Paris, the city of love and lights; the place where authors like James Baldwin, along with other black artists, writers, and performers, found welcome and a home when they were rejected by their own country. I grew up with a romanticized image of Paris in my head, and an almost insane desire to see this magical place. I almost got there in the 1960s, when I was stationed in Germany with the US Army. Only made it as far as the eastern districts bordering on Germany; places like Nancy that figured prominently in the history of World War II. But, the dream didn’t fade.
Finally, in 1996, on my way back to the U.S. from a three-year-stay in Sierra Leone, I decided to take a detour and visit ‘gay Paree.’ I’d visited London for the first time the year before, and figured I should give my favorite city on the continent equal time.
When the plane landed at Charles DeGaulle Airport early on the morning of our arrival, I was tense with excitement. I was like a goggle-eyed kid on the ride in to the hotel, which was located not too far from the Champs Elysses and the Eiffel Tower. We – my wife and I – could actually walk to the Louvre. I mean, here I was; finally in Paris.
First day; we did the obligatory walking tour. The Arch de Triomphe is magnificent, and the Eiffel Tower is an engineering marvel. Walking along the banks of the Seine was like being transported back in time. But, then reality set in.
It started with being stopped five times between the hotel and the Eiffel Tower by people speaking French and asking directions. I speak and understand a little of the language; when I speak it causes the French to wince; just enough to be able to say that I didn’t really speak French and didn’t know how to tell them to get where they wanted to go. In most countries, that would cause people to leave you alone, or switch languages; not in France – well, not in Paris. They would, like many Americans do, simply speak louder; still in French; demanding to know why I didn’t know the directions. Telling them I was un Americain didn’t seem to help either.
The next disappointment came after we’d stood in line for an hour at the Louvre for a look at the “Mona Lisa,” one of the world’s most famous paintings. Imagine my surprise, during the roughly thirty seconds I had to glimpse the darned thing as we zipped past – it’s tiny. It was like my first view of Roman armor at a museum in Amsterdam. The Roman legionnaire was a runt.
Well, after all that, we walked back toward the hotel – not completely disappointed, but chastened. Paris is a beautiful city; but it has sewers and panhandlers, the traffic sucks, and pedestrians are as clueless as they are in New York City. So, we stopped at a Pizza Hut in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe and had a large combination pizza with extra garlic and anchovies and a large coke.
Causes Charles Ray Supports
The Nature Conservancy
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial