The Eiffel Tower was first on my sightseeing list during my four-day Parisian summer holiday. Named after engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the monument as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair, it recently celebrated reaching the 300 million visitor mark since it opened more than a century ago.
In some ways it felt like all these people were there the morning I visited, forcing me to stand in a long line, hold my breath in a crowded elevator to the top of the tallest structure in Paris (324m if you’re interested), and dodge an army of selfie sticks as though I was in a medieval sword fight.
It was less crowded at the top of the Arc de Triomphe, perhaps because it required winding your way up 284 steps. But, as I could see from the live camera feed, modern life was waiting down below in the Place Charles de Gaulle (formerly named Place de l’Étoile because of the “star” of twelve avenues that radiate from this square). As cars spiralled around the road, a revolving door of tourists were bussed in for quick photographs before being whisked away, still oblivious to the wonder of this monument, which was commissioned in 1806 and inaugurated in 1836 to honour those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
It wasn’t long before I saw a pattern which I saw repeated throughout my trip at tourist hotspots including the Louvre, Notre-Dame, Sacré-Cœur, and the Pantheon. Day after day, I couldn’t help but stand in awe at the size and scope of these magnificent monuments. Indeed, there were times when I was so overwhelmed by the grandeur before me that I all I could do was sit and marvel at the immensity of humankind’s achievements. And yet as much as I wondered why we don’t build grand structures like this anymore, I also wondered why we don’t see the ones we already have. We might take a quick pic and then snap all! the! selfies! (blocking the beauty) to brag to our family and friends, almost like graffiti artists trying to say “I WAS HERE” by spray-painting their signatures as a means of making their mark.
No, there’s nothing wrong with taking pictures to remember a special place but we must get better at doing so.
First, pretend you have a camera with limited film. This will force you to consider what you’re looking at, compose your image well, and save you the hassle of going through thousands of similar pictures when you get home.
Second, if you want to be in the picture, ask someone else to take it for you. Finding a trustworthy individual (ideally someone with a professional-looking camera around their neck) is far better than using your cheap selfie stick. You might even make a new friend.
Third and most important, put away your camera when you’re done. (If you’re brave enough, you could even leave it behind once or twice so that you can stop and savour the sights without an agenda.)
There were many times during my trip when I realised that what I was seeing was too big or too beautiful to capture in a frame. So I didn’t even try. Instead, I opened my ears to the sounds, opened my hands to the textures, and opened my eyes like many did not. That was more than enough. And that’s because while a picture may be worth a thousand words, sometimes a mental picture is worth more than words could ever say.
Eugene Yiga is an award-winning copywriter, journalist and blogger based in Cape Town.