Oui Oui in Paris
(if you pronounce that with a French accent, it rhymes, I swear)
March 2006
 
How did I live in Germany for five years and somehow miss France all that time? I don't know... I've traveled a lot while living here, but somehow, a trip to France just never hit the agenda. The intention was there, and I had a shelf-full of guidebooks on France, per people from the states visiting me after they had been to Paris and not wanting to lug the book around anymore. But no plans of my own ever materialized. Last year, after visiting Bruges, Belgium at long last and realizing it was silly that it had taken me so long to finally get to this charming little city that so many people had raved about, I decided that I would not move away from Europe until I had at least seen what, to me, are the most famous cities of Europe: Paris and Rome. I have lots of other places I want to see as well, but those became my priority in 2006.

Plus, I was tired of being mocked by my two Parisian friends, Thomas and Olivier, for always swearing that I would visit Paris "in the next few weeks/months" and never doing it...

So I picked a date in March and bought my ticket on German Wings, opting for the 7 a.m. flight on a Friday, rather than the 7-in-the-evening flight on a Thursday, to save 50 Euros on the airline ticket. Stefan had to work Friday, so he booked for the evening.

For the record: I should have spent the money and gone 12 hours earlier, or looked into taking a train. Because a 7 a.m. flight meant I had to get up here at 3 a.m. And given how I never sleep well the night before a trip, I should have known that I was setting myself up to navigate my way there on little, if any, sleep.

I dressed, called a cab, said goodbye to Stefan, gave Albi a goodbye back massage, and then went down our mountainside to meet the taxi on the street. I had to go to Remagen rather than Sinzig, as the trains don't start stopping in Sinzig until after 5 a.m. The taxi driver didn't believe there was a train from Remagen to Bonn at 4:11 a.m., and indeed, it's not listed on any schedules in any station, but could the Internet possibly be wrong?! The train was there -- the sign that is supposed to say where it's going was blank, but the front of the train had Köln on it, and when I got on, I looked at one of the sleepy passengers already on board and said, "Köln?" He nodded. All of the people getting on board this obscenely-early train were obvious regulars. What awful jobs they must all have...

Got to Bonn, got to the bus, and got to the airport, all no problem, and other than almost forgetting my breakfast bag in the bathroom (I always take food on a plane, particularly German Wings, which charges outrageous prices for such), I got on the airplane just fine. I slept on the 65 minute flight to Paris, and got off the plane to be greeted by an incredibly ugly airport terminal. Its 1960s or 70s decor, its lack of art or color, and its general run-down appearance made me think of the Cairo airport, not PARIS. I had to take a bus (free) to the train station, which turned out to be even uglier and more dreary. The line for tickets was massive. I would have tried the machines, but after watching the Parisians struggle to make them work and walking away in frustration and joining the line for human ticket sellers... got my ticket, went down to the platform for the RER trains, and noticed one of the trains had the word "EWOK" on the front of it. I wonder where that went... got my RER train no problem, and went on the very, very long ride to my friend Thomas' flat, passing through a variety of Parisian neighborhoods, and going under Paris itself. All-in-all, it actually took longer to get from the airport to Thomas' flat in Palaiseau Villebon than it took to get from my front door in Germany to Paris. But as this was my first trip there, it was all interesting to me, so I didn't mind.

Thomas met me at the station near his home. We walked to his place, dumped my stuff, then went back to the station to meet Olivier in Paris. We met at the Louvre, at the massive Pyramid that covers the main entrance. Just the outside of the Louvre made my heart pound. It was so huge, so beautiful, like a dream... we walked across from the Louvre and I had a fit over the entrance to the Metropolitain there -- it's like something out of the book War of the Worlds , complete with two lamps overhead that look like the alien death rays. We walked through an incredibly upscale Japanese neighborhood and found a corner restaurant specializing in crepes. I had a crepe that was filled with salad, goat cheese, walnuts, and I don't know all what else. We drank apple cider with our meal, and then splurged on a chocolate covered confection for dessert. I was in heaven. We watched beautiful people out the window, Olivier helped a guy park while never leaving our table, and I kept remarking about the architecture and the vibe. I could have turned around and gone back home and already been in love with Paris.

Back in January 1988, I was supposed to go to Paris. I was on a trip to London through my university, and the last weekend of the trip was to be spent in Paris. But after arriving in London, we were told that, to make our plane to Paris, we would have to leave at intermission of Les Miserables -- a play that was the primary reason I'd made the trip at all. I threw a fit and refused to go -- I rebooked my flight and made arrangements to stay the extra weekend in London (thanks again, Louise!). My friend Carmen, also on the trip, dashed frantically from the theater when the show ended and barely -- just barely -- made the flight to Paris. She told me later that, what had really struck her about Paris was the men -- as they pass you, they look you right in the eye. They don't leer, but they look. That was almost 20 years ago. And I remembered all this as I sat in the restaurant and made eye contact with the waiter and men on the street on a regular basis. That kind of thing continued through the whole trip. And all in all... I kinda enjoyed it...

I had decided to tour the Louvre until Stefan arrived, as he had expressed zero interest in the place. I went in sometime between 2:30 and 3 p.m. -- no line. I bought my ticket at one of the machines -- piece of cake, I must say -- then went to the bookstore to find the cheapest guidebook I could. Mission accomplished, I checked my bag and then headed for Denon Hall. My plan was to see some ancient Greek sculptures, try to see the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo, but to concentrate the most of my visit on paintings, including the Mona Lisa and the special temporary exhibit of works by Ingres. That would be about a quarter of the museum. I also vowed that I would take my time -- if I didn't get to see all that I had planned, so be it. I was going to stand and look at whatever as long as I wanted to. And I did.

What took my breath away the most? No question: Winged Victory. I came to it from the opposite direction that most people see it for the first time -- I first saw it when I came through Daru gallery and looked up the staircase. I think I gasped. I just stood there, leaning up against the wall at the bottom of the steps, for the longest time -- I couldn't believe how incredible it was. It's larger than life-size, and looks like it's just going to walk right off that podium and up into the air. I think I like her without her head better... it makes the implied movement of her body more prominent .

Yes, I saw the Mona Lisa. What can I say about it? There it was. I saw it. I can say that now. It wasn't crazy crowded, and I got quite close. But there really isn't much to say. I managed to look around at the other paintings in the same gallery as well, all quite remarkable. As I commented when I went to the Prado, the religious paintings just didn't interest me much -- they all look pretty much the same. I much preferred things with a secular or pagan theme -- as I noted then, these crackled with life, or death, depending on the subject matter... But at the Louvre, the rooms themselves are often the best work of art around -- I gasped more than once upon entering some amazing gallery that used to be used for royal functions, seeing the massive ceilings and ornate walls. The salle des Caryatides was the site of four royal wedding feasts, and performances by Molière. The salon Denon was my favorite room -- what a shame you may not lay down in the middle of the floor and stare at the ceiling, or just sit and look at the massive paintings surrounding this big square room (no couches -- though they can be found in many of the other galleries, and I highly recommend them). This is a room that connects two major galleries, and a lot of people blow through it -- their loss. The range of emotions represented in the paintings in this room, from overwhelming sadness to the fear of a child facing death to a mother's love -- each painting deserves a room of its own.

The staff at the Louvre, like the Prado, are MUCH more laid back than the staff at German museums, particularly the ones in Bonn, where the staff is so annoyed that you are there and really wish you would stop breathing so as not to disturb them or the paintings...

I saw probably one third of the Louvre's works. I had no desire to try to see it all in one day, even if I'd had a full day to look. I wanted to enjoy what I saw, however little or much that was. I think the Louvre is best enjoyed on half day visits over several days, if you really are determined to see it all. Otherwise, your brain will go on overload and you really won't enjoy most of what you see. I'd rather spend 20 minutes drinking in Winged Victory than speed-walking through galleries and glancing about to see as many works as possible.

It was 5:30 when I started walking out of the Louvre to the underground. The Louvre at night... had it been warmer, and had I not had anything else to do, I would have happily sat inside one of the courtyards and just tried to take it all in. It was magical. I was practically skipping to the station.

Unfortunately, it was then that I discovered something awful about Parisian RER trains: inside Paris, if you want to go outside the city, you have to buy your tickets from a machine, and these machines only take coins or credit cards, and most of the time, the credit card function does NOT work. The machines also don't give you the option to choose a different language to work in until the second screen -- and that means you have to guess which button to push on the first screen to get where you need to go. It took me 20 minutes, the purchase of a coke for change, and a very kind African woman for me to work it all out and get my ticket. I ran to my platform, jumped on the train -- and after two stops, realized that this was the wrong train. I hadn't gone in the wrong direction, but in three stops, the train would turn a different way. So I got off, and expected the next train to be the correct one. It wasn't. Neither was the next one. Neither was the next one. Neither were the next two. One said it was going to the airport, according to the schedule board, but just as I boarded, the driver announced that it WASN'T going to the airport, and a guy who had helped me find the right train urgently told me to get off as it was now the wrong train. 30 minutes later, the correct train finally arrived.

I got to the station woefully late, but there at the top of the steps was my beloved Stefan.

We were both starving, so we headed back on the train to downtown Paris for food. And through a series of miscommunications, we spent almost an hour trying to find Olivier and Thomas. Then the time ran out on my cell phone and I couldn't receive calls, make a call nor send a text message. And when I'm hungry, I'm a MESS: I'm mean, I'm impatient, and I'm easily moved to tears -- moreso than I usually am. It was after 10. I hadn't eaten since lunch. A kind-hearted restaurant hostess took pity on us and let us use her cell phone to call Olivier -- and even talked to him herself in French to explain where we were, much better than we ever could have as lost non-French-speaking tourists. So much for that Parisians-are-jerks stereotype...

Olivier came running up to the restaurant entrance to find us and take us to meet the others, who had already eaten. When he found out we hadn't eaten, he ran up to the restaurant far ahead of us to ask them to open the kitchen back up. And they did. Again, so much for that Parisians-are-jerks stereotype... the staff was hilarious and accommodating. And so I must post the name of the restaurant and highly recommend it: Louchebem, at 31 rue Berger. Mashed potatoes to die for.

We got back to Thomas' at 1 in the morning. I have no idea how I was still standing on less than five hours sleep, and being up for more than 20 hours. My feet and knees were aching, and every bone in my body was crying for sleep. And so, I slept...

We slept until 8 -- I had wanted to sleep even longer, but just couldn't seem to close my eyes again once they had opened. We puttered around, checking out Thomas' tech toys and planning possibilities for the day (As usual, I used Lonely Planet as my guidebook -- it was left at my house by the Lee Family way back when). Thomas was in Kosovo for a while on a job, so he gave Stefan advice for his upcoming motorcycle trip near the area. We also saw that there had been a riot at the Sorbonne, and made repeated jokes that we'd really come to Paris to see burning cars and people on strike, and were happy that we wouldn't be disappointed. It was well after 11 when Stefan and I walked back to the train station to return to Paris and meet Olivier. As we left, I was struck by what a cute village Thomas lived in. I hoped to see more of it at some point. We arrived at Luxembourg station, and walked down the street, then down another, to the Pantheon, stopping on the way to share a delicious chicken sandwich on fresh onion bread. When we were across the street from the Pantheon, I turned around to look back down the street, and there, through the mist and rain, at last, was the Eifel Tower. It was my first time seeing it. I turned to Stefan and said, "Okay, now I've been to Paris."

It was gray, raining, and cold, but I didn't care -- I was in PARIS, and it was all proving to be so beautiful... we walked to the steps of the Pantheon, turned around, and here came Olivier running to meet us. Olivier runs a lot. I don't think you could be in a bad mood around Olivier. You certainly wouldn't be bored. He had no idea about the riot the day before, but just shrugged and said, "That's Paris!" I pointed out to him an apartment building next to the Pantheon and said that's where I wanted to live. He said it's where the Prime Minister lives. Don't I have great taste?!

He had parked nearby, and as we walked to his car, he began explaining what we were seeing, some things which would be noted in any guidebook, but some things that were just things he really loved or were part of his experience as a Parisian, like what the inside of the university library looks like (as non-students, we couldn't go in). It was such an intimate, wonderful way to see Paris. The best way. Olivier drove us all around town, and then up to Montmartre. And you might as well know if you don't already: I love the movie "Moulin Rouge", and was dieing to see Montmartre. I think I made a little noise of excitement when I saw the Sacrè Cœur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart) on the in the distance. Yes, Montmartre is rather touristy, but it still retains so much charm. In fact, had it been a warmer day and had I not had a massive zit on my chin and had I weighed 30 pounds less, I would have happily sat for a portrait in the little square, and paid whatever price they wanted. At one point, I started humming "La Vie en Rose", and Olivier joined in singing. Forget what I said earlier about living next to the Pantheon -- I want to live in Montmartre. We popped into a tourist shop and I bought a small Eifel Tower -- it just seemed like the perfect kitschy gift to myself.

