I, like many people, had wanted to go to Paris for a long, long time. But I didn’t know what to expect of it. I, like many people, had heard rumors of rampant rudeness, of terrible service and a general disregard for any fumbling attempt to speak French. I was dying to see the Eiffel Tower, but I was nervous, too. This was my first trip to a country where the official language is not English. Yes, everything I read before leaving told me that English is spoken everywhere in Paris, but what if, right before we arrived, the entire city decided that they would stop speaking English as a funny joke? Or they were all afflicted with some sort of weird disease that rendered them incapable of English speech? Seriously, I was quite anxious.
For no good reason, thankfully.
I am happy to report that, like Ms Hepburn, I truly believe now that Paris is always a good idea.
I mean, yeah, there were some aspects of the trip that were stressful. Being a naturally anxious person, I often had to talk myself into leaving the apartment each day, knowing that at some point I would be misunderstood, or feel lost, or have to switch to English and hand gestures in order to hold a conversation. Sometimes, it got tiring. But for the most part, everyone in Paris treated us wonderfully. We only experienced two instances of that legendary Parisian rudeness, and many people went out of their way to help us. One young man in a coffee shop slowed down his French instead of switching to English, using simple words and phrases combined with hand gestures and miming to help us get through the entire interaction without having to change languages. It was amazing! The city is beautiful and ancient and bursting with fascinating people and places. I can very easily picture us living there at some point, or, at the very least, going back on the regular.
I kept a journal throughout the trip, and here are a few tidbits from it:
There are so many people making out. Everywhere. Young people, old people, middle-aged people. Everyone is just macking on everyone all over the place. PDA-phobia is not a thing, apparently. It is both wonderfully liberating and wildly uncomfortable.
Navigating the metro was only frustrating and confusing once, and only because I was exhausted and hungry: when we were making our way from the airport to our apartment rental. The train was carnival colors: brash yellow, dramatic purple, deep blue. We passed by a dump, a burnt out (literally) car, and more graffiti than I could count.
Sacre-Coeur was packed. And gorgeous. It was nice to not be allowed to take pictures; I focused on just seeing. It increased the sense of reverence. I also lit a prayer candle and said a silent prayer for I-don’t-know-who. Everyone, maybe. Then we ate quiche on the steps in the sunshine, product of a successful trip to a boulangerie where minimal English was exchanged.
We navigated the metro like a couple of pros, spilling out onto the Place de la Madeleine in the diffuse morning sunlight. A couple of turns brought us to Laduree, a gourmet macaron shop that hurt my eyes with all its bright lights and brighter colors. The macarons were to die for, the very best I’ve ever tasted, perfectly sweet and flaky and flavorful.
At our first distant view of the Eiffel Tower, I made a sound of excitement deep in my throat and danced on the spot with glee.
We chose to climb the stairs at the Eiffel Tower. The second floor was windy as hell, with lovely views. My feet were freezing, because I am the genius who wore sandals in Paris in October. The ticket office for the lift to the top closed because there were already too many people trying to make their way up there. In true French fashion, they simply closed their doors and walked away with no explanation, leaving us to wander around in confusion until we overheard a patisserie worker explaining the situation to an absolutely irate woman. We waited for nearly an hour before realizing there were better ways we could be spending our time in Paris and leaving the way we came.
Notre Dame was a bit disappointing. Too many people, not enough reverence. The stained glass game was totally on point though.
The line snaked around the corner and just kept going, neatly braceleting the park that abuts the entrance to the catacombs. We stood in line, in the cold, for nearly two hours. Then we made our way deep below Paris, beneath the metro and the sewers, to depths I could not think about if I wanted to keep the panic at bay. Still. Deep below the city, in the dim darkness, surrounded by piles of mouldering human bones? My chest was clenched like a fist the whole time.
We bought a brioche and a financier. I made the mistake of starting with the financier. After that orgasmic, almondy delight, the perfectly serviceable brioche didn’t stand a chance.
I spent the majority of my time in the sumptuous halls of Versailles trying to find somewhere to sit down, my whole body heavy and lethargic from the evil machinations of a flu bug that I’m sure I caught in the catacombs (from the miasma of the dead?). The floor was a bit of a different perspective on all that opulence.
I wore my crazy bright leggings today and stuck out like a sore thumb amidst all the black-clad Parisians. (Seriously, no one in this city wears color.)
Street crepes – the sizzle and hiss of batter hitting the scalding surface, steam billowing into the grey air. Nutella and hot dough, slightly crispy. Perfect in the cold afternoon.
Winged Victory of Samothrace. My favorite thing in the entirety of the Louvre. A gorgeous sculpture, full of movement and detail, commanding all attention at the top of a staircase and refusing to relinquish it. She doesn’t even have a head, and still she held us all in thrall.
I was homesick and headache-y, so we stayed in one afternoon and watched Moulin Rouge! I marvelled at how beautiful Ewan McGregor is and sang along to all the songs and cried when Satine died. Then we hauled ourselves out the front door and walked the fifteen minutes down the hill to the real Moulin Rouge, its blade sticking out over a busy street with a slightly degenerate air. Tourists thronged across from it, taking photos. Two girls stood in front of me: “What does moulin mean?” “I don’t know…” So I leaned forward, between them, and said, “It means windmill.” And they both glanced at me, startled. I wanted to go inside and see if there was a jewelled elephant, but I knew there was not. Just a ticket desk, and a souvenir shop around the corner. The commodification and degeneration of another thing that lives more vividly in my head than in reality.
We walked to a patisserie in Abbesses that was purported to have the best croissants in the city. At the counter, I held up two fingers (“Deux croissants, s’il vous plait”) and handed over 2 euros. We ducked to the right of the door and pulled them out immediately. They were buttery and flaky and just a little sweet and, yeah, probably the best croissants I’ve ever had. Flakes tumbled to the ground and pigeons darted around our feet, plucking at them. I didn’t even flinch.
We walked south to a flea market in a part of town that made my skin tight with discomfort. Hawkers lined the sidewalks, aggressively pushing iPhones and men’s shirts and counterfeit Louis Vuitton purses. It swarmed with people, except in the maze of the market, where I found a little peace in the warren of tiny cubes containing ancient treasure and junk alike. In the metro station, we moved off to the side to check where we needed to go. As I pulled out my phone, the scent of what I thought was acetone suddenly scorched my throat. Immediately, my eyes began to water, and I couldn’t stop coughing. Oh. This was a sensation I recognized: pepper spray. We escaped to the platform, but my nose stung for nearly an hour after. That’s the second time that we have been secondhand pepper-sprayed in a metro station.
We waited twenty minutes in the chill dark for the Eiffel Tower light show. It was our last evening, our last chance. I cupped a chocolat chaud and scarfed a mediocre, bland soft pretzel. Bryan sipped a mulled wine that smelled like Christmas. It was freezing cold. (I spent the entire trip freezing my ass off. Next time, check the weather forecast more thoroughly. And pack socks.) At nine o’clock, the tower began to twinkle in the darkness, and everyone oohed and aahed, and shutters clicked while vendors tried to push selfie sticks and replica towers and, more intelligently, bottles of wine.
The baguette was fresh, still warm. It broke apart easily and nearly melted in my mouth, the crust crunchy, the inside fluffy and steaming. I will miss that the most.
(Find my photos of Paris here.)
(Find the post that we used to plan a lot of our trip here.)