“Chris, I think that man is following us,” whispered my sister into my ear, “We should walk around the block.” Naturally, the poor Parisian pedestrian was probably just walking down that busy, cobble stone road like the thousands of other Frenchmen who do the same every day. My sister, however, wasn’t taking any risks with our safety or the security of our temporary abode. Suspiciously glancing over our shoulders at regular intervals, we made our way around the block. We entered our building much relieved to have seen the scoundrel make off down the street. To this day, I occasionally go around the block when I spot a miscreant tailing me. Not that it has ever been needed, but one can never be too cautious, especially in a foreign city.
When I was a young, my family travelled to Paris. I remember driving through the city wide-eyed at the wonderful stone buildings just after we had landed. I would only later learn the name of the building styles － Second Empire, Art Nouveau, and many others which I forget. When we arrived where we were staying, I was still amazed at the city around me.
It was unlike any city in the US. The buildings were older, grander, and closer together. They weren’t the towering skyscrapers so often associated with urban environments. Stumbling out of the car onto the cobblestone street, the sound of movement was everywhere around us. The cars, although not honking, made soft hisses as they braked and the wheels made an audible grind whilst driving over the stones. We entered through a big, black door. No, that’s not quite accurate. The full door was much too big for anyone to practically use, so we used the human-size portal cut out of it. We had to step over the bottom edge of the door as we entered our building. We found ourselves in a small archway which adjoined a little courtyard. It was a trapezoidal shape and the largest side was the wall of a different building.
My sister and I were, on occasion, given some considerable freedom. We had discovered some days earlier a little ice cream shop in the city. There must have been many ice cream shops, but this one was very special. They would scoop the ice cream in the shape of a flower with the cone serving as a stem. It was located on a small island in the Seine just west of Notre Dame. I remember the relative location but not names, for neither my sister nor I spoke French. Instead we would navigate there with the aid of a map, using it for landmarks and occasionally comparing the names of streets. We made this trek a couple of times, partly for the ice cream, but also for the thrill of wandering through Paris alone.
My dad and I also did our fair share of meandering through Parisian streets. These excursions, however, were a little more goal oriented than those sojourns my sister and I enjoyed. My dad, always a man of action, had a game plan for how we would see the city. With his trusty map in his back pocket, we would depart from our building in the morning and follow the route which he had highlighted the night before. The trip would not be complete until we had seen everything there was to see in the City of Light. On one such jaunt, we departed to see several museums and then go to lunch, all by way of foot. These were the days before I knew about and removed an egg-sized, abnormal bone growth from my hip. After an hour and a half, the pain in my hip had grown to insurmountable levels of discomfort. I requested that we take a brief hiatus from our trek for some recovery. My dad, who, although always pushing for activity, is very considerate about his family’s comfort, immediately adopted the idea of stopping in a café for a Diet Coke.
The café was small and located on a street corner. Its street-facing walls had all been replaced with window-panelled doors which were open and created a continuous space from the sidewalk to the interior of the cafe. We sat at a high table which was nearly on the sidewalk, but still inside the building. There the light and airy music, accented by accordion, rolled over us as we sipped our Diet Cokes and felt the slight city breeze which flowed, funneled by the buildings, down the street in gentle gusts. What made my time in Paris so memorable and enjoyable was not the artwork of the Louvre or the view of the Eiffel Tower, but the banal. It was the huge door which was impractical, the ubiquitous building styles of Europe which were so foreign, the ice cream which was fashioned into a flower for millions of customers, the unexpected stop in one of the many cafés which dot the Parisian map, and my family, who are always talking and making the most of what is around, that created such remarkable experiences.
– Chris Williams, The Haverford School, Class of 2017