Rolf Potts travels around
the world with no luggage

Rolling retro-style (and doing laundry) in Paris

August 25, 2010 by Rolf Potts

There was a time when, believe it or not, I thought Paris was no big deal. This was before I had ever been there — back in the days when I was living and traveling in Asia. At the time, I was so enamored with places like Bangkok and Varanasi and Ulan Bator that I thought Paris would be a bore by comparison. I was wrong, of course: Not only is Paris a fascinating place; it is (in ways that are more subtle than you might think) my top candidate for the most beautiful city in the world.

Paris is, however, not always easy to write about. As the English author Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1930: “The characteristic thing about Paris is not so much the extent — though that is vast — as the overwhelming variety of its reputation. It has become so overlaid with successive plasterings of paste and proclamation that it has come to resemble those rotten old houses one sometimes sees during their demolition, whose crumbling frame of walls is only held together by the solid strata of wallpapers. What, after all these years, can we say about Paris?”

Eighty years later, it’s still hard to write about Paris without feeling like you’re saying something trite. I first visited Paris (from Asia) in 2002, and since then I’ve returned seven times to teach nonfiction classes at the Paris American Academy summer writing workshop. Still, I’ve written far more about places like Thailand or Egypt than France, since my Paris experiences have been less centered on rigorous travel reportage than long walks and good wine.

For the most part, this visit was no exception: I spent a fair amount of my 36-hour no-luggage visit in an American Academy apartment, catching up on blog entries and shooting a video about my laundry routine (see above) — and when I did get out into the city, I didn’t explore any new places. I did, however have the privilege of seeing some standard places in a new way: from the back of vintage Citroën 2CV, on an auto tour that a friend of a friend in Paris set up for me.

Before I visited France, I didn’t know a thing about the 2CV (French for “deux chevaux fiscaux”, or two-tax horsepower); I just assumed that those funky, Beetle-looking cars were some squarish, rag-top model of Volkswagen. As it turns out, this model of Citroën is one of the most classic cars of the mid-20th century — as beloved and iconic as the Land Rover, the Jeep, and the VW Beetle. Built at low cost and designed to be simple, reliable, and versatile, the small 2CV had an unconventional design and was marketed to the common Frenchman. Critics mocked the model when it debuted in 1948 (“Does it come with a can opener?” one auto journalist quipped), but it eventually captured the French imagination. Nearly four million 2CVs were sold during its 42-year production run, and the car even made a chase-scene cameo in a James Bond movie (1981’s For Your Eyes Only).

My 2CV was a 1960s model driven by a French college student named Mikael, and (in addition to the sites of the city, and watching Mikael aggressively navigate the chaotic traffic) half the fun was watching French people react when we buzzed past. Imagine the reaction you’d get cruising around Washington’s monument district in a vintage Model T, and you get a sense for how the French regard their “people’s car.” Though I had already seen all the Paris landmarks we passed during my late-afternoon car tour, it was a kick to see those sights from a quirky new perspective.

The following morning I got a no-baggage bonus in Paris. Where normally I might have just sat in a cafe with my luggage and killed a couple hours between apartment-checkout and my onward flight to Madrid (yes, I took an EasyJet flight — not as romantic as Eurail, but literally ten times cheaper), my utter lack of bags allowed me to simply get dressed and hit the city before taking the RER train to the airport.

I ended up wandering the Luxembourg Gardens for a little over an hour. I’d been there before, of course — I go for runs there a couple times a week when I’m visiting each July — but I still managed to make some new discoveries (how on earth had I previously missed the bocce court?) and relax by the central fountains.

That’s what I love about returning to places like Paris: Even if you think you know the city (or a given park) intimately, there’s always something new to experience.

Note: My vintage Citroën 2CV tour came compliments of Experience Paris, with assistance from the excellent Karen Fawcett.  A 2CV tour similar to my mine would cost about 99 Euros.  Thanks also to Peter Carman and my colleagues at the Paris American Academy for setting me up with an apartment during my time in the city.

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  • Rolf

    By the way, the towel in the Paris video came with the apartment — I'm not packing that thing!

    • Larry Riendeau

      I use the towel method a lot, it really makes a difference in getting out the moisture.

    • Cunning method. Usually I'd just rapidly flap my wet clothes up and down (and consequently flicking water droplets all over the place).

      Justin, I'm really loving the montage, makes me want to go back to Paris.

  • Rcaq Photography

    Right, we now got an insight on how you keep up your clothes stuff. How about capturing more outdoor stuff next time? (not talking about sights, but just something that's typical / routine or w/e for the destination) –

  • Keep up the entertaining travel and hats off to Mr. Ferris for turning me on to ya!

