The students are restless with anticipation as the TGV pulls into the Gare Montparnasse. We transfer to a bus and instantly, the broad boulevards of Paris put us under their spell. We check off the requisite sights and snap away with cell phones and cameras through tinted bus windows.
The bulk of our tour group takes off for Versailles, but my students and I, not satisfied with windshield views of the most beautiful city in the world, remain in town to do some deeper exploring of quartiers far flung. All of us, including me, climb onto the proud steeds of the carousel at the base of the Eiffel Tower and enjoy laughing and being adolescents together.
Young people are fascinated with the Pont des Arts, the pedestrian bridge that arcs from l’Academie Française across the Seine to the Louvre and where lovers swear eternal devotion by attaching padlocks and throwing the keys in the river. My Boy Scout leaves a lock for his mom and the girls inscribe one with all four of their names. Perhaps they’ll return one day, I muse, with sweethearts not yet encountered and be reminded of their first time in this romantic city as middle schoolers. “Oh, that’s way too hard to think about,” says one of my boys when I share my thoughts, but I can see the girls light up and start imagining.
The metro leaves us at the base of the Montmartre hill and we hike up to the Place du Tertre in the shadow of Sacre Coeur. I know the artsy vibe, endless shops and inexpensive, red-checked tablecloth bistros will appeal to young teens. The girls eternalize the experience by having charcoal portraits sketched by artists on the square and the boys purchase tchotchkes as if drawing from endless souvenir funds. “How will you fit this all in your suitcases?” I ask them. “Oh, we’ll have a Paris miracle,” they reassure me.
The pièce de résistance of most trips to Paris is going up the Eiffel Tower. My group ascends at dusk — the ethereal heure bleue. I wait on a bench near the base as they pay for the privilege of walking up to the second level and then riding the lift to the top. Since the beginning of the new millennium, the lacy structure sparkles for five minutes on the hour once darkness falls. I watch from below, imagining my charges’ eyes reflecting the twinkling tower lights and their spirits mesmerized from within. Paris can have that effect.
Over the course of our nine-day visit, the students make surface observations and draw hasty conclusions (‘The French eat an awful lot of ice cream,” they deduce. “No, it’s actually just the tourists,” I respond, chuckling.) about a culture and country they’ve witnessed for such a short time. I do my best to correct any misconceptions and hope they’ll come back on extended visits when they’re older for better understanding and deeper appreciation.
As we ready ourselves on the eve of our departure, I overhear the students – every one of them — plotting additional trips, chattering about where they want to visit next and to which places they’ll return. The seeds are sown, I think and smile, my job is done. It’s time for me to return stateside from teaching on the road to teaching in a classroom, and to Joe, always to Joe, to start filling in the details of our next trip. This time it will be the two of us heading across the pond together, and after a week of hiking the western Irish hills, we’ll be joined by our children, to explore the rest of the Emerald Isle.