You know how you build some places up in your mind, only to find they fall flat in real life? I usually try to have zero expectations when I travel, specifically for that reason. And I also try to stay off the beaten path.
But I was headed to Paris – on this particular day, to the Louvre no less – smack dab in the middle of the beaten path and honestly, it’s impossible not to have some preconceived ideas about Paris before you make your first trip.
Fortunately for me, Paris doesn’t disappoint.
“When good Americans die, they go to Paris.” – Oscar Wilde
Well, except for one little thing. The sea of tourists. Hordes of them. Lines everywhere. Very non-Parisian people blocking every iconic monument with their cheesy smiles and their peace signs and their selfies. Ugh.
Ok, I was going down a rabbit hole I had promised myself I wouldn’t. After my last unexpected experience as a tourist, I was determined to embrace being one of the crowd. To live in the moment, to try and feel some camaraderie while trodding the beaten path with my fellow tourists. Deep breath. Smile. Now just add those little ol’ tourists to your frame, Ashley.
After giving myself a successful pep talk and a waiting in a LONG line, we descended into the underbelly of the Louvre, where we followed our tour guide to yet another line and waited once more. We finally made it into the wing of the museum where we, along with the masses, stared at a large collection of ancient Egyptian relics, our guide pointing out a few that were of special interest.
At one point our tour guide noticed a large group of tourists following their own guide who was waving a small flag on a tall pole approaching quickly and said in his thick French accent, “Be careful! Some tourists are not…” he struggled to find an appropriate English word, “very…fair.” As if on cue, a tiny elderly lady, following her guide’s little flag with real gusto, elbowed our guide in the ribs as she pushed her way past him. I stifled a laugh.
Our tour was fantastic but once it was over we decided to explore a little more on our own.
Once we found our way out of Egypt, my husband spotted signs saying “Mona Lisa” with big arrows guiding the way. “Let’s go see it!” he beamed. I agreed and as we followed the arrows through the labyrinth of the museum, it became clear that half of the tourists in the place were headed for La Joconde too.
As we weaved our way closer and closer I thought about the iconic painting. What did I know? Very old, painted by Leonardo da Vinci, she might appear to be looking back at the viewer…well, obviously I’m no art major. But did all these hundreds of tourists streaming to our mutual destination know more than me? Probably some of them, but it couldn’t be more than 10% of us. So why the urge to see this particular work when we were in a building housing thousands of artifacts of equal and surpassing beauty? I didn’t have an answer.
My thoughts were interrupted when we found ourselves suddenly in a roped-off, semi-orderly line – we must be close to the painting now. The atmosphere was strangely like that of waiting in line to get on a roller coaster at Disney World. Everyone was speaking different languages but they were all really excited about this.
As we gained entry to the “inner sanctum” we caught a glimpse of her. She was, by my accounts underwhelming. Floor to ceiling paintings towered over her in her small glass case. But the crowd was enthralled.
I was more fascinated by the reaction of this mass of people, they were really jostling me around at this point. I was constantly sandwiched and pushed forward, occasionally smacked by someone’s outstretched cell phone. The guards let a small crowd at a time forward to get their shot. They gave them about a minute and then ushered them out. It didn’t seem like I’d get a shot of Miss Mona herself at this rate, so I thought, “what if I document the “Mona Lisa experience” instead?”
Everyone was so mesmerized by the painting the didn’t notice my lens turn from the painting to them. I tried to capture the chaos as my section got the green light to approach the masterpiece, but the pushing and squeezing was getting intense.
Towards the end of our one-minute allowance, I got shoved up next to one of the guards. I asked him, “Is it like this every day?” He gave me an exasperated look and said, “Every. Day.” I just laughed and wondered – what would da Vinci think of this spectacle?
In the end, I got to make my shot of Mona Lisa too. It’s not any good really, much like my shots of the “chaos,” but there’s something that makes those pictures meaningful to me. They remind me of the feeling the crowd gave off that day – like we were all on this spectacular journey together to discover one of humanity’s greatest treasures and record it for ourselves.
Now, stuck at home in the middle of a pandemic, those moments hold even more value. What I wouldn’t give to be in the middle of an excited crowd, my only fear getting elbowed by someone trying to wriggle their way to the front row.