The tour coordinator was horrified at my tale. The hotel window blasting in. The restaurants that decided to not serve Shepard’s Pie or Steak Frittes and served hamburgers instead, without trimmings. The all-you-can-eat restaurant that was not ready for us, gave us one serving, then pushed us out to serve the next tour group. The French local guide that succeeded in lulling us all to sleep. The four fire alarms– in one night. The ants. The unbudging and unaccommodating guest services coordinator at the hotel in London. The day so full of activities that there was no time for lunch. Last but not least, our bumbling tour director who didn’t seem to know anything about London and Paris, even though he had lived in London and currently lived in Paris. Who got us lost on multiple occasions and managed to lose two group members. Who stared at me like I had three heads when I asked hime to slow down so the rest of the group could catch up; “What? Do you expect me to stand here and wait?” he demanded. Who did not seem to understand how a full bladder needed to be emptied. Who trekked our group though a very sketchy Paris neighborhood full of men standing around and whistling at our girls– it made the Moulin Rouge area seem safe. Who yelled at me and gave me the option of ice cream or dinner, “You can have either ice cream or dinner. You can’t have both!” Who I looked at and said, “I’m taking them for dinner and ice cream. See ya.”
She tentatively asked, “Did the kids manage to have a good time?” The thing was, despite all that went wrong, we had an amazing experience. The combination of me, who did everything possible to break away from the main to group to explore on our own; Max, whose understanding of the Underground and Metro systems and keen sense of direction made it possible; Jazmin, who decided that this was an adventure and would try anything; Lynda, who was more interested in acting like a local than a tourist; and Stanley, who asked dryly, “We’re not really going to go into a McDonald’s are we?” and wore a suit to Notre Dame, allowed us to rise above the mishaps. I don’t think I could have asked for a better group of kids. Together, we learned a variety of lessons about travel, each other, and ourselves.
1. Mind the Gap: “Mind the Gap” is the London Underground’s famous phrase to remind commuters to not drop their belongings or themselves into the gap that separates the platform from the train. When it comes to travel, it serves as a greater metaphor. As travelers in other countries, we need to mind the “gap” in knowledge of culture and traditions and remember that our “rules” don’t apply. Early on I set the expectation with my kids that we did not travel thousands of miles away from home to eat at McDonald’s or drink at Starbucks. Even though they missed Subway, KFC, and Taco Bell, they embraced eating at local establishments and cafes. Our biggest gap was our tour director whom we could not trust to give us correct information, and we discovered that we had a better and easier time when he wasn’t around. This made us more resourceful in how we wanted to spend our time and getting around.
2. We can do it!: At various times, we were able to step out of our comfort zones. Early on, one of my goals was to visit the Tate Britain and see some of John Singer Sargent’s works, and I was prepared to drag my little group there and bore them to tears. Sometimes the universe solves problems as all of my kids signed up to visit Windsor Castle, leaving me with a kid-free afternoon. The Tate Britain was all mine and mine alone– a thrilling prospect which meant I had to ride the subway by myself and find it by myself. I had never been alone in a foreign city. Keeping calm and carrying on, I found it and spent the afternoon among works of art that I normally see on Brit Lit anthologies. Later on I went to the London Eye and fought my fear of heights by buying a ticket, getting pushed into the capsule, and sitting frozen on the bench in absolute terror as we floated into the sky. The others walked around me snapping photos oohing and ahhing. It wasn’t until the descent that I relaxed a bit. Once on the ground, I bought myself an ice cream and then walked alone from the South Bank to Piccadilly Circus and taking a detour through St. John’s Park.
My kids, inspired by my experiences, also chose to go up in the London Eye, including Jazmin whose fear of heights rivals mine. Her success on the Eye lead her to go up to the very top of the Eiffel Tower (something I refused to do). There she had a panic attack, burst into tears, and had to be escorted down by other group members. She chastised herself for crying and lamented that she could never do that again. I responded, “You did it once and you don’t ever have to do it again!” She sniffled, “But everyone will know I cried!” “But only if you tell them. People only need to know that you went up there,” I reminded.
