[Note: I apologize for the delay on this post. The blog I've been using has somehow had their bulk image uploader severely crash, so I haven't been able to load photos apart from each one individually, which takes about two minutes per photo. I've e-mailed them but it's still not fixed. Annoying!]
It was Paris, or should I say a dream of Paris – which supplied the initial inspiration for this trip. There I was, late at night in the Quarry House Tavern, with friends who stubbornly insisted I follow through on this crazy notion – to think I could simply scurry off to foreign lands on a whim with few contacts, with little preparation and next to no planning, And yet here I am.
[Secondary note: I’m composing this entry from the plane flying home from London, so forgive my slightly wistful tone – from the perspective of this blog, I still have four days to go! No moping just yet.]
Although it felt like I was “cheating” a bit on my landbound train adventuring through old Europe, as I mentioned I’m sure it was the right choice to fly. Ninety minutes in the air, dropped down into Charles de Gaulle airport with not much fuss.
I booked a place in Montreuil, which is on the far east corner of metropolitan Paris, an area which I later found out was a refuge for French Communists throughout the middle of the 20th century. I hopped on the Paris Metro – I’ve certainly learned the skill of becoming an very good on-the-spot decoder of unfamiliar subway maps on this trip – and headed to my temporary lodgings. Passing through a street packed with French folks sitting at outdoor cafes watching a football match, I’m approached by Paul, who along with his girlfriend Lea, would be my hosts. Paul shows me around the place – very cute, in a French Revolution-era apartment with narrow stairs, an small courtyard where neighbors gather for afternoon drinks, and a screened-in outdoor deck. I get settled in, and join my hosts with their friends on the deck to confer about what area of downtown I should set out for. It’s already 10:30 and the subway stops running a bit after 12:00, so I will most likely have to take a cab back late, but I figure it’s worth it for a night spent walking around Paris.
I take the subway to Bastille, which apart from its historical relevance, contains a large traffic circle and square with a pillar in the center, and outdoor cafes packed with people watching people. I read in a book that in Paris, tourists hang out to see Parisians, and Parisians hang out to be seen. (So that’s convenient.) I walk around the circle and hesitantly take a seat at one place, but with service slow and prices high, I rethink this and leap off in the direction of another option before a waiter shows up. I spot a crêperie – they seem to be everywhere in this town – and order a plain crêpe fromage. They add just a touch of salt and though the dough is fried to a crisp on the edges, the cheese is evenly melted and really tasty. Plus, they’re très cheap!
I ask a few local girls where to find English speakers in town, and belying the reputation of the French as unhelpful, they very thoughtfully lay out exactly where I should go, walking straight down one street for around 15 minutes. I do this, but never find the place, and after walking quite a ways, end up at the Oberkampf subway station, which is surprisingly still open even though it’s now around 12:45. I hop on the subway and head back to Montreuil – no cab fare spent, nothing terribly exciting, though I did get to walk around Paris a bit.
My first impressions of Paris? It’s a city with a wide diversity of scents, good and bad, all of which compete for your attention – sweet smelling food, trash, people, even something that smelled like trumpet valve oil. Also, in Paris everyone smokes, and everyone speaks French. (Go figure.) In my first night in Paris I counted three extremely intoxicated and troubled individuals – the first approached me while I was buying subway passes at a machine, claiming that his beautiful Brazilian (?) wife had told him off and that’s why he drinks and can he just have some money. He then proceeds to half assault, half jump over a subway turnstile, singing and half-crying, carrying a large bottle inside a brown paper bag. On the platform, two women who appear studied at this task gently escort the man out. The other two were falling in the streets in the Bastille. This strikes me as a time-honored tradition in this city. And so, day 1 in Paris? Full of flavors, if fairly uneventful as compared with other places I'd been, but I knew I'd have two full days left!
The following morning (or should I say early afternoon), I head out downtown again with a book called Paris Walks, which I picked up cheap at my favorite used bookstore in DC. Although this edition of the book is ten years old, it’s loaded with information and a way to explore some parts of the city on a self-guided tour, written by a mother-daughter pair who are deeply passionate about Paris. I pick the first walk and begin in the plaza of St. Michel, first stopping into Gibert Jeune, an expansive bookstore recommended by a former graduate school professor. I browse but don’t buy anything. (Overall I did quite well with not purchasing a lot on this trip, mostly in the interest of not lugging things back!) In the plaza, there are Spanish revelers still celebrating their victory from the previous night I walk in the direction of Notre-Dame Cathedral, which rises along the bank of the Seine.
