Taking a chance on a trip to France

That?s France, not Texas.

As my plan lifted off the ground Thursday afternoon, I was certainly filled with apprehension. This was my first trip out the United States. The first step was a flight from Wichita to Chicago, a short jaunt of 90 minutes or so. The plane was small, but the opening leg of the journey was uneventful.

I boarded a second aircraft at O?Hare, and only then did I meet the other members of the Kansas delegation to the orientation we were all attending put on by EF Tours, the largest educational touring company in the world.

My traveling buddy was a high school English teacher from Oxford, a small town near Wellington. We hit it off quite well right away. That was good, because we would be linked for every section of our journey to and from the City of Lights.

As we talked, we were overheard by about 10 other EF travelers from the central United States, and they soon introduced themselves. We were all nervous about the trip to varying degrees, so that made everyone feel better.

We were not many miles out of Chicago when the lady in the seat in front of me slammed her backrest into my knees. Suffice it to say, modern air travel for anyone over 5 feet 6 inches, tall is an adventure. More seats mean more fares in those seats, and our flight was filled to capacity.

I tried to recline my seat back, but the man behind me complained I was breaking his legs. So, I popped my seat back upright. I?m such a nice guy.

The flight was expected to last about 81⁄2 hours, so I knew I would need to sleep. I cheated and took two Tylenol PM tablets before we left the Windy City, and they certainly made me drowsy.

Between the on-and-off pinging of the seat-belt indicator and the back-and-forth movement of the refreshment carts down the aisles, I managed about two to three unrestful hours of sleep.

Keep in mind that we were rapidly losing time as we headed east toward Europe, so any shuteye gained would be huge later in the day. The time difference is seven hours.

We arrived at Charles De Gaul International Airport about 30 minutes ahead of schedule. The jet stream apparently lived up to its name and helped us sail on over the Atlantic at a brisk pace.

After finding our EF representatives, we hopped on a bus and headed for the hotel, a four-star accommodation on the outskirts of ?Gay Paree.?

The Mercure on Val De Fontenay would be our home-away-from-home for the next four days. It was certainly adequate to keep us comfy and cozy. There we met Joel (we never learned his last name), our tour director.

This was a guy who would do well in ?Last Comic Standing? competition. He was kind of a cross between Elton John and the late Chris Farley. Despite our obvious jet lag, he took us on a brisk walking tour of the city, saying it was ?going to be a cracking day.? Just for fun, he referred to Paris?s most famous landmark as the ?Trifle Tower.?

One of Joel?s jobs, despite keeping us entertained, was to teach us the fundamentals of the metro system. It is a confusing and fast-paced underground train system that all the members of the tour group I am taking to Europe next summer will use to get around.

Believe me, we don?t want to be driving on the topside. The best way to describe traffic in Paris would be disorganized chaos. Most vehicles are the size of bumper cars, and the owners navigate the streets with reckless abandon.

At one point, at the base of the famous Arch de Triumph, about 16 lanes of traffic negotiate a massive roundabout?without any lane markings, no less. Our bus driver took us for a spin around the monument without batting an eye.

Of course, we saw many of the best-known sights of Paris, such as the indescribable Louvre, the magnificently ostentatious castle at Versailles and the Notre Dame Cathedral, but I was also privileged to enjoy some of the lesser known experiences of the city on the Seine.

Soft drinks are more expensive than wine in France, as I found out when I accidentally ordered a Coke with ice near Versailles. It set me back six Euros, the equivalent of nearly $8.50 American. I have to say, though, it was tasty.

Public toilet use in Paris also takes some getting used to. In the same caf? where I purchased the costly Coke, I decided I needed to use the facilities. When I walked into the restroom, there was a common washing area for men and women.

That?s fine, I guess, but the men?s area was just to the left of the sinks, through a saloon-style swinging door. Hey, when in Rome (or Paris) do as the Romans (French) do.

There are free toilets available all over downtown Paris. They used to cost a few coins to use, but a mini French revolution led to their being token free.

Interestingly, the insides of the glorified porta-potties are wet. As I found out when I left one and shut the door, the reason is quite clear. They are self-cleaning after each use. We were told that is to discourage the homeless from taking up residence in the facilities.

But, my most unusual restroom experience took place in a McDonald?s on Les Champs Elisses. The bathroom was clean and modern, but the urinal was the strangest I have ever seen. It was simply a stainless steel grate on the floor and a wall of black marble. Flowing down the wall was a steady cascade of water.

I was always taught not to get the floor or walls wet, so it took a bit of persuasion to get my kidneys to cooperate with this setup.

I, of course, enjoyed many other new and unusual experiences on my trip. Though we were all adults, we managed to lose a member of our group? twice. We found them before too much time had passed.

I had joked with my church members in Goessel before I left that I was on a mission trip to France, and they should pray for me. As it turned out, our group did meet a pair of Mormon missionaries in an area of Paris famous for viewing street performers and snarfing down crepes.

Despite the more than 20 hours total flying time on my round trip, I am eager and excited to return next summer for my second once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe.