France in the City

“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life.” T. Jefferson

We allotted the most time to Paris during our trip and I still feel like we barely scratched the surface. I look forward to someday visiting Cannes, Lyon, Marseille, or Bordeaux, but even though my introduction to French culture was limited to mostly Paris, I’d move there tomorrow if I had the chance.

In Paris, everything is presented to you the moment you arrive and you can see the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, River Seine, and Louvre from nearly anywhere in the city. The sun doesn’t fade away in Paris until after 10:30 PM and it’s slow descent casts a lingering shadow of gothic figures over the Seine. The more you explore, the more beautiful assortment of views you’ll discover around every corner.

Every street has at least a dozen clothing shops, and I’m 

pretty sure the French have never heard of cargo shorts or sneakers. Everyone has the same Macklemore-like haircut, where it’s long on top and shaved on the sides, and French fashion is extremely conservative. Everywhere I looked people were wearing leather shoes with a nice silk shirt or the same plain black/white Levis shirt. Seeing a t-shirt with any other type of graphic on it was extremely rare, and the clothing felt quite homogenous. I felt like a tourist, but also like a child, walking around in my Marvel or Nintendo t-shirt. A French kid even surprised me in The Louvre when we had the same Rick and Morty shirt on, which my wife thought was hysterical.

On the other hand, I’d argue that our culture in America is defined by our movies, television, music, and video games. We don’t have the advantage of hundreds of years of documented history evolving our culture over the centuries, like in Paris. America is the new kid on the block using Hollywood to turn pop culture into something its citizens can identify with and be proud to call their own. Therefore, I chose to continue to wear my graphic t-shirts for the rest of the trip, for America.

I was surprised by how small Paris was compared to a place like New York City, and found that the narrow alleys and abundant pedestrian paths made it a lot safer to navigate. The French care to preserve their history and culture so you won’t find corporate-neon logos littering their beautiful city. Storefronts also have hand painted signs to match the surrounding area, and even the graffiti is carefully crafted by famous street artists such as Invader or Julien Malland who paint sidewalks or place mosaic tiles to cover the city in their artwork.

One of the things I loved most about Paris was how its civil engineers could seamlessly integrate art and industry. Everywhere we looked, there was clever construction of parks and playgrounds.

When land is limited you’re forced to come up with creative solutions to hide “eye sores” and still provide necessary services for a modern city to function. You can put yellow caution tape around a bunch of old pipes jetting out from the wall under a bridge, and threaten to sue any parent with a curious kid, or you can embrace the fact that young boys are going to climb on it and do your best to make it safe and inviting. Paris chooses the latter and their city has evolved over the centuries because of it. 

In the states, if something gets old, we choose to knock it down and replace it, or we just expand past it, allowing the forgotten infrastructure to crumble and turn to ruin. When space is limited, and you cherish your culture, then you spend more on upgrades for the sake of future generations. Our seemingly unlimited land in the U.S. creates an increasingly divided populace making it easy to forget about the significance of a place or person. It just becomes an empty space meant to be sold to the highest corporate bidder. 

When I looked around Paris I was surrounded by a plethora of creative solutions, from the parks and playgrounds, to the state-of-the-art citywide wifi, to the cheap bicycle rentals and free repair kiosks. There were solar panels installed in gardens on every roof and the rapidly deployed emergency services on hover-boards and bicycles made it seem like everywhere I looked there was someone attempting to find a small solution to a large problem. The U.S. will need to adopt similar climate-policies very soon since China stopped importing our waste.

There was a sense of community in Paris rather than a sense of competition, a sense of hope rather than a feeling of anxiety.

Another perk of cleverly constructed playgrounds is the obvious health benefits in the local youth. I loved grabbing a cup of coffee with my wife while the kids explored the zip lines, rock climbing walls, carousels, sports fields, and rope swings. My daughter played tag with a trilingual young girl while my stepson tried convincing an eight year old French boy that he was good enough to play soccer with him and his friends. I suspect the absence of these public services in America has led to kids who are glued to tablets rather than allowing their boredom and imagination to challenge them into being more active and social. Sure we have fenced in plastic playgrounds scattered with ripped up pieces of tire, but they’re so neutered with restrictions that parents just use them as a way to pass the time before Paw Patrol returns on the Disney Channel. 

