I thought that I knew Paris well. We spent the first year of our marriage living in a sixth-floor walk-up apartment in the Second Arrondissement just off rue St. Denis. In l988-89, during a sabbatical year as a family living in La Vallée de Chevreuse, the lush green “Silicon Valley” to the west of the city, we were in Paris at least weekly. During that year, I drove all over the city and I didn’t think twice about showing the sights to my parents and their friends who were then in their early seventies.
But I have never visited Paris as a senior… and that makes all the difference. What a culture shock that has been. The city has certainly changed in the thirty years since we last lived here. (I’ll talk about that in another post.) More importantly, I have changed. Now approaching 75 years of age (which is only late “middle age” in the current era), our recent visit to Paris has taught me much about myself, and the perils of travelling as one ages.
First, I find it much more difficult adapting to change. It’s harder to travel, and takes longer to settle into a new environment, and to feel comfortable in new situations. Secondly, there are practical perils of big cities which I must recognize and learn to deal with for my own protection. Paris may be no different from any other big city but, for these purposes, it is the city which has made me personally aware of the challenges imposed by aging.
The biggest peril is falling. I have not had a problem with falling in the past. On this trip, I fell four times. Twice occurred in the same spot on the sidewalk to the nearby RER station, with no great consequences. The friends I was with the second time realized that I had tripped on a defective grate in the sidewalk. The third time was a major tumble on the sidewalk where I walked every day. This time, I was preoccupied with our conversation, stepped into the gravelled tree well of a tree lining the sidewalk and took a major tumble. I hit my head, broke my glasses, and suffered cuts and bruises to my face, hands, wrists, arms, and knees. Some stranger had to lift me up off the ground. The fourth fall was getting onto a bus on the tarmac at Frankfurt airport on our way home. I tripped on the entry to the bus, falling on all the injuries from before. Fortunately, I broke nothing. Probably one of the few advantages of being plump. (My brother, a family doc, once commented that the Canadian Health Care system would save significant resources if seniors could be bubble-wrapped. My bubble-wrap must be built in.)
My husband is the official “faller” in our family. Whenever he falls, he breaks something. He has gone through a series of tests over the years to diagnose the cause of his falling and has used a cane to aid his mobility for at least the last year. He had three falls in Paris, two not particularly serious, the other when he fell in the door of a brasserie, had to be lifted up by someone in uniform, and suffered sufficient injury and indignity that thereafter he ceased most sight-seeing.
Now, I am using a walking stick regularly, and am trying hard to concentrate on where I walk and how. I’ve learned that the sidewalks of Paris are remarkably uneven and that any construction (which seems as all-pervasive there as elsewhere) causes major changes to the surface of the sidewalks and roads nearby. I’ve learned that trees and the areas in which they are planted can be hazards, and that publicity posters can be dangerous distractions. The huge crowds of people who fill the sidewalks in the touristy areas and the popular museums are moving quickly and constantly jostling. The public transit system is full of steps, long corridors, and publicity which distracts from the need to pay very close attention to where I am going and what I am doing.
When I was younger, I used the Paris Métro with great joy and abandon. Now, I think twice about the nature of the transit I am going to use and the qualities of particular lines and stations. Which stations have escalators and moving sidewalks? Which stations have long steps to climb? Which exits will help me avoid the crowds? Or shorten the distance I have to walk? (I will do my next post on the Paris Transit system.)
Visiting museums and attending events has become a real pain. There are long lineups for security inspections and then to purchase entry tickets. Unless you like standing in a slow-moving line in the heat for long periods of time, it is necessary to pre-purchase museum tickets. There is a variety of Paris Museum Passes available, including ones for two, four and six days, which give priority access. I bought mine on the spot at the Paris Tourism Office located in the Hôtel de Ville. One can also buy passes and tickets on the internet. My friend bought hers from home and traded the voucher she received on the internet for an actual pass when she arrived. It is not necessary to have printed tickets. One can also use priority entrances by showing tickets that are stored on one’s smartphone. The bottom line, however, is that you really need a smartphone and to know how to use it.
Even with priority access for tickets, there is still the need to stand in the security lines. Security lines exist everywhere; most are reasonably efficient, but they do require standing with no place to sit down. And, at the Louvre, for example, the line outside the Pyramid entrance is in the hot sun. When one visits a particular museum or monument now depends on how long the security lines will be at any given time of the day.
As for the museums themselves, in the summer, they are very crowded, so much so that one feels no desire or ability to see what the museum has to offer. Too often, the museums have very few places to sit, and are full of steps to climb and rooms that have been closed “for renovation.” It is remarkable how poor the cafeteria and restaurant facilities generally are: few and far between, hard to find, under-staffed, with slow service (made worse by the fact that almost everyone uses bank cards to pay).
The Louvre, for example, prides itself on its “accessibility for the disabled” and its Museum Plan. After standing in the hot sun to get through the security line, I was invited to take a small elevator downstairs to the entry level. I visited the Disability Office to get a plan of the Museum and find out where everything was. These were welcome surprises, harbingers I thought of a good visit ahead.
Alas, not true. The Louvre was by far the worst of all the museums I visited on this trip. I found it impossible to find the elevators, and staff hired to provide “information” gave contradictory directions. The elevators that do exist are small, old-fashioned and dreadfully slow. Too many escalators were out of order. Signage was totally inadequate. I soon discovered that reading room numbers high above from a distance conflicts with my need to use reading glasses for the identifying information provided in the Museum Plan. In one area of the Museum where many of the rooms are empty for renovations, there was no advance notice of a dead-end corridor which required everyone to retrace their steps back through many rooms already seen. The restaurants and washrooms were lamentable and totally inadequate for the millions of people who pass through the Louvre every year.
Better to go to a smaller place which is less popular. I will never again go to the Louvre, even though the “Medieval Louvre” with its original foundations built in 1200 and 1385 is one of my favourite spots in all of the city. Were I to return to Paris, I would gladly revisit Le Petit Palais with its permanent collection of art owned by the City which is spacious, quiet, free of charge and has lots of places to sit. Or the Rodin Museum with its lovely gardens. Or even the Musée de l’Armée which has been modernized, and offers commentary in several languages and lots of movies (inherent places to sit). Or the spectacular new L’Institut du Monde Arabe with its banks of modern elevators and plethora of comfortable white leather sofas strategically located throughout the gallery.
As an older person, my priority has become my personal well-being and safety. To enjoy a museum, having places to sit has become important, to appreciate the artefacts, rest and, most importantly, to avoid falling. Having a readily available restaurant or café, without long lineups for payment, is a necessity to satisfy medical needs and prevent dehydration. These are new criteria to think about when travelling.