusto rather than an outpouring of stress.
And, of course, the city is beautiful. On Wednesday, Antoine took us on a bus tour to see many of its most famous sights. We stopped at the Arc de Triomphe, which is in the middle of a huge roundabout– making your way to the center is an interesting challenge! We went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, which gave us a great view of the city. I noticed several football (soccer) fields.
Notre Dame Cathedral was awe-inspiring. I thought about how it almost two centuries to build and wondered what it must have been like to spend a lifetime working on a project that wouldn’t be complete for generations. It still stood as a monument to God, who is not constrained by time.
For some reason, the thing that sticks in my memory the most was seeing the “zero point” of Paris, which is about fifty yards away from the cathedral. Apparently, whenever the distance from Paris is given, if one is to be precise, it is actually the distance from that point. So until you have been there, you have always been at least some distance from Paris.
Paris holds a lofty place in the development of our system of measurements. A meter used to be defined as one ten-millionth the distance of a line from the North Pole to the Equator that passed through Paris. And the standard weight still used to define a kilogram is kept in the Paris suburb of Sévres.
In the late afternoon, we took a sightseeing tour of Paris by boat on the river Seine. One of the interesting things we saw was the other Statue of Liberty, the miniature copy that the United States gave to France as a thank-you for building the big statue designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi that looks out on New York Harbor. Hopefully, they did not think it was tacky to give them a smaller version of the same thing.
As afternoon turned to evening, buildings and street lamps lit up, and we saw why Paris is called the City of Light.
One last thought for the day: I’m fairly sure I remember seeing a memorial for American soldiers who died in France during World Wars I and II. I thought about my grandfather, who had spent time in France as a soldier during the second World War. He had been so excited to hear that I was taking a trip to Europe– he sent me a note wishing me a good trip along with some coins from each country I would be visiting.
He shared with me that he had made instant friends in Europe by giving people a pack of gum and suggested that I could do the same. Of course, today anybody in Europe can get chewing gum any time they want to just by going to the store. Practically anything that’s available here in the U.S. is also available in Europe. But my grandfather’s story drove home how much the world can change in a lifetime– and how people in places like France and America are free to enjoy good things only because of the sacrifices of people like my grandfather, and the soldiers remembered at that memorial, and countless others from other countries.
I was surrounded by history on this trip– not just Biblical history, but also recent history that had shaped the world.