The First Time I Saw Paris

Under the Eiffel Tower, 1977

Under the Eiffel Tower, 1977

One of the blogs I follow is Janaline’s world journey, and in her blog today was a posting about the first time she visited Paris. It has inspired me to write about my first visit to Paris which was much less traumatic than the first time I saw London.

In our high school, every year there was a tour offered by the French department that students could go on over the March break week. It always included time in Paris and sometimes other parts of France. The year before I went, it included Paris, plus some parts of Germany and I think also Vienna. (We’re going back to the mid 1970s, so you’ll have to forgive my memory!) Since anyone that went had to pay for it themselves (there were no such things as school fund raisers then at our school) the year I was able to go was during my last year in high school, in March 1977. I had a part time job and I saved up for it. My parents donated some spending money and I was ready to go.

That year the tour included arriving and departing from Rome, with a day in Rome for a quick tour around, then an overnight train to Paris for three days and another overnight train to Nice where we were based for another four days. I don’t think the last train ride to Rome was overnight which was a blessing! The “couchette” cars were not very comfortable.

The train to Paris was crazy. We had compartments which converted to sleeper cars for six people, three on a side. Crazy! I forget if it was the train to Paris or the one to Nice where one of the bunks wouldn’t fit into place and one of our group had to sleep on the floor between the two sides of bunks. Needless to say, a group of over exited 16 to 18 year olds didn’t get much sleep on that leg of the trip!

We arrived in Paris on a Sunday, under grey skies though it wasn’t very cold. By the time we got checked into our hotel on Rue LaFayette, it was early afternoon and we had the rest of the afternoon to ourselves before an organized meal in the evening. Being the sophisticated children that we were, our first destination was to find some food for lunch and though I shudder at the thought now, we thought it was a very good idea to find the nearest McDonald’s. Yes. I know. But it was familiar, and it was Sunday and we were in a strange and foreign city. I recall that it was really awful, a very different taste than we were used to in Canada. Serves us right.

Our evening meal and where we would eat for the three nights we were in Paris was in a very nice restaurant. Except it was a German restaurant. In Paris. That’s right. You’d think the tour company might realize that you’d want a French restaurant in France wouldn’t you? I think we did manage to have a boeuf Bourguignon on our last night after much complaining.

Notre Dame, 1977

Notre Dame, 1977

Our Monday was taken up with a bus tour around the city and we hit all the hot spots…the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, Les Invalides, Place de la Concorde and a drive down the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. It was a chilly, windy day and I didn’t care to go up the Eiffel Tower so I sat below with two or three others that didn’t want to go up for various reasons. I can’t remember if we had to pay our own way up or if it was included. One of the things that made an impression that day was the Winged Victory in the Louvre. It fascinated me. I was also shocked that the Mona Lisa was so small compared to what I had imagined. (Google says it’s 2.5 feet (75 cm) high by 1.75 feet (53 cm) wide) In those days, it was on the wall of a larger room and wasn’t roped off or covered in bullet proof glass like it is now.

I found cashed traveler’s cheque receipts some years ago from that trip and I used $170 for spending money for lunches and souvenirs for the 9 or 10 day trip. Breakfast and the evening meal was always included. The exchange rate was about 5 Francs to the dollar, obviously long before the Euro was installed as common currency. The cost of the airfare and tour together was just under $500 though I may be wrong. If I am, it wasn’t a lot more, maybe another $100. You can’t get a flight to Paris for that these days, or if you do, they add on almost as much for fees and taxes! I think the airfare total was about $300.

Our Tuesday in Paris was a free day. A group of us decided to brave the Metro and go to Montmartre. I seem to recall we lost one fellow on the way, he didn’t make the change in trains in time. We poked our heads in some of the shops. One of the girls bought a long rabbit fur coat and I discovered that the European sizing was very different from North American. We climbed up the steps to Sacre Coeur, passing an older man feeding a flock of pigeons along the way. I couldn’t take as many photos as I would have liked, being a budding photographer even back then, because I still had to pay to get film developed and had only my part time job for resources. The photos were taken with a small pocket camera and haven’t proven up to the test of time though I salvaged some of them.

Hideous Parisian hotel wallpaper from the 1970s

Hideous Parisian hotel wallpaper from the 1970s

Other memories I have of those few days in Paris include the hideous brown and white patterned wallpaper in our hotel rooms and the surprise of a bidet, the first most of us had ever seen, heathens that we were! Our hotel was across the street from a little corner shop where you could buy beer. That was a surprise to us since you couldn’t do that back home (and still can’t in our province! No alcohol in corner shops or grocery stores for us!) Since the legal drinking age in France was much lower than it was at home, it was inevitable that most of us took full advantage of it. I think we cleaned out that shop in the three days we were there and had parties in the hotel rooms every night. Our chaperons, one of whom was a nun, looked the other way as long as we were not too loud and boisterous and were all accounted for when they came around to do a head count before bed. They even shared a glass of wine with us at dinner and one at least one of the train journeys as I recall.

My first trip to Paris didn’t make a lot of long lasting impressions aside from what I’ve described but I always hoped I’d go back. I did, finally, in November 2007, over 30 years later, when my partner and I went for his 50th birthday. That was also just a few days but the memories are clearer and I have loads more photos to remind me. We also planned to go in April of 2014 but that was cancelled due to family illness. I hope we get to go again but there are so many other places we also want to see, both new and repeat visits that Paris is now further down the priority list. I am glad I’ve had the chance to see it and renew those original memories on a second visit.

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