Paris As Birthday Cake
Trip Start Jun 12, 2006
62Trip End Nov 28, 2006
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Better late than never. Here are our final blogs. Hope you enjoy them.
We were on the TGV in backwards-facing seats. There was no way of knowing what was coming toward us. Other trains shot past in the opposite direction. Why don't they put more space between oncoming tracks? A force was drawing us back. We were pull-string dolls. Gare Montparnasse held the hoop at the end of the cord. They say you always remember your first time. When it comes to some things, the second time can be even better. This was definitely true of Paris.
Our initial three nights weren't enough. We had booked a hotel for another six the previous week. Jerry Seinfeld taught us the important part about reservations is actually holding them. The Madame at Hôtel de Nesle was only good at taking them. My wife wasn't thrilled to use the bathroom closet in the stairwell down the hall, so we spent our second first night in Paris just as we had spent our first first night the week before. We looked for another room.
The next morning we checked into Hôtel Stella down the street. It had a bathroom and high, timbered ceilings for significantly less money. Like other hotels in France, we filled out a card containing our information. Instead of putting "NONE" for occupation, I wrote in "TRAVEL WRITER". I was hoping for better service or a room with a view. Instead, I got a rush from my new reality. I found a job I love going to.
We got to Notre Dame in time for the end of All Saints Day services. Of any church in the world, I had most wanted to see mass in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris. The organist brought the building to life. Songs surfaced from the cold, grey stone. It turned out I had just enough juice in the camera to film the attached video of the final processional, so we had to return to the hotel to recharge the battery. A rookie mistake for a five-month veteran of the tourist trail. As my own new boss, I fired myself on the spot.
When we resumed our walk of historic Paris, we descended into the Deportation Memorial on Île de la Cité. The only views of the outside world were the sky and an iron-barred look at the Seine below
The high chapel of Sainte-Chapelle was built in the 1200s. It took six years to construct and was commissioned by St. Louis IX to house the supposed Crown of Thorns. The nave was lined with 15 floor-to-ceiling stained glass mosaics depicting the stories of the bible. Outside light was shattered into a million pieces of Crayola as it entered the church. I twisted in the middle of room (see attached video). It was like standing inside a kaleidoscope. As the light began to fade, we took a brisk walk along the Seine toward the Louvre only to find out that its late hours had been cancelled due to All Saints Day. Attempt number one had failed. I don't think Alli was too disappointed. I wasn't either. From Sainte-Chapelle in the afternoon to the Seine at night, we were blanketed in Parisian light. The Eiffel Tower glistened. We were living Mona's gaze and didn't need to see it in paint
We needed an early start the next morning to get to Versailles and back in time to meet Tracy, a friend and Alli's former coworker from New York. Luckily, there weren't any lines at 9 A.M. We toured what was described as the greatest palace experience in all of Europe, and we were glad that it was our last. Nothing would have compared if we had seen Versailles first. It had its own chapel, its own theater, and a pretty famous corridor called the Hall of Mirrors where we took a self-portrait. Outside, the palace was even more impressive. Its gardens were the definition of grand. A mile-long Grand Canal was built and once staffed with real gondoliers from Venice. The manicured shrubbery stretched as far as the eye could see, which was almost as far as line of tourists that had formed to get in. I don't think we ever thanked Tracy for motivating us to beat the crowds that morning.
In the afternoon I opted out of chance number two to go to the Louvre so the three of us could all catch up over drinks at Le St-André. After dinner, we introduced yet another rookie to the wonderful world of absinthe, this time in a former Monmartre cabaret turned hotel. The slow caretaker left us two fountains and the remainder of the bottle. He put some swingy jazz on the radio
In the morning, Tracy left to go see her friends in the suburbs, and Alli and I went to the Père Lachaise cemetery. We bought a map from a guy who told us that New York City isn't really in America. Despite the terrible exchange rate, he wanted us to pay in dollar bills. The French hate Americas so much that some of them prefer our currency. But we only had euros, and we had a good laugh with him. He pointed out the locations of the most famous graves in the cemetery. In turn, I gave directions to half of Paris, which had also come to see the All Saints Day flowers but apparently had not bought maps from our friend at the gate. We visited Oscar Wilde, Max Ernst, Gertrude Stein, Edith Piaf, Chopin, Jim Morrison, and amongst others, some guy named Fucker. This is the only cemetery I've ever seen where the spirits seem to live. There's so much brilliance buried in those mansioned tombs.
