I’m perversely drawn to the website and its vainglorious contents. From the sounds of it, La Tour Eiffel doesn’t just represent Paris. It is Paris. And there’s something unnerving about such a commercial characterization of the monument and its home. The Eiffel Tower has had 200 million visitors since its construction, but there are millions who will never make it to Paris and could never afford the 10.40 euros ascension fee anyway. It’s so sad that the tower, admittedly like many other man-and-woman-made wonders, charges a hefty price of admission, even exorbitant amounts for food and toilet (40 cents to wet the sandbox). To think, as you climb La Tour Eiffel, that there may be Parisians below you who gaze at the tower every day but cannot afford the trip to the top. I doubt that it’s a symbol of light and hope to them, nor could it represent their experience of the city. Whether it’s at the crossroads of the entire world or not, the entire world does not have access to the tower.
And what about the fact that most of us fortunate enough to vacation in places like Paris probably don’t pay the tower a visit because we are overwhelmed by its beauty and history, but because it’s first on the list of compulsory landmarks to see? I think of my own Eiffel-experience this June. Wait in line for two hours. Pay boatloads of money (no student discount?) to be lifted to the top of the tower. (The highest floor is only accessible by elevator.) Fight for room against the railing so that you can pose—click—for a picture and then make your way back to the line for the return journey where you—guess what?—wait in line for two hours. The view is beautiful, yes, but would be a lot more beautiful if you could see beyond the shoulders of the other tourists and the pre-pubescent boy trying to spit his gum directly onto the head of an unsuspecting passerby. Just buy a postcard. Chances are the picture you’ve taken is more the-family-in-matching-visors than Sacré Coeur.
But you go anyway. I did. The Eiffel Tower was high on my list of Paris-must-sees. And while it was worth it, perhaps, to check off on my list the big name and place, it seems laughable in retrospect (not to mention wholly predictable).
I know it sounds jaded. Why can’t I just be grateful for having seen the famed “hollow candlestick,” the romantic view? I know I’m blessed. On the same trip to Paris, I saw some of the most incredible paintings and sculptures—from Michelangelo at the Louvre to Kandinsky at the Georges Pompidou—heard the beautiful organ at Notre Dame and walked the gardens of Versailles. But my visit to La Tour Eiffel stirred some dissatisfaction within me. Is it good enough—the critic in me had to ask—to experience all the same things that others have experienced? Isn’t it limiting to set out to explore primarily those sites written about in guidebooks, paths already trod, sites already seen, towers already climbed, views that may be spectacular but are also spectacularly famous and frequently photographed? Even though my reaction to those aforementioned paths and sites will be my own, shouldn’t I aim to find pieces of places, foreign or otherwise, that are undiscovered? That are accessible to all? That haven’t yet made it to dot-com fame? I don’t believe I can be content to share in someone else’s déjà vu.
My best memories of Paris: stumbling into the Place Saint-Opportune and a free concert by a surprisingly authentic Metallica cover band; street artists who create masterpieces with spray paint and bits of glass; navigating the Paris Metro; taking pictures of the most chic men and women and dogs on Les Champs-Elysées; breakfast; chatting with the owner of a cyber café who spoke not a word of English (and I not a word of French). I don’t think I’ve taken anything specific from my visit to the Eiffel Tower. But I do remember the street rendition of Nothing Else Matters, and the longhaired guy in knee-length, hospital green shorts, a pinstriped shirt, and black suit jacket, running around the band waving red and black pom-poms.
Famous monuments are not enough. Paths prescribed on websites. Doing what’s been done; let’s go beyond! If I am as lucky in the future as I have been thus far, I have many years of travel left and I do not intend to squander them. There’s nothing inherently wrong with climbing La Tour Eiffel. We do it so that we can feel cultured and traveled and educated. So that we won’t have missed out on something tried and tested, remarkable and age-old. But the Eiffel Tower was not Paris. And if anything, my trip to the City of Light has made clear to me that we must appreciate both the tourist destination and the undiscovered wonder. Traveling to new parts of the world is also the best time to put all the old clichés into play. To put our money (rather, to withhold our money) where our mouths have been. To travel off the beaten track. Off the website with the million hits.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a freshman and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.