Universal healthcare plays a role as well, and while I was in Paris I saw several kids fall and hurt themselves who were attended to by nearby medical services, and playing again within minutes. There were also government run pharmacies on every corner with a consultant inside willing to listen to your symptoms and provide a recommendation, this came in handy when I had a severe allergy attack and had forgotten my pills at home. 

When health takes a backseat to liability you end up with corporate manufactured plastic playgrounds shipped in from China to satisfy an HOA regulation in a suburb. Kids need to be stimulated and allowed to take risks, and by encouraging these behaviors at a young age it leads to a stronger, and more resilient populace. 

Paris also knows the power of its people and are a self-proclaimed ‘punk nation.’  Every day I was there, I saw a monument shut down by protestors, or a street covered in disparate youth chanting for a cause. Protesting is a daily activity, and their citizens accept that it's their responsibility to keep the government’s motives vigilant, constantly reminding them that they serve the people. If a law gets passed which the people disagree with, then you can be damn sure every person is going to be out in front of historical monuments shutting them down to bleed the state of tourist money. 

In America we’re afraid of our police and so beat down by the daily grind that we’ve given up hope on changing anything. We fantasize about relaxing with our beer to help us through the day, but are forced to stay inside by public intoxication laws, choosing between protest or pleasure. You can take a guess which choice typically wins. 

This myopic outlook isn’t shared in France and they prefer to have their after-work beer with hundreds of other people in front of the gates of Versailles while chanting "La vraie démocratie elle est ici ! C'est pas au patronat de faire sa loi !” (True democracy is here! It's not up to the bosses to make the law!")

Among the protesting, there were also street concerts, cafes, burlesque shows, markets, galleries, butcher shops, Fromageries, and bicycle repair shops. A walk through Paris is like spinning a giant prize wheel, sometimes we’d end up at a guerrilla street concert paying a cup deposit to a roadie sitting on a keg, while other times we’d end up at the top of Montparnasse tower overlooking the city while my daughter cartwheeled on the astroturfed roof.

We spent a lot of time in the Jewish/LGBT quarter of Le Marais and found some amazing foreign film posters at the shops in addition to striking up a conversation at dinner with the creator of Chuck E Cheese, who is probably one of the few people who could afford the nearby apartments. You don’t need to go to Paris with a plan, the city will direct you where it wants you to go.

On our trip to the Louvre that advice would go out the window, as we worked our way around the labyrinth of hallways and stairs and it became very clear that having a tour guide was absolutely necessary if we were going to fully digest the rich history all around us. 

I started researching guides and found that there were packages on The Louvre website that allowed you to purchase an audio tour or English speaking guide, but the advertising leaned towards people who were just interested in skipping the ticket line. When we arrived on site I saw many unsanctioned tour guides yanking people out of lines with the promise of charging them less and getting them in quicker. These are generally a scam, and even though they pass you through the ticket line faster, you’ll still need to wait in the entrance line. Plus, then you’re stuck with a gypsy reading in broken English off of some worksheets he printed from the internet.

I decided to use AirBnB to find my tour guide because I knew I’d have the benefit of unbiased customer reviews, I’d know the size of the group beforehand, and since I was meeting a 3rd party tour guide, they would be available to show us the best way to enter the museum from outside and could offer up some tips for the rest of our trip. 

I decided to go with Kate’s Louvre: A Crash Course in Art History because it catered to kids with a scavenger hunt, included breakfast at her apartment located across the street from the museum, included a small group of only one other person, and Kate was a very knowledgeable guide who was also a certified art historian from England that was easy to understand.

The total for a 3.5 hour guided tour of the Louvre was $430.00 for a family of five and this included our full day passes to the museum itself along with breakfast. Our guide brought candy to give the kids if they answered a question on her scavenger hunt, and while kids under 18 receive free admission to The Louvre, we were paying for Kate’s knowledge and her ability to convey history in a way that would engage children. I realize that $430 is a lot of money, but to me it was worth every penny to see my children ask intelligent questions about the artwork and have them responded to in a thoughtful manner that wasn’t pandering to their age. 

