Sunday, June 13, 2004

Birthday in Paris!

Lance and I are back! I had a fantastic time. There are things I loved and hated about Paris, but for the most part, it was really great.

Thursday was kind of a wash. We were told it would take about 4 hours to drive from our house to Paris, but we didn't count on so much construction in Belgium. We were stuck in traffic jams for hours...literally almost across the entire country. So it took us about 7 hours to get there, and then once we arrived in Paris, we couldn't find our hotel! The directions we had were very confusing, so we were lost for quite some time before we finally figured out where the Avenue Jean Jaures was. And then once we found the hotel, we needed to figure out where to park. The hotel actually had a private garage, but it was on a side street and we couldn't see it and the hotel's website did not indicate that the parking was on premises. It implied that parking was down the street somewhere. So we were confused about that and Lance finally parked in a lot one block away (which only took parking cards) and he stayed in the car while I ran to the hotel to figure out where we were supposed to park. I felt really stupid once they told me there was a private garage around the corner.

So by the time we figured things out and checked into our room, it was past 5 pm. And none of the restaurants served food until 7 pm, which we learned the hard way. We stopped at a cafe, hoping to get some food, but they were only serving drinks. So we ordered a coke and a lemonade and he brought our bill with the drinks and then came a few minutes later to get payment. That was very surprising to me because we've always had to ask for the bill whenever we're at an eating establishment. I got the impression that we weren't wanted there, especially since I saw what the waiter did to the other patrons and he treated them differently. He didn't bring their bill along with their drinks or demand payment right away. The drinks were also way overpriced...twice what we pay for the same drinks here in Germany. And that was just the beginning of a weekend of price gouging, which was certainly one of the things I hated about Paris.

After our drinks, we decided to kill some time before we could eat, so we walked to Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, which was a couple of blocks from our hotel. That was actually a pretty neat little park. There was a cool waterfall and a cliff that offers an interesting view of the Montmartre district and Sacre-Coeur basilica. We climbed the cliff and there was a group of young people up there and Lance noticed a weird smell. He later realized that it was urine! And we actually smelled that quite a bit throughout Paris. That was when I first realized that Paris is actually pretty dirty. I saw people littering everywhere and dogs doing their business in the streets and sidewalks and nobody cleaned up after them. Some parts of it were pretty scuzzy. The German cities I've visited for the most part have been pretty clean, so I was really surprised by this. Anyway, after our visit to the park, we grabbed some dinner at a nearby Italian place and then went to our room for the evening.

Friday - my birthday! We decided to start out by taking the Metro to Charles de Gaulle Etoile, which empties out right at the Arc de Triomphe. So we started out there and began our walk down the Champs-Elysees. I actually enjoyed that...that area of Paris was reasonably clean. I got distracted when I saw the Eiffel Tower when looking down one of the side streets, so we turned down that street in search of it. And of course, the street did not take us directly to it, but it emptied out to a monument bearing a replica of the Statue of Liberty's torch (which I later learned has become a tribute to Princess Diana since her fatal car crash was near that spot). We had a good view of the Eiffel Tower from there, so I took a picture of Lance standing by this torch with the Tower in the background. We finally made it to the Eiffel Tower, but I spotted a boat cruise on the Seine that was about to depart, so Lance and I got on it. So from that tour, we saw most of the major Paris highlights: the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Notre Dame, etc. etc. And we had interesting historical commentary being piped in various languages into a telephone-like thing.

The boat took us back to the Eiffel Tower, so we decided to walk underneath it. We were accosted by several men selling cheap souvenirs. And we noticed the lines to get into the elevators going to the top were very long, so we opted not to do it. Instead we decided to return to the Champs-Elysees at the approximate point where we left off and complete the walk to the Place de la Concorde, which is where the guillotine stood during the French revolution and is now marked by a 3,000 year old Egyptian obelisk. We stopped for some lunch at Deli's Cafe along the way and sat in the outdoor dining area to enjoy our sandwiches.

Once we reached Place de la Concorde, we decided to see Notre Dame. So we made the walk to it, and I actually found it to be very disappointing. Lance did too. We just expected it to be so much grander than it was. I guess we were spoiled after seeing the beauty of the Cologne Dom, which is still the most magnificent cathedral I've seen yet. We were also accosted outside Notre Dame by a little girl who was trying to collect donations for her so-called poor Serbian family (which I think is a scam since Lance has encountered something similar in the past).

After Notre Dame, we crossed the river into the Latin Quarter and went to the Shakespeare & Company Bookstore, which has the largest collection of antiquarian English-language books in Europe. I picked out a few paperbacks for Lance to buy me as a birthday present. I made sure to get Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, which was written about his life as a struggling writer in 1920's Paris. It's been neat reading that since he mentions the places we just visited, including Shakespeare & Company. It was a very cool bookstore, and they even have a souvenir stamp to stamp your books with, so I got all my books stamped as my souvenir from Paris.

