A Trip of “Firsts”

By Dr. Pam Rader, Department Chair — English

rader shakespeare cubby office (2)

Shakespeare Cubby Office, Paris — France

This GCU trip to Paris marks a series of firsts. No, it was not my first trip to Paris. Let me explain. When I did a study abroad in Avignon, I saved my francs (yes, it was before the Euro) for the train to Paris to visit my cousin who lived near the Catacombes in Denfert-Rochereau, marked by that imposing bronze leonine statue, Le Lion de Belfort.  The statue was free, so I saw it loads of times. It was the locale of an old city wall immortalized in Hugo’s Les Misérables as the Barrière d’Enfer (‘the barrier of hell’). If you like to pun in French, the name Denfert is pronounced just like d’enfer. But during my visits, never had we descended into this Parisian ‘hell’ of the catacombs. Never. Jamais. I had read my Poe: “Its walls had been lined with human remains, piled to the vault overhead, in the fashion of the great catacombs of Paris.” I blame “The Cask of the Amontillado” for deferring my descent for decades. (It is not hyperbole, to which I am prone, because I read Poe in elementary school.)  However, we descended into this ossuary on our last day.

That brings us to another first: Traveling with six other people. This concept took some getting used to because, somewhat introverted, I tend to favor solo rambles. If I am not alone, then maybe I would travel with companion whom I know well. An exception does come to mind. Years ago, when I was teaching at the Université de Bordeaux III, I met my parents in Paris to show them around over Easter weekend before driving to Germany to visit family. My dad, a linguaphile, could navigate the language, but for the most part they depended on me in a Paris that was still very French. There weren’t the ubiquitous bilingual menus you could find today.  After teaching English to French college students, I understood how proud the French were of their language, but how reticent they were to try out English. Parents are so often in the driver’s seat of our lives, but, here, we were: I was in charge of the communication, translation, and itinerary for two other people. Could I take on that role for six people who were not family members? I could. I did, and I had a wonderful time doing so.

Equipped with the basics, merci, s’il vous plait, pardon, and bonjour, these students acclimated quickly. Well, maybe they were thrown into it. Our first morning there, after a mostly sleepless flight, I walked them in to a pâtisserie on la rue Mouff. In English, we verbally dissected the contents of the labeled goods behind the glass, and they made their choices. “Now,” I told them, “you will order in French. On your own.” And they did. (I had forewarned the cashier in French and thanked her in advance for her patience with us.) Traveling with the group of that size allowed for forays into specialty shops that did not seem like an invasion, and everyone could have his or her cultural interaction.

In truth, traveling as a group of seven had me a little anxious about mealtimes.  To play it safe, I did include dinner arrangements for our first and last nights. Knowing we’d be tired after our traveling day, we had plans to take a dinner cruise on the Seine. I had always seen houseboats, the bâteaux-mouches (bus-like boats), and dinner cruises. But, as a poor college student and later as a lecturer-spontaneous-tour guide, I had never experienced the cruise. Everyone was already thrilled to be in the City of Lights, but the dinner cruise—with its tastings and views—took our enthusiasm up another level. Having spiraled our way up to the towers of Notre Dame that afternoon, we would now see the beloved cathedral illuminated from our place on the Seine. As one student put it, the cruise set the tone for the week. It was one of awe. Now, imagine being in the company of awe-times-six? Another first.

But, let me get back to this group eating situation. Alone or with one or two companions, I had never fretted over seating or how to handle finicky eaters. My past companions were known entities. As I said earlier, I had bookended the trip with two dinners; I was just winging the lunches and dinners in-between. I figured we would walk by gelato or macarons, and we’d sample. In fact, I encouraged it. After walking miles and miles (I think we logged 16 miles one day…), we would discover how famished we were. But, would we be able to find a brasserie that could accommodate our posse, and would I lose someone to low blood sugar? Would we need a reservation as we would in New York for a group of our size? Remember, restaurants in Europe are not these sprawling diners or spacious trattorias found in New Jersey. If we had been a larger group, we might have depended on reservations, but then where is the spontaneity in that? (For me, spontaneity is a crucial component to traveling, but more on that later…) On our second day, a Sunday, when lots of Parisian restaurants are closed, we found typical French café near la Madeleine.  An order of escargots made its way to our table. And even those who thought they would not venture to taste one did so. I was so pleasantly surprised by how agreeable everyone was—I think it was more than hunger; this group did look out for each other with head counts and waiting for each other.  When we made a decision, we executed it. Not always an easy thing to achieve with a group.