The Louvre was the first activity on our itinerary and I strategically put it there because I knew the kids would be so pumped to be on vacation that they’d be positive about anything, even an art museum. Our guide tailored the trip to our interests, showing my oldest stepson the statue of Nike because of his enthusiasm for soccer, taking time to teach my daughter about perspective and what the word Renaissance meant, and answering my sons “why are they naked?” question in great detail by showing him a timeline of Greek pieces. My wife enjoyed sipping an authentic cup of English tea beforehand and my kids loved petting her pampered dog who was sitting on a velvet pillow in her baroque-style apartment. My favorite part of the Louvre tour were the numerous amateur painters attempting to recreate iconic works of art stationed in hallways throughout the museum. The tour was fast paced, but it flowed well and wasn’t overwhelming. 

On our walk to the entrance of The Louvre our liaison explained the difference between a gypsy and a homeless person and pleaded with us not to give any money to the people begging on the street since they were nothing more than con men trained in the art of extracting money from tourists. Our guide explained how the young beggars choose this lifestyle on the streets over school because they’re lazy and it’s perceived to be easier. 

Personally, I found the contrast to be fascinating and it reminded me that the states are not the only region with a dying middle class engaged in a modern battle of the bourgeois. Here was a person, living in a literal palace, who was blaming children for clinging to a world she didn't understand. I’m sure they feel invisible to the real world which passes them everyday without a glance in their direction.

My son accidentally kicked over a cup purposefully placed by a gypsy in the middle of the sidewalk, a common ploy to elicit a sense of guilt and convince the person to trade their embarrassment for a few Euros. Since my son has yet to become jaded like our tour guide and myself, he stopped and helped the young gypsy pick up every penny he just kicked over. He handed him the cup, looked him in his hoodie shaded eyes, and said “I’m sorry, have a good day.”  

After the speech from our tour guide, I felt ashamed for thinking of them as lesser people and  received a lesson in empathy from my son. While I don’t want him to be gullible to con men and thieves, that day he saw a fellow human on the street and regardless of what any adults told him, he treated them as such, I couldn’t have been prouder. 

Kate knew exactly which pieces were worth seeing and which were worth skipping, she even gave us directions after the tour concluded to find certain exhibits we had expressed interest in. It became readily apparent how useful she was once we were on our own and forced to translate placards while navigating the palace using our wits. We ended up spending a majority of the rest of the day lost in Napoleon's apartment, able to see the Persian section, but not able to actually find it across a large courtyard and maze of closed exhibits. 

Saying The Louvre is large would be an understatement, and your only hope to see it properly is through a brilliant guide like Kate. I recommend you spend the extra money on a certified/vetted guide if you’re looking to maximize your time and comprehend the magic of the relics housed at The Louvre.

The next day started unlucky, but ironically ended just the opposite.

The plan was to head to the Parisian Catacombs to check that off my bucket list, but when we arrived we were told there was a strike and our tickets were no good. Thankfully I booked them with my Chase Sapphire Reserve card and after a quick dispute I had my money back and was ready to look through my activity list for a backup plan. 

I’d remembered reading a French legend about an ancient locust tree in a nearby square that brought you good luck by touching its bark, and I plotted a course through the courtyard of Notre Dame to track down the supposedly-magical tree. We stopped to pick up some watercolor paintings from a street artist on the way to Rue Saint Julien le Pauvre (Church of Saint Julian the Poor). 

The lucky tree was planted in 1602 by Jean Robin, the Gardener-in-chief during the reign of Kings Henry III, Henry IV, and Louis XIII, and is located North of a Melkite Greek Catholic parish church in the René Viviani Square. 

After spending all day hiking from the entrance of the Parisian Catacombs to Rue Saint Julien Pauvre, we were tired and the kids had lost interest in finding the tree. Luckily, there was a nearby playground to keep them busy while I continued on my search. I entered a gated courtyard and to my right saw the mythical tree with its stone-snapping roots lifting it as if there were an invisible pedestal for it to stand on.

