BEING THERE — A Personal View on Travel

By Elizabeth Adler

There are three stages to travel: GETTING THERE — a journey that can often turn out to be a form of hell, or close to it. BEING THERE — which should make up for the journey and as well as a physical shift in location should also be a change in your mind-set. And then there's GOING HOME which, if you've had a great trip should be an emotional time, filled with regret at having to leave, the promise of returning some day and the storing of memories to bring a remembered glow on those dark cold winter nights.

Too often though you have not had a great time. Sure you've seen the museums and the monuments; you've eaten at the 'right' places; you've shopped for the good 'stuff' — but somehow you're left with the cheated feeling that you've missed the 'essence' of Paris, or Rome, Florence or Prague. You're left wondering what all the fuss was about and secretly you're glad to be back on that flight heading home.

If this is the way you felt then the diagnosis is you've never really BEEN THERE. Sure you've gone through the motions, 'done' all the supposedly right things; traveled 'til your exhausted, stayed at that hotel with all the other tourists, shopped 'til you dropped, and eaten more food than you would just mooching around at home because there's nothing like food for comfort when you're feeling a touch miserable and 'out of the swing'.

My tip for successful foreign travel is to join in that foreign life, take part in it rather than skimming the tourist surface. Now I'm not saying don't see those wonders, the Michelangelos, the Vermeers, the Eiffel Tower, Saint Peter's Square. Of course you should see the sights and the glories each city has to offer, but please, don't try to pack all of them into a three-day city layover.

And in fact don't try to see them all. Choose a few, the ones that intrigue you for whatever reason. Maybe you want to skip the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and spend an hour in the serene magnificence of the new sculpture gallery, with its plantings and trees and soft-colored stone. Perhaps you'll wander the Tuilleries gardens and pop into the Orangerie and catch the small collection of Impressionist paintings, especially the wonderful Cezannes, away from Musée d'Orsay crowd; skip the tourist-ridden Avenue de Champs Elysées with its formulaic shops and stroll the charming streets of the Ile St. Louis instead. Don't crowd yourself. Take it easy. Time is not of the essence. You are on vacation.

Stop and smell the roses why don't you? Have that cup of coffee or glass of champagne in a sidewalk cafe and watch the world go by. Eavesdrop on the conversation at the table next to you — and if you're in Paris and following my advice by now you'll be on the Left Bank either at a top people-watching spot like the Café Deux Magots on the Boulevard. St Germain, or in some charming back-street café you've fallen across because again you took my advice and got off the beaten track. Later you'll wander up behind that great Boulevard and into the narrow cobble-stoned side-streets all the way up to the church of St. Sulpice. On your way you'll have picked up a fresh raspberry Napoleon from the corner bakery where locals stand in line for the treats and devour them on the spot, and the smells coming from the back are enough to send you straight to pastry heaven.

You'll have come across several small hotels and peered inside their glass and brass doors to see a charming tree-filled courtyard or a paneled lobby and perhaps a tiny sitting room with original stone walls that probably date back a couple of hundred years, and green shaded lamps and comfy leather chairs. There's probably a dog stretched out taking its ease, because in France dogs go everywhere, including many of the hotels and certainly in restaurants. And these dogs have company manners, you won't even know they're there until they scoot from under the table after lunch or dinner to follow their mistress politely into the street.

And then suddenly there you are in a charming little square with the blonde-stone Church of St. Sulpice at it's center, and a sidewalk café under the chestnut trees for that essential rest to get your bearings while devouring another of those great fluffy croissants. Oh, and ladies there just happen to be a couple of designer boutiques there. Watch out for the SOLDES signs — the SALES, usually in July and August, when you buy top-of-the-line clothing that you're not going to see walking around at home at unexpectedly low prices.

You'll find the interior of the old church, cool and dark, sometimes with organ music, played on what turns out to be one of the world's largest organs; there are paintings and murals and gilded candlesticks and paneled side chapels. And you'll find worshippers there, local people because real French people live in this area, just dropping in after lunch perhaps.

You'll wander further and come across a grand park. The Luxembourg Gardens, you'll exclaim, astonished that you are seeing a part of Paris history and something you possibly would not have had on your list of 'things to see and do'. And you'll enjoy its long treed allées and its solemn chess players. You'll stop to watch the pétanque game, the French version of bowls; perhaps you'll stop by the marionette theatre, or watch children sailing their boats on the pond, and of course there's another café for that delightful rest stop. And by the way, there's a bronze replica, a small one of course, of the Statue of Liberty to make you feel 'at home' in Paris.

Now you'll swivel back towards Boulevard Saint Germain, up a sloping street and to your surprise the River Seine flows in front of you. Its banks are lined with stalls selling old books and posters as well as the usual tourist t-shirts. Across the river looms the great gray bulk of Notre Dame, wedged by its flying buttresses, rose window glinting in the sunlight.

