Four camouflaged men carrying semi-automatic weapons materialized at the train station in Paris while we were breakfasting, welcoming us to the way the world had changed since my last visit three decades ago.
While deciding go/no go to Europe, it was my teenage son who insisted that our fears about potential terror attacks were unwarranted and illogical. Yet, we learned after returning from a walk along the Christmas bazaar-lined Champs-Élysées that our concerns weren’t completely groundless: a thwarted French attack was slated for December 1 at key Paris sites, including the very bazaar we visited, a week after we made our way through it. This was only one of several things that happened during our twelve-day trip that I hadn’t expected.
We had discussed our responsibilities and roles as Americans traveling abroad beforehand. I suggested that we be on our best behavior, acting as informal American ambassadors. But as we waited in the non-EU line at Heathrow, a woman in our queue lamented, “I got stuck by an American leaving Australia.” My heart shrunk a size. So, it came as no surprise a day later when I noticed an American man who hailed from Norfolk, Virginia sporting a Canadian flag ID tag on his backpack. What does he say when someone asks where he lives, exactly, “I speak of my experiences in one of my favorites cities: Toronto.” Grrr.
One truth and two lies: (1) Brits hate small talk, (2) Parisians will ignore your request if you don’t try to speak French, (3) TripAdvisor is a big fat liar.
In London, a helmeted, scooter-driving delivery guy offered us directions to our B&B, then followed (stalked?) us as we made our way through alleys and across streets on a cold dark night. For fifteen minutes, our feelings-pendulum swung between gratitude for his kindness and cautiousness in case he was leading us into a trap. In the end, we realized that he was just being nice. (1) Truth: the English do hate small talk, because of which I resisted the urge to do more than smile when interacting with them. Ironically, the chattiest tourists we encountered was a British couple, but they didn’t fool me. I know better.
(2) Lie: During my last trip to Paris, I traveled with a fluent-in-French friend. This time, no such luck; however, the locals were repeatedly kind to us, in spite of our faulty French. We annihilated the language, they nearly always replied, kindly, in English. A woman asked if we needed help as we stopped to check our map near a busy Paris street en route to our hotel and a younger, handsomer version of Kevin Kline in An American in Paris offered help at a laundromat with the confusing French-language-only machine instructions, sent me across the street for change and when I returned, only semi-successful (and almost in tears), he scowled, dashed off, and returned a few minutes later, change in hand.
(3) Truth: We visited one restaurant in Kensington (Maximo Italian Bistrot) and another in Paris (Chez Davido) based on average 4.5 star TripAdvisor reviews. Both had the restaurant owner providing excellent service and conversation, but the food was terrible. Growing up, I was forced to eat everything on my plate, so I’ll eat nearly anything. My standards for acceptable food items are not unreasonably high. I suspect that some TripAdvisor reviewers inflated ratings out of kindness to the personable owners. Eventually, we gave up on TripAdvisor, after which had better dining experiences.
The Original Selfie Stick Was Invented in the 1980s, but Wayne Fromm Patented the Modern Day Selfie Stick. I understand a person’s reluctance to inconvenience someone they don’t know with a photo-taking request, after which one must hand off his or her camera to a stranger, but in my experience, a typical user of the prolific-in-Europe stick may as well have been holding a sign that read, “Yes. I am trying to block your view.” Doing so would be no less discourteous than the actual view-blocking stick behavior. Not only can taking selfies lead to the death of the taker (a 2016 Carnegie Mellon study titled, “Me, Myself and My Killfie: Characterizing and Preventing Selfie Deaths,” determined there were 15 selfie-related deaths in 2014, 39 in 2015 and 73 through Sept. 2016) but travelers may have to use restraint to resist the urge to use rudeness against selfie-stickers.
On a boat ride along the Seine, it was impossible to ignore incessant selfie-stick-use and other photo-taking-related rudeness. Two fashion conscious teen girls spent much of the trip obstructing views to snap dozens of shots of one other, another man filmed himself with an iPad while we traveled under bridge after bridge, and a third person, a twentysomething woman, supported her pink-corded phone with a selfie stick held within inches of my kid’s head in order to videotape nearly the entire trip.
Fortunately, tourists resisted the lure of the selfie when it counted. We ended our trip with a tour of Dachau, where I was prepared to do battle with users if necessary. I needn’t have worried. Most visitors were on their best behavior, somber in dark clothing, speaking in quiet tones. I suspect they were too stunned by being in a place where such atrocities took place to do more than: listen to the tour guide, view the photographs, read the informational signs, and keep it together as they walked past the incinerator and through the “shower” facilities. My heart shrunk another size with the enormity of all the horrible things that had happened there.
After a dozen days away, we headed home, grateful for the experiences we’d had, the memories we brought back, and the fact that Whidbey and Fidalgo Islanders tend to resist the lure of an item that makes me get Grinch quick: the selfie stick.