When a client recently asked me to go to Brussels to conduct a training, the first thing I did (after accepting with gusto) was to look up how long it would take to get to Paris by train. In all of my travels around the world I had never walked the streets of the famed city, and I was determined to change that on this trip. I booked the ticket on a high speed Thalys train, and the day after I arrived in Brussels I hopped on the metro to begin my one day in Paris.
I felt like the high-energy adventurer, whisking in and out of France in the span of ten hours, ready to see it all. Just one little problem stood between me and my Parisian escapade: by the time I had arrived at the Brussels-Midi station I had already missed the train.
Now I don’t claim to be the world’s most accomplished traveler, but after multiple solo journeys around the globe I could humbly say I’m pretty darned good at getting around the unfamiliar. But somewhere in my jet lagged haze I must have misread the departure time. The train was gone.
Not to be daunted I ran the gauntlet of information desks pleading my case. A woman at the Thalys office took pity on me, charged me thirty three Euros for my idiocy and sent me packing on the next train leaving fifteen minutes later. Hurrah!
An hour and fifteen minutes later I arrived at Paris Gare du Nord and bundled up to face the Artic blast outside. Snow had fallen that morning and the air was cold; a light drizzle fell as I made my way across the street to a cafe. I am not sure I have yet found adequate words for what it’s like to see a new city, especially one like Paris, for the first time. A sparkling excitement welled up in me like an old friend, memories of past adventures flooded my cells. Within five minutes I was enjoying my first cup of Parisian coffee and a baguette.
Since I only had one day in Paris, I had selected four fairly touristy things to see, but I thrilled at the idea of running around the city by subway and on foot. My first stop was, of course, the iconic Eiffel Tower. After the long journey to get here, I felt the tower pulling me towards it, as if when I arrived it would say, “NOW you’re in Paris!”
After winding my way through the metro system the Eiffel Tower was one stop away when the subway train broke down. Although my train luck wasn’t the best that day I remained determined to get to the tower by any means. I got out of the station and began walking through a neighborhood lined with narrow streets, cafes, small shops and people ducking around water falling from awnings. I followed the top of the tower which I could see from several angles, and at long last stumbled upon one of the world’s most famous sights.
Sure the ground was covered in snow and my toes were frozen, but I was standing in one of my better moments in time, and I snapped a mental picture to be fully present. I made my way through mud and slush toward the steel monument, getting closer and closer to its detail.
Although some might say it looks cold and unwelcoming, I thought it created a feeling a history, a story that drew people in again and again in any conditions. The tower was only supposed to be temporary but survived human whim to delight travelers through time.
Stepping carefully around patches of ice I meandered to the other side of the base to look at the Seine river. The sky was bleak and the drizzle continued to fall, but I walked along the banks trying to imagine the summer sun beating down on my cheeks. The tower looked fantastic from the riverside.
After awhile in the cold and snow even my optimism was starting to fade. I needed some time indoors to warm up and rest. So I caught a taxi to the Louvre Museum, a place I had not planned to go. Several years ago I visited the island of Samothraki in Greece, the original home of the statue of the Winged Victory. I had taken a plane, a train, a bus and a boat to get to the island, which was totally worth it. But when I went to the island’s museuem, only a replica remained of the Winged Victory, the orginal being housed in the Louvre. I was not amused.
For the next two or three hours I delighted in the world’s treasures, in seeing original paintings and carvings that had appeared in my school books for decades: The Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, the Crypt of the Sphinx, and countless other works of genius.
I knew I was only scratching the surface of the Louvre, but my time in Paris was brief and soon hunger for something sweet and warm took over my need for great art. I took the metro over to St. Germaine Place to the overpriced but lovely Cafe de Flore, a place where the existentialists such as Sartre and de Bouvoir hashed out their philosophy.
I have a strange attraction for standing in the footsteps of great historical figures, being in the same locales as the people who shaped our society. I rested my cold bones, sipped hot chocolate and savored a creme du caramel. I chatted with a woman from Turkey as we sat under heaters outdoors, watching people go by.
After recovering and resting for a good hour I felt ready for one more stop before heading back to the train. Notre Dame cathedral was my choice, and this turned out to be my favorite part of the day. The sun was going down and by the time I rode the subway to Notre Dame it was dark, which turned out to be a blessing. When I rounded the corner and saw the cathedral for the first time it was lit up like a constellation and took my breath away.
I was speechless as I wandered from side to side, trying to take in the beauty of the lighted trees against the stone carvings. I had never seen a church so fantastic; Notre Dame just got to me.
To make matters even more magical a service was taking place that very night, and I walked into the cathedral to the smell of smoky incense and the voices of a heavenly choir. I stood in the surreal surroundings taking in the stillness and the music, then walked quietly among the shrines and candles. But time is relentless and at last the clock told me that the train awaited my return.
I took the metro back to Gare du Nord, hopped on the Thalys and made my way back to Brussels. My training took place two days later and I thoroughly enjoyed working with the participants who came from all over the world: Belgium, France, Egypt, Turkey, China, England and more.
As I rode the plane home I looked back over my European adventure with gratitude. I had seen a new place and helped my client build a bridge to India. Most of all I couldn’t wait to share the story with you. Enjoy!
Next stop: The Neil Armstrong Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio! Stay tuned…