I went my own way after Père Lachaise and took the metro back to Monmartre for coffee in a window at the base of Sacre Coeur. I had painted that perspective in my mind so many times. Beginning my photo shoot, I climbed the stairs through crowds of people listening to a street performer singing Bob Marley songs. And finally, I entered the white domes of the Sacre Coeur basilica. There was tourist traffic, but it seemed more used and worshipped in than other cathedrals I have seen. Compelled, I sat. I wrote. For 30 minutes I had a come to Jesus with Jesus. In a way, isn't all writing inspired by God? More important than the destination of the path is watching where you step while you're on it
One of the great things about France is its bread. No other country does it better. A well-made French baguette makes an average Italian dinner loaf seem like Wonder Bread, and you can buy them everywhere, even in the Monoprix department stores. Combine the French bread with Alli's favorite La Vache Qui Rie cheese, and that's a great start to a 30th birthday if your last name is Harris. In reality, though, I sort of felt bad that I couldn't plan much for her celebration due to the unplanned nature of our trip. But then again, when removed from the last five months, Alli's birthday activities were enough to win most people's Best Birthday Ever Award.
As suggested, we began the day by having breakfast in Luxembourg Gardens. We couldn't find the omelettes, but enjoyed the leisure hub of Paris as the city began to stir to life. We went to the Saint-Sulpice cathedral. Dan Brown's so-called Rose Line is apparently untrue, and the church's many signs and placards didn't hesitate to point that out. We enjoyed a nice walk. The weather was great, and the views of the Eiffel Tower changed block by block as we left Les Invalides. We sat in the Champs de Mars. We were in a postcard, eating crêpes that were even sweeter in the shadows of the Eiffel Tower.
The line to climb was significantly shorter than the line for the elevator. When the woman sold us under-26 tickets, I realized that Alli turning 30 bothered me more than it seemed to be bothering her
If heaven used to be the Lowenbrau tent, it quickly became the top of the Eiffel Tower. I no longer felt bad for not being able to plan birthday events for Alli's 30th. They sort of planned themselves. We walked back down to the Seine and watched the children ride the carousel beneath the tower. I don't know who was happier, the parents or their kids. Our river cruise arrived, and as we pulled away from the dock, the lights on the tower began to dance like a candle flame. We watched it as we rode up the Seine until, with a gust of wind, the glittering stopped. The city of Paris had become a birthday cake.