The church square was swarmed by tour groups, and while people were very interested in the architecture and church, I noticed everyone overlooking the famed tree. There was a tiny green placard attached to it and a small metal fence to keep tourists away, but after the crowds dissipated I noticed a single branch slightly overhanging the metal gate. It was like the tree knew how far I’d traveled to find it and was graciously reaching out to shake my hand. Remembering that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, I could barely touch it, but I stretched out and rebelliously stroked its aged bark. 

I went and sat on a nearby bench to contemplate all that tree has endured over the past 400 years. I’m not one for superstition, but I saw the lucky tree as a constant in an increasingly chaotic world, and by touching it I felt overwhelmed with confidence and hope.

Warren Buffet says there are 15 habits of lucky people, but I was coincidentally promoted two weeks after touching the lucky tree of Paris and I can’t help but think it played a part.

Since we were going to be spending a majority of this trip learning about art, culture, and history I figured a trip to Disneyland Paris for the kids would be much appreciated, plus I could reference it when they’d inevitably complain during things I wanted to do later on. 

I wouldn’t recommend going to Disney without children, or if your time was limited, but my wife and I enjoyed surprising them again. On the metro we lied and told our kids we were going back to The Louvre for an extra day because I purchased ‘buy-one get-one’ passes, they were less than thrilled about it.

We purchased park hopper passes for five people for $414 and used the mini option when booking which allowed us to go for one day throughout the summer, anytime from Monday to Friday. We chose this ticket option because it gave us some flexibility to have a backup plan in case of rain or some other unforeseen circumstance.

Disneyland Paris didn't have the same Fast-pass system as Disney World, in Disneyland Paris we needed to go to the ride first, scan our pass, and then print out the Fast-pass ticket which included a time to return. This system really tired us out because since we decided to do the park hopper pass to experience both parks in one day, we’d sometimes find ourselves racing across the grounds to avoid missing out on a designated ride time. I’m not a fan of waiting in lines at amusement parks and prefer to pay the extra money to avoid that wherever possible, but in Paris you had to work for your fast passes regardless of your wallet. We also brought our autograph book, but quickly found out that the characters required a reservation and their handlers wouldn’t allow you to meet them without it.

You’ll also want to make sure to book your dining reservations in advance, there isn’t a plethora of food choices on every corner like in Disney World, and the lines at the one shared food court were twice as long as the rides. This caused a lot of unnecessary stress, and when you throw in the heat and moods of a teenager, it can cause tempers to flare. 

On the bright side, the Alice in Wonderland hedge maze was a lot of fun and the light show at the end of the night caused my daughter to cry with joy. We rode the Tower of Terror three times after one of the ride operators liked my 'hakuna matata' shirt and gave us free fast-passes to come back later in the day, I guess being the only adult wearing a cartoon shirt pays off sometimes. I personally loved watching French Star-lord dance to disco music on the Marvel stage and the Army Man ride in Toy Story Land was fun too. I also enjoyed pointing out the American cliches in their restaurants and merchandise, but hey, at least there were fewer mobility scooters to dodge. 

I also hope that Disney World will take note of the immensely popular Armageddon ride in Disneyland Paris so we can have our own Armadillo and Russian Space Station at the Florida location soon.

The second surprise of the trip would be for my lovely wife, which made it harder to pull off because she’s a bit more observant than the children. 

Years ago when we first met, we bonded over our fantasy of someday going to Paris and I remembered showing her a photo of the lobby of the Palais Garnier and watching her eyes light up. I knew in that moment that I wasn’t just going to take this amazing woman to Paris and show her the lobby, we were going to sit in the front and watch an opera together. 

This was a tall order for me at the time as I was making $50 a week fixing computers and had thousands of dollars in legal fees piling up from fighting for custody of my daughter, but nonetheless I was going to make it happen.

I searched the calendar of the Opera de Paris website in March and discovered that there would be an Opera at the Palais Garnier in June. There were other operas available at the Opera Bastille and Philharmonie de Paris, but the Palais Garnier was the only venue which interested me. The tickets sold out fast, but I knew in advance and was prepared with my F5 key to jump at anything available. I scored two phenomenal seats to Don Pasquale in the center orchestra section for $560 and set off on the path to surprise my wife after we arrived in Paris.

