All It’s Cracked Up To Be

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt is all about perfection. It’s worth noting that perfection is inherently impossible. Perceptions are subjective; “perfection” could mean “fair to middling” or even “abysmal” for someone else. It’s a matter of standards, realism, and common sense; if you have so much riding on a single thing or moment, you’ll probably be disappointed. If your expectations are too low, it’s easy to miss the real value of an experience. It’s really rare for something to turn out exactly as you’ve hoped. And while I can’t say that I’ve seen perfection, I’ve come pretty close a few times.

My visit to Paris was one of the most enthralling and awkward trips of my life. It was early March, and winter still held France in an icy, iron grip. It never went above 25 degrees the entire week I was there. It was the coldest temperature I’d ever been in; imagine a kid raised in California suddenly having to stumble around in five layers of clothing. Now imagine that same kid standing in line for the Eiffel Tower elevator for an hour and a half, trembling against the wind chill and the ice forming on his nose and cheek. Yes, the view was definitely worth the wait, but my face literally ached when I showered later. The Eiffel Tower is a lot like the Golden Gate Bridge here; they’re both amazing marvels of engineering and symbolism, and they’re huge tourist magnets. The Arc de Triomphe was slightly more enjoyable, only because there were less crowds and I’m a history geek. Its massive scale and unbelievably intricate designs almost made me forget that it stood in the middle of a gargantuan, noisy roundabout.

I could say that wandering around the city was perfect. I love exploring, so I was drooling at all the stuff to see and do. Stumbling across Les Invalides about an hour after it closed, settling for pictures of its front instead. Checking out Musée d’Orsay, specifically Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone and Rodin’s The Gates of Hell. And managing to talk the guards into letting me view a special Impressionist exhibition, for that matter. Wandering down and crossing the Seine, coming across Notre Dame without even realizing it. Walking down the seemingly endless line of cafes and restaurants as evening fell, a boisterous maître d’ trying to coax people inside with promises of amazing French cuisine. Retreating into a quiet Greek place and wolfing down my first gyro. Catching the last train back out to Marne-la-Vallée, and desperately trying to keep myself warm while waiting for a hotel shuttle.

Speaking of which, Le Métropolitain deserves a special mention. Before that, the only trains I’d ever ridden were BART, New York City Subway, and the Washington Metro. Paris’s subway system trounces them so much (the horrible, wretched stench at Les Halles notwithstanding), it’s not even funny. It’s not because of its size, but the layout. On a map it looks like a gigantic multicolored spiderweb, but it’s surprisingly easy to navigate once you’ve gotten the hang of it. I got lost on it for a few hours, mainly because I didn’t speak a word of French. It took some trial and error, but I eventually got it down. At one point a beautiful young woman approached me:

Her: Bonjour.

Me: (Glancing up in surprise) Huh?

Her: Savez-vous comment atteindre cette station?

Me: (Looking around awkwardly) …Uh, no parle vous français.

Her: …Oh. (Moves away)

Me: (Mentally) Damn it. WHY? Why didn’t you study French before coming here?

Any missteps were promptly forgotten once I visited The Louvre and the Palace of Versailles. If you’re a history and art geek, you already know how awesome they are. The former is the museum; 35,000+ items spanning across the whole of human history. The place looks huge on just the street level, but it’s much, much bigger once you enter that little pyramid and go underground. You’d need at least a month to see everything. If I could, I’d totally live there. I distinctly remember making a beeline for the Winged Victory of Samothrace, one of the greatest masterpieces of Ancient Greece. I was positively giddy at seeing The Coronation of Napoleon, The Raft of the Medusa, and Liberty Leading the People, and so many more. It’s very different from reading about them in history books or on a computer screen; you’re confronted with their sheer size and scope. Some of them are literally bigger than the rooms in my house. The amount of effort and skill required for those works must have been mind-boggling.

That’s also true for Versailles. If you want to see “living like royalty” taken to its logical (and historical) extreme, the palace is probably the best example. It doesn’t look like much when you’re approaching it from the front; its sloped entryway looks bland and aged. But that changes really quickly once you step foot inside. I spent hours gaping at The Hall of Mirrors, the Royal Chapel, the ornate drawing rooms, the Battles Gallery, the gardens that seem to stretch out into infinity, that ridiculously detailed bust of Louis XIV…it just went on and on and ON. Of course, it was also a reminder of why living so lavishly isn’t such a good idea; the amount of upkeep required for a place like this must have been staggering. This palace had so many fountains that it created water shortage issues. Such extravagant living was just one of the many factors leading up to the French Revolution. It may have been completely wasteful and unsustainable, but the king lived in style.