We found a Belle Époque restaurant on a small, pedestrian-only alleyway in the Latin Quarter. It looked and felt that the quintessential Parisian restaurant to me, complete with ornate paintings and brisk service
There is a common misconception that the French don't like to speak English just out of spite. In certain cases, this is probably true. Mostly, though, it comes from their culturally-rooted love of language. They are a nation of linguists, and though many people in France speak English, not all consider themselves to be good enough to speak it in public. It is insecurity, not rudeness, which sometimes prevents them from speaking other languages. The waiter and I mentioned how we both needed practice. He appreciated my efforts to speak French, and in turn, spoke back to us in English. This actually backfired. I told him in French that it was Alli's 30th birthday knowing she wouldn't understand me, and he spoke back in English to congratulate her, thus spoiling any sort of embarrassing surprise. Before long, though, every waiter in the restaurant had kissed her hand to wish her well, and we had two complementary glasses of champagne that were his "gift to the Madame." What began as a clichéd negative experience turned into one of the best dining experiences we had on the entire trip. It was great food in a great setting with great service, all seeped in pride. And if the French can make those all pleasurable out of pride, how can I fault them for also being proud of their language? If that initial setting could be misinterpreted by me, a self-proclaimed scholar and fan of French culture, than I can certainly see how the average American could get the wrong first impression in a similar situation
There are two types of anti-American sentiment in France, and they often get confused and meshed into one. First of all, there is contempt for our recent foreign policy. People realize this is political, and while they like to discuss it with Americans, most understand that President Bush's views aren't held by every American, or even a convincing majority for that matter. The second factor is the Ugly American syndrome, which comes from many Americans' habits of being loud, obnoxious, and expecting foreign cities to be just like they are in the States, with full, drive-thru amenities. Virginie told me that she couldn't even count how many times people have told her that if it weren't for the United States, the French would be speaking German. I, in turn, told Virginie that if it weren't for France, Americans would still be paying unreasonable taxes on tea using money with pictures of the British king. Allies are allies for a reason, and aside from a quasi-naval war at the end of the 1700s, France is the only major European power we have never been at war with. I don't think they hate us, but prefer to subscribe to the friends-don't-let-friends-drive-drunk way of thinking. No worries, Pierre. In 2008, we get a designated driver.
The next day, Alli could no longer avoid the museums by playing the birthday card. We went to Musée d'Orsay in the afternoon and saw its amazing collection inside the old train station. The building itself was a museum - open, light, and spacious
Our last full day in Paris arrived, much to my chagrin. I began the day by climbing the Notre Dame bell towers while Alli sat in the square below and wrote in her journal. I instantly had dozens of new friends high above the Île de la Cité, including one I liked to call The Gargoyle Thinker. The towers lent interesting views of the cathedral's nave, flanked on both sides by its famous flying buttresses. And in the morning fog, the Seine below looked like a water droplet falling down a steamed-up mirror. Past monuments to Quasimodo, I climbed back to street level, and Alli and I headed home to the Left Bank.
In all of my time on Earth combined, I have never seen more bookstores than I did during the seven days of living in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Books in Paris are like rats in New York. For every Parisian there must be at least 20 of them for sale somewhere in the city, and that doesn't even include the volumes already purchased, read, and domesticated on bookshelves throughout town. It's no wonder that so many writers called Paris home. People here read. Passionately.
We began another iPod walk of Hemingway's Paris at the infamous Shakespeare and Company bookstore, opened by former Beat poet George Whitman, who may or may not be the grandson of famous poet, Walt. He was actually there, milling about the store, shuffling through boxes of books marked with anti-corporate bookstore slogans
Finally, it was time to go to the Louvre. Late hour Mondays were listed as one of the best times to go according to an excerpt from the Let's Go Western Europe Guidebook for 2006. The reason I mention the title with such detail is so no one ever buys the book again. Ever. I descended into the pyramid right around 6 P.M. The atrium was still buzzing with activity. I grabbed a map and headed directly underneath the pyramid as instructed by my iPod audioguide. I got my bearings. I looked around. I moved up the escalator toward the Denon Wing. Nobody was there to check my museum pass. All of a sudden, things began to look closed. I checked the back of the map and realized things were closed. The guidebook was wrong about late hour Mondays. I became probably the first person in history to spend 12 days touring in Paris and not go into the Louvre. I wasn't too happy when I emerged from the glass pyramid back into the chill of night. If we only hadn't spent the entire day running down Paris' literary history, perhaps I would have gone to the Louvre earlier and would have gotten in. Symbolically I chose writing over painting, and on the walk home, I was fine with that. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words allow everyone to visualize for themselves..
