With the exception of DC, I know Paris better than any city in the world. Though I never lived there, for a year and a half I lived a short train ride away, which meant that I passed through the city almost every time I traveled or met a visitor. I have probably visited Paris 20 times, and every time I go, I do something new. Paris is surprising, delightful, and scented with perfume and baking bread. Anyone who tells you that they “didn’t care for Paris” did it wrong.
Still, one of the worst weekends of my life was on my second visit to the city. During the spring of my sophomore year of college, I studied in Le Mans, a sleepy industrial town on the TGV line an hour west of Paris, at the intersection of Normandy, Brittany, and the Loire Valley, with none of the charm of any of those regions. One of my first weekends, two fellow Americans in the same program invited me to Paris for the weekend, and I eagerly accepted. I can’t remember, 15 years later, what went so wrong that weekend. I think it may have had something to do with them wanting to drink a lot, talk loudly, and generally fulfill stereotypes of American tourists, while I wanted to blend in and have people think I was French (which no one ever will). What I do remember about that weekend is the realization that where you are isn’t nearly as important as who you are with.
I still live by that principle when planning my trips today – for instance, on my whirlwind tour through the Midwest a few weeks ago. I was back in Paris last week, but I did not go to any museums, see any sights, or stroll along the Seine. No, this time my “something new” was seeing the suburbs, where my friend Mike Diamond has lived since being transferred to Pizza Hut’s European division earlier this year. Mike and I were actually friends beginning in middle school, when an unhealthy obsession with the X-Men and an innate disposition to try hard at school meant that we were profoundly uncool. We figured it out by senior year of high school, but there were some pretty awkward years in there. Incidentally, Mike Diamond was with me for my first trip to Paris, on a high school exchange trip that included three magical but packed days in Paris before we headed out to Brittany. This time was a little different – I met Mike’s wife and kids, accompanied them to the market, had lunch on the patio, and beat his 5-year-old in Blokus (beginner’s luck).
I took the train to Dijon that evening, where Suzi, my friend from the Peace Corps, lives. Suzi was being visited by Meghan, our other friend from the Peace Corps, who lives in Mumbai. Actually, Suzi, her husband, and two sons were being visited by Meghan, her husband, and daughter. We went to the pool, played on the playground, watched France lose the Europe cup, had dinner on the patio, and lived normal life with Suzi and her family. At least as normal as life can be when there are eight people staying in a house made for four. Suzi told her colleagues about what we had done and they admonished her for not taking us to do anything “French.” But that wasn’t really the point. Suzi, Meghan, and I have been friends for 12 years. In the Peace Corps, we wrote weekly letters, went on beach vacations, helped each other through homesickness, met up to cook American food, and watched season 2 of The OC in an overnight binge. In the Peace Corps, your friends become like family, so meeting their families and spending time together was more important than all the tourist locations in France (and there are a lot). I’ve been lucky to travel a lot of places, but the more places I go, the more firmly I believe what I learned all those years ago in Paris: who you are with is more important than where you are.