After that, Lance and I were both exhausted. My feet were starting to get swollen from all the walking we did and I think I twisted my ankle at some point on Friday, probably on the cobblestones. So we tried to find a nearby Metro (and there wasn't really one that took us directly back to our nearest Metro station) and we walked to the closest one that would take us back to our hotel, passing the Paris zoological gardens on the way (where we got to see two ostriches mating, which is not an experience I wish to ever see was pretty strange and scary).

So we got back to the hotel to rest for awhile and we watched Ronald Reagan's funeral on BBC, since that had just started. I took a shower because I felt grungy and I was sunburned, even though I slathered on the sunscreen. Once I felt kind of human again, I dressed up in my nice dress and heels and pearl necklace and Lance dressed up and we looked for a place to have a nice dinner. The hotel clerk recommended a place a couple of blocks away, but when we got there, we saw that they served mostly fish, and I wasn't in the mood for seafood and Lance doesn't like seafood. So we checked out a few other places and finally settled on a restaurant at the Hotel des Buttes-Chaumont, which was right across from the park. They had pasta and some French dishes, so both of us were happy. I was trying to decipher the menu for Lance before we stepped inside. The host asked if I spoke French, to which I replied (in French) that I spoke only a little. And he smiled and handed me an English menu. We liked what we saw, so he seated us in an empty part of the restaurant in a nice romantic little booth where it was quiet and private. He asked us if we wanted an aperitif, and I initially said no, but he talked me into a glass of strawberry champagne. Lance ordered one too so we could toast my birthday. And it was GOOD champagne. Yummy. I asked for a cheese plate and they brought out a plate of 4 different french cheeses (brie, camembert, roquefort, and another cheese I couldn't identify) and a basket of french bread. Lance didn't care for most of the cheese, although he thought the brie and camembert were okay. So I ended up eating most of it. I ordered rabbit and mushroom stew over egg noodles for the main course. Lance ordered pasta and tomato sauce. My food was VERY good, although it was the first time I ever had rabbit and I was initially freaked out, because it was served to me on the plate, looking like 1/4 of a leg and half of the rib cage. Once I got past that initial "ewwwwww" factor and I tasted it, it was very very good. For dessert I had this awesome chocolate lava cake with a scoop of vanilla (?) ice cream, and Lance had chocolate pie, which tasted for all the world like fudge on a very thin graham cracker crust and he had a scoop of coffee ice cream with his. Lance had serious sticker shock from the bill...he didn't want me to see it, but I took a peek when the waiter laid down the credit card receipt. Ah mon Dieu! I will say that the champagne alone was 9 euros a glass (about $11), so it's a good thing it was tasty. And even though I heard that the servers in Paris typically aren't friendly, we had very friendly service. The waitstaff kept checking on us to make sure everything was to our satisfaction, and they attended to the tiniest details, even making sure to come and light a candle halfway through our meal when the lighter was finally found (I guess it was lost). And they just could not have been nicer. I was pleasantly surprised.

After that, we went back to the hotel and I called Mom to talk to her on my birthday. We didn't have a phone in our room, so I had to call from the hotel lobby. I was supposed to call more people, but I couldn't because there were other people waiting to use the phone. So for those of you expecting a call from me on Friday, I apologize that I couldn't.

And that was it for our first day of sightseeing.

I woke up yesterday (Saturday morning) feeling for all the world like a decrepit 90 year old. My feet were swollen and bruised from all the walking we did and I could barely walk when I got out of bed, I was so stiff. I worked out the kinks the best I could and Lance and I were on our way again after the really disappointing breakfast at the hotel. We took the Metro to the Louvre. We walked around in the Louvre for a couple of hours, spending more time in awe of the actual building than the art that is housed inside. But we saw the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo and Winged Victory. I couldn't believe the crowds at the Mona Lisa. It was just insane. I don't think it's one of the most remarkable paintings ever created, so it's fascinating to see why people love it so much. People were even talking to it (quote of the day: "Hi Mona! You're SOOOOO popular!"). I just had to see the crowds for myself. We spent most of our time walking around the ancient Egyptian/Greek/Etruscan art displays. I decided that I had had enough and we left. I wanted to get lunch and picnic at Luxembourg Gardens, so we set out for that as our next stop. On the way, we stopped in a little sandwich shop...BIG mistake! We didn't realize until we stepped inside that it was an American deli. They had bagel couldn't even get sandwiches on a baguette there, and that's what Lance and I both wanted. But he saw that they had A&W root beer and he hadn't had that in awhile, so we decided to get food there after all. He just got a bagel with cream cheese (he ordered ham on it too, but the guy forgot the ham) and I had lox and cream cheese and Lance got a root beer and I got an Orangina. So two bagel sandwiches and 2 drinks...the bill was 15 euros!!! That's about $18!!! I about had a coronary right then and there! I think we paid more because it was American stuff that you can't get easily in Europe (they even had Ben & Jerry's ice cream) and it was obviously created to cater to American tourists. We walked further down the road and there was actually a small market set up with breads and cheeses and I wanted to cry right then...we could've gotten the fixings for a beautiful lunch right there! We finally made it to Luxembourg Gardens and sat and ate our lunch. We sat in the gardens for a long time. It was just beautiful and peaceful there and I was too sore and tired to leave. I wanted to stretch out there for a long time and take a nap. But finally we decided that we needed to move on, and since the Pantheon was right there, we decided to make that our next stop. I had not planned on the Pantheon, but I was feeling spontaneous.