  • Shari

    Really enjoying the travelogue, thank you for sharing your adventure!

  • I found when travelling light and needing to wash clothes every night. Keep the clothes you want to wash ON and shower with them – washing the clothes as you shower. Take the clothes off, wring and hang on hangers in the shower for a while (if you have hangers of course).

    Then carry on showering (naked) and hey presto – two jobs done in one.

    • Ed

      Ditto; that is how my wife and I did it for 8 days in the UK this summer.

  • mort

    Be sure to wash your feet thoroughly morning and night. They are the source of all aromatic nastiness, as you are in effect walking all day in two petri dishes.

  • Abby

    Rolf – I'm loving this trip. It's a very interesting endeavor and I'm checking in every day to follow your progress. What are you sleeping in? What happens when you wash your pants? I guess your camera guy is going to get very used to seeing you in your skivvies!

  • Mary Ellen

    Rolf, So much fun following you..can't wait to share with my students when I go back to school!

  • jaqusto

    Is the “aperture effect” at the corners a style choice in the video, or is it an artifact of the camera set-up? That said, I think it gives a nice quality to the video. Great job!

    • It's a style added in post production. Glad you enjoy it, thanks!

  • Where and what have you been eating? I hope you sneaked in at least one croissant. Are you documenting that in any detail? That's one of my favorite parts of travel. Even the mundane, negligible stuff. Would be awesome to catch a glimpse of that over the course of 12 countries, especially on such short stays.

    • Keep an eye out for our Madrid video which should be live by Friday, 8/27, in the morning. It's all about food and drink!

  • This trip is like the anti-thesis of the Vagabonding ethic so far – do you get to spend longer in your upcoming destinations?

  • Jen M

    Converseley, you can then use the wet towel to iron your clothes (if you had any others…). It's the wet towel trick – I can't remember where I learned it – either a magazine or show. Usually after showering, use your damp towel to take the wrinkles out of your clothes. Lay out the clothing item and smooth it out, then lay the damp towel over the item, smooth out the towel and then leave it for about 5 minutes. Wrinkles gone. LOVE the blog and videos – desperately want to call in sick and take off!

  • Rolf, do you have a cameraman with you on your journey?

    This is great footage. You're the man.

    • Yes…. I'm Rolf's cameraman…and thanks!

  • Tim

    I so wish I could be doing this trip with you. Perhaps a little slower, but I would take what I can get. Today my dream. Tomorrow the world.

  • MB

    I love your post! I just started following this, but I have to agree with your comments on Paris. I actually just went there for the first time this year, but before that had really only travelled in and around Asia. I didn't know what I was missing until I made my way to Paris! Lesson learned: find new places to visit! Maybe I can't quite do a no baggage thing, but I'm down to one small piece, so I'm trying! Thanks and I'll keep following your adventures.

  • Great Posts! Can't wait to hear about Morocco. Love the Citroën 2CV!

  • Phil D

    Good stuff. Won't the ritual get old after a while? What if, say, you get drunk with some new friends and want to crash immediately after stumbling home? I found myself in that situation a lot during a three month trip to Europe I just returned from a few days ago.

    Anyway, love the blog, love Vagabonding… keep the good work!

  • Just came across this “no baggage” journey. Very cool and I'm excited to follow along. I am packing as we speak for a 4 day trip over the border with the family and already I have three suitcases at the door. Wonder if traveling with no luggage is possible with a 6 and 2 year old? Now that'd be entertaining! But so far so is Rolf's trip!

  • Matt

    Hey Rolf, just came across an eagle creek product that you might find useful: a universal stopper, mini clothesline, and a few woolite packages for $10.

  • Erin

    I've been to Paris twice. Once on my honeymoon with my husband who has been to Paris many times and speaks the language AND who darted everywhere we went, leaving me with the sense that Paris was bustling and busy and too complicated for me to navigate. We spent a lot of time visiting literary sites, particularly expatriot sites. The second time I went with my 6 month old baby and my mother in law and we spent the majority of the time looking for restaurants, eating and then recovering from the meal.

    Both experiences were fun, but both left me with extremely unique and disparate feelings about the character of Paris and what I realized was that your experience is incredibly effected by the people you are with.

    Just an interesting observation.

    Enjoying the journey so far.

  • guys, the camerawork, the structure, the music, the story, everything in this video was absolutely sublime..

    i never thought i'd be so enamored at watching some guy wash his clothes.

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