You'll cross the Pont de la Tournelle to the Ile St. Louis, stroll its pretty streets — there aren't many — check out its shop windows with, of course, an essential pit-stop for ice cream at Berthillon. Their fresh-fruit flavors — all the berries plus fig, rhubarb and like that, are truly "fresh" and truly delicious, and of course there's all the chocolate you can hope to devour.

If you're smart you'll want to move into one of those tiny left-bank hotels you passed. I warn you the rooms are as small as the lobbies and you'll trip over yourselves and your luggage to get into the bathroom or open the closet door, but hey — this is reality and it doesn't cost a fortune. And besides outside that door in the real Paris. And inside the walls are papered in violet and lettuce-green stripes and the bed is a double, because its tough to find a queen let alone a king anywhere except at a top hotel, and even then you'd have to request it. But this does wonders for romance and you can snuggle together, warm in the glow that you are BEING THERE.

Now, I have nothing against luxury, and of course you can have a wonderful time at the Ritz without tripping over yourselves and your luggage. The Paris Ritz is as French a hotel as it gets. Splurge if you can, lap up its luxury, wallow in its big brass beds, soak in its huge tubs, enjoy its impeccable service — but please, go out for breakfast. Hit the streets. It's PARIS for heavens sakes.

My own favorite hotel is off the Champs Elyseés — not my favorite area, and yes it's de luxe, but it's smaller, intimate, more personal. I'm "at home" in Paris there.

An acquaintance said to me recently, You know I have to get my Paris fix, but I can't get my partner to stay anywhere but the Ritz and it's driving me crazy. He just has to have all the luxuries he gets at home. But this time I've found a little place in St. Germain on the Internet. It's $75 a night and they'll take the dogs (two quite sizable dogs they never travel anywhere without) and it's so cute and charming. Did he do it? No! He went even further. He bought an apartment. He opted for LIVING THERE, which is quite a different subject.

Let me give you some advice on BEING THERE. Your best bet is to make friends with the concierge, and if there is no concierge then the desk clerk. Ask them where to eat, where to shop, where to buy the best breakfast croissant, where's the trendiest café, the local restaurant where there'll be more French people than tourists. Desk clerks live in this city, it's their place and usually they are thrilled to be your 'guide' and will want to know in detail how you fared on your return. Try a few French phrases no matter how halting, when you ask directions or a question and you'll find immediate sympathy.

Remember to say bonjour or bonsoir Monsieur (or Madame) to the Patron, when you enter and leave, and to the French people sitting at the next table, and always greet the salesperson in the shops, as well as the other customers if it's a small boutique. Politeness is one of the most charming French traits and just that small "hello" can put a smile on your face, make you feel as though you belong. And by the way never say bonjour or bonsoir without the title — it's always Bonjour Madame, Bonjour Monsieur. Politeness counts.

Get off the beaten track, away from the big boulevards and wander into the tiny squares and back streets. Allow yourself to be drawn into a small restaurant where the menu is always posted outside with prices and also with a good value menu of the day. Please, don't do as you do at home, don't look for the same 'standards', the same food, the good, i.e. well-known places. Try new dishes, different wines, a different atmosphere. You're in a foreign country, absorb it through your pores, eavesdrop on those conversations, look at what the women are wearing and maybe if you like it you can find it in the shops tomorrow.

And if you've taken my advice on how to spend a day BEING THERE in Paris, perhaps now you'll wander back along those narrow cobbled streets, peering beyond the giant wooden gates into sternly secret courtyards, wondering about the lives of the people who live there, and wondering also about the couple at the next table who you suspected from your eavesdropping met only once a year in the most romantic of circumstances. You'll be remembering the cool fruity taste of the chilled Brouilly you've sipped along with the seafood platter which turned out to be a surprising four-tiered extravaganza with everything on it from oysters and lobster, shrimp and crab, to sea urchins in their shells and winkles and cockles and other unidentifiable sea-creatures, some of which you opted out of, thank you very much.

You'll notice how beautiful the old church looks lit from beneath, its tower sparking the midnight-blue sky, and you'll hardly even notice that your feet ache from all that walking because the little dog in the lobby scrambles to his feet and gives you a hearty lick hello, and you say bonsoir chien to him in your best French accent and watch him settle down again on the sofa.

There, you've spent a day in Paris, and you haven't visited a single grand monument. You've hung out on the streets and in the cafés, done exactly as you pleased. And isn't that what a vacation is all about? Pleasing yourself?

Back in your too-small room you'll pull off your clothes and fall into that tight double bed and sleep with blissful dreams of the fresh raspberry Napoleons at the local bakery, and champagne at Deux Magots and French children in the park. And so what if you didn't see the Eiffel Tower or get to the Louvre that day. There's always tomorrow.

And you know what? To me, that's what BEING THERE is all about.