We had lunch at a very nice but very tiny Asian/Parisian place that was playing American blues music on their stereo, and walked around what used to be Olivier's neighborhood. And all I could think was, this looks exactly like I wanted it to. The weather remained awful, but I just didn't care. We stopped at one point and stood up on a wall so we could look down into some small hidden gardens. "Imagine," said Olivier, "if you lived there, you could sit out in your garden and still be in the middle of Paris." Oh, how I was imagining... ofcourse, the prices are just astounding. We looked at listings in a real estate office window and I almost choked on my fresh chocolate-filled and chocolate-covered eclair.

Wow -- how many people on Earth get to say, "I almost choked on my eclair in Paris"?

I asked Olivier if he knew where Olivia de Haviland lived. He didn't, nor did he even know who she was. And I never did run into her on the street like I was wanting to...

He drove us back to downtown, and dropped us off at Parc des Buttes Chaumont while he went to run an errand and pick up his girlfriend. The weather was getting WORSE -- that is not what the Yahoo weather report had said on Thursday! We walked through the wind and on again/off again light rain to a high gazebo that overlooks more of the park and downtown, then headed back to the entrance of the park to wait for Olivier. He picked us up and we headed for a place to park near the Champs-Èlysèes -- I dozed in the backseat while he looked (I'm becoming an expert in five minute naps while traveling). We walked from the car to the underground passage that goes under the traffic and up to the Arc de Triomphe, and found poor freezing Thomas. Then we all walked back through the passage, passing several World War II veterans who were preparing for a memorial service. As we walked down the avenue, we stopped into the various car showrooms there: the Peugeot show room is okay -- there's a concept car you can't touch, but an upscale car you can even get into (Olivier and I did, and then couldn't figure out how the radio worked -- I think we turned a satellite instead), plus salt and pepper shakers for sale -- I don't quite get that. But the Toyota show room is much better: in addition to the i-unit concept car on display, upstairs has a really cool hand-eye coordination game, and a video game that you sit in a replica of a Formula 1 car to play.

We were supposed to go bowling that evening, but I could tell I was never going to make it, and Thomas looked quite tired as well, so I suggested we just go for a big meal and then call it a night (but part of me was so disappointed in myself, because I had already pictured the title for this blog as "Bowling in Paris"). After a visit to a big CD and DVD store (yes, they do have a box set of Jerry Lewis DVDs but Thomas SWEARS the French do NOT think he's a genius), we went to this wonderful Italian restaurant in an adorable little neighborhood. It's the kind of tiny place where there's all sorts of imported wines and pastas on shelves lining the walls everywhere. My food was to die for. We were joined for most of the meal by Thomas' wonderful wife, and before we headed home, we made one last tourist visit: to the Eifel Tower. I was disappointed that the cold and rain had ruined any plans I had to go to the top, plus any pictures I had wanted. But it was enough, for just this trip, to see it in its lit-up splendor. We got to see it both with the flashing lights and without, and it was staggering just to stand underneath it. I almost cried... I will the next time, when I get to actually go UP. We were there just five minutes, and ran back to the car, in time to be hurried along by the impatient French police. By the time we all got home, I was again on the verge of collapse, and suggested that, for Sunday, sleeping in really sounded like a great idea. Everyone agreed. And that's the last I remember of that day...

