Wednesday, February 01, 2006

'Paris' Part II: The Tourist Trap

When I complain to my brother about where I live—the filthy sidewalks, the noisy neighbors, the litter—he tells me, “You want to go to Germany.”

That wouldn’t have been my first choice.

I have been dying to travel to Europe for as long as I can remember, and by Europe I mean England. My bookshelves are crammed with novels by Anglo authors, from Austen and Bronte to McEwan and Barnes; my husband describes my taste in films as “If it isn’t British, it’s crap.” I wrote a research paper in the 10th grade on the Tudor kings; I remember my teacher asking, “Are you actually interested in this?” Oh, I was interested. I’m not sure what exactly I find so intriguing about the Brits. The Royal Family, certainly (I kept a drawer of Princess Di press clippings at my parents’ house until they moved a few years ago). The accent, which makes every utterance sound intelligent and charmingly witty at the same time. The history, though admittedly much of my knowledge comes courtesy of Shakespeare. Hugh Grant.

Despite this intense Anglophilia, I have never ventured outside the U.S. Unless you count Canada, which I don’t. Not even the French-speaking part.

I am still trying to figure out when traveling abroad became as commonplace as, say, getting an MBA. When I was growing up in Ohio, no one went anywhere, except maybe the family cottage on Lake Erie. These days people jet off to Copenhagen or Cambodia like it’s a trip to Walgreen’s. Half my cousins studied in Europe during college. Even my brother Joey—Mister Burger-in-a-Basket himself—honeymooned in Greece. If he wasn’t one of my all-time favorite people, I would have to hate him.

Yet I remain States-bound. I offer up, in my defense: the expense, the language barrier (albeit, not valid for the U.K.), the hassle of planning such an excursion, the wealth of attractive destinations in the U.S. (e.g., the Grand Canyon), the fact that I’d have to buy some sort of converter for my hair dryer and a complete lack of decisiveness on my part.

There are, quite simply, too many options. I want to go everywhere, so I wind up going nowhere.

England would make for a good start, but it feels like a cop out—not enough of a stretch or challenge. Besides, if I don’t fall into a ballroom scene out of “Pride & Prejudice,” I fear I’ll be utterly disappointed. And if not England, then where?

After sitting through 5,000 hours of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, New Zealand vaulted to the top of my wish list. My husband cautions, “You do realize that the hobbits won’t be there.”

Thanks to a recent PBS special and Conan O’Brien, Finland is now on my radar screen. And apparently Deutschland is the perfect place to satisfy my lust for order and cleanliness.

I have never once considered France.

The French disdain for Americans is legendary and I don’t imagine my high-school Spanish will earn me any points in the cafes. I’d prefer not to spend the entirety of my vacation living in mortal terror of making a fashion faux pas.

Yet I’ve spent the past week in Paris, courtesy of Adam Gopnik’s collection of essays, “Paris to the Moon.” And he’s starting to win me over. (Side note: Gopnik admits he became a Francophile only because his sister had already lay claim to an obsession with London.)

The premise of the book is fairly straightforward: In 1995, Gopnik and his wife decided to pack up their infant son and spend the next five years living the American expatriate’s life in Paris. I expected humorous fish-out-of-water vignettes and observations in the “Mon dieu! The French are so silly” vein. But Gopnik never sinks to the cliché, instead providing heartfelt and profound insights into culture and identity, drawing on both major public events and minor domestic scenes. He utterly enchants, and Paris basks in his reflected glow. Gopnik nearly had me convinced that I simply must go see the City of Lights.

Until he started talking about the food.

The plats offered on the menu of his favorite restaurant never change: steak au poivre, roast chicken, grilled sole or salmon, calf’s liver, gigot. (I had to look that one up—a leg of mutton, lamb or veal.) He describes the overall cuisine as “a disk of meat, a disk of complement, a sauce on top.”

I shall starve.

I don’t eat meat, not because I feel a particular sympathy for animals (truly, I am not fond of many of them, especially dogs off their leash) but because I don’t like the taste of it. Not beef, not pork, not chicken, not turkey and most decidedly not anything attached to the seafood family. We found this difficult enough to accommodate when road-tripping through Cattle Country USA last summer. Would the French chefs be so inclined to whip me up le burger de veggie or le cheese de grilled? How about an avocado sandwich with alfalfa sprouts, served on whole grain? Do they know about Trader Joe’s frozen organic brown rice, which comes packaged in single servings and only takes 10 minutes to heat on the stove?

(Undoubtedly, I could survive on a strict diet of pastries. Or baguettes and cheese. Either scenario holds a certain appeal, but I understand that exercise is verboten in France and I wouldn’t be caught dead walking the streets of Paris with my waistband unbuttoned or, quel horrible, wearing a pair of sweatpants.)

I can just see myself, “Vegetarian’s Guide to Europe” in hand, passing up the Louvre while frantically searching for the Subway on the Rue du Bonjour. I refuse to give the French the satisfaction by confirming yet another Ugly American stereotype.

So I stay home. And I ponder whether it would offend the Germans were I to enter their country packing a suitcase full of Kashi bars. I promise to keep the wrappers off their sidewalks.

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