Our First Glimpse of The City of Lights

Trip Start Jun 12, 2006
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Trip End Nov 28, 2006


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Thursday, October 26, 2006

He Said:

I had already been to Paris so many times in my mind that when I finally got there it felt like I had been there before. The metro stop announcements were recognizable, the streets looked familiar, and the café chairs felt comfortable. Within those first thirty minutes, the entire trip took on a new energy born from decades-old daydreams.

Lately, I've received many comments about my health, and I thank everyone for their concern. Many have even mentioned that I've had a sickly appearance in recent photos. Well, I can say that we both feel fine, even though we have both experienced bouts of tiredness at times in the last few weeks. That can happen when the weather changes, after partying with Brian and Cissy for a week, and when the number of days on the road equals 138. On day 139, we arrived in Paris, and that's all it took for me to be ready for another five months.

That morning we had called ahead to reserve a room in the Marais district of Paris, which unfortunately, was only for three nights since the kind Portuguese proprietor was booked solid for the weekend. We dropped our bags and headed out for a bite to eat. A poorly-made Croque Monsieur (basically a ham and cheese sandwich) was sheer joy as we sat on the ground facing the Pompidou Center's inside-out façade. Even bird shit couldn't keep me down. I was in Paris!

After lunch, we walked around the adjoining Homage to Stravinsky, which is every kid's favorite Parisian fountain, and we eventually entered the Pompidou only to find its permanent collection under renovation. We nonetheless descended to the lower level on a set of steps that struck piano keys as they were walked on. What they lead to was one of the most interesting collections of... I don't even know what to call it. There were many different media, many different motives, and many different messages. And, the exhibit was free!

What got to me the most was a short, five-minute film panning the faces of children as they stared into the lens of the camera. There was no title, and I had no idea why they had been filmed. In fact, I didn't give it much thought. I did feel sorry for them for some reason, just as one might feel sorry for the starving African children they show in commercials. They evoked emotion like that, even though they didn't appear to be malnourished or underprivileged. There were no signs of their economic statuses or backgrounds. They were just staring into the camera, and they looked empty, as if their souls were gone. And then, at the end of the film, a note appeared telling viewers that "the following was a film of children watching television." It was scary.

We spent over an hour in that small exhibit, viewing political-minded comics, videogames that replaced handguns with paintbrushes, and another interesting piece called the "10x10", which basically consisted of 100 monitors displaying the most popular photos and news headlines by second. There was one for Europe and the Americas, one for Asia, and one for the Middle East. In essence, 300 different displays, at least a third of which had an image of George W. Bush with practically another third being symbols of corporate America or figures in American culture. I didn't let myself get too caught up in my own personal opinions of the content, but I was struck by how influential our country really is - in all facets of life.

If the United States is modern-day Rome, than the McMenu is a modern-day aqueduct. Fast food is literally everywhere - McDonalds, Burger King, Subway - and it seems to bring nourishment to more Europeans than I ever imagined. I always thought American fast food joints here were basically for traveling Americans needing a break from pasta. They are filled with locals, though. KFC and MTV and Bush represent life in America, and over here, two out of three ain't bad. The question is, why? There are so many culinary choices in Europe, so why do they choose McDonalds? It isn't healthy and it supports corporate America. In many countries it isn't even cheap. But after some thought, I figured it out. Big Macs really are just too damn tasty.

On our first night in Paris we wound up eating crêpes in the Latin Quarter, fittingly at a New York-themed restaurant that named their menu items based on neighborhoods in Manhattan. We both had the "SoHo" and began comparing New York and Paris, from the minute details on the metro to grander observations of the city as a whole:

- In the Paris metro, the trains arrive very often and the station exits don't have the NYC-style revolving doors that would be a complete disaster in the case of a disaster. The Paris transfers do involve underground walks of great lengths, typically distances dominated by Kenyans with skinny legs, not Travel Day-wives carrying 75 pounds of underwear.
- Paris and New York both have the fast-paced, important feel, but while New York may seem rough around the edges, Paris is completely polished. From the architecture to the long-lasting lunches in Belle Époque cafés, there is a softness in Paris that is undeniably appealing. Paris felt like New York and San Francisco all rolled into one, with a hefty splash of Viennese grandiose thrown in for good measure. Walking is a joy, even more so than in New York, which for me is saying something because, aside from going to the Gin Mill, walking in NYC was my favorite activity.
- There is definitely some of Paris in New York and some of New York in Paris. For example, if you take the toy boat pond in Central Park and extrapolate that to encompass the entire city, then you would have Paris. And likewise, if you take the essence of Rue de Rivoli and expand that, you would have a city that is more like New York.

We began Day 2 in the Marais and walked from the Bastille, former site of the stormed prison that began the French revolution, to the Jewish Quarter, a lively corner of Paris that is actually inhabited and run by Jewish residents, not gentile entrepreneurs hawking menorahs and Hebrew necklaces as in so many other Jewish Quarters throughout Europe. There were actually mezuzahs (tiny boxes containing prayers that Jewish people hang outside the front door) lining the doorjambs and amazing falafel restaurants run by Israelis. The neighborhood felt lived in, which was a nice change from places like Prague.