Apparently, the problem with surprising my wife with an opera in Paris was that she didn't pack anything to wear. The French can be intimidating with their fashion, and my wife was overly self conscious about attending the performance without the proper attire. She also had contracted a case of exercise-induced Vasculitis in Disneyland the day before, so we needed to find panty hose to cover it. 

Luckily, I told her with enough time for us to purchase shoes and a dress, and on the way we discovered that you can purchase panty hose at a grocery store. Maybe she was just tricking me into buying her a new outfit under the guise of needing it for the opera, but that night she looked so beautiful that I caught myself staring at her more than the Chagall ceiling, so I didn’t care. 

I came prepared with my standard suit, but apparently no one wears a tie in Paris, so again, I felt like a kid at church. 

The opera itself was moving, insightful, historical, funny, and technical. The actors voices swept through the great hall and I pictured Marie Antoinette sitting in the balcony in a golden threaded gown attempting to escape her political troubles for an evening. The story was relatable for my first opera, and all the words were translated on a scrolling marquee positioned above the stage. The set pieces and costumes were modernized to make the plot easier to follow as well. 

Throughout the performance there was a man behind us sitting alone and talking about how much his deceased wife enjoyed the opera to anyone around him that would listen. You could hear the desperation and loneliness in his voice regardless of how much he tried to mask it, and it was then that I knew my decision to risk my security, money, and career to spend this trip with those I love was the right decision.

There is a long standing tradition where two lovers will attach a lock on the Pont des Arts bridge to immortalize their romance on the paths of Paris. Built between 1801 and 1804, it was the first iron bridge in Paris, but in recent years the practice of placing locks on the bridge has become less sustainable due to the added weight compromising the structural integrity. The city has replaced the iron bars of the bridge with glass walls to deter this practice, but to my surprise, I found that they also put up new locations on both sides of the bridge to preserve the timeless tradition.

Earlier in the day, my wife and I picked up our locks from a shop near Notre Dame where we noticed they were offering an engraving service on our walk to the lucky tree the day prior. We had one lock engraved with our names and the date, 6/16/2018, and another identical lock we purchased to attach to the bridge. It took 24 hours for the engraver to complete the lock and he made sure to comment on the odd way the date was written when we placed our order.

During the show there was a rightful “no food/drink” policy, so afterwards we were craving the nectar of Paris and found a cafe out front where we could sit and marvel at the exterior of the gorgeous Palais Garnier. In Paris the sun creeps down as if the whole city exists in a time machine and before we knew it, midnight was fast approaching and we hadn’t even left for the Pont des Arts bridge yet. This wouldn’t have mattered much, but we already had the lock engraved with the date and if we didn’t visit the bridge until the next day it would’ve made for a pretty weak memento.

With no time to take the metro we hailed a sanctioned cab and I tried with my best French accent to explain the destination to a very nice driver who was confident he knew what I said. I looked at my GPS and figured we’d arrive with 15 minutes to spare, which was plenty of time. 

He drove us through a neighborhood and my wife noticed we were getting further and further away from the river, but we sat in silence thinking he knew a short cut. He pulled up to a large building that looked like it was affiliated with a college, but when he repeated the destination to me it in fact sounded like where I said to go. I couldn’t blame him for not understanding my attempt at French in my terrible NY/Massachusetts/Virginia accent, earlier in the day a cafe teller couldn’t even understand what I wanted when I asked for a croissant, and that word’s the same in all languages. 

Our extremely kind driver offered to take us to the other destination free of charge and apologized profusely for the miscommunication which was entirely my fault anyways.

He noticed that we were in a strange race to arrive at the bridge by midnight, but after telling him about the lock he realized what we were trying to do. With only 10 minutes to spare he punched the gas and started weaving in and out of traffic like a raptor in tall grass. We arrived at the bridge with 120 seconds to spare and I quickly paid him for both trips plus a generous tip. We frantically ran around looking for a vacant spot to place our lock as the clock ticked down. My wife began to explain away why it would be ok if we missed the self-imposed deadline, but I ignored her negativity and noticed the Pont des Arts sign.

