Travel, the World’s Greatest Classroom for Young Adults

Do you remember your first big trip to some place exotic as a young adult?  You probably did some advance research by gathering intel from friends, books and the internet—if it existed at the time! Then, the day came, and you were finally there, wherever it was.  The immeasurable value of travel had begun. Your senses were bombarded with newness.  New foods, new sights, new language, new cultural habits. Being away from home and your comfort zone helped build confidence as you were forced to react to new situations.  Perhaps the most important asset, however, was building cultural sensitivity, a critical skill in today’s highly globalized world.

Recently, our 18-year-old goddaughters, Zoe and Mei, accompanied me to Paris for a week. Knowing how much travel enriched my life at a young age, my goal was to expose them to as much French culture as possible.  During our week of immersion in “Frenchness” lasting impressions were made.  Mixed in with a great deal of fun and laughter, Zoe and Mei experienced the trans-formative aspect of travel, the world’s greatest classroom for learning.

To find out which of their experiences were most memorable, I interviewed the girls for Tarte Tatin Tales. Here are their top picks divided in two parts: First, what they saw and in an upcoming post, what they ate.

Mei’s Top Sights: 

1. Versailles: Having seen the Met Museum’s “Visits to Versailles: from Louis XIV to the French Revolution,” Mei came with some expectations.  However, she was not fully prepared for the golden grandeur of the Sun King’s palace. Visiting the State Apartments in Versailles’ main palace, Mei was amused to learn that Louis XIV never actually slept in the bed where he conducted his levée (royal rising) in front of his preferred courtiers.   "So where did he sleep?” she queried. To which I had no reply.

As impressive as Versailles was, Mei liked even better the relative intimacy of the pink marble Grand Trianon, the mini pleasure palace Louis XIV built for his mistress.  She wondered why the space was so large for just two people.  When I explained that the king was almost never completely alone—always surrounded by servants and his favorite members of the court—she seemed almost sad for his lack of privacy and constant public presence.

2. Centre Pompidou:  Mei was eager to visit this museum—also called Beaubourg—as she loves modern art.  However, it was not the collection which caught her fascination but rather its brightly colored, exo-skeletal exterior, with its functional parts of heating ducts, pipes and escalator.   Mei also loved the post-card perfect panorama of Paris from the museum’s top floor. 

3.  Atelier des Lumières: Paris recently inaugurated its first digital art center in an old smelting factory in the 11th Arrondisement. Both girls wanted to experience this multi-media show which featured works of art by Klimt and Hundertwasser along with a high-tech grand finale. Over 100 projectors flashed images on the floor, ceiling and walls of the warehouse while dramatic music blared from 27 speakers. Mei was particularly enchanted with the total immersiveness of the experience. Unlike a traditional art museum which is only visual, this show played to multiple senses.  She was also got a kick out of seeing the children’s reaction to the show by dancing uninhibited amongst the artists’ colorful images playing off their gyrating little bodies. “What a powerful way to introduce children to art,” Mei remarked.  

4. Place des Vosges:  Our visit to Paris began with a mini walking tour of the Marais where the picturesque Place des Vosges is located.  We stopping to admire Paris’ oldest and most magnificent square, which started its life as the former home of Louis XIII and his courtiers.  On our last day, we returned here for a farewell picnic.  As Mei described it, "We found a green patch where we could spread our blanket and watch all of the students just hanging out with their friends." This relaxed lifestyle appealed to Mei.  In fact, she commented on it several time during our week together as she daily observed Parisians casually sitting at outdoor cafés with their pals slowly sipping their espresso or glass of wine and chatting.

5.  Ile de la Cité: Late one afternoon we walked to Ile de la Cité to visit Notre Dame, Paris’ “Grande Dame” Cathedral.  It was near closing time and somehow, we got sidetracked watching five street performers outside the church’s main entrance.  Mei was wowed by the show. While she had seen similar acts in New York City’s Washington Square, she commented that the music and choreography designed around the Parisian group’s jumps, spins, and somersaults were even more artistic and impressive.

Zoe’s Top Sights: 

1.  Versailles:  Like her sister, Zoe ranked Versailles #1 Fave. She was particularly dazzled by the expansiveness and glittery drama of The Hall of Mirrors.  From her audio guide she was told how rare mirrors were in the 17th century. At that time the Venetians had a monopoly on their production.  But, with Louis XIV's habit of showing off, Zoe learned that the King hijacked some of the Italian mirror makers in order to produce in France the 357 mirrors needed to decorate his enormous gallery. In fact, the King mandated that all materials used to build Versailles be locally made, a smart PR move, especially given its enormous expense paid for by le peuple.    

