Come every October, I remember my unexpected trip to Paris, and my surprise at my unexpected feelings on arriving home. One sister had suffered a tragedy, so we launched an expedition to lift her spirits-the sisters and nieces would go together to Paris!

The organizing sister knew the terrain and handled every detail. We saw all the famous places with a French guide and lived in tourist heaven. Some of the week still brings joy and smiles to my heart; with some, I’m still at odds.

Of course we went to the Eiffel Tower. Skeptic that I am, I expected a giant piece of metal about which too great a great fuss was made. To my surprise, its graceful lines are lovely and contrast with its strength, immense against the skyline of a city kept at modest heights. Not loving heights myself, I did not go to the highest floor, 900 feet up, but was content with the view from the second floor.

As I peeked through the open grids out over Paris, there in front of my nose was a large intricate spider web, with much the same graceful curves, holding strong against the wind and to me just as awesome as this tower. The Eiffel Tower and French spider’s web were my first real delights.

Lunch in the sunshine at an outdoor café within view of the tower was fun. As we traveled in our car, the guide said we were passing L’Unversite du Sorbonne. I asked if we could stop and run in, and so we did, milling among crowded halls of students, feeling rather odd, but also inspired just to be inside the walls of this famous place of learning and scholarship. The Sorbonne is tuition free, as are all public universities in France.

We saw the Louvre, with its very permanent and odd glass Pyramid outside and many Renaissance and medieval paintings inside; not my taste so much as the Impressionists at the Musee d’Orange. But (highlight #2) the Mona Lisa was stunning! Having seen umpteen cheap reproductions on kitchen magnets, decks of cards, etc., what a surprise to feel the vibrancy of the real woman. And I’d never realized how earthly is her background-a dirt road and a river-why? I sat on the facing bench with her for 75 minutes, truly awed by the power of this presence, as if she were the powerful calm Goddess Herself, or Gwan Yin at Royal Ease.

The Moulin Rouge, of course-tourists stuffed together like sardines, sitting at all angles from the stage; eating while trying to watch the show, photographers squeezing around in the dark trying to earn a franc and blocking the view. The Can-Can came and went so fast that my daughter didn’t realize we’d seen it. The French are obviously tired of 100 years of Can-Canning and are trying to expand into Las Vegas-style shows (that was the original spirit!) but we came to Paris to see the Can-Can, not people dancing in a giant fish tank.

The outdoor cafes of the artists’ hill, Montmartre, were charming. Here lived Picasso, Toulouse-Latrec, Utrillo, many great and original painters, but today the artists seemed inspired to paint exactly what tourists want to buy, over and over.

Nearby, in front of Sacre Coeur, the oldest church, high overlooking the city, was a wonderful mime show-the story of a man who seemed to be giving up on life until something happened (I can’t remember what) and he turned into a butterfly with large wings of silky white. All over Paris there were mimes and statues; it amazed me to see how interested the French were in the human image.

I strolled alone along the left back of the Seine river, where booksellers have kept their make-shift stalls for centuries. Here I had my third memorable moment. I attempted my first-semester college French with a young woman selling books and souvenirs and she responded in simple French with a warm smile and gave me a free key ring of the Eiffel Tower. We had liked each other immediately, and I will never forget her friendly face.

Likewise the portly madame I asked for directions on the street, in some kind of French, as I exited the metro: She also responded in friendly and simple French. It has always surprised me in travel how the smallest moments of connecting with native people have touched me more than “the great sights.”

We took a bus to Monet’s gardens at Giverny, a long way from Paris but worth it. So vibrant in October! I hadn’t realized there’s a bamboo forest along the famous lily pond. I’d brought a rose from my mother’s casket, which I dropped from the bridge over the water lilies, calling her spirit to be with us. Less than one month earlier she had walked on! How she would have loved this trip with her daughters and to see Monet’s gardens.

I declined the palaces, fountains and formal gardens of Versailles, unable to appreciate such indulgence while most Parisians were starving. I declined the fashion show and shopping for $1,000 of curtain lace for my depressed sister. Some things are just not me. I felt confused at Napoleon’s majestic tomb: Wasn’t he a bad guy? I thought he caused the miserable deaths of millions of people in his attempt to rule all of Europe. Our guide explained, “The French have mixed feelings about him …” It turns out the Arc de Triomphe was also built in his honor.

Our last day in Paris, we walked the very long walk down the sidewalks of the boulevard Champs Elysees, from (Napoleon’s) Arc de Triomphe to its end at the immense square called Place de la Concorde.

We stopped at the famous perfumery where I could not find a smell I liked among hundreds of ‘breath-taking” odors, and then I could not fit into nor afford any of the fashions in the stylish shops.

We reached the park area with the beloved rows of stately sycamores, all the same height, regularly spaced along the park edge.

We stopped to watch with delight a group of schoolchildren playing at what seemed similar to our game “Red Rover.” Here we met what seemed at real artist, painting for his own delight, thought, hmm. He did offer to sell us a painting.

The long walk ended at the Egyptian Obelisk and nearby a Ferris wheel, much smaller than Chicago’s. Beside this were the formal gardens of the Tuileries, where children do, in fact, float sailboats on the pond. More trees, only chestnuts and sycamores, of again the same size and carefully spaced. Many statues here of Roman gods, goddesses and emperors. I had not realized the strong Roman influence in Paris’ history.

Coming home

And so to Charles de Gaulle, through customs and a long overnight flight home. As we approached O’Hare in the early morning I looked down and saw a profusion of puffy colors-it was still fall in the Midwest! The drive down East River Road by the Des Plaines River was rich with varied nature, and finally, Oak Park-Home!

I’ll never forget how awesome seemed the drive from west to east across the village on Augusta Boulevard. Trees of every size and variety canopied the street in a montage of colors. I saw wild grasses growing by houses, and prairie gardens with flowers growing however those flowers wanted. There were signs in house windows calling for “Peace and Justice for All” in various ways. I saw Oak Parkers jogging in their grubbies, typically unconcerned about their “image,” just being real.

All was such a contrast to Paris. I began to think, “How beautiful is Oak Park, Illinois!” Not because of Frank and Ernest, but because we have chosen to live by values that make us beautiful.

I had always wanted to see Paris and, yes, it was special. We don’t aspire to glamour, but one can see with one’s eyes that here lives a people with a thoughtfulness that manifests in outwardly beautiful and pleasing ways.

Like Dorothy after she made it to Oz, I’ve also discovered that “There’s no place like home,” as long as it’s Oak Park, Illinois.

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