Close to the Bone Traveling
Renting an apartment instead of a hotel room means you shop the grocery stores, dicker in the markets, practice your foreign language skills on the clerk who now welcomes you with a smile at the bakery around the corner, and use the subway system like a pro. The apartment, although cheaper, accomplishes what a more expensive hotel never can; it puts you in touch with the pulse of a neighborhood. At the end of a long day, as you arrange the flowers you picked up at the corner stand or have a glass of wine to toast a spectacular sunset, you feel as though you live here. Here in Paris or Rome or Madrid.
Feeling like a resident means you enjoy all the advantages of traveling like a non-tourist. Dallying is an advantage, not a liability. You savor every moment, sleep in late, run across the street to get fresh croissants for breakfast, take the leisurely route to today’s museum, amble down the alley chock full of antique shops you stumble across on the way home, and get take-out for dinner. Living in the city, even if only for a few magical days, means feeling and tasting and smelling it. Slowly and completely, with all your senses.
When you “live” in a foreign city, you become intimately acquainted with its history. The first time I went to Paris, my inexpensive B&B was located in the sixth arrondissement, known as St. Germain des Prés, where writer/philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir compared notes and wrote in the mid-1900s, and, later, the “Lost Generation” of writers and artists shared ideas after World War I . I almost swooned when I realized that the cafe, Les Deux Magots, was around the corner. Now I could go there and have a hot chocolate in the very place where Sartre and Beauvoir wrote and where Hemingway and Fitzgerald bantered with Picasso and Gertrude Stein. This alone would nurture my soul and imagination for months.
After dreaming of seeing Paris for twenty years, the excitement of actually being in the city propelled me out of bed each morning before dawn, but I crept silently out of the house so as not to wake the other guests. My little room, a gold and turquoise Louis XIV gem that could only be reached by going through the dining room and across a terrace, was an extra that Madame rented only when the rest of her house was full.
The day I went to the Eiffel Tower, I used my guidebooks and city transit map to carefully plot my route the night before. Up at 5:30, I quickly showered, tiptoed out of the pension, stopped at my favorite patisserie to practice my college French and order a croissant, and made it to the Metro subway station before rush hour.
When I reached the correct stop, I climbed the steps to the street and looked around for the Tower. But it wasn’t there. Only houses and apartments lined the neat streets. The Eiffel Tower was too big to hide, but I couldn’t catch even a glimpse of its top. Evidently my carefully orchestrated route had a flaw or two.
A woman in a somber black raincoat with a de rigeuer scarf, the fashion accessory that only Frenchwomen seem able to drape so beautifully to frame their faces, stopped and smiled at my fractured French. She pointed to the right and suggested with a wave of her arm that my destination was several blocks away.
It had rained during the night and the freshly bathed streets glistened while steam rose from the sidewalks. Flowers decorated every porch or tiny garden while wooden shutters or little French balconies gave each apartment building a distinct personality. Every once in a while, the sweet scent of jasmine floated on the air. The only sound was the staccato-step of smartly dressed Parisians, surely the thinnest people in the world because they walk everywhere at marathon-speed, scurrying to work.
Finally, across the street, I saw a tiny cafe with one wrought iron table and chair set out front, an open door wreathed in ivy, and a chalkboard listing the morning specials. It looked so inviting I forgot for a second what I was looking for until, suddenly, there, just above the treetops, I thought I saw it. I quickened my pace and rounded a corner. Yes, that looks like metal filigree reaching into the sky. Could I be getting close? Ah, indeed, only a few more blocks and I would be there.
The line meant a forty-five-minute wait, but seeing the whole of Paris was worth waiting for. I lingered a long time, soaking in the view, and afterward sat on the grass to take in the scene, see the Tower from a different perspective, and write a few notes in my journal. The huge expanse of lawn, called the Champs de Mars, stretched for acres in all directions to create a fitting backdrop for the Tower. The greenery was as expansive as the Tower was tall.
My guidebook said the Eiffel Tower, originally intended to be a temporary structure for Paris’s 1889 World’s Fair, was criticized by the public who called it a “grimy factory chimney.” Lying on the grass and looking up at the soaring structure, I tended to agree, though, with the Tower’s creator who said, “The basic lines of a structure must correspond precisely to its specified use. To a certain extent the tower was formed by the wind itself.” The Tower survived because Parisian critics eventually came to appreciate the landmark, not only for its practical role in telecommunications, but as one of Paris’s most famous icons.
I was lost in thought when a car horn brought me out of my reverie. There in the parking lot was a huge tour bus disgorging passengers who walked a few feet to the Tower and quickly got in the elevator. As I sat there thinking over my morning and wondering whether to see the Musée de l’Orangerie or the Musée d’Orsay in the afternoon, I saw the same group returning, clambering back on the bus. Five minutes later they were gone.
I wondered what they would remember when they sat down to dinner that night. The members of the tour had probably paid a lot more than the cost of my Metro ticket to ride an air-conditioned bus from their hotel to the Eiffel Tower, but I thought my way of seeing Paris was more satisfying. At the end of the day, Paris would be under my fingernails, etched in every muscle of my aching body, and forever in my memory. Unlike the people who rode the bus and ticked off the stops on their itinerary, my Paris would stay with me always. It would prove to be that moveable feast Hemingway wrote about.
This is why I say tightwad travel is close to the bone. By traveling cheaply, there’s no insulation, no padding, no obstacles to get in the way. Nothing comes between you and the essence of the place you want to experience. The mundane, as well as the marvelous, is part of your day, every day. And that, I believe, is the way travel should be.