by Lindsey McHugh
(Editor’s Note: Lindsey McHugh is the president of the Southern Arizona Council of the Blind.)
Imagine sitting in front of a quaint little café, as the sun is rising, drinking an espresso served in a tiny cup and saucer, and dipping a luscious, flaky chocolate croissant into it. Now imagine walking a short distance to the Metro station in anticipation of marvelous adventures while people in clicking heels and speaking melodious, smooth French prepare for their workdays. You get on the speedy escalator, you hear the train approaching, and you think, “This is going to be fantastic.” Thus began a typical day in the City of Lights, from which my parents and I recently returned. I had been invited to travel with Sons of Orpheus — the Male Choir of Tucson, on a concert tour in Paris, France, where we sang at the Notre Dame Cathedral and L’Eglise de la Madeleine. We also joined a French male choir in the town of Angers (pronounced “On-Jay”) approximately four hours outside of Paris, where we performed at the Church of St. Pierre and the Castle of Angers. While I had toured internationally with a choir at the University of Arizona, this was my international debut as a soloist. After at least two years of hard work, planning, and fundraising by many people, this dream finally became a reality on May 16, 2016. In addition to making exquisite music, I had the chance to embark on such adventures as climbing the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower and riding every ride at Disneyland Paris!
After flying for hours, we checked into the Adagio Hotel in the Bercy Village, a very high-end area which seemed to house lots of business people and contained multistory buildings with businesses on the lower floors and residences on top. Our hotel room was called an “aparthotel,” because it had two rooms (a living room and a bedroom), a bathroom, and a kitchenette. Rather than spending 11 euros a day per person on a continental breakfast, we headed to the café right next to the hotel for croissants and café au lait, or the restaurant further down for the best four-egg omelettes you’ll ever have in your life, served with a salad and bread (yes, you read right. A salad with breakfast. That’s the French way). The most important part of trying any of their delicious delicacies was getting over the fact that they didn’t sound appetizing. For example, I could not stomach the idea of eating escargots (snails), but when I found out they were served hot with garlic butter, I felt better. After taking each little escargot from its place in the little muffin tin they were served in, all apprehension melted away as I savored the buttery, crispy goodness. As if that weren’t enough, I learned one is supposed to tear off a piece of French bread and dip it into the hot garlic butter from whence the snails came, which was simply delightful. Other tasty treats included frog legs that tasted like chicken, a crépe made with sugar and Grand Marnier (orange liqueur), tons of white wine, and some kind of melt-in-your-mouth, coffee cream-filled chocolate éclair. Best of all was the so-called “volcano cake,” a tall, round cake that had a scrumptious dark chocolate center which tasted like a cross between hot fudge and melted semisweet chocolate chips. Once I got through that center, I cut the cake with a knife and fork, and the outside of the cake tasted nothing like the inside.
Most of the people we talked to spoke English, but I tried to speak as much French as I could. I was the designated French speaker, because my parents couldn’t pronounce it like I could. Our visits to the small grocery store in the village afforded us many opportunities to use what little French we knew, but the workers kept laughing at my mom for saying things wrong (not in a mean way, but a funny way).
The music that was shared by Sons of Orpheus and with the other male choir was what the French would call “trés magnifique.” To sing in such a beautiful, sacred space as the Notre Dame Cathedral was truly an honor and a thrill. At first I thought I would have to give it my all, but as it turned out, the room was doing it for me. From the first note of Bach/Gounod’s “Ave Maria,” my voice and that of the choir and violin blossomed and made all the tourists stop and stare. While taking a group picture outside of the cathedral, I heard the joyous bells ring out, as if to return the musical favor. L’Eglise de la Madeleine (the Church of the Madeleine) was a much larger space, in which I really did have to give my all. After the concert at the Church of St. Pierre in Angers, the person responsible for organizing it, whom I called Jeff the Chef, presented me with a large bouquet of red roses on behalf of the whole choir. Within minutes, the French descended upon me with hugs, double kisses, wine, champagne, and exclamations of “magnifique!!” It was hard to remember that the custom is to kiss twice on each cheek, so when I tried to move away to talk to the next person, the same person was going in for another one. Although I couldn’t understand a word they said, I could feel the passion and the emotion with which they said it. One of them even asked another if I spoke English at all, perhaps due to my perfect pronunciation of the language while singing. I met some very interesting people, including the 11-year-old daughter of the conductor of the French choir. My French and her English were on the same level, but this didn’t stop us from bonding and trying to communicate. We sang a French song that we both knew just for fun, and I discovered that she had a voice with potential. However, I couldn’t get her father to understand that he needed to find her a teacher, because his English was only slightly better than hers. Before we parted company I told my faithful entourage that I wanted to take her home with me.
Perhaps the best performance of the trip was the one at the Castle of Angers, during which I played the piano and sang “Tout Vas Trés Bien, Madame La Marquise” (Everything’s OK, Madame La Marquise). This light, carefree, bouncy song was famous in France during World War II, when the French attitude was “Everything’s just fine.” I played the part of Madame La Marquise, who calls each of her four servants to find out how things are going in her chateau during her 15-day absence. In the first verse, she learns that “Everything’s OK, except for one minor incident. Your favorite grey mare just died, but apart from that, everything’s OK.” Things get worse with each verse, but the prevailing statement is, “Everything’s OK.” I got to play and sing this with four of the Frenchmen, and with each verse my voice, and apparently my face, became more distraught. I really hammed up the ending by actually falling on the ground and fainting with grief and madness. A singer from Sons of Orpheus commented later that the audience was cracking up the entire time!
