To Africa and Back
The moment I stepped off the plane, there were two things I knew I wanted to see in Paris: the Eiffel Tower and the Musee d’Orsay. And of course a really fabulous Parisian restaurant. But my trip to Paris was proof that even the most well-planned itineraries can benefit from a bit of wiggle room.
After walking for what seemed like forever through the airport, following signs promising that the RER train was this way, just ahead, I finally found a large open area with terminals that looked like ATM machines. People were crowded around them, and I gathered that this was how I would need to buy my ticket. Surprisingly enough, I was actually quite adept at working this little ticket machine – I even helped a French girl who was having problems with it. A quick swipe of my credit card, and I was on my way to the train station.
There were two reasons I wanted to take the RER train: it was much cheaper than a cab, and it was a nice way to experience traveling around Paris like a regular person and not a tourist. The RER train is something like a sometimes-above sometimes-below ground subway. As the train departed the airport, I was whisked past Parisian outskirts, with a minimal view of the landscape. We were very much above-ground. Graffiti covered many of the buildings we passed, and I made a note to myself not to get off at one of these stations on accident. They did not appear to be the most accommodating of stops.
I had planned months in advance exactly what trains I would need to take to get to my top two destinations, so I thought everything would be a breeze. Not so when you can’t read (in their entirety) all of the signs directing where to go. Similar to the New York subway, the Paris RER has several different trains, and in order to get where you want to go, it’s necessary to hop off and on a train or two. I hopped off the first train and looked around for where to get on the next. By this point, we were most definitely underground. I couldn’t read the signs, and the map was confusing. I didn’t know enough vocabulary to really convey what I wanted to ask in French, so I studied the map a bit longer. I couldn’t even find St. Michel on the map – and there definitely wasn’t a big red You are Here dot.
No luck. I did not know what it said, so I decided to simply go above ground. I looked around a bit and as good fortune would have it, I was right in front of Notre Dame.
I guess I should have guessed since the full name of the stop was St. Michel-Notre Dame, but I thought that was figuratively speaking. I felt really fortunate to have found such a landmark, so I stopped to take some pictures. The tension sort of escaped me, and as it was only about 10am, I wasn’t too worried anymore about finding the train to the Eiffel Tower.
As I admired the beauty of this historic monument, I became increasingly aware of the number of people – schools of children, particularly – surrounding Notre Dame. Funny, it was early May. Is all of Europe this crowded so early in the travel season?
No matter, I took my pictures, and strolled along the street, the Seine River right next to me. I must have stopped every minute or two to take another photo or switch my lens for a better photo op. I looked around at the restaurants dotting the streets, but none really peaked my attention. The names and the proximity to Notre Dame, they all seemed aimed at tourists, and I was not looking for watered down French food. I kept on walking.
As I stopped to take a picture of a French flag flying in the wind, I noticed a little sign ahead and some stairs. I’d somehow stumbled upon an RER station just a few blocks away from Notre Dame. And as luck would have it, it was just the one I needed to take me to the Eiffel Tower.