After visiting the quaint and quiet Places des Vosges, we headed for the Jewish Museum of Art and History. In certain ways it was similar to other Jewish museums, as it displayed artifacts from many holidays. But in other ways, it was completely different and added the importance of art into the mix, such as rare pieces from Chagall that portrayed Jewish subjects. We learned more about the long history of Jews in France and how Napoleon was the first leader in Europe to proclaim their emancipation. And we also discovered how so many Jewish leaders have helped incubate some of the ideals that the French hold so dear, such as the separation of church and state. Because of a pioneering rabbi who refused to swear on the bible before his trial, witnesses in French court don't have to do this today, thus maintaining a separation between civic law and spiritual law.

Lastly, our museum tour took us to the largest collection of Picassos in the world, thoughtfully organized chronologically. After seeing so many of his masterpieces throughout Europe and back in New York, though, it was sort of difficult to be overwhelmed. What is noticeable in such a large museum is the sheer breadth of his work. Picasso was basically painting right up until his death, and the stuff he was creating even in the 60s was just as powerful as his turn-of-the-century paintings. I think this was a relief to Alli, who is, of course, almost halfway to sixty now.

Being that we were staying in the Marais, a neighborhood that was fittingly a former "swamp" north of the Seine, we decided to see as many Right Bank sights as we could during our first three days. Aside from saving the Louvre for later, we walked through the Tuileries Gardens and enjoyed a sense-shocking display of national flags, all in black and white. Then we passed through the Place de la Concorde and stared up the Champs-Élysées. We stopped for a while, and I realized that the longer we stood there, the more empty I was feeling. There wasn't a site in the world I had wanted to see as badly as looking up the Champs-Élysées toward the Arc de Triomphe with the Eiffel Tower to my left and the Place de la Concorde obelisk behind me, and finally seeing it with my own eyes was starting to leave a void.

The rest of our time in Paris consisted of a quick visit to Montmartre, which didn't even come close to satisfying desires to explore this "village" of Paris, and I was fortunate that we decided to create more time! Since hotels were seemingly impossible to book for the weekend, and since Alli was still seeming a bit sluggish (though I knew there was no way she was ever going to match my newfound enthusiasm), we decided to have a come-to-Jesus sit down and clear the air. We had drinks for the third day in a row at our new, favorite café near Place St. Michel in the Latin Quarter. We shared a pitcher of wine and discussed the possibility of flying home early to surprise Jamie for her and Alli's 30th birthday (sorry Jamie, I really left it up to Alli!). We discussed heading straight to Amsterdam. We discussed all of our options and put them all on the table. I have to say, though, I was extremely happy when we decided to return to Paris after a few days in Normandy. Three days in the City of Lights just wasn't enough to satisfy a lifetime of dreams.

She Said:

As the train pulled into the Paris train station, and Chad's self-proclaimed second wind kicked in, I knew I was in for a jam-packed week of touring and museums. During a layover at one of the other stations, we called a few places to find a room for the week, but only ended up finding one with availability for the first three nights. We assumed it would be easier to find a hotel once we got there for the remaining week, we would soon find out that we were wrong. Since I had been to Paris before and knew that this was one of Chad's most anticipated stops, I basically relinquished all sense of planning to him. He navigated us to our hotel on the metro, and we arrived to a friendly Portuguese man and his wife eating lunch (clearly the reason the room wasn't ready). We dropped our bags and agreed to come back after we had some lunch too.

The hotel was located in the Marais neighborhood, an area described as a "Soho-Greenwich Village locale", and coming from Bleecker Street in NYC, this sounded like the perfect place for us. But, we were actually on the outskirts of this neighborhood with shady looking shops lining our street and homeless people camped out at every ATM machine. We were, however, a close walk to the Pompidou Museum, and walked straight there to have some lunch. We grabbed sandwiches and sat under a tree on the cobblestone road facing the museum. We weren't sitting two minutes when Chad got shit on again. This time it was really bad and we had to use multiple reinforcements from our supply pack to clean him up (once again, thank you wet naps and Purell!). All I can say is that if it's true that getting dumped on is good luck, Chad should be the luckiest guy in the world!

As we ate our lunch, we examined and read about the museum in front of us. This façade, and basically the whole building, appeared inside-out with its clear glass windows all around revealing colorful modern art piping inside. It wasn't like anything I had seen before, and when we read about the exhibits, I was even more intrigued to see some "far out" modern art. Chad, a.k.a Clark Griswold, basically laid out the week in terms of pairing tours and neighborhood walks with their corresponding museums and/or cathedrals. So, this museum would have to wait until the assigned day. Like I said, I surrendered and agreed to follow his plans, but I did assert a disclaimer that allowed me to opt out of any pre-planned activities (i.e. museums) if I wasn't in the mood.