I'm glad we went. But let me say that on our way there, there was a large display of D-Day photographs hanging on the gates surrounding Luxembourg Gardens. So we looked at those briefly before heading up the street to the Pantheon. We both thought it was really neat. The French philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau are buried there, as are some famous French writers (Victor Hugo, Emile Zola) and the Curies. There were some other noteable people buried there too, but they were only noteable either in Paris or France...not internationally. The crypts were interesting...some were fantastically gaudy and others were just very simple. And the building itself was really interesting.

After that, I was still feeling pretty worn out, but not quite ready to call it a day yet. So I suggested on a whim that we take the Metro to Montmartre and explore that area and get a close-up look at Sacre-Coeur. I hadn't planned to do that initially either, but it was a day for throwing itineraries out the window. I'm glad we did that too, but my feet hated me for it. We took the Metro to this station called "Abbesses," which is very deep underground. There were elevators to take you up to ground level, but there were long lines, so Lance and I opted to take the steps. How bad could it be? HAHAHAHA! We climbed and climbed and climbed. And then when we were finally out on the street, we were at the bottom of this very steep hill that we had to climb to see Sacre-Coeur. There was a flea market going on, so it was insanity. And again, we were accosted immediately by some guy upon exiting the Metro station. He spoke to us in French and when we didn't respond, he asked us if we spoke English. Lance and I just played stupid and pretended not to understand him at all. He was trying to get us to come with him so he could show us something. I didn't pass for American anyway because I had been stopped by a French person on the street who wanted directions and seemed surprised when she discovered that I was American, so I was perfectly content to make people think I was European.

So we climbed up this hill. And I thought Montmartre was charming despite the streets being clogged with tourists. It had this great Bohemian flair to it, even if parts of it are cheesy and totally catering to tourism. We got to Sacre-Coeur and admired the fantastic view of Paris from there. I didn't recognize anything except for the Georges Pompidou Center (this crazy modern art museum with all the utility pipes and ducts on the outside). I didn't even see the Eiffel Tower from there, which I thought was strange (although I suppose if I had paid to look in the spotting scope, I could've picked out some of the places we'd seen already). But anyway, we took a look inside Sacre-Coeur and I liked it better on the inside than Notre Dame.

Lance stopped a souvenir shop to get a spoon for his grandmother (she collects souvenir spoons from all over the world and already has quite a massive collection) and I was in search of ice cream and a Paris Christmas ornament for our tree. We decided we were going to get an ornament from every place we go together. And we found both the ice cream and the ornament. So our day was complete and we went back to our hotel for awhile, took a nap, and then ventured out for the first cheap meal we had since arriving in Paris. I got takeout Turkish and Lance got takeout pizza. We were just sick of the price gouging and so deliberately set out for cheap food that we could get before 7 pm. And there was a grocery store right next door to our hotel, so Lance ran in there to get our drinks. And we ate in our room, feeling disgusting for all the grease-pit food afterwards. We spent the rest of the evening watching BBC or soccer with French commentary, and I read my book from time to time.

This morning we got up, had our crappy hotel breakfast, hopped in the car, got lost again (Lance made a left-hand turn instead of a right), retraced our steps, and found our way finally and then got on the freeway to leave Paris. It took about 5.5 hours to get construction this time and we stopped a couple of times for restroom breaks/gas/lunch. I'm glad to be home. Paris is a great city, but there was plenty about it too that I didn't like. But overall, the people were very friendly, which was a pleasant surprise, given the stereotype that Parisians are rude. We never once encountered that (not even at that cafe the first night). Some of the sights there just took my breath away. But I could do without the expense and the litter and the smell. I think I would go again if an opportunity presented itself, but I'm not sure Lance and I will go together again. There is just too much we want to see in Europe in general and not enough time to see it all, so we don't want to see any place more than once if we can help it if it would take away an opportunity to go somewhere new. And Lance didn't like Paris enough to want to go back again. But I would go if a friend or relative wanted to go and asked me to meet them there. There are things there that deserve further exploration, and I never got to see places like the Tuileries or the Musee d'Orsay, which I wouldn't mind seeing. But we did cram in A LOT in 2 days, so overall I'm satisfied that I got a nice snapshot of Paris, regardless of how much we didn't see.

Anyway, I'm coming down with something. I've had a dry cough for the past few days and now I'm getting laryngitis. And I want to thank those of you who sent birthday wishes before/during/after our was nice to get them all. I had a great birthday overall