Beyond Sightseeing: Just Do It!
Updated: Nov 12, 2018
Like most people, I truly enjoy sightseeing when visiting a destination, particularly foreign ones. For one thing, outside the United States, everything is soooooo old! Before I spent these past three months in Paris, I'd already seen the major Parisian sights on previous trips. The Eiffel Tower, naturellement. The Arc de Triomphe. Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur. The Seine. Many more far too numerous to mention. And I did see them all over again this time, too, because well...does the Eiffel Tower ever grow old? Not for me.
Still, as awe-inspiring and fascinating as sightseeing can be, it's predominantly a feast for the eyes joined perhaps with a history lesson. You read the plaques--try to absorb names and dates into free brain space--and then you stand outside Notre Dame, crane your neck at the gargoyles and the frescoes and concentrate on searing the magnificent image into your memory. Just in case, you take several photos to gaze upon years later and many miles away.
Don't get me wrong: I adore sightseeing and wouldn't think of eschewing it, but this time around in Paris, I seized opportunities to engage much more than my eyes. Having booked my stay through AirBnB, the company promoted a multitude of AirBnB Experiences I might want to look into during my stay and I took the bait. I've written previously about some of these experiences, i.e., the perfume workshop, my day in Champagne and the trip to the flower market in Rungis, and because each of these was so enjoyable, I hunted for more.
Seeking a running-oriented experience, one evening after dark I joined a "sight-running" group (RunRun Tours). Sure, the experience had a focus on sightseeing, but this was not your grandmother's sightseeing; beginning at Notre Dame, we ran a total of seven miles around twinkling nighttime Paris, passing by the Conciergerie to the Louvre and the Tuileries, on to the Pont Neuf and the Place de la Concorde and, finally, to the Trocadero. We were just four people led by a charming veteran runner named Hamidou who shared historical factoids and took photos of us along the way--some of the most beautiful and memorable miles I've ever run.
I saved two of the best experiences for the final two weeks, though, because that was when my husband joined me in Paris. The first of these was the most unique of the hundreds of experiences I combed through: a Graffiti Workshop. I was thrilled to surprise Ken with this, knowing how it would appeal to both the artist and the rebel in him, and it turned out I had fun, too!
Our guide was an affable young Frenchman with a small frame and a mop of curly brown hair named Thibault. He met us at the metro station carrying heavy bags of spray paint and we followed him to Parc Bercy, a public park in the 12th arrondissement where it's legal to spray paint the wall by the skatepark. Once there, he seated us on a bench and had us sketch out our ideas while giving us some tips on how to make it easy on ourselves. (We had only two hours, which was actually quite a bit of time to do street art--in the real world, we'd probably be arrested by then!) Coming up with ideas was difficult, particularly since we'd been in Amsterdam just a few days earlier, where we visited MOCA and seen the incredible works by Banksy. We managed to reign in our ambitions, though, and Thibault led us over to the wall and began instructing us on how to paint with the cans.
One of my key takeaways from many of the experiences I participated in while in Paris--the perfume-making, the florist training--is how difficult these activities are and how much knowledge and skill it takes to excel at them. Street art is no different. You'd think that it's just a matter of pressing down on the nozzle and drawing with the can as opposed to a pencil or paint brush, but there is real technique involved and it's incredibly difficult, not just from the perspective of artistic skill, but also physically. On the skill side, Thibault demonstrated the basic techniques for outlining and filling in. He showed us how to hold the can very close to the wall, press down steadily on the nozzle and make short, quick movements to achieve solid lines and avoid dripping. He evaluated our sketches and provided his guidance on color and where to start. And thank goodness! I can't speak for Ken, but I was overwhelmed by the graffitied wall we faced. It's a place where artists paint over and over the work that has come before theirs, and as we would soon learn, after we executed the outlines of our sketches, we would have to fill in the background in order to cover up the previous artwork. This, I thought, would be the easiest part--all I had to do was hold the paint nozzle down and spray and spray and spray until the background was one color. Again, as usual, how wrong I was! After just a few minutes, the tendon in my right forearm was screaming and I felt like I'd developed carpal tunnel syndrome! It got to a point where I could no longer press the nozzle down and I had to switch to my left hand.
Meanwhile, Ken was rolling along on his part of the wall, executing an impressive Batman looming over large lettering. I was still struggling to make my sketch of Horton the elephant holding his dandelion look anything close to an elephant. As you've read in previous posts, stick figures are pretty much the extent of my artistic ability, so this was rather ambitious. I had managed to do a somewhat decent, if childish, sketch on paper, but taking a can of paint and making it happen on a wall was something else entirely. Not to mention, I couldn't quite master the techniques that Thibault made look so easy. Luckily, he was there to help me--a lot. I shudder to think what my Horton might have looked like otherwise. At the same time, he encouraged me to do the majority on my own and even if I was failing miserably, I was having a great time. Before we knew it, two hours had gone by and each of us had managed to leave something of ourselves behind on a wall in Paris--how cool is that, right?
The second experience I surprised Ken with was a photo shoot in Montmartre. I thought this experience was more for me than him, because I really wanted some nice photos of us together in Paris. After almost 20 years together, we don't have many recent photos of the two of us, and when we do have one taken, invariably the shot is unflattering to one or both of us. Like many people, neither of us is very comfortable in front of a camera, so I thought perhaps a professional photographer shooting us against a romantic and picturesque backdrop would yield better results.
Again, I found this experience through AirBnB and we had a wonderful experience with our photographer, Virginie. She was thrilled to do the shoot in Montmartre because clients normally want photos done with the Eiffel Tower in the background. The afternoon we chose was gray and quite chilly, but Virginie's bubbly personality put us at ease immediately. She'd brought props--hats, colorful umbrellas, balloons--and she made us run or walk up the street or kiss or dance. And the result are photographs where we both look relaxed and happy and in love. I'd booked the experience hoping for a handful of great photographs, but I didn't expect to have so much fun while taking them. Ken is notorious for his dislike of having his picture taken, but he enjoyed the shoot even more than I did.
Outside of AirBnB, I also indulged in other experiences during my time in Paris, including two cooking classes (apero nibbles, crepe-making) and a surprise planned by Ken: a super cool four-hour Vespa tour around Paris on an invigorating October morning. Every experience I did was not only heaps of fun, but also a learning opportunity. Each one enriched my travels well beyond traditional sightseeing. Learning about perfume-making from Emmanuel and shopping for flowers with Stefania; running Paris at night with Hamidou; discovering limestone cellars and tasting champagne with Luis; mastering the pump of cheesy gougere batter onto a baking pan with Alex; creating "art" from a can with Thibault; zooming along the streets of Paris on the back of a scooter; having my love of Paris and of my husband captured in photographs I'll cherish forever. I can't wait to see what experiences await me in my next travels.