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The Lonely Longhorn Travel Guide: France

Ah, Paris. The City of Light. One of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Gay Paree does get slapped around a bit in this recent article. Link. It notes that around a dozen Japanese tourists a year need psychological treatment when the cold reality of Paris clashes with their expectations. "A third of patients get better immediately, a third suffer relapses and the rest have psychoses," says a psychologist at the Hotel-Dieu hospital, next to Notre Dame cathedral.

I find this article to be shocking. A third of the patients get better immediately?!? Those Japanese are hardy folks. Put me squarely in the psychosis group.

"Nurse Ratched, I wanna watch the World Series. Err…maybe World Cup."

Scene 1: Summertime, 1993 and I am happily maneuvering through Charles de Gaulle airport. I eagerly approach the gate where I will greet my wife in a perfect Hallmark moment. But all is not according to plan. For one, there is a gaggle of Muslims, freshly arrived from completing the Hajj in Mecca, milling around the concourse. "Freshly arrived" may not be the best description. Actually, the smell is vaguely reminiscent of a supine carp on a Tucson highway in August (expression on loan from Spenser). I am not sure exactly what happens on the Hajj, but I am fairly certain that Irish Spring and Arrid Extra Dry are not integral parts of the ritual. But worse, I notice two gendarmes walking toward me, carrying a thick rope between them. They are slowly herding us all into a small corner of the gate area. My pleas to determine what is happening fall on deaf ears. Finally, one of the gendarmes, with a voice that could be, oh, right off the Dartmouth debate team says, "I do not speak any English. But to respond to your entreaty, we are currently dealing with a bomb threat. Finding your wife is your own predicament, and I will not assist further. I reiterate. I. don’t. speak. any. English. Be off with your impertinent self."

The Muslims are now standing on each other’s shoulders. A veritable acrid forest around me. The combination of trilling and tambourines now causes my ears to join my weeping eyes and curling nostril hairs in protest. Over an hour later, I finally find my wife. She is crying silently next to her luggage cart. I am also shedding tears as we embrace – tears very much related to the earlier violations to my olfactory senses, but the effect is a good one nevertheless................

Much has been made of the sublime quality of French cooking. Uh, OK. You do realize that the mellifluously-sounding "escargot" and "foie de gras" dishes are actually snails and fatty goose liver respectively, right? Snails and fatty goose liver. What a ruse the French have foisted on us. Slap a lilting name on a repugnant and basically inedible food item, and watch people at the table swoon with delight. I guarantee a restaurant menu could list "Fromage du Navel L’Mendicant" or "Eau du Amour Canal" and there would be an eager taker every time.

Scene 2: Still the summer of 1993 and now in a Paris hotel. A heat wave has hit the city, and the place is absolutely blistering. The French Foreign Legion is remaining in the Sahara for its summer leave to get some relief from the swelter. Our hotel, like much of Paris, has no air conditioning. Of course, it is pointless to speculate on the possibility of finding an ice machine in a Paris hotel. You’d sooner find a five-year service award plaque on Bobby Petrino’s wall. Or a farewell card on his mantle.

I go down to the front desk and implore the clerk to give me some ice. "Hwhatt forrr??" he asks imperiously. I have to lean over and drip perspiration from my nose onto his guest register before he relents. He leaves and comes back with a finger bowl holding 3 chips of ice about the size of golf ball markers. They will assuredly melt before I can walk back up to the room. Should I take the elevator option to save some precious seconds? Ha! Hotel elevators in France are but scale replicas of ours. They are far more like American phone booths. Except our phone booths move faster. Why, oh why, did I try to save money by going with a non-air conditioned hotel room at the pauper’s nightly rate of $300? For $500, I could have found a room with a window unit, I am sure……….

Have you ever seen a French film? I won’t claim to be an expert, but I have watched one or two on an ennui-laden trans-ocean flight. Typical theme: Sallow, chain-smoking woman has angst because her sallow, chain-smoking family is drab and dour. They all sit around in their small sallow house nibbling on their absurdly small petit dejeuners and give each other sallow looks because of their sad French plight. While chain smoking.

I am sure some people can watch that stuff and divine tremendous psychological insights and fine nuances of meaning. Call me shallow and obtuse. But come on, France. You lost every right to film acclaim when you chose Jerry Lewis to be your American artiste tres magnifique. You gave your highest civilian honor to a white, middle-aged Urkel! And don’t even get me started on Michael Moore. Sacre bleu! Dolts like those two are our way of getting even for your cooking ruse. Get it? That joke is on you.

Scene 3: Summer of 2007 and back in Paris. Fall off that temperamental French horse and get right back on it again, I say…..14 years later. This time I am in the Gare du Nord train station, inbound from the airport, with my cherubic family of five in tow. A fresh start for me and the City of Light. Forgive and forget. One problem, though. We have no train tickets. There was not the first hint of a ticket booth, conductor, turnstile or otherwise at the train station at the airport. Only a brusque dismissal at a help desk. So we hop on the train with a general "we’ll talk to the conductor on board/figure it out later" approach. Oops. Now we can’t get past the gates at Gare du Nord and can’t go back. I get the brush off from a uniformed guard and a snort when I try the "Push for Help" button, so I approach the official Gare du Nord Information Desk. After a lengthy chat, the increasingly animated conversation ends with me receiving a "So you szee. Eet ees not my probl-ehm! Go aweigh!" No joke. That is a Godismywitness verbatim quote from a help desk! My forlorn jet-lagged family is sitting on their luggage with nowhere to go. In our desperation, we try bolting through a wide, handicapped-only turnstile. Naturally, we are immediately accosted by an undercover policeman who had been eyeing us the entire time. A tongue lashing and a healthy fine for our transgressions later, we are out of the station and on our way to see Paris…..….

