About five years ago Emmy and I visited Paris. We spent five days in a very large corner room on the top floor of the Regina Hotel overlooking the Tuileries Gardens. To our Australian eyes the hotel was an exotic, somewhat overstuffed, and very over-priced, baroque extravagance. But we really enjoyed it. The weather was clear and warm, and we had a dress circle view of spring suddenly jumping in vivid green from the trees and shrubs in the gardens below.
I was in Paris to do just one thing… enjoy coffee and croissants in a streetside café somewhere along the Champs Elysees. But Emmy had higher ambitions. Versailles. Monet’s Garden. Cruising the Seine. Notre Dame. The Eiffel Tower.
On the first day we had lunch at a restaurant in the tangle of streets across the river. We chose a place at random. At the door we were greeted by a magnificent waiter – long white apron, starched serving cloth draped over his forearm, even a Poirot-like mini-moustache. This was the Paris of movie stereotype.
With great ceremony he conducted us to a table with the classic snowy tablecloth, gleaming cutlery and long stemmed wine glasses. He seated us with a flourish of politesse and handed us the menu. Better and better… not a single syllable of English despoiled the menu, and I understood not one word of it. This was the real France. I looked up:
“What do you recommend?”
From over my shoulder the waiter’s finger roved the menu. He glanced thoughtfully at me for an moment, then…
“For you, monsieur, I recommend ze steak and chips.”
Emmy had an aromatic cassoulet dish freshly made on the premises, served with crusty bread and a counterpoint of soft red wine. But my steak and chips with a Coke were also fine. Plenty of salt too.
The following day we got up early and went to the Eiffel Tower. It was a weekday and not yet into the tourist season, but already a mass of people were corralled in queues before the ticket boxes. It took an hour of zig-zag shuffling before finally we were able to squeeze into a lift and make it up to the second deck.
The view was dazzling – when we could see it, that is. For me, standing 194 cm in height, the crush at the balustrades was not a big problem. I could look over heads and see everything (or almost everything). But Emmy had to jostle and burrow and scrummage. And she had some very ruthless competition.
Feeling a little deflated we had lunch at a buffet cafeteria on the first level. It was one of the worst meals I’ve ever eaten. Indeterminate organic matter wrapped in soggy paper washed down with lilac coloured lolly-water. If only I had ordered steak and chips.
Back on the ground we looked up at the rows of heads strung like beads along the balustrades of the tower. The Eiffel Tower is a dramatic, historic, even beautiful, structure, and it deserves to attract visitors. But it is being loved to death, or perhaps more accurately, exploited to death. The unavoidable crush of visitors and the fleeting contact they make with the Tower’s mystique, make visiting the Tower a trial. In some respects it’s even unpleasant. The Eiffel Tower embodies the classic paradox of mass tourism: its iconic status has bred a degraded experience. Somehow we were disappointed.
Right then and there we decided, consumer travel is not for us. You know what I mean by consumer travel. It is travel built around shopping in one guise or another: luxury this and discount that, free day here and extra night there, with “gourmet” meals and “experienced” guides. It is a modular, fleeting, assembly-line world, full of packaged sights seen from the window of a bus and regulated by turnstile. The cruise ship is its purest manifestation, but the Eiffel Tower is now one of its innumerable offspring.
Of course, consumer travel is a soft target and it is very easy to be snooty about it. So it’s frustrating that you can’t escape it. It is hard to be pure and keep consumer travel (a.k.a. “shopping”) at an ideologically comfortable distance. It is virtually impossible to go anywhere without succumbing, somewhere along the way, to the powerful pull of iconic sights and pre-packaged convenience.
But by walking (with our Gore-Tex hiking boots, moisture-wicking merino wool socks, quick-dry insect-repellent shirts, sculptured backpacks and carbon steel, telescopic walking poles) we hope to fend off the worst blandishments of consumerism. How successful will we be? Hmmm, perhaps this paragraph has already answered that question, but we’ll keep you posted anyway.