I decided to walk back to the Latin Quarter over the Pont des Arts, which quickly became my favorite bridge in Paris because of its views of the Eiffel Tower to the west and Île de la Cité to the east. I watched the currents below from its pedestrian-only planks and made my way to the walk along the Left Bank. A bench was waiting for me under a bridge next to the Seine. For about an hour, the Notre Dame façade reflected back at me until I noticed a red-lit river cruise moving toward my bridge. In life there are small moments that define it. They are quick images that make up the vignette titled, "My Life Flashed Before My Eyes". Segments of my film include seeing my wife walk up the aisle, watching an orange and blue sunset on a 32-29 Gator victory over the Seminoles in The Swamp, and eventually witnessing the birth of my child. I added another moment when that boat passed. For a few seconds, the bleached archway of the bridge was bathed in red light. The river played its banks like a violin. My voyeuristic friends on the Notre Dame bell towers observed it all. And I was in La Vie en Rose. I had fallen in love with Paris, not in an ad-campaign-from-the-tourist-bureau kind of way, but as if the city was a person I will return to periodically throughout my life. The city of Paris had become a mistress.
So far on this trip, I was always excited to be moving on to the next destination no matter how much I enjoyed a place. I wasn't looking forward to leaving Paris. In fact, I was dreading it. Before heading to the bus station, Alli and I walked along the banks of the Seine one last time. We sat on a bench in the sun. I felt like I used to feel when I'd visit Alli for a weekend in New York, and I'd have to leave on Sunday night
Hemingway said that "if you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." I'm not sure that ten nights can really constitute as living there, and I'm not sure if I'm still considered a young man, but I sure as hell know what he means. I'll be dining on my days in Paris for a long, long time
The businessman stood up and wished us a "bon journée" before walking down the river. He was probably headed toward his favorite café where his wife was waiting for dinner with a glass of wine. We stood up and walked back over the Pont des Arts, where we had one final kiss over the Seine.
I finally get to join in the blog! After much anticipation, and appreciative re-arranging of their plans, it miraculously worked out for us all to meet up, even if it couldn't be for as long as we'd like. Truthfully, it could've been Paris or anywhere, I was just so excited to see them both and have some catching up time with my favourite girls.
One of the great things about living in New York is that it prepares you for cities like Paris, where you can just arrive, hop on the Metro, transfer a few times, and voila! You meet your fellow New Yorker friends in front a Starbucks in Paris. We made our way back to the hotel to drop off my bags, and after a bite to eat, our first stop was St. Andre, already Chad and Alli's local pub
Having read so much about Chad's intrigue into the hidden world of absinthe, I thought he would be the perfect guide for something I had never tried before. Chad searched out a variety of places for us to go until we settled on one near Montmartre, and apparently with quite a history. It seemed, however, that we were the only ones aware of its history, and lucky for us, we got lots of attention and the place all to ourselves. It was actually pretty good. Alli even drank all of hers, and, in fact, we drank the place dry! We left with, sadly, no hallucinations, but just a slight buzz. From there we went and had dinner in a cafe facing the Moulin Rouge. It really didn't matter what the food was like, or the service. It was pretty spectacular to be sitting in this amazing city, catching up with friends, and listening to stories of an incredible trip.
The amazing thing about a city like Paris, and really most of Europe, is looking around and realising you are walking around in a place steeped with so much history. Sitting in the absinthe bar, hearing about the days when it was banned, looking at the old art that flourished in those times that you've seen a million times before but didn't mean much, and looking out at the Moulin Rouge, knowing the Sacre Cour is so close by you can almost feel the history around you, and it is quite surreal that you are a part of it, even more so that you are walking around it with your friends from New York
For those of you that might wonder what a trip like this might do to Challi? Don't worry, they are still the same as before, still with their same tendencies, personalities, and neuroses, just lots of new stories to tell. When you sit down for a beer, it could just as easily be at the Gin Mill, the Leitrim, or anywhere else! And don't worry, Chad may be sporting a new goatee, but he looks healthy as ever.
