Facing Fear: Climbing the Arc de Triomphe

Arc de Triomphe

I stood at the base of the Arc de Triomphe full of awe and fear. You see, I’m scared of heights. I worry that for some dumb reason I’ll throw myself over the edge, something I did once before. When I was 16 years old, I jumped off a 30 ft cliff into the ocean in Hawaii. That was half my life ago, yet I remember it like yesterday.

I was in a burgundy swimsuit, standing on the edge of the southernmost tip of the Big Island. In front of me was the blue horizon melting into a brilliant blue ocean. I was ill with anxiety.

Directly below me were the little bodies, belonging to our group from the hostel, bobbing in the waves. Each time someone jumped and splash-landed safely, I thought my confidence would grow. But my inner voice (the cautious side who likes to avoid death when possible) was screaming “DON’T JUMP!”

Yet, below me were an adventurous group of older international (some cute) travelers yelling “Do it! Jump, jump!” I was only a kid; I didn’t want to chicken-out and feel like a loser. I jumped.

Jumping off cliff in HawaiiYep, that’s me.

The problem with jumping from that high, is there’s plenty of time to regret it — mid air. Was I happy once I splash-landed?  No. I hit the water hard, which would later cause massive bruises on my thighs. I went deep into the ocean and had to swim like hell, lungs aching for air, to reach the surface. And then the string ray started swimming towards us. Nope, not the tropical snorkeling experience I had hoped for.

And ever since that day, I’ve been afraid of heights.

Sixteen years later, and I’m in Paris with my young family. Can you imagine the fear I have with my kids being up high on an edge?  Because while I most likely won’t throw myself off the Arc de Triomphe, I wasn’t so sure my three dare-devils wouldn’t give it a go.

But the kids insisted we climb it, and Aaron agreed. Once again, I was being peer-pressured. And once again, I ignored my inner voice that said “DISASTER! DISASTER!” This morning in Paris, I’d be facing down my fear, risk the death of my family, and climb the Arc de Triomphe.

It was 265 steps to the top. It was an open staircase, and Ada loved leaning over the railing to look at the bottom far, far below. Knowing my fear of heights, her excited blue eyes looked at me and said, “Mom! Look– it’s really, really far down!” (Ugh. Thanks for reminding me.) I eased my anxiety by focusing up and around, because being inside the Arc of Triomphe, surrounded my massive marble walls, was awe inspiring.

There’s an information center and gift shop on one landing. The kids wandered around the exhibits, and my fear crept in, my hands went sweaty, my heart pounded. I gathered the kids and gave them my serious talk: “Listen –you all know I’m scared of heights. So if you run around, or get too close to the edge, I’M GOING TO FREAK OUT. I WILL FALL TO THE GROUND. I WILL MY KICK MY LEGS. I WILL CRY LIKE A BABY. Do you want to see me do that? Do you?”

I hoped for three horrified faces, ready to do anything I asked to avoid their Mom making a scene. Instead they all started laughing. They took off for the remaining stairs, yelling to one another: “Let’s make Mom cry like a baby!”

I should’ve known that threatening embarrassment to kids who walk down the street impersonating chickens wouldn’t be effective.

We reached the top, and to my relief, there was a high barrier fence.

It was impossible for bodies to spontaneously fling off. The kids ran in circles thrilled by the height and views, stood on the edge and then asked “Mom, why aren’t you crying?”

I smiled. No fear here. I knew they couldn’t jump off. And overwhelmed with the beauty of panoramic Paris, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t either.

View of Paris from Arc de Triomphe

View of Eiffle Tower from Arc de Triomphe