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Life as a Flea

Bateaux Mouche

FRANCE | Friday, 15 May 2015 | Views [374]

I’m not fond of the snobbish air of many Parisians toward foreigners. I may live here now, but I easily remember the neck-craning wonder tourists experience…leading them to barricade the narrow European sidewalks so locals have to step into the gutter to reach the next metro within an hour…

I know both sides. I also know the seas of white sneakers and chunky camera straps are their own landmark in major European cities. They are like a moving modern art installation that oscillates in place for effect but is a permanent part of the collection. They aren’t going anywhere.

Over time, you learn tricks to go with the tide, or just avoid swimming altogether. Rule number one of avoiding oceans of tourists: Never visit a major attraction on a Sunday. The Louvre, Champs-Elysees, the Musee D’Orsay – no, no, no. Unfortunately for my friend Nina and me, Sunday was the only day of the week that didn’t forecast rain. Sure, Woody Allen would have us believe Paris in the rain is a beautiful experience in itself, but when your plans include an open-boat tour, gray skies are anything but romantic.

We walk the twenty minutes from my apartment to Pont D’Alma, where the open tour boats depart. We passed Planet Sushi and a gas station before descending the slippery, white-tiled steps of Trocadero. Sprays of chlorinated water from the fountains across the street from the Eiffel Tower float on the wind and spritz our faces pleasantly – it’s mid-spring and almost 80 degrees.

Avenue de New York runs alongside the Seine, and the leafy trees planted on either side of the walking path would serve as a perfect aisle for the handful of brides having their photographs taken in this area any sunny day. They gingerly step around black gum on the pavement while their grooms hold the train of their designer dress.

The sugary smell of a crepe stand by Port Debilly reaches us as we pass. Behind the counter, a man in a black-and-white-striped shirt spreads a thick layer of Nutella over a steaming crepe, sprinkles it with shredded coconut, and folds it into a piece of paper for the waiting customer.

We followed the cloud of bus fumes down a ramp to the giant sign that reads “Bateaux Mouche.” Tourist buses wait side by side out front like tied up dogs outside of the grocery store, eyeing the strangely placed metal T-Rex skeleton keeping watch over the dock.

At the glass window inside, I hand a woman thirteen euros. She hands me a ticket and says, “You’re welcome” in English, having heard my accent when I asked her where we wait for the boat. The light-up board above the window informs us that the next departure is in fifteen minutes, so we cross through the ticket machines, just like the ones in the metro, and sit in the afternoon sunshine, watching a crowd of tourists, almost all from Asia, crowd in front of us on the dock. One woman is wearing a heavy velour dress with a very high neckline. Its dark color absorbs the sunshine so that the fake diamonds stitched throughout it create a disco of sparkles around her. I wonder how she hasn’t passed out, as I’m sweating in shorts and a t-shirt.

A man in a suit opens the gate, and we make our way onto the boat. At the entrance, a man with an enormous camera snaps a photo without warning of every couple or group as they flow through the gate, most of them shocked by the unexpected flash. Luckily, I notice ahead of time and immediately strike a funny pose before the cameraman clicks the button. The cameraman hesitates, suddenly seeming to care about his subject, as though he’s silently asking, “Are you sure you want me to take the picture of you looking like that?” I freeze in the pose, assuring him that I’m positive of my decision.

On board, Nina and I make our way to the top of the boat and settle into our hard, orange seats. It’s not nearly as crowded as I had expected – there are at least two dozen empty seats around us. The Bateaux Mouche keeps a tight schedule, and pretty soon I’ve embarked on my first cruise on the Seine.

The Bateaux Mouche, which translates to “Flying Boats,” offers lunch and dinner cruises accompanied by live violinists, pianists, and accordionists, but those are more expensive, so Nina and I had decided to on one of the one-hour tour cruises, which leave every 20 to 30 minutes.

Small puffs of clouds float slowly through a light blue sky as we pass the looming golden dome of L’Hôtel des Invalides on our right, the Eiffel Tower behind us. The Seine is its usual light brown color, but from the water I can see the sun adds just the slightest bit of light green tint. I find it amusing that the most reputably romantic river in the world is so dirty that I can’t even imagine fish living in it. Somehow, it’s still enchanting.

Pleasant voices on a speaker explain the surrounding landmarks in French, English, German and Chinese. We pass under my favorite bridge in Paris – Pont Alexandre III. From below, its coppery blue color contrasts even more starkly with motifs of gold leaves, and I notice for the first time the muscular statue of a Greek woman on the side of the bridge, a crown of gold bay leaves decorating her head. At the end of her muscular right arm is a golden torch, as though she is lighting our way to the bricks under her bridge.

We pass the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais on to our left, which is technically La Rive Droite, or The Right Bank. Place de la Concorde, Palais Bourbon, the Louvre, Notre Dame… I know this route by heart because I walk it at least once a week, but, just as I had hoped, everything takes on a different air from the water. It’s no different than flying in a propeller airplane over the town you grew up in. Everything looks different, even though you can recognize it all, and the new perspective gives a renewed appreciation.

The boat floats under 8 bridges, and at each one tourists wave down at us. People are lying out on the banks of the river, some in bikinis, and the light brown cement beneath them almost looks like beach sand. The willow tree at the end of Île de la Cité waves hello as heartily as the tourists on the bridges. I always forget there is an island in Paris, bridged by Pont Neuf, the city’s oldest bridge, and that Notre Dame’s pointed spires loom over the island. Many people tend to get caught up in the city’s more recent history, from the 1920s onward, but Paris has thousands of years’ worth of interesting stories and people. Apparently, Île de la Cité is the place where the city was refounded in medieval times, after Roman rule. Paris’s name comes from the Parisii, after a Celtic tribe who lived there in the third century BC.

When we pass the island completely, the captain skillfully takes a u-turn and we head back where we came from. Nina and I decide to go to the bottom deck for the way home for a new view, and find this to be even more charming, looking up at the streets from so far below. We have to look up and over the tourists incessantly taking selfies with each and every monument and bridge.

At one point, we hit a small wave from another cruise boat, and a decent splash of water rushes on deck, soaking a group of tourists blocking the view at the front of the boat with their selfie sticks and ipads. My legs and face get a good splash, but I’m not soaking wet like the people in front of me, and Nina and I can’t help bursting out in laughter.

We retrace our steps, pass the port of the Bateaux Mouche again, wave to tourists at the Eiffel Tower, and the boat swirls back around to land. The whole excursion took a little more than an hour, but when we step onto the deck again I have sea legs for a moment.

Before leaving, everyone crowds around a giant bulletin board. When I look closer, I see that tucked into pockets on the board are the photos taken before our departure. People stand behind a barrier, searching for their faces, and some people point to their picture to buy it.

When Nina and I find ours, we burst out laughing. I’m halfway crouched, lifting a rock-n-roll hand and sticking out my tongue while rocking a double chin, and she is standing next to me looking bewildered with her hand like a praying mantis. It’s one of the worst pictures I’ve ever seen, and we can’t stop laughing. She buys it for five euros.


Tags: bateaux mouche, boat, cruise, paris, tour

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