The Disenchanted City
I had dreamed about going to Europe since I was eight years old. I specifically have always wanted to go to Paris. This was a dream I held onto and when I was sixteen I made a master plan to spend a year in Europe once I turned eighteen. I did research and detailed the plan to my parents who said that if I met my monetary goal they would match it. But then I did not find anywhere that wanted to hire a sixteen-year old and so the plan was put aside. I still vowed that I would see Paris before I turned twenty-four.
At twenty-one my now-husband and I were planning our honeymoon and we did not think we could afford anything more extravagant than Disneyland, which was fine by us. Then one day his parents invited us over and said they wanted to send us on our honeymoon to Paris, France and Barcelona, Spain. This would be their wedding gift to us since we paid for our wedding ourselves. We talked about it and decided to accept this gift. I cried when the decision was made. I was finally going to Paris! And before I was twenty-four! My excitement from that point forward was equal to my excitement for getting married.
I already owned many travel books for Paris because my sister had gifted them to me for a birthday. That same birthday I was also given a beautiful journal that I planned to save for traveling. I pulled all of this out and purchased some travel books for Barcelona and began planning away. We were to spend six days in Paris and four days in Barcelona. We were packed days before our departure date, (mostly because we also had our wedding the day before we left), and I had an itinerary for the whole trip.
Arriving at the airport felt like I was in a dream. I was newly married to my best friend and finally getting into the British Airways ticket line holding a passport of my very own. I could already feel the Paris breeze caressing my face while I sat at a café and wrote. I was very lucky to be able to sleep through most of the flight otherwise I probably would have fidgeted in excitement the entire time.
We landed in London at Heathrow airport to make a transfer onto a plane that would take us to Paris. Heathrow is incredibly large and still requires security checkpoints even if you don’t leave the airport. So we ran through the airport and just barely boarded our flight in time. Through all of this running my feet were in incredible pain because no one had thought to warn me that feet will swell on long flights and I had worn boots. In hindsight this is a hilarious and exhilarating story, but at the time it was scary and very stressful. This was the first moment of our trip where I began to realize that travel is not always a magical experience.
Our plane arrived in Paris around seven o’clock at night and so the city was already dark. Our driver took us on the highway to our hotel and we were stuck in traffic for over an hour. The highways in Paris make it difficult to see the surroundings and so I was left quite disappointed by the time we reached our hotel. Mostly this was due to the fact that I was under the impression that the Eiffel Tower could be seen from any point in the city, which it cannot. In fact it was not until later the following afternoon that I finally got my first glimpse.
Our hotel was in a more modern section of Paris and by night I felt like we could be in any generic city. For all I knew we were just as likely to be in Manhattan. This surprised me. I had expected to step out of the car and feel the magic of the city of love, but I didn’t. Instead I smelled garbage and gasoline and was chilled to the bone. We ate at a cute restaurant that evening but the food was very rich and did not sit well with me. Even our wine tasted sour but it might have been that I ordered the wrong meal to pair with it. By the time we finally had eaten and settled in I just wanted to go to sleep in hopes that the morning would bring the Paris of my dreams.
The morning was dull and gray, like all the mornings after it would be, and due to fog I could not see much from our hotel window. We set off with many plans and once we figured out the metro it was easy to make our way around the city. I did love the metro, this was one of my favorite things about travelling. As someone who struggles with anxiety, especially about driving, I was in awe of such an easy way to get around independently. Both Barcelona and Paris had amazing metro systems.
Our first stop was Notre Dame and I was left unimpressed. The surrounding area was full of cheesy souvenir shops and hecklers. Why had none of this been shown in pictures and films? I was soon to learn that all of Paris is like this. Souvenir shops line every street and take away from the supposed charm of the city. One day I had a heckler grab my arm and try to pull me away from my husband to sell me something. These experiences left me feeling very unsafe and anxious. The food never got any better and we hardly ate throughout the trip. This was not only because of the lack of appetizing food but also because on the second day my husband became very sick and remained that way well after our honeymoon ended. Paris was also very expensive. For the price of a small lunch we could eat at a high end restaurant in Barcelona. This was another reason why we did not eat as much. It would be like going to a McDonalds in the United States but paying the price of a steak at a nice restaurant.
I enjoyed seeing all of the wonderful historical buildings and museums. The Louvre, Versailles, and The Arc de Triomphe were my favorite places. While I was visiting all of these monuments and museums I understood why people loved Paris, but then I would get back out on the street and smell the sewage and begin questioning. My favorite moments were in less explored and less popular areas such as Montmartre and the island connected to where Notre Dame is. But the people were all rude and everyone seemed annoyed by our attempts at ordering in broken French. I felt isolated. Every day that I woke up I hoped Paris would romance me and every night I went to bed disenchanted.
There was no inspiration to write and no desire to live among the Parisians. My lifelong dream was shattering around me and when it came time to leave for Barcelona I could not wait to board the plane. I was glad to find out at twenty-one that Paris was not the city of my soul, so that I would not spend another ten years pining for a city that I actually did not connect with. I had thought that going to Paris would change me; that I would leave with my breakthrough novel idea and feel reverence for such an amazing city where I felt like I belonged. Paris did change me, just not in those ways. The surprising thing is that Barcelona changed me in the ways I thought Paris would, but that is another story.
Travel is an amazing thing. I think everyone should do it. But I also think that travel and certain cities are so romanticized that it can ruin the experience. Don’t travel expecting to find yourself or fall in love. Just travel to see the world and visit all of the amazing museums and monuments. Travel to places you know a lot about, but more importantly travel to places you know nothing about. I knew very little of Barcelona and I think that is what allowed me to fall so in love with it. I think travel is important most of all because it takes you out of your element and shows you what other cultures can be like. It reminds you that life does not have to be fast paced and that culture and history are important. It reminds you how small you are, but in a good way. Of course, I am no expert. I hope to travel more in the future and maybe even return to Paris. Who knows? Perhaps my love affair with Paris is a Pride and Prejudice situation and my next visit will be what I had always dreamt of. Either way I am grateful for my first experience abroad and know it is something I will remember for the rest of my life.
Heidi is a writer and blogger living in Arizona. She recently finished her first poetry collection that centers on her passion for feminism and the female experience. Most days, if she is not writing, she is reading or cuddling up with her cat and spending time with her husband. She loves to travel and hopes to do more of it as she continues to pursue writing.