At Petit Pont, I make my way over the bridge and in front of the enormous church. Crossing back over, I start on the tour and the first stop is conveniently a location I had very much wanted to see anyway – the famous bookstore Shakespeare & Co., run for over 50 years by George Whitman, a patron, deeply motivated supporter, and host to many writers over the years. This bookshop also features in Before Sunset – it’s the shop where Ethan Hawke’s character reads the excerpt from his new novel and Julie Delpy’s shows up unannounced. (Also, one of my friends at home – can’t remember who – had asked me to investigate whether the letter “D” – or was it “G?” on the fiction shelf looked handmade, and that allegedly she had played some role in its design. Sorry to say, whatever it was was no longer there.) It’s so cool in there, they’re playing one of those classic ambient Miles Davis cuts from the 1950s no one knows the name to. Upstairs they have a tiny room with an old typewriter which anyone may use at any time, plus a reading room and a room with a piano anyone’s welcome to play, but I chicken out. I purchase a small book of poetry which looks appealing – though part of its appeal is its size – and have it stamped with the “Shakespeare & Co. – Kilometer Zero Paris” logo, as my guidebook suggests.
Continuing along the touring path, it’s really fascinating to read the history of some of the buildings, which the authors know comprehensively. Many contain hidden details that to the casual observer might seem mere decoration, yet have stories that go back for hundreds of years. One carved sculpture above a doorway is the goddess of “Justice” flanked by an angel, commissioned for the residence of a local judge, although the book tells me that instruments of torture were found in the basement, a strange form of justice indeed. I walk around the courtyard of the church of Saint-Julien-de-Pauvre (sadly, closed) and continue into a park with a terrific view of Notre-Dame, which boasts what is allegedly the oldest tree in Paris, planted in the 1600s. I come upon what was supposed to be a cookbook shop called Librarie Gourmande (the sign is still there), but given the age of my book, is now vacant. Peering inside, I see some posters for classical music concerts and spend a few minutes framing up a shot of a bright orange “Bach” poster which lies discarded on the bare wooden floor. In hindsight, I think it could be my favorite photo I took along the entire trip.
I make a stop into Tapisseries de la Bucherie, where a woman named Mdm. Veronique makes hand-crafted tapestries, and lectures internationally on this ancient art. Walking in, she sees the book in my hand, and along with another woman they say “Ah, Paris Walks…” and have a nice chuckle – seems I’m not the only one led there by the book! We exchange pleasantries – it’s neat to meet an actual person following the authors suggestions – and I continue on, stopping into a beautiful, quirky toy shop which also comes recommended.
Growing tired and in search of food, I find an agreeable spot at an outdoor café and order a French Onion soup (one of my favorites... though if I'm already in France should I just call it "onion soup?") and a glass of Sancerre. (The waiter seems mystified that I already know what I want and don’t want to ponder the menu.) The wine is sharp, cutting and delicious for this parched walker. I don’t know Sancerre well but my friends at Wikipedia (I found an open wifi connection at the café which I would return to at a few points later in the day) tell me it’s related to Sauvignon Blanc, which I can taste. The soup comes out and its bubbling over with cheese, with the perfect mix of crusty bread and rich, peppery broth. One bite in and I’ve had the most majestic food experience of my trip, up to that point overloaded with veggie burgers. I just sit and enjoy and it’s a terrific feeling to be sitting at a Paris café eating and drinking and people-watching. Back home, it’s the early hours of a weekday workday, and I reflect on the fact that regardless of how bogged down in the mundane some people might be, at that very same moment there are countless people halfway across the world relaxing at cafés as I am now.
I reluctantly leave my spot and head toward the grand cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, a great landmark and place of pride for Parisians for hundreds of years. I enter and pay 5 Euro for an English audio guide that is held to the ear like a cell phone. (This, along with my camera slung around my neck makes me feel like über-dorky tourist.) I take lots of photos, and pay a fee to visit the church library, where precious historical items (supposedly bits of the “true cross”) are kept. Similar to St. Paul’s, Notre-Dame is an enormously high structure, featuring high vaunted, symmetrical arches, so everyone seems to be looking upward. It’s a tremendously beautiful building to be inside, and the stained glass windows and art are well maintained. They even have some Gregorian chant piped in through a speaker system – Medieval Musak, I suppose? – I would’ve preferred live singers but it adds a nice touch.
After spending about an hour inside, I walk out into the jarring, bright sunlight. With intentions of heading to the nearby Museo de Cluny, and after kindly asking if it’s OK to speak English, I ask a female cop for directions, to which she bruskly dismisses me with an “I don’t know.” (Erm… since Cluny is only around 3 blocks away, obviously within her beat, I believe I’ve had my first run-in with the legendary French rudeness toward the non-French.) In front of the cathedral, a group of harmless drummers wanders by, joyfully singing and dancing in Arabic. The cops make themselves truly useful by harassing them for their passports.
