Opportunities Taken

“Take advantage of your opportunities.

Many, many years ago my wife and I hurried into Paris and up the Eiffel Tower on a scheduled four-hour layover coming home from Egypt and Israel. The airline would have had us just waitin the terminal, but It was my first time in France. Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken suggests that ‘knowing how way leads on to way’ you can’t be sure that you’ll ‘ever come back’.

I made a plan and it worked. Landing mid-morning, we hurried off the plane. There was no delay in customs. We showed our passports and were out the door and into a waiting taxi. Early Saturday traffic was light and the ride took barely half an hour.

When we arrived at the bottom of the Tower, there was no line for the elevator to the top.  Moments later we stood looking down at Paris from 906 feet up. The skies were overcast so we gazed at the city’s stately buildings through hazy gray clouds, but we were in Paris on top of the Iron Lady! I just wished I had on a beret to skim off.

Then we were back in a taxi, out of the city and at the airport with plenty of time to buy a dutyfree bottle of Dom Pérignon to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary; this year’s will be our 41st.

Even back then, it was probably naïve to plan this excursion and perhaps a miracle to have pulled it off. ‘No delay in customs?’ ‘No traffic into the city?’ ‘No line at the Tower?’ Over the years listeners to this story have asked these questions from their own opposite experiences.

More recently, we had a connecting flight through Paris on our way to Barcelona. With Paris as our entry point to the European Union, we had to go through customs before catching the next flight. I have never stood in a longer line for anything. Arriving passengers queued up to fill a football field size room and spilled out beyond into the adjacent shopping area. It took two hours to get through customs with our luggage, and we missed our connecting flight.

I don’t sleep well in an airplane and I’m not good at losing six hours on the way to Europe. By the time I land, I’m pretty much counting the minutes till I can get to my hotel for a shower and a nap. (You’re told to tough it out the first day to get on the new clock overnight, but it doesn’t work for me.) Let’s just say that I wasn’t my most convivial with the poor airline employee rescheduling our departure. As she indicated it would be almost eight hours later, all I could think of was my shower and nap slipping away.

Next time – and there’ll be a next time – I hope I’ll be able to look through my fatigue and embrace the opportunity. We were already past customs, and once you’re past customs, eight hours is plenty of time to enjoy a day in Paris. What could be bad about that? Arriving in a new city, I usually head for the highest point to have a look around. As we’d been to the Eiffel Tower, we picked the Arc de Triomphe which I’d only seen at night and from a distance. It turned out to have an observation deck with a great view of the city.

After 9/11 airports removed lockers and luggage rooms in the terminals and prohibited early luggage check-in. Even packing light, dragging your bags is limiting, but our experience says push on with the luggage and see what comes; you might get lucky. Paris’ commuter rail line, the RER, runs through the Charles de Gaulle Airport and stops by the Arc de Triomphe. And there’s a luggage storage business, Bagages Du Monde, in the airport mall just above the tracks! We didn’t know that before and now you do. We just got lucky.

Once you’ve settled your bags and figured out the ticket vending machine (in French), it’s a short ride into the city without worrying about weekday traffic.

In sight of the Arc, we picked a little sidewalk brasserie, Le Vin Coeur, for lunch and started with a bowl of onion soup, perhaps to reinforce the novelty of finding ourselves in France.

The Arc itself is architecturally and historically worth a visit, but at 164 feet, the lower angle over an inner city not choked by tall buildings makes the view from its observation deck unique.

Even drowsy, it’s hard not to enjoy a scenic overlook. Located in the center of one of Paris’ busiest traffic rotaries, there’s an underground passage to get you across. The climb up one side gets the heart pumping. (There’s an elevator that goes part way up for those who can’t manage as many steps.) A little museum near the top is worth stopping at before taking the stairs down the other side.

After the Arc, we adopted our luncheon spot and returned for coffee, dessert (chocolate mousse) and a little time to relax. That’s the way to enjoy Paris!

Then we were back on the train to the airport where we retrieved our suitcases, checked-in and were soon off to Barcelona having had a lovely, unexpected eight-hour stop in the City of Light.  Visiting an iconic site like the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe has an additional, lifetime benefit. Whenever you see its picture, you’ll remember being there and perhaps relish the advantage you took of an opportunity.”

Steven Glovsky of Wayland can be contacted at stevenglovsky@gmail.com.