3. It’s a good thing I’ll always have Paris, because I’ll be in London: It seems like it is every girl’s plus Carrie Bradshaw’s dream is to visit Paris, and once you go to Paris, you must fall in love with it. I went there when I was 15 and left with the image of it as dirty and seedy, and I was really interested to see how my perspective on the city would change after a 2o year’s absence. This time I appreciated its beauty in its architecture, gardens, and light, but it’s still dirty and seedy. There were panhandlers at Notre Dame and the Sacre de Couer. One of my kids thought it was embarrassing that people would beg for money in front of religious sites. On the Metro men played their accordions and then waved dixie cups for Euros in our faces or young men would shout their political tracts down the aisles. The city has beautiful buildings that are lucky enough to be unscathed from WWII (I guess this is a benefit of Nazi occupation), and they are covered in graffiti. I felt safe walking around Harlem, my husband and I being the only white people around, but in Paris, I never let my guard down. In London, I let the kids free for an hour or two, but in Paris, I never let them out of my sight. Images of Liam Neeson’s Taken floated through my head. Even though we had our best afternoon in Paris’s St. Germain de Pres district, we all preferred London.
One of our group members described London as a “city with OCD”. Everything is labeled and marked for one’s safety. The signs on the street remind us to look left and the Underground reminds us to Mind the Gap. There is a distinct pride in their city– maybe because even though it was bombed to bits during the Blitz, they were never occupied by the Nazis, and lived on to rebuild. While I felt that the Parisians didn’t care if we were mugged or killed– fulfilling the Existentialist dogma that life is meaningless– Londoners, while aloof, kept an eye out for others. For example, as I ate my celebratory London Eye ice cream along the Thames, an obnoxious girl was laughing loudly and running into a flock of pigeons. The pigeons flew up directly in my direction. Pigeons flying all around me, I turned to her and said, “Hey!”. It was apparent that I didn’t exist in her world as she did it again. On a park bench nearby a British man watched the exchange and gave me a look that said he was horrified at the woman’s behavior, too. On the subway, I asked a man to verify that I was going on the right train, and later on, en route, he came up to me to see if I needed anymore help. To give credit to Parisians, they did help one of our group members when she got lost behind, but overall, everyone felt safer in London.
4. The importance of meeting others: My little group was put with other travel groups from Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia. I encouraged my kids to meet others, and the group they most identified with was the one from Virginia. Jazmin connected to them the most as she felt like she had known them for years. She was my most love-struck child in the bunch, and throughout London took pictures of every handsome man she saw (and I will attest, there were a lot). She found her ideal in the actor Andrew Alexander, the lead in the play The 39 Steps. At the end of the play as the actors bowed to the audience, he looked directly at her, and sent her to the moon. Since no other man could live up to him, she stopped taking pictures of random men and began to meet the people around us–one of whom was a young man from the Virginia group. While she didn’t develop a crush on him (thank goodness), she was struck by how nice, smart, articulate, and thoughtful he was. Later on she reflected that she didn’t think nice guys existed, but he had showed her that they do. “I know what to look for now,” she said.
5. Being yourself: One of the most amazing things for me was the fact that I could be myself with my group of kids. It is really hard to maintain that teacher-persona when you are with kids for 16 hours a day under a variety of circumstances. The more time that went by, the more the teacher-me went away and the more the real-me showed up. It’s not often that I find a group where I feel comfortable enough to be me. And once I was being me, the kids became more them. It turns out that we’re all one really silly bunch. Our diversity was often commented upon (even though there were only five of us, we were the most diverse group there), and Jazmin suggested a new definition for diversity: it means that we have the ability to get along with all kinds of people and blend in with others. Because of our differences, we can fit in anywhere.