Zoe also admired the dramatic ceiling painted to illustrate Louis XIV’s many victorious battles.  She photographed this by switching her iPhone camera to "Portrait Selfie Mode" and faced the screen towards the ceiling. “I was speechless as I started to notice the intricate details on the painted ceiling. How could someone paint so beautifully on a medium so large and at an angle,” she questioned.   My answer?  With a great deal of skill and scaffolding!

2. The birthplace of Paris: Ile de La Cité and Ile St. Louis:  "It feels so different from the rest of Paris,” Zoe observed, referring to the two tiny islands where Paris’ first inhabitants settled in 250 BC.  “I love walking around in this area as it seems more peaceful from the rest of Paris, more village-like.  And, this is also where the great ice cream is made, right?” she exclaimed referring to the celebrated glacier Berthillon.  While the main store was closed by the time we found it, Zoe noticed that just about every café on the two islands sold Berthillon anyway. When we finally ordered our cornets (cones), she opted for speculoos ice cream while her sister asked for her favorite flavor, coffee.

3.  Atelier des Lumières:  Like Mei, this experiential show was one of Zoe's top choices.  She preferred the brightly colored visuals of the Klimt and Hundertwasser portion over the show’s more mono-chromatic segment called “Poetic Ai.” Here, artificial intelligence was used to create the abstract forms, lights and movement.  “But I really loved that the synchronized music used throughout was so loud that you could feel its vibrations!”  Zoe was also amazed by how the animators incorporated multiple pieces of an artist’s work to create a whole series of dramatically visual stories.  

4.  Palais Royal:  On our second day, we took a “Pink Vest” walking tour to see the "Hidden Gems of Paris." Starting at I. M. Pei’s pyramid in front of the Louvre, we headed to the Palais Royal, the former palace of King Louis XIV.  Zoe learned from our cheerful guide, Marie, that most tourists rarely visit this little-known oasis. On the other hand, Parisians love to stroll through the Palais Royal’s beautiful rose gardens and window shop under its arches filled with exclusive boutiques.

On this tour Zoe discovered the origin of the French expression, "Merde!"  As Marie explained it, rich patrons enjoyed going to the Comedie Française located in front of the Palais Royal. (Despite its name, this is France’s classic theater originally created by Louis XIV in 1680.) The nobles would descend from their horse-drawn coaches and head straight to their private boxes inside the theater.  The peasants, on the other hand, had to walk through the horse shit which they would carry on the bottom of their shoes into the theater's ground floor. The actors equated success based on the amount of horse shit left on the theater floor after a given performance.  As a result, actors started wishing each another "Merde!" for good luck as they walked on the stage. Now, it is a French expression everyone uses equivalent to our “Break a leg!”

5.  MOF Hunt: On our last day we went on a hunt for MOFs, the acronym for Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, a national competition giving awards to the country’s best craftsmen.  I had told the girls that one of my friends, Pascaline Lepeltier, MS, was competing in the category of sommelier. Zoe was fascinated by the concept as nothing like this exists in America.  She also liked the diversity of categories—bread maker, chocolatier, cheese monger, florist, jewelry designer, cabinet maker, carpenter, among many others. She was all smiles as we entered the Boulangerie of Mahmoud M'Seddi in the 14th Arrondisement to taste firsthand the excellence of the bread maker’s skill.  We bought une tradition (the more rustic and flavorful version of a basic baguette and a mere 10 centimes more!) for our picnic later that afternoon. She also giggled learning that part of Mahmoud’s prize was the “privilege” of supplying bread to the Elysée Palace for a full year.  “Free baguettes for President Macron!  Not a bad deal for him,” she reasoned correctly.

To round out our picnic provisions we returned to the Marais and continued our MOF hunt. At Laurent Dubois, last year’s best cheese monger, we sampled various cheeses before deciding on a fresh goat’s milk cheese and a half round of raw milk Camembert, both aged to perfection in the shop’s underground cellar.

Zoe and Mei agreed that a prize-winning, two-MOF picnic of France’s finest baguette and cheese was the perfect way to end our week’s stay in gay Par-ee. 


Stay tuned for next week’s post showcasing Zoe and Mei’s top culinary picks.