“Half the fun of traveling is the esthetic of lostness.” —- Ray Bradbury
One of our favorite scenes from National Lampoon’s Vacation occurs when the Griswalds finally reach the Grand Canyon. They get out of the car and rush to the edge of the overlook. There, Clark looks to his left, looks to his right, nods, and “checks it off.” So much for the Grand Canyon; they’re on to the next thing.
On our vacations, we’ve done the Griswald strategy of “checking it off.” There is so much to see, so little time, and our attention spans aren’t too long. For this trip, we promised ourselves that we’d break some bad habits and not pack our days with stuff we had to do.
Today was a day to go slowly. This morning we once again met our Paris Greeter, Jean-Jacques. Paris Greeters is an organization devoted to providing free tours given by Parisian volunteers. Their docents prepare their own itineraries, and visitors are not given a choice of tours, but instead, learn something special about a docent-selected area.
We began on the Ile d’Cite this morning, but instead of hitting the biggies– Notre Dame and Ste. Chappelle — we meandered along the back streets. Away from the din of traffic, Jean-Jacques showed us homes built with timbers over one thousand years ago, and compared them to the more modern ones from the 1700’s.
We crossed the river near the Hotel De Ville, but went behind it, finding the St. Gervais and St. Protais Church. It’s the kind of place we would have bustled past, but today we paid attention, learned about its history, examined its majestic columns and the famous elm outside, and then, instead of just poking our heads inside, we went in to see more. One stained glass windows had a twentieth century mosaic in its lower panels, replacing the older segments broken when the Germans bombed the church during the first World War, killing over forty parishioners during Sunday Mass.
Our walk continued, and instead of breezing past closed doors, Jean-Jacques opened a few and we stepped into courtyards of public buildings that once were the homes of nobility. One place belonged to Catherine Bellier, a confidante of the queen. Who’s she? Not known for her beauty — she only had one eye– she had a way with men, and her most famous conquest is the “initiation” of Louis XIV when he was a lad of sixteen.
In the Marais district, we avoided the noisy Rue St. Antoine, and discovered a warren of hidden courtyards, with apartments, tiny cafés, and, my favorite, an adorable chapeaux shop tucked inside. Then, on a side street, Jean-Jacques pointed out the remains of the ancient city wall, built in 1200.
Our final spot was the Place des Vosges, a peaceful park surrounded by the former Palace Royal of Henry IV, now swanky apartments of lucky Parisans. On this sunny afternoon, locals sat on benches eating take-out sandwiches, talking on their cell phones, or reading LaMonde.
Four hours after we’d begun, we said au revoir to Jean-Jacques, who’s mastered the art of slowing down and taking a close look. We’re learning that rushing around on vacation is not always the way to go, no matter what Clark Griswald has led us to believe.