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“This spring, on the first day of a four-day trip to France, my son and I planned to visit Versailles, the famed château where Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI spent some of their last untroubled days at court. On arrival, I took a look at the town’s tourism website, which featured, at the top, a large black bar with bright yellow text, clearly designed to indicate warning. “Flash Info,” it read.
I quickly scanned the text for any French word that might translate to “tornado.” But Versailles was not expecting an earthquake or blizzardnado. It was expecting “une affluence importante” — serious crowds, for Easter weekend. When Versailles, one of the most frequented tourist sites in the world, tells its visitors to expect serious crowds, it’s a bit like having the Sahara tell you to expect especially strong sun: Attention must be paid. The recommendation from the tourism office? Skip the château and visit the park outside the main attraction instead.
Skip the château? Who goes to Versailles, and skips the palace, especially with a 12-year-old boy who studies French in tow? Surely, I would be reprimanded by someone, although it was unclear who — the pedagogy police?
En route, Leo and I had already caught a glimpse of those crowds, a mob swarming in the distance in front of the glittering palace. Our fate seemed sealed: the blood-thickening slow march on a creeping ticket line, then a slow march through a historic and fascinating but also airless and crowded building, an excursion that would leave us exhausted and pale and in need of a nap.”
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