We went back to the hotel to check in, and after some confusion and miscommunication with the owner, we proceeded to a room with the bathroom down the hall. But, not without a promise for a new room with our own bathroom for the following two nights. From that point on, we began walking around and didn't return until ten hours later. We walked back in the direction of the Pompidou just as grey clouds turned to black. Within seconds, the rain began, ultimately making the decision for us about whether or not to go to the museum. We walked in, though, and found out that the modern art exhibits, basically the main attraction, were closed until 2007. So, while we waited out the rain, we found a free exhibit on the lower level and walked down some musical stairs to take a closer look (stairs like the FAO Schwartz floor piano). This exhibit was a smorgasbord of thought-provoking photographs, adapted technology for hands-on art exhibitions, short intriguing films, and a multimedia display of up-to-date headlines around the world. It was a great exhibit that I really enjoyed, and by the time we were ready to go, the rain stopped.

We took our first stroll across the Seine, kissed for good luck, and entered the Latin Quarter. This was a lively area packed with bars and restaurants. There were also tons of hotels that we decided to check out for the remaining days we would be in Paris. We stopped at our first Parisian café, Café Le St Andre, for cocktails and conversation. Then, for the next three hours, we went door-to-door in search of a reasonably priced hotel for the remainder of the week. We got one "complet" (full) after the next; everyone was booked from Thursday through the weekend. We had no idea that October was peak season for Paris, and we began to wonder if we should modify our plans a bit. We gave up searching for the night and enjoyed a delicious dinner of crepes and red wine.

After switching rooms the next morning, we left again for what would end up being about an eight hour day of walking. We started a formal walk around our neighborhood, Marais, and began at a park called Place des Vosges (it reminded me of Grammercy Park the way it was gated all around and initially locked when we arrived). With a nice fountain in the middle surrounded by benches and grassy areas, this seemed like a place to escape the commotion of the city. We sat on a bench and watched some art students sketching an opposing building and took in the stillness of the area. From there, we walked to the Jewish Quarter, and I was pleasantly surprised at how lively and energetic it was. There were open shop doors, vivacious falafel stands and restaurants, and students lingering down many of the streets. We went to the Jewish Museum, which was, in my opinion, the most thorough collection of Jewish history and exhibits of the holidays and events that define the religion. We spent a lot of time there, and although much of it wasn't new to me, I felt like I took away a deeper understanding of some of the less celebrated holidays, and new knowledge of my ancestral history in Europe (particularly France). We went for delicious falafels at a lively, Israeli family-owned place and enjoyed the rest of the day walking it off in adjacent neighborhoods!

I was beginning to feel anxious as we were unsure of what to do about accommodations, beginning to really feel the financial strain of the trip, and anticipation of a landmark birthday that for the first time in thirty years, was away from home. Chad noticed fairly quickly and decided we needed a family meeting. We went to the café we had gone the day before and figured it all out over a glass of wine. We decided to change our plans and take a break from Paris until after the weekend since we couldn't find accommodations. We also decided to spend my birthday there, with the bonus of seeing my friend Tracy who would be in town the following week. So, we made a reservation at a hotel for the following week at a place over our budget, but with what seemed like the nicest Madame with a hotel in the best location. We decided that our trip was almost over, so what better time (and reason for my 30th) to spend a little more to have a bathroom in the room!

We spent the next few hours at the Picasso Museum delving into the immense collection one painting at a time. This was a museum I really enjoyed as I am a fan of old Pablo; however, I will say that I never knew he was such a pervert! Maybe I have seen one too many of his cubist and Guernica paintings to realize it, but he paints a lot of genetalia, both men and women (and it's really detailed!). Anyway, I am not sure if Chad was happy I was enjoying myself or ready to kill me for the childish jokes I was making, but we had fun either way.

From there, we took a very long walk to the area of Montmartre. If you have ever been here before, you will know that once you arrive to the area of Montmartre, you still have to climb uphill to get to the Place Tertre (the main square) , with even more steps to get to Sacre Coeur. Once we reached to top, we decided to partake in the café scene once occupied by writers and painters. We got a table in the window and ordered a carafe of wine and a crepe. We hung around for a while watching the tourists come and go as the characture artists tried to sell their services. We roamed the streets in search of a look-a-like fictional street Chad painted for my 23rd birthday present and searched for historic windmills. We ended up at Moulin Rouge, and Chad let it slip that this was one of his ideas for my birthday. I pretended not to hear, intent on being surprised, although, I was excited at the prospect (even though it did appear quite touristy). We went back to our neighborhood in search of the "village-like" area we read and heard so much about and finally found it. We walked around the shops, and went for dinner at a local Italian joint.

We had a nice conversation with our waiter who told us that he envied our American citizenship. I was intrigued by that statement since I was of the same indistinct American opinion that the majority of the French hated us and our culture (also recall that my last experience in Paris with my sister wasn't all good). As we spoke further, he explained that Paris is not like it used to be and that there was a lot of violence within the city, mostly from people forced to live in the suburbs. He seemed disgusted with this recent wave of crime and violence, particularly as it pertained to and targeted absent-minded tourists. We left with some interesting food for thought and promised we would be back to tell him how we enjoyed Normandy, our decided detour from Paris.
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