Scholars at the Sorbonne have long debated whether workers in the French tourism industry served as inspirations for the gargoyles that adorn the exterior of the Notre Dame cathedral or vice versa. Sort of a Gallic version of the chicken or the egg conundrum, if you will.

"You have two room choices at this hotel: ‘Smoking’ or ‘Chimney’ "

The only group more painful to deal with is French store clerks. Example: If you go into a store in Switzerland, a clerk will probe with a series of greetings in different languages until he finds one that you speak. Something like "Bon jour?…pause…2…3….Guten tag?….pause…2…3….Good morning?….Ah yes. How may I help you?" It is metronome-like. A greeting done with the perfect efficiency of one of that country’s timepieces. You will bond with him instantly if you scoff at the notion that you are French. Ripping the French is a sport second only to soccer in popularity in the rest of Europe.

By contrast, when you walk into a store in Paris, the clerk there will simply glare at you like a rheumy heifer eyeing a tick burrowing into its flank. Recommendation: Don’t inflame him with your English. Don’t elicit his rebukes with your lame French. Just empty the entire contents of your wallet on the counter for your bottle of Evian and slink back out the door.

Scene 4: The properly chastened DrJHorns, newly-minted experts on the workings of French train ticketing system, are now getting on a train near the Eiffel Tower. A ‘bump bump’ is felt as a late passenger slips out the door, and then the train is off. People around me casually pat themselves down – checking for their valuables. They are fortunate. I am not. Wallet with cash, driver’s licenses, and credit cards is gone. From a Velcro’d front pocket in my pants without me even feeling a thing. My 13-year-old daughter confirms the culprit looked like a street girl about her own age. I am overwhelmed with anger and frustration, tinged with just a hint of admiration, at the little pipsqueak’s proficient deed. Hadn’t felt that way since Quentin Griffin scored 6 touchdowns on the Texas defense back in 2000 Red River Shootout…………..

Of course, the Louvre is a must-see when you go to Paris. Much disagreement lingers on the aesthetic merit of the glass pyramids that were added to the central courtyard well after the venerable old museum was first built. I cared little about the aesthetics while standing in the long line of tourists to get my entrance tickets underneath the largest pyramid. The suffocating greenhouse effect was overwhelming. Like most kids, I remember playing with magnifying glass in the sun to burn a leaf or a blade of grass. Maybe I once even secretly turned the magnifying glass on an insect. The French have taken this experiment to the proverbial next level at the Louvre.

"Design: Marquis de Sade. Inspection: Jacques Clouseau."

Think that there are any signs in English around the works of art in the Louvre? Mon Dieu! Where do you think you are? All signs are in French only. The language they are trying to ring fence to keep out those noxious Anglo words. Hey, I am all for election ballots and street signs in the language of the country. But tourist attractions?!? The Great Wall of China has signs in English. The Grand Palace in Bangkok has signs in English. But not the Louvre.

Scene 5: Credit cards gone. Money gone. Identification gone. But the intrepid DrJHorns are still gamely making a go of it in the City of Light Fingers. We give the street cafés on the Champs Elysees that charge 12 U.S. dollars for a small glass of water a wide berth. Make that the City of Light Wallets. We are pausing to take a picture of the family in front of the Arc de Triomphe. I have spent my last few centimes on one small postcard that I carry in a small paper bag. I place it on the ground as I kneel to take the picture. Tap! Tap! An umbrella is hitting my shoulder. I turn around to see a scowling elderly woman who, based on her demeanor, comes from a long line of French hotel clerks. The wizened little Madame proceeds to berate for putting my bag on the ground. Don’t I know that pickpockets abound in Paris, and my bag on the ground is an open invitation to them?!? Oops. So sorry, ma’am. I had no idea something could go awry in this enchanted Shangri La of a city................

OK, OK. I have never actually been anywhere in France other than Paris. Tell me all about the exquisiteness of the cathedral in Chartres or the views in Chamonix. But it will all be for naught, as I don’t plan to ever return to the god forsaken country. There are many other places in the world I have not yet seen that I know for sure I will enjoy. Waterloo and Dien Ben Phu come to mind immediately. I am boycotting Cirque du Soleil (yes, I am not above putting French Canada also on the list) and am in line for a double order of Freedom Fries. My next jet liner purchase will be Boeing rather than Airbus.

The indelible vision of France remains: 1) unpleasant and foul-smelling people, 2) inflated sense of military past and relevance to others, and 3) running subject of derision amongst neighbors. Hey, does that also sound like an apt description of a certain Big 12 school? Viva la France and Viva la Franchione.

Next stop for the Lonely Longhorn: Vietnam.

"I blow my nose at you, Barking Carnival!"