The next day, we slept only until 9. Which actually is quite late for me, even on vacation. But we all needed it. There were five of us in Thomas' tiny apartment -- we had been joined by his pre-teen daughter-in-law. Yet, we all managed quite nicely. The sun was out, but the temperature had dropped even more, and there was an icy wind about. The four adults walked to the downtown of tiny Palaiseau Villebon, and I was so charmed. I grew to love outdoor markets in California and Austin, but they are really special in Europe. Thomas' village reminded me very much of any small village here in Germany, where everyone knows each other and the street is bustling with shoppers and the vendors are all yelling about their fabulous whatevers. The only difference was it was SUNDAY (no shopping on Sundays in Germany!) and, well, everyone was speaking French. But otherwise, it was the same. Oh, also except for the selection of cheeses. Zowie. Thomas asked me what I wanted and I was dumb-founded. I didn't know what 90% of them were! I told him to get some rich, stinky cheeses, because I loved those. We loaded up on these, plus fresh bread (it was to die for), meats and a few veggies. Olivier and his girlfriend joined us back at Thomas' later and we gorged ourselves via one of my favorite ways to dine -- a la carte. At one point, Thomas spread some fig preserves on a piece of hard cheese for me, and after I took a bite, I thought I was in heaven -- and I don't like fruit! It went together perfectly...

It was this point, I think, that I remembered to ask Thomas and Olivier about smoking in Paris - I had been stunned at how little there was, compared to Germany or Spain. They said the government had gone on a big anti-smoking campaign, plus banned smoking in oh-so-many places, and it really had drastically reduced the number of smokers. If you are from California, you will still perceive a lot of smokers, but if you've toured other parts of Europe, you should be surprised at how few smokers you see, relatively speaking. Viva la France!

Stefan and I consulted Lonely Planet and tossed a few ideas back and forth on things to do before our 7 p.m. flight. It was too late to see the Catacombs, so we decided to head to Notre Dame and wander around inside and outside, then come up with something else to do if we had time. Olivier suggested we stay for a while and play "Superstar," the video game where you have to dance on the game console, but we declined ("Hmmm... Notre Dame or 'Superstar,' Notre Dame or 'Superstar'... how can I choose?"). We said our goodbyes and headed back to the train station and back to downtown for once last time. It was finally sunny, but the temperature had dropped even further.

Stefan and I each had a small bag, but his was a back pack -- mine wasn't. Note to self: if any walking is going to be involved on a trip, bring the back pack. Notre Dame is lovely... but it did not drop my jaw like Köln Cathedral has on more than one occasion. The most interesting part of Notre Dame, IMO, is the ceiling, but the stained glass just isn't really that spectacular, if you've been to a lot of other Cathedrals (and for a non-Catholic, I sure have been to a lot...). We skipped the church treasury, because such usually upsets me more than impresses me (which would Jesus want: a golden communion cup, or an entire village of African girls to go to school?). We were appalled at the skirts of the Japanese school girls in the freezing temps, and we shook our heads at the couple of Asian tourists wearing face masks out of fear of getting bird flu (have you read about the people who have gotten bird flu and what they were doing with their chickens? Believe me, you are not going to get bird flu at Notre Dame). We walked along the Seine, looking at the book stalls and laughing at the French postcards -- which are actually, for the most part, more lovely than "dirty." I was on the lookout for an old French/English dictionary or an old French travel guide to Europe or the USA, but found neither. Then we walked across Seine and down to the Louvre, so Stefan could see the glass pyramid and at least some of the outside. Now that he knows they have a famously-large collection of Egyptian artifacts, he's open to going there with me, INSIDE this time, on our next trip to Paris. And there WILL be a next trip.

We got back to the airport train station, no problem, and per several difficulties, finally got to our proper (and still incredibly ugly) airport terminal. We had forgotten Olivier's advice about getting in line for the security check at least 30 minutes before we were supposed to be at the gate for our flight, and remembered his words just as we got there and saw the massive crowd waiting. I was stressed as we slowly... slowly... slowly weaved our way through the line, and watched the French airport security take their own sweet time with just TWO checkpoints open. The stress level in the crowd was rising -- and then it was announced that our plane was delayed, and I calmed down immediately. Even let some people get ahead of me.

We got home just a bit late, and I have to say it was really nice to be driven back from the airport to our home -- I love trains and buses, but I was just spent. I couldn't think anymore. Glad I wasn't driving...

Just a few pictures are posted on my Yahoo group. Sorry about that. But the weather really was awful, and I really don't want to remember this massive blemish on my face, except in words...

On the plane ride home, I made a list in the back of Lonely Planet France, of everything I want to do on the next trip. It will definitely take more than a weekend.

See pictures from this and other travels.

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