Knowing a few phrases in French in Paris is a bit like knowing some Harry-Potteresque magic spells that will make the French smile, speak English and not show you the door of finer establishments. I was ready with mine: "Bonjour", "Je suis Mike Beebe" and "Chercher! Il est un tigre juste derrière vous!" (look, I'd rather know it and not need it than need it and not know it). So after departing the Eurostar and managing the taxi stand at the dreaded Gare du Nord, the first Parisian I run into, the taxi driver, doesn't parlez vous Anglais. Oh dear. But I was ready! "'oh-TEL doo-KEEN ei-FELL" I said with in best French accent. I had that one down -- I'd been practicing it since Google Translate told me how to pronounce DUQUESNE. So much for my much-vaunted French studies. But with some pointing at a map, I was off on my adventure!
If you haven't been to Paris, please let me describe the traffic to you: ever heard of Brownian Motion? It's the chaos in a cup of coffee that pushes bits of non-dairy creamer around in random directions. Paris traffic kinda works like that. In Paris, lanes are theoretical, passing is accompanied by prayers to the Blessed Virgin and other vehicles will try to occupy the exact spot you're in in an affront to the laws of physics and common courtesy. Add bicycles, kamakazi scooters and an array of pedestrians and motorcyclists and you have an average Paris road experience. My taxi driver -- the one who was less than impressed by my stumbling attempts to communicate en Francais -- knew exactly one word of English. He used it as he threaded his cab between cars in ways a Prius was never designed for and someone cut him off: "Crazy".
Finally, I arrived at 'oh-TEL doo-KEEN ie-FELL and was ready to try my French again. Greeting the lady at the desk with a hearty "Bonjour, Madam!", I skillfully added "Je suis Mike Beebe ca Anne", pointing to my wife. There were no tigers around so I didn't get to use my third phrase.
"Hello, and welcome," she said in English that was better than mine -- and that was the last time I tried using any French beyond "Bonjour" and "Au revoir". Oh, and "Toilette".
But Paris, and the INCREDIBLE Rick Steves tour thereof! Our guide, a real Frenchwoman who calls both France and the United States home, was the very picture of Parisian class (despite living in Lyons and Bozeman). Boundlessly energetic, always quick with a smile and a kind comment, encyclopedic in knowledge (and unlike us, able to read a map of Paris), she guided us effortlessly through the streets and districts, training us to use the Metro, the RER and the bus system so that instead of being tied to a tour bus, we were free to rampage through the city as we saw fit. Oh, and no "name game", just the smart-and-simple buddy system (hi, Chris, if you're out there!).
I cannot say, in all seriousness, enough about how good our guide and the tour was. I want to use some of my precious characters to heap plaudits upon both. Yes, the tour was pricey, but I feel I got every dollar's worth and then some. Was it overly physical? No. There was some walking and some standing around in museums while other expert guides described works of art I'd only read about, but nothing my 47-year-old feet and legs couldn't handle. Were we rushed at times? Maybe. Spent less time in Louvre than I'd expected, but the option was always open to return. Our tour guide skillfully managed our schedule around a surprise strike, re-arranging dates so that nothing was missed -- total hats-off for that. I'll write a second report with highlights, but please know if you're on the fence about the Best of Paris Tour, -do it-! You will love every minute, you will lay down memories that will last a lifetime, and you will feel like you really belong in the City of Lights.