Surviving Paris: The Arc de Triomphe

Warning: Paris is a city that undoes me like no other. Terrible things happen (or almost happen) to me in Paris. Paris turns my slightly disasterous self into a very disasterous self. Read on and you’ll know what I’m talking about…

Before embarking on my study abroad trip to France, I had to endure the “use good judgment while you’re in a foreign country” lecture from my folks. I felt I didn’t really need to hear it, especially in the check-in line at the airport.

“Mom. Dad. Seriously. For 20 years I’ve made good decisions. What makes you think I’m going to start making bad ones now? Just because I’ll be in another country? Please!” I rolled my eyes and hoped the subject would be closed.

After a couple more parental reminders and some very tight hugs, I was checking my bags and on my way to France for five weeks of living la belle vie! I mean… studying French.

Fast-forward three weeks. Delighted to have a long weekend to spend in Paris, my friend and I were intent on cramming as many experiences as we could into our 72-hour sojourn. Climbing the Arc de Triomphe was one of them. So there we were, strolling happily along the Champs-Élysées towards the Arc, dressed in our spiffiest French duds, wearing our spiffiest French heels. Normally I would not totter around a foreign city in heels, but looking the part was essential to fully experiencing the French lifestyle. Obviously.

As we approached Place de l’Étoile, I could see why the square that housed the Arc was referred to as the “Square of the Star”. 12 lanes of frenetic traffic swirled around the Arc which stood like an island in the middle of a very fast-moving stream. The sun was beginning to set, and we were hurrying in order to get a twilight glimpse of Paris from above.

“So, do you see a crosswalk anywhere?” I asked my friend as we approached the Place.

Non!” She replied in her most zealous French accent. “I don’t see a crosswalk or a stoplight or anything. Rien!”

“Hmm.” That was just a little concerning. I surveyed the Place and indeed did not see any indication as to how we should cross to the Arc. No signage, no little French man waving his arms, nothing.  “Do we just…cross? Wait for traffic to slow then make a break for it?”

“I guess.” She replied hesitantly. “It just doesn’t seem very safe, you know? I mean in Canada they’d probably have an official, well-marked way to cross. Safety first!”

“You’re right.  But, this is France, ma cherie! They do things differently here. Maybe traffic dodging is a skill they’d like everyone to have.” That was a decent rationalization, right? The French did do things differently. And, when in France…

Time was ticking and daylight was fading. With a mutual shrug, we toed up to the curb and waited for the flow of traffic to lessen.

“Ok. One, two, three…Allez!” And we were off, clip clopping across the massive expanse of road as fast as our heels would allow. About halfway across, a look to our left told us that we had not crossed in time, and that cars were turning into the Place and proceeding in our direction.

Naturally, we started to scream.

Just then, we heard the not-so-distant wail of sirens as a police car careened towards us and skidded to a halt in the middle of the road. We stopped, traffic honking and speeding all around us and braced ourselves for the fine or the arrest that was sure to come.

Mesdames! What are you doing? You could be killed! Turn around maintenant and use the underpass to the Arc. It is located over there!” cried the exasperated gendarme.  He pointed to the half-hidden entrance to the underpass, muttered something about touristes and promptly sped back into the fray.

Chastened and feeling foolish, we waited for traffic to lighten up as we made a run for the very welcoming, traffic-free sidewalk. We managed to make it up the Arc without further incident.

Looking down on the Place from above, we surveyed the very large amount of road we had tried to run across, took stock of the very high volume of cars that flooded onto the road each second, and realized that we could have very easily been mowed down by a speeding French driver…

Place de l’Etoile – As seen from the Arc de Triomphe

I guess I could have used that “good judgement” talk after all, but I prefer to blame Paris. Why? Because the city has it out for me! Literally. Just wait until I post about the time I was nearly dismemembered by a Parisian metro (subway) or the time I nearly died hailing un taxi…

Parla Inglese?

When I’m in Italy, it makes my heart soar with happiness when someone approaches me in the street or gets me on the phone at work and asks me politely in English accented Italian, “lei parla inglese?”

“Why, yes I do speak English! What can I help you with?” I say with a broad smile, in English, of course.

Is it because living, thinking, working and speaking in Italian day in and day out is so taxing on me that I’m happy someone wants me to lapse back into English? Not really. Is it because I become overwhelmed with fellow-feeling for this other traveler or client who obviously speaks my native language? Not really. (Although I have been known to do cartwheels when I meet fellow Canadians in Siena). It’s because they asked, and didn’t just assume that I magically speak English.

“But Sarah!” you rebut. “You do speak English. It’s your first language. You’re Canadian. Why would you be offended when people assume you speak English. They’re right!!!”

Yes, they are. And so are you. But the thing is, when I’m in Italy, 99% of non-Italians think I’m Italian. Some even ask where an Italian like me learned to speak English so well, with just a hint of an accent. Puh-leeze! But when people  approach me and immediately start asking for advice or directions in English, I get a little annoyed for the Italians. Because it’s this little thing that reveals the mindset of many North Americans or Brits – that because English is becoming increasingly popular, EVERYONE should and can speak it. This would also mean that there’s no reason for native English speakers to learn a second language….

You’re talking to a language buff here, so I’ll never agree with you on that one. I have a huge interest in languages – not just my native one – and when I travel, I think it’s SO important to learn a few words in the local language. It shows the people whose country, whose home you’re visiting, that you’re not some imperialistic force, hoping to spread the supremacy of English to each corner of the earth. Or, think of it this way: if you know a few words in the local language, you’re less likely to be duped, swindled or confused during your visit.

Five years ago, my extended family and I visited Germany and Austria. Knowing that I was the language lover of the family, I was provided with a Rick Steves German Phrasebook, and was given the task of official translator / menu decoder for the duration of the trip, for all 9 of us. As you can see, I took my job very seriously.

Sprechen sie deutsch?!

And the Germans and Austrians that I encountered were very pleased that I had taken some time in the airport and on the flight over to learn a bit about their language and pronunciation! Most Europeans, except possibly the French, are very happy to help you even if you’re butchering their language. They applaud your effort, may try to correct you, and happily offer a helping hand with whatever your query might be about.

So break out that high school French or Spanish that you’ve got collecting dust in the recesses of your brain, grab a Swedish or Italian phrasebook and hit the road. Learn to greet the Croatians with a friendly “Bok!”, thank the Germans with, “Danke”,  ask the Spanish for something with “por favor” and say your goodbyes to the Italians with “arrivederci!”

A little effort goes a long way.