Bateaux_Mouches_Paris_2011-sThe River Seine is loaded, these days, with floating restaurants and other giant touring crafts. I asked my Paris friend Cathy Nolan which of the boat tours would be best, and she steered us to the original Bateaux Mouches, ginormous barges with hundreds of seats that cruise the river all day, and into the night.

Bateau-Mouche-GalereI checked out the website in advance. Would we do the lunch cruise for 60 euros? The dinner cruise for 180 euros, which included a post-prandial show of a dozen barely-clad dancers from the Crazy Horse popping out of the cockpit? Or would we do the ultimate romantic evening, including a limo to the ship, a private table on the bow, flowers, champagne, a photo, food and gifts….in other words, a fabulous proposal scenario? That was 650 euros.

All that was a little de trop. So we did the standard 13-euro one-hour-plus-sightseeing cruise.

pretty scarves

Dodging the sun

On the outside top deck—it was a sunny, dry, warmish day—we were immediately joined by three busfuls of Japanese tourists. The women all had enormous colorful scarves that they busily tied around their heads and hats for sun protection, which was really a pretty sight.

With hundreds of seats available, two of these women slid in next to us. One produced a camera, and I thought she would ask me to take their photo together. But no. Without word or warning, the woman closest to me suddenly threw her arm around me, pressed her cheek to mine, and pulled our heads together for a photo taken by a friend’s phone. Then they changed places and I got another hug and photo. This had been shockingly intimate, so I tried to normalize it by talking to them, and pretending we were actually acquainted, but they didn’t speak English. They smiled a lot, and thanked me a lot, and then they got up and wandered away.

I didn’t see them hugging any other strangers. I can only assume that they thought I was famous. I’ll never know. Don’t you hate it when odd things happen and you’ll never know why?

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Tom watches the Eiffel Tower drift by

As we cruised past the classic landmarks, we listened to a taped commentary in five languages. These little descriptions had to be brief, and they did not quite scratch the surface of Paris’ rich history, in which I’ve been absorbed for three weeks.

So what? Even unexamined, the city is fascinating around every turn of the river. I’ve been touring Paris with my nose in my phone, reading Wikipedia accounts of everything’s history, geography, demography, and architcture. Going back to the pre-Roman days, when the tribe called Parisii first settled in, the history of this city seems limitless.

And yet, visitors all around me are appreciating this place without knowing any of that history, or even being able to read the signs. Paris is not one of those places where you have to kind of squint intellectually and work hard to see what’s interesting. This city—you can study it profoundly and solemnly, or you can just put down your camera, map and guidebook to sit back and drink it in. We’re trying to do a little of both. Okay, a lot of both.