January 22, 2014

Why I Went to Paris and Didn’t See the Eiffel Tower

Well, my weekend in Europe ended up being very different than I initially anticipated. Instead of struggling to speak a language I really didn’t know (German), I got to speak a language I’ve studied for years (French). Instead of running a marathon and burning a ton of calories, I got to eat all kinds of delicious French pastries and probably consume far more calories from crepes alone than I burned all weekend of walking/biking. And instead of having to wake up early and stick to a carefully pre-planned schedule, I got to sleep late and be completely spontaneous – in part because I didn’t know exactly where to go or what to do. Ah, the beauty of a destination change while already en route!

Frequently when I go on these mini vacations to foreign lands, my friends and family are shocked at what I don’t see. For example, I’ve now been to Peru twice, and both times, I’ve heard from seemingly everyone how disappointed they are that I didn’t “do Macchu Picchu.” (I’m sure I use the phrase at times myself, but I think “doing” any place sounds either really raunchy or completely pretentious.) This weekend, meanwhile, was my second time in Paris, and yet I still haven’t seen the Eiffel Tower up close and personal – and a few friends criticized me for missing out. But when it came down to it on Monday, my last day in France, I decided that I’d much rather get to relax and miss some things than go crazy trying to pack everything in. Besides, if I see everything now, where’s the incentive to go back?

There are so many amazing places to see in the world, but I don’t want to have to check them off bucket list style. Goal setting is wonderful, but one thing I learned while running a marathon in all 50 states was that it can get kind of tedious when you have to check a box instead of getting to do what you actually want to do. Toward the end of my 50 state journey, especially, I would look toward some weekends with dread. It wasn’t “Yay, I get to go to a cool new place and run a marathon!”, but “ugh, I have to go to (State X) and run a marathon before I can come home.” I was definitely burned out by the time I hit my 50th state, and that’s why I took a six month break from marathons after that. Now, I try to make it a point to only do races that sound like a lot of fun to me for one reason or another –whether it’s a cool host city (and excuse to visit), good friends also running it so I can share in the fun with them, or perhaps just a race organization about which I’ve heard wonderful things and always wanted to experience for myself.

So why should I look at regular, non-marathon travel any differently, filling my trips with tourist activities that check a box but don’t really matter all that much to me? This weekend I didn’t ascend the Eiffel Tower, and I also didn’t visit Le Centre Pompidou (which I’ve wanted to check out ever since hearing the fun syllables of its name and seeing the whimsical pictures of the exterior in my middle school French class). But I had an amazing adventure on Sunday morning getting lost for several hours in the 3eme arrondissement on my Velib (the Parisian version of Citibike), and not having any kind of timeline that I had to worry about in the meantime.

Velib along the Seine
I did get this selfie of me biking along the Seine with the Eiffel Tower peeking out in the background. Please ignore my crazy eyes; it’s hard to take a selfie while riding a bike.

I noticed this checklist-style of travel most while browsing the Chowhound message boards in search of restaurant recommendations. So many of the posters listed itineraries where every other meal was at a Michelin-starred restaurant, or derided those seeking recommendations for cheap eats (hi, that’s me!). “But you’re in Paris! Don’t waste the trip!” seemed to be the underlying sentiment. I can’t imagine stringing together an entire trip of all Michelin-starred restaurants… that’s just too heavy, and it would make the experiences far less special if I “had” to go to one every night rather than “getting” to go to one on a special night during my trip. Someone on the boards expressed this sentiment perfectly when they pointed out that native Parisians can afford the food because they typically only eat at these expensive French restaurants on special occasions – and that most of the time, they’re either cooking or getting cheap ethnic takeout. So why shouldn’t I do the same?

I fully intend to go back to Paris again – perhaps even next month, if my travel plans to Italy get screwed up like my trip to Germany did. Maybe on my next trip I’ll get to explore the Catacombs (which weren’t open on Monday, when I tried to visit) or go ice skating at L’Hotel de Ville (missed that one out of sheer laziness when I didn’t feel like venturing so far from my own hotel in the rain). But even if all I do is what I did yesterday (wander around the landmark-free 17eme arrondissement where my hotel was and also spend a solid chunk of time in bed), I’m content. The random eateries that weren’t good enough to make any guidebooks of “top ten Parisian restaurants” served totally decent food and allowed me to pop in without any hullabaloo or research – and I value that pretty highly.

Velib by L'Arc de Triomphe
Okay, so L’Arc is right next to the 17eme, but other than that, no real attractions here.

I can see the argument for making a bucket list of things to see – with the time and money constraints of life, you can only take a finite number of trips. But how do you decide what destinations to put on your bucket list, anyway? Just what makes something that special to be a must-do? I don’t really have a bucket list of travel destinations, preferring to go wherever I can get a great deal on airfare and where it makes sense to go at the time. (Any marathons or beer festivals there? Surefire way to attract me that weekend!) However, if I did have a bucket list of twenty places I wanted to go and I only made it to ten of them before I died, I’d still consider it a life pretty darn well-lived.

Life is short, yes, and so given the choice, I’ll usually take a trip somewhere new rather than go somewhere I’ve already been. But if I really want to return to a place, I know I can put forth the effort and resources to make it happen. Travel is just not that hard these days! So yes, I went to Paris and I didn’t see the Eiffel Tower – but I don’t regret that. Because, Paris, I don’t say au revoir; I say, à bientôt.


14 thoughts on “Why I Went to Paris and Didn’t See the Eiffel Tower”

  1. Nice post. A friend and I saw London by just walking around randomly. You get a better feel for the city when it’s not tourist attraction after tourist attraction.

  2. One of my most memorable meals EVER was a crepe that I bought from a random street vendor. The crepe cart was one of many that I saw while I was there, and I’m sure they are all pretty much the same, and relatively cheap. But that fresh crepe, stuffed with coconut and dark chocolate, was the most memorable thing I ate the whole trip. So i totally agree that sometimes travel food is as much about time and place and fresh food as it is about prestige and Michelin stars.

    There are some amazing ice cream places on the Ile de la Cite, BTW. If it’s not too cold to have ice cream for dinner, it’s definitely worth seeking one out.

    1. I REALLY need to learn to make crepes myself! It was too cold for ice cream this visit but if I ever go in warmer weather, I’ll definitely check it out – I am such a sucker for ice cream.

  3. If you go back next month (or anytime, really) you MUST go to the restaurant REED. She’s a one woman show in this cozy, interesting restaurant, where she also teaches cooking classes — a Canadian who has lived in Paris for 20+ years. Her cooking is incredible and she is the loveliest person.

  4. For a great cheap restaurant in Paris, try L’Ange 20. It was the best meal I ate last year, bar none! And it’s a 3 course menu for 28 euro with 2 choices of each.

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