On the joy of visiting Europe:

The day begins when the flight attendant taps you on the shoulder and says (perhaps more cheerfully than you'd want): "Time for breakfast."

You look out the 747's window on the right side, and ahead of you the sun is rising. Below are either clouds or the waters of the Atlantic.

Breakfast begins with fruit juice, and then, a cup of orange and grapefruit slices, eggs, good bread and coffee. While you eat, you glance out the window once in a while.

Then, always suddenly, what seems like a small miracle happens. You are over Europe.

Europe. Your eyes accept it as you look down on small, quaint villages or great highways. But your mind balks and says to you: "How can this be? Short hours ago I was in Chicago. Now I'm over Europe, the place of beginnings."

The jet lands -- say in Paris -- and you leave it and your mind begins to accept what your eyes see. It must accept because the impact is tremendous. People are babbling in a strange tongue or strange tongues. The air terminal signs are in a foreign language. Over a public-address system, a man announces the departure of the next Air France flight and the French words are crooned.

You smile for no good reason. Maybe it's because you ask yourself time and time again: "What's a nice kid from Chicago's South Side doing in a place like this?"

The same sort of thing happens wherever you may land . . . Rome, Frankfurt, Copenhagen, Zurich, London, Brussels, Lisbon, wherever. It always seems like a small miracle.

People ask constantly: "What is your favorite place to visit?" And the answer, for reasons not quite clear, is always: "Paris."

How to explain this? Paris has been called many things, from the City of Lights to a Movable Feast. To me, it's a place where that small miracle of visiting Europe stays alive.

Your senses are bombarded daily, no, minute by minute, in Paris. It's elating to watch the people stroll their graceful streets with stylish gaits, pausing to have coffee (or maybe a breakfast wine?) in a cafe.

Your head swims during a visit to the famed Flea Market, where you see one merchant haggling over the price of a worn shirt while nearby another man uses grand gestures to peddle a roomful of furniture.

Boredom is impossible. There are small thrills galore. . . a walk under the arcade of the shop-strewn rue de Rivoli, the sight of dozens of Parisians lined up to get into an art show, the elegance of a lamppost (for heaven's sake, a lamppost), the garden-like quality of the entrance to the Hotel Intercontinental or the same feeling in the lobby of the Hotel Meurice just across the street.

You stroll at the edge of the Place de la Concorde, where once the guillotine did its filthy job, and you gleefully remember reading "A Tale of Two Cities." The long forgotten revolutionary words of Mme. DeFarge come storming to your tongue: "It is later than you think."

And other thrills, large and small: the cosmopolitan air of the Boulevard St. Michel, a hub of the Sorbonne, where students from all over come to study at the city's university. . . the total joy reflected in the face of a boy sailing a small boat in the pond in the Luxembourg Gardens. . . discovering in a store window that candies are displayed with care usually reserved for jewels . . . looking up and finding you're in front of the somewhat goofy Eiffel Tower. . . the bookstalls along the Seine. . . a man headed home with the ingredients for a happy evening in hand, a long loaf of bread, some flowers and a bottle of wine. . . the sight and smell of assorted oysters displayed in bins before a small restaurant. . . the thundering organ music in the Church of St. Sulpice.

But wait. The same kinds of things happen in other European cities: strolling along the shopping street Stroget in Copenhagen; dining in Brussels; wandering through the Picasso museum in Barcelona or the Van Gogh museums in Amsterdam; sampling the humor of the Berliners (example from a tour guide: "That is not just a statue of a nude man. It's our monument to the Unknown Streaker"); moseying along the Via Veneto in Rome and feeling naughty for just being there; being awed by the exquisite beauty of the Parthenon in Athens; feeling similar awe on seeing the Alps; being befriended every day in Ireland; sensing the eternal quest for orderliness by the British.