When we weren’t singing, we were painting the town all kinds of different colors. We ventured into the Picasso Museum, where I got to experience this masterful artwork through the voice of an audio guide I wore around my neck. My sighted companions told me a three-digit number, which was a listening point that corresponded to a picture they were looking at. After typing this number into a telephone-style keypad, a British male or female voice would immediately begin describing the picture, as well as its historical background. The descriptions of the nude women were quite funny, and my comrades enjoyed them as well. Another reason why I liked this audio tour was its flexibility; we didn’t have to start at a certain point and follow it exactly. I decided immediately that I would do my best to implement the same idea in Tucson and possibly abroad, and I would be the voice of the audio tour. Ideally, one should not have to type in the three-digit number; the device should begin speaking as soon as it comes within a designated number of feet of an exhibit that can’t be touched.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing I did was climb the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. Yes, I climbed the 1,200-or-so steps of the Eiffel Tower. There is an elevator that one can take from the bottom to the top, but my compatriots and I decided to take the stairs. We climbed as far as they would allow us to before the tower narrowed and we had to go the rest of the way by elevator. Imagine climbing up 10-15 steep stairs with no landing, then turning to the right, picking up the next rail to climb up 10-15 more such stairs, and repeating this pattern again and again. I was crazy enough to jog up the first three flights, but my companions urged me to slow down and pace myself. I didn’t need to be told twice. Once I got a good rhythm going with both breathing and stepping, I could actually fathom accomplishing this climb. It actually got easier the closer I got to the top, because I could actually breathe better up higher. The Arc de Triomphe, a monument to those who fought for France in World War II, was a smaller structure with fewer steps, all inside of a rather reverberant tunnel and spiraled up to the point of making one dizzy. On that staircase, there was a rail on each side, and each step turned to the right. Who needs a Stairmaster when you’ve got those towers and are walking several miles a day?! The experience was nothing short of breathtaking in more ways than one. I was severely hurting by the end of the Eiffel Tower climb, and I knew that the next day would bring more adventures in Disneyland Paris. Nothing three Advils wouldn’t fix.
Speaking of Disneyland Paris, there were a few minor differences between Paris and California. For example, Splash Mountain and the Matterhorn could not be found. The Indiana Jones ride was a roller coaster, not the fast cars we know from California. I was given a priority card, which allowed me to walk right on every ride through the exit or the fast-past line without waiting. There was one caveat: I couldn’t ride anything by myself. And some of those rides required reservations so that enough employees could be stationed along their courses to move me out in the event of an evacuation. I understand it, but my parents and I have walked off rides before, and we can really move if we have to! Still, what could be more perfect than strolling down Main Street with a churro in my hand to the beat of the fun-filled music, knowing that there is nothing between me and French-style Disney paradise? I have to say that my new favorite roller coaster is Space Mountain: Mission 2 at Disneyland Paris. The California version we know and love is completely enclosed and takes us to the moon and back. The Paris version is a sequel to the California ride, with an outdoor portion of track, and takes us beyond the moon. Instead of going up three slow hills, you BLAST off from the launch tunnel. You go upside-down three times, and the music makes you think you’re going faster than you actually are. I have to overlook the ride’s roughness and the soreness in my neck and say that that ride tops any coaster I’ve ever been on. Because my parents aren’t the true roller coaster junkie I am, and due to the “no riding by yourself” rule, I could only ride this spectacular ride ONCE! Now all I can do is dream about it.
Perhaps no adventure overseas can be complete without some kind of catastrophe or conflict. When I woke up on Disneyland morning, I thought my body was telling me “No more walking and climbing!”, and my stomach was telling me, “I don’t like that chicken and cheese crepe you ate at the Eiffel Tower.” We had to stop on the way to a ride or a character meet-and-greet several times. At least the bathroom visits were made more pleasant by the finales of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Hercules” that were playing. Taking Advil only helped so much; I had to go to the first aid station to get something stronger. I did OK until the end of the day, when Mom was buying souvenirs in one of the stores. I was sitting down, feverish and exhausted, but glad that I had gone the distance, when I had another cramp that brought me to the ground. As I lay there in a fetal position, trying not to scream, a kind woman said, “Bonjour. Can I help you?” I responded, “I’m DYING!!” Within minutes, I was surrounded by paramedics. What were they saying? So this was it. I was going to have my appendix out in Paris. I had flown 8,000 miles, and it was all going to end right here, right now, at Disneyland of all places. They decided that I didn’t need to go to the hospital, but our hotel was too far away for them to drive us back home. We would have to walk a fair distance to the metro station and take the train all the way back. To do this took the effort of Hercules. Luckily there was only one train change. When we got back to the hotel, I told my parents, “If I could just sleep this off, I’ll be fine. I just want to ...”
There was an unfamiliar voice. Some French guy was in our room. “The doctor’s here to see you,” Mom said. Oh God! Was I really that sick? After he examined me, he said my blood pressure was very low and my fever was 102. I didn’t have food poisoning, just a stomach virus, for which he gave me some medicine. We didn’t go to the Louvre the next day like we had planned. The day after, I still felt horrible but was OK to travel and help out with luggage. I continued taking the medicine after we got back to the U.S., and I was well about a week later.
Other than the illness that robbed us of the last day, I very much enjoyed this opportunity and hope that it will lead to more such opportunities for national and international concert singing. I am now convinced that the French love Americans, especially after their kindness to me during those dark hours at Disneyland. All of the music I heard in the shops was American pop, and everyone tried to speak English as long as we tried to speak French. For the entire week following my return, I was quite emotional, sentimental, and reflective. This experience had been incredible, especially knowing where I was and the history and the kind of venues I was singing in. I love Europe and look forward to my next visit!