Although we had been advised by a previous travel session’s attendee to skip our scheduled tour of Versailles, we decided to suck it up and go anyway. How bad could it be, we wondered. The tour was only scheduled for a half day, so even if it sucked, we’d be back by lunch time.
When we arrived, the parking lot was filling up with tour buses and the lines to get in were what could only be described as ludicrous. The palace exterior was beautifully appointed with gold leaf and elaborate scrollwork and statues. To say the place was huge was an understatement.
Since we were part of a tour group and our tickets were already purchased, we were able to bypass the lines and enter the gardens. I will say that I wish we had more time to explore them, since they go on for miles (literally) and we had only 30 minutes. To be honest, the gilded lily of the palace itself wore my patience thin rather quickly, and given the chance, I’d have just stayed there all day.
But, we had to meet the guide, so off we rushed, covering much more distance than we wanted to in such a short amount of time. Inside the palace, we were given earpieces and radios to hear the tour guide. We quickly realized why this was necessary.
The rooms were positively jammed with people, and sure the place was lovely, if you’re into that kind of thing. For me, the lavish, over-the-top decor was kind of an eyesore, and honestly made me want to join whatever mob of peasants that stormed the castle demanding bread back in the day.
If you can get past the nut-flexing ego of the “sun king,” you’ll definitely need to check any personal space issues at the door. People were downright rude, bumping into us more than even I would have thought necessary. Finally, I began to cry out each time some jerk railed into me, finally eliciting a useless apology from a few.
I wasn’t the only one who had this issue. A man on our tour had a lady lean on his back to take a picture like he was a freaking tripod. We began to notice it together. Complaining didn’t make it stop, but the sense that we weren’t the only ones annoyed by it did help. All that personal space invasion aside, I did get some awesome pictures, but I’m sure they’re nothing that I couldn’t have found on Google image search.
Departing from Versailles was also tricky. The souvenir guys were out in full force, offering a variety items from key chains to designer knock off purses and watches. Since there was only one way out of the lot, the buses all began jockeying for position, an exercise in true grit and determination. Tourists dashed between the buses, nearly getting clipped, as the elephant ballet began. Eventually, we were free of the chaos and back on our way to the hotel.
We decided to hit the grocery store to find it consumed by the Parisian lunch rush. The line to check out wrapped all the way around the store. Parisians were grabbing quick lunches before heading back to work, so we lingered a bit to give those who needed to clear out before us an opportunity to do so. The cashiers were well skilled at handling the deluge, moving deftly with the same precision any craftsman could be proud of.
We left our things at the room and decided to head back out. We set off to walk around, finding a reasonably priced pizza shop not far from the hotel. I ordered a mushroom risotto which easily defined the term “rich.” A few glasses of beer later, stomachs full, we set back out, trying to find our way back to the hotel. We weren’t 100% sure of our surroundings! but thought we could navigate based on the few landmarks we recognized.
The next hour would be an exercise of almost being where we needed to be, but not quite, and our full stomachs and bladders quickly took hold of an emotionally tenuous situation at best. Our crankiness persevered even after figuring out where we were, and for the first (and thankfully only) time on our trip, we needed a brief time out from each other.
Later that evening, we got over the afternoon’s unpleasantness and rallied for the group dinner. I put extra effort into readying myself for the evening, knowing that the endless parade of glad-handing and trophy wives awaited us. There is a certain confidence one gets from properly applied mascara after all.
The buses filled with people I didn’t know, and we rode to the venue quietly. Ahead of me, two teenage boys were making each other’s aquaintence, in what can only be described as one of the most uncomfortable conversations I’d ever been forced to bear witness. One boy talked the whole time, about himself, in what seemed to be a well-rehearsed script about his likes, dislikes and hobbies. The other seemed to be paying the bare minimum amount of attention, nodding occasionally. The first boy was oblivious of course, but soon ran out of things to say, and resorted to asking questions of the other. He gave cursory answers, seeming to sense the kid didn’t are about what he had to say. True enough, these responses only prompted him to talk more about himself, until finally, gratefully, we reached our destination.
We stepped off the bus before this huge red theatre. There were clowns on stilts mugging for pictures with the arriving guests, and more carrying feather dusters, frozen in place until someone walked in between them. At that point, they would spring to life and “dust” the guests. I avoided both since clowns freak me out. A group of musicians paraded around with lively brass tunes.
The building had once been stables for horses, two long red wooden buildings, with a cobblestone courtyard in between them. Women in costumes came by with trays of French fries in cups, adding ketchup with a squeeze bottle, if you please. They were incredibly popular.
Along the insides of each building were liquor tables, all sorts of carnival games, buffets and a carousel. It was incredible. They clearly spared no expense.
It was go time, though. I had to remember people’s names, positions, territory and hierarchical structure. We’d run into people I’d met before, of whose names I could absolutely keep straight. It was the same ritual over and over again, glad handing a stranger, the stranger’s wife, child, grandma or what have you. Smiles all around, posturing and schmoozing.
We made our rounds, decided our feet hurt and called it a night. The bus filled quickly with like minded people and we took off quickly. We passed through sections of Paris I’d never seen, more restaurants, the opera house, I think. Then we saw the plaza where the homeless were being fed. There must have easily been a hundred people, huddled together along long tables set up, workers sending out plate after plate for them.
The image kept with me as we arrived at our gorgeously appointed hotel, as I laid in the warm, clean bed, I couldn’t help but feel the disparity. In a single night, I got a tiny taste of unimaginable luxury, abject poverty and am hovering somewhere in the middle