The sign looked like it might have room for one more pair of lovers among the metallic bouquet of aged locks. I opened our lock using the provided key with only seconds to spare, then I looped the silver clasp around the iron bar before permanently clasping the lock together. I leaned in to kiss my partner in the spot where couples have come for centuries to proclaim their love for one another.

It was now midnight in Paris and I was standing on the Pont des Arts bridge with the girl of my dreams, it was an absolutely perfect moment. 

Before leaving the city of lights, I had one more very important task to complete in honor of my Grandfather, Corporal Robert Wolfe of the United States Army. 

The last stop in my journey exploring the Revolutionary War was in Paris, but it began on the Delaware River where I was raised over 20 years ago. That’s where I first learned about the Sons of Liberty as my grandfather was the school librarian and inspired me with stories of George Washington and his spy network. I suspect this eventually gave birth to my love for espionage and cryptography, and I continued reading about these unsung heroes of democracy for my entire life. 

My research took me to Setauket, NY where the leader of Washington’s Culper Ring, Abraham Woodhull, was buried, and then to Yorktown where a brave 19 year old French revolutionary led us to victory after Washington chose him to command the Continental forces during the Battle of Yorktown. My family joined me in a moment of silence for the brave young General at his grave where he is buried under dirt transported to France from Bunker Hill.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Major General Marquis de Lafayette and lighting a candle for my Grandparents at the Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix church, where he is buried under American soil in nearby Picpus Cemetery, seemed like a fitting final salute from one soldier to another.

Robert L. Wolfe, Corporal
Army Serial # 39 141 237
Induction Date Oct. 2, 1943
Active Service Oct. 23, 1943
Weighed upon Discharge 145 Lbs.
Awards and Medals Rifleman # 745 Marksman 1943
Battle Medals (Normandy) E.A.M.E.T.O. Ribbon, Purple Heart
American Theatre Medal, Combat Infantry Badge, W.W.11 Victory
Wounded July 14, 1944
Left N.Y.: April 6, 1944 Arrived in England - April 19, 1944
Returned to U.S.:Left England Jan. 10, 1945 Arrived N.Y. - January 21, 1945
Total # of Years in Army 2 Years 5 Months 21 Days
Discharged March 22, 1946
Service Dates: Inducted Oct. 2, 1943
Over Seas Duty: April 19, 1944 to March 22, 1946.
Continental Service 1 Year, 5 Months, 5 Days
Foreign Service (Over Seas) 9 Months, 16 Days
Good Conduct Medal 
Honorable Discharge

Leaving Paris was a cathartic experience, we were excited about the road ahead, but felt like we had finally found where we belonged. My wife wept in my arms the night before we left and I promised her that we would someday return. When I can’t sleep at night I can still hear the subway announcer elegantly exclaim “Saint Ambroise” as if the French language was a melody that only an enlightened people could fully understand.

Paris reminded me that there is an artist in all of us with a desire to create rather than consume. I never draw, but I remember attempting to sketch a park where my children were playing after being inspired by Picasso, not by his art, but by his words. 

“No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”

Paris embodies Picasso’s vision in all facets of its culture, everything Parisians create has a message and a purpose, it’s a city full of imagination and that is a bureaucrats worst nightmare.


  1. Hemingway wrote that everyone has two homes; his own and Paris. We've been many times and return because it feels like home to us. It's the feeling of place that is matched nowhere else. The city, the food, the people; all keep drawing us back. We have a trip booked for September. Perhaps we'll see you there. If not, you'll be in our thoughts. We'll have a glass of wine for you. A bientot!

    1. Unfortunately, we just successfully churned the Southwest Companion Pass (you can get 60k points right now for one of their three cards, but if you apply for one at night and another in the morning, you can get 120k points which is enough for BOGO flights for a year). That means we'll be staying stateside for our next few trips (Cuba, Hawaii, and Alaska most likely).

      We're definitely planning to return soon though, maybe permanently since I recently changed jobs and now work remote.

      I love that quote, and enjoy a glass of Saint-Émilion for me!

  2. Your writing is breathtaking, I stumbled upon your blog after reading one comment on reddit about Paris as I'm going in a few weeks. Excited to read future posts about this beautiful city! -a 16 year old:)

    1. I appreciate the kind words, you’re going to love it there!