Looking back, the only thing that kept my trip to Paris from being perfect was the timing. I went about a decade too early; there were no digital cameras back then. I forget how many rolls of Kodak film I went through, but my pockets were stuffed with them. There’s a photo album somewhere down in storage, and there’s no feasible way to upload it for posterity. One of these days, I’m going to go back and do the adventure over. It’ll probably be better the second time around.

Daily Prompt: Safety First, Or: Hanging On In Thailand

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt focuses on safety. Or rather, the lack thereof. Despite evidence to the contrary, danger is not my middle name. However, it’s something with which I’m all too familiar. My neighborhood is bad, even for this city’s – one of the worst in California’s – standards. Robberies, shootings, muggings, drug dealings, and yes, even murders happen with alarming frequency. You know all those TV crime dramas that are so popular? Yeah, it’s not so fun when you actually live in those places. It’s most certainly not safe to go for an evening stroll, and it’s not much better even in broad daylight. My morning commute starts (there’s still a bus and subway ride to undertake) with a nearly two mile trek through this urban wasteland, complete with the unspoken understanding that there is a high chance of me not reaching my destination. You’ve probably heard the term fight or flight. It’s an instinctive, physiological response to perceived threats. Everyone has it, even you. While most would assume that I’m flight – it’s easy to dismiss a quiet bookworm – experience has taught me quite the opposite.

I don’t fear death. Most people – especially men due to outdated gender expectations – simply state that as a form of false bravado or confidence. It’s nothing but silly posturing. For me, it’s not about bravery, mental stability, or even a lack of self-preservation. I’ve understood and accepted my mortality for years, because I’ve faced it directly. I’ve come within seconds and inches of dying a few times. I could regale you stories of fighting a house fire, weathering storms in the Sierra Nevadas, nearly falling from the peak of Gibraltar, or nearly freezing one winter night in Le Métropolitain. I’m not sure if it’s because death is stalking me, or I’m just too foolish to avoid it.

Remember the photo of a sunset I posted a few weeks back? That was taken one fine evening in Phuket, Thailand. The rest of the week there wasn’t nearly as glamorous. I was in Southeast Asia just in time for the start of its monsoon season. If you’re from California and think El Niño is bad, you haven’t seen anything. The downpours are relatively brief, but they’re strong. People have to scramble for cover because an umbrella just won’t cut it. It was like that for most of my trip in Thailand. But one morning, the clouds parted just enough that it seemed okay to explore the neighboring Phi Phi Islands.

Yeah, you can see where this is going.

The cruise itself was great, though a little bumpy. I was in a speedboat alongside a dozen or so other tourists. It wasn’t crowded enough to be unpleasant, and the drinks were free. The islands were absolutely gorgeous – you’ll see soon enough – and everything seemed to be going well. We had just finished lunch and cast off for the next island, right on schedule. But suddenly, the world turned dark. It was like something out of an apocalyptic movie. A glance at the sky revealed something far more real; we had sailed practically headlong into a monsoon. The crew scrambled to assemble the the overhanging tarp, but they didn’t get to it fast enough. Within seconds, everyone was drenched to the bone. It wasn’t pleasant like taking a shower, it was like being sprayed by a fire hose. People slipped and stumbled as the waves churned. A child was huddled near one of the front seats, wailing. The thunder roared. The waves swelled and knocked us around. The boat was nearly on its side, and I was feebly clinging to a railing. I managed a peek toward the island swaying in the distance. It was too far. Too far to swim. I am going to drown here. I’m not going to make it out of this alive. I’m not sure if it was the realization or the seawater that gave me the chill. I just closed my eyes and didn’t let go.

I’m not sure how long it lasted. It felt like hours. I didn’t dare take out my phone with all the water around. But eventually the waves subsided, and the torrent of water gave way to sprinkles, then tropical sun. I opened my eyes. Everyone was still there and drenched from head to toe. I couldn’t stop shaking. My legs didn’t want to work. All I could do was just sit down and breathe. Eventually we managed to get the boat back on course and to the next island, where we wearily stumbled off into white sands and the warmth of the sun. It didn’t take long to dry off, but we stayed on that beach for quite a while. The trip back was fine, but I never went out on the water there again. Photographing sunsets seemed better for some reason.

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