I find the 15th century ruins of Cluny by myself; the museum is now closed, but I walk around the garden, a reconstruction of a medieval garden, stocked with medicinal herbs. I take a covert shot of an ancient-looking woman walking at a glacial pace and wonder whether she was a founder. (Sorry.) There’s also a professor teaching a class on how to draw leaves. Sounds pretty sketchy to me. (Sorry again.)
Passing by more cafes loaded with people-watchers, I arrive at the Sorbonne, and happen upon a charming bar called Le Reflet (perfect!) with students speaking very rapid French and enjoying the ambiance of American rhythm & blues and doo wop. I order a vegetable risotto and a Belgian Affligem (so delicious I have two), followed by an espresso, sprawled out on a comfy leather couch, leisurely reading the writer’s newspaper I picked up at Shakespeare & Co., where I come across some terrific writing. This is the life, friends. There’s also something about Paris décor which I’m noticing actually matches the clichéd view of it – in this bar hangs iconic images of James Dean and Frank Sinatra, and on the bathroom door at Paul and Lea’s, a poster of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as well as artsy newspaper front pages and art nouveau posters.
After an hour or so, I hesitantly leave and continue walking, browsing in another bookstore selling records and (unlike my previous shop) exclusively French books. I start the second tour of Paris Walks, which begins along Rue de la Huchette at Theatre de la Huchette, a small theater which has been hosting nightly weekend performances of Ionesco since Feb. 16, 1957! (And I thought The Lion King had a long run.) After stopping for a gelato, where I count as the first time ordering something without use of English (I find hand signals go quite far.) It’s true that the idea of service is different here – at one point, three employees laze about on a shift-change while a line of around ten stand waiting.
Knowing my time is short, I decide to depart from the book and walk along the Seine away from the cathedral. I cross one of the many pedestrian bridges and eventually find myself in the Palais Royale, an incredibly wide plaza which runs alongside the famous Musee de Louvre and I.M. Pei’s famous pyramid. Loads of people milling about – perhaps a few are Da Vinci Code fans looking for lost treasure? On the left lies the Arc de Triumph (wait... was that really the Arc?), and I walk that way, passing underneath just as the brilliant sun is setting in the distance. I continue walking and at long last spot one of the most famous landmarks in the world, the Eiffel Tower, rising in the distance. Decision time – keep walking and take some night photos of the Tower, or settle in at a café and be social? Not knowing what tomorrow’s plans would be, I opt the former and make a much-longer-than-anticipated trek toward the Tower, cutting through residential neighborhoods and cafés with football fans watching the Germany-Spain game. (Go Germany!)
The Eiffel Tower does not disappoint – and again, the image I had constructed in my mind is completely unrelated to the reality. It’s even larger than I had imagined, especially from the perspective of standing underneath, gazing up. The game is now decided (Spain wins, 1-0… a soccer - sorry, football - game with only one goal… shocking, right?) Hundreds of raucous Spanish fans are shouting and dancing in a way not appreciably different from my experience in Berlin.
[Quick rant: Even after being here during the World Cup, I maintain I’m glad America has its own sports traditions (i.e. baseball) and doesn’t just conform to the rest of the international flock on “football.” Though I think lots of Americans pride themselves on their “internationalism” by becoming soccer fans, I also think our relatively nonchalant attitude for this game actually distinguishes us from all this nationalistic boosterism, where any country celebrating could be interchangeable with any other country celebrating, really. Now allow me a moment to disembark my soapbox.]
With time of the essence, I jump in a cab heading back to Notre-Dame – I wasn’t gonna make that walk again. (And have I mentioned both of my feet are severely calloused and cut up from all the week’s walking?) Down by the banks of the Seine, a folk singer is joined by a tourist singing Norah Jones’s Don’t Know Why and it’s all very romantic. (Blech.)
I walk back to Notre-Dame and have a conversation with two Americans sitting on the side walls of the plaza. By 1:00 I know my chance to repeat last night’s subway miracle isn’t happening, so I grab a crêpe and search (for quite a while) for a cab. I tell the cab driver I’m going to Montreuil and he takes me to the Montreiul stop, but I forget my stop is actually Choix de Chaveux in Montreuil. I have him continue on toward the actual stop but when I get out I still don’t recognize where I am. He sees me wandering, very kindly helps me get to where I need to be, then gives me a can of orange juice! I ask, “where are you from?” “Algeria.” Me: “I guess that’s why you’re so nice!” End of day.