People have asked me: How can you go to Paris without going to the summit of the la Tour Eiffel?  I cannot count the number of times I have visited Paris because I lived in France. Only once did I take the stairs up to the level with the cheapest admittance tariff. (I cannot blame acrophobia, just funds.) Nor had I been to the top of L’Arc de Triomphe! I only noticed last April that one could climb to the top. That was also on the list of firsts. Already on the grand Champs Elysées at dusk, we followed the spiral stairs (stairs always spiral!!) up to the arch’s summit. We could not have timed it more perfectly. (Spontaneity…) The Ferris wheel from the Jardin de Tuileries (where we had just come after seeing Monet’s Nymphéas in Musée de l’Orangerie) was illuminated. And then, a fanfare of twinkling lights came from our next destination in the south: the Eiffel Tower.  The crepuscular show of lights was just magnificent. Unfortunately, the heaviest rainfall of the day and our time in Paris occurred when we were scheduled to ascend the Eiffel Tower, a landmark we never tired of spotting.

I’m a walker. In any city, I prefer, when weather and time allow, being on the ground instead of under it. (Maybe it explains the delay in descending into the catacombs? Nah, I still blame Poe.)  People I traveled with were also walkers. But what did I know about these six: Were they walkers? They were, so we were.  A metro pass as well as the museum pass were part of the trip package. (We didn’t have to fuss with change at every metro station, and we went to the head of every museum line.) Yet, in the first two days, to get our bearings, we really walked our neighborhood, the Left Bank, and the Right Bank.  We saved the metro for the instances where we wanted to get someplace more quickly—to the timed, rainy Eiffel Tower visit and to the illuminated Sacre Coeur on the Butte—and it got us out of the Moulin Rouge area in a safe and expedient fashion! (Traveling with a group means a few people will want to go someplace you, the faculty leader, don’t really want to go, but then you don’t want to be the one who prevents them from seeing that cabaret landmark… There is strength in numbers, you tell yourself down the boulevard de Clichy.) The metro also let us discover who in the group likes maps and deciphering subway routes (as much as I do). And we did have an astute reader of Paris’s underground system. We had our very own Metro Queen, a complimentary epithet for a reserved (only reserved compared to the handful of narrators and jokesters) group member who possesses what I call navigational power.  Let others lead awhile.

Walking allowed us to reach sites like the old Beat Hotel  (now a four-star hotel!) and former residences of Verlaine and Hemingway. We made 27, rue de Fleurus, Stein’s former address and destination outside the gate of the Jardin de Luxembourg. And thanks to a French architecture aficionado who was gazing upward, we also stumbled upon the former twelfth century residence of the medieval lovers, Abelard and Héloïse, on 9, Quai des Fleurs. En route to the Panthéon, a stone and mortar abutment protruded into the sidewalk: it was twelfth century wall from Philippe Auguste’s era, to fortify the Left Bank before he left on the Third Crusade!  Marcel Proust’s translated words ring true, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” As we located the familiar tombs of writers in Père Lachaise cemetery, the students helped me pinpoint Proust’s resting place; I revisited Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, and the medieval lovers with them. But, Proust? I’d just finished reading a section of his tome, but I had not yet paid a tribute. A mission accomplished. Our strolling and our spontaneous sightings confirmed that, when possible, Paris is indeed a city to explore on foot.

A trip of firsts means there will never be another one like it. On the eve of our departure, I learned of my promotion to full professor. (I had never traveled to Paris before as a full professor….) The students were happy for me, and reminded me of it throughout the week, “Now, that you’re full professor….” I think such group cohesion and conviviality may go unrivaled. In a short time, we also shared an profound appreciation for this incredible city. We slept in a hotel that overlooked the ruins of the Roman arena, from when Paris was Lutèce, and we watched Parisians play le foot like it was part of their routine. It was, and briefly, it was ours.  I shared my firsts—the ascents to the Triumphal Arch and Eiffel Tower, my one and only descent into the catacombs, and my shushing of noisy tourists—with this group, which means I will not share those firsts with a future group. Traveling with students of literature makes for a unique experience. We all enjoy bookstores; we were all open to visiting burial sites of the luminaries (i.e., this trip could have been subtitled, “the Literary Dead”); we were all in awe of the architecture, sacred and ordinary. We all returned home with those French words at the tip of our tongues.


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