Back at the hotel, Alli had her usual shower before bed, and we settled in for our slumber party (G-rated to Chad's dismay). The next morning Alli and I had a coffee before I headed off to meet some other friends - at our next meeting Alli would be in a new decade! We met up the next night. I was with my friends after a dinner of all you can drink red-wine, and we all happened upon a very happening Irish Pub that was the perfect place to celebrate a 30th birthday. While this part of the trip was easily the best, my memories of it are also few. But needless to say, we drank (a lot), we danced (a lot), we hugged (a lot), and enjoyed how great it is to have a night out with friends. I looked around and realised that of the six of us, we represented four countries (France, Ireland, USA, Canada) and really isn't that the reason why they embarked on this trip in the first place?
I'm actually quite grateful that I don't have many memories of the end of the evening (or the early morning), particularly the goodbyes, as our last goodbye in New York was not easy
I was happy to be arriving back in Paris with reservations. We chose this hotel mainly because the Madame was so pleasant, but also because she promised us a nice room with a bathroom. I was skeptical when we made the reservation because she was very nonchalant with the reservation and used an antiquated appointment book to write our credit card down. Unfortunately, my suspicions were correct because when we arrived, there were only two rooms available, one with a bathroom for a much higher price, and the other for the price we were told with no bathroom. After a heated exchange with the Madame's husband, we took the cheaper room without a bathroom and once again hit the road looking for a replacement hotel. This time we were very lucky and found a clean, family-owned hotel with a much better vibe and a much cheaper price
The next morning, we successfully switched hotels and headed straight for the Notre Dame Cathedral to try and catch the choir for the All Saints Day service. We arrived just in time to hear the beautiful voices of the choir and an organ solo that was so powerful, it took my breath away (the organ was sort of like spooky Halloween music with amazing acoustics). As the mass ended, so did the life of our camera battery, so we were forced to return to the hotel before finishing our tour. Once fully charged, we headed back to Notre Dame to see the rest and began our iPod audio walking tour, yes, by Rick Steves. We laughed at what nerds we looked like, walking close together with our headphones plugged into a splitter attached to our iPod, every so often one of us making a wrong turn and yanking the others earpiece out by mistake. For the sake of time and interest, I am only going to talk about the main stops on the tour. However, between each stop, we were prompted through almost all of Île de la Cité with small streets and historic landmarks all along the way.
The tour began with extensive explanations of the exterior, interior naves and alters surrounding Notre Dame. From there, we were taken down an inconspicuous set of narrow stairs to the Deportation Memorial, a memorial to the 200,000 French victims of WWII. As we reached the bottom of the stairs, we were immediately surrounded by walls and a small, black, wrought-iron gate with a small window looking out on the water. This was designed to make you feel like a prisoner, like the Jews and dissidents, with your only freedom being the view of the sky and water below
The next major stop on the walk was St. Chapelle Cathedral. Now I know that I have said that I had enough of cathedrals, but this "cathedral of glass" was an exception. You can't tell from the outside just how beautiful it is because you are first meant to notice the Gothic architecture and flying buttresses. When you enter the main alter, where the set-up is much like the Sistine Chapel with chairs situated around the room for people to sit in awe, the beauty and light of the windows becomes mesmerizing. It's so compelling that I didn't even notice the fifteen panels of stained glass were representative of scenes from the bible. The whole effect of the light shining through the brilliant colored glass is impressive enough, so special attention to the biblical scenes is almost like a bonus for those who wish to appreciate them
We ended the four hour walk at a small park nearby, Place Dauphine, and I began to shiver from the cool breeze coming off the Seine River. We crossed the Pont Neuf, the oldest standing bridge in Paris, and paused to admire the views of the Seine, passing boats, surrounding buildings, and nearby bridges. We headed back to the Latin Quarter for an early dinner with the intent on going to the Louvre afterwards. I wasn't actually planning on going to the Louvre again, but Chad promised he was going to keep the visit to the two-hour audio tour we had in our iPod, so I decided to go with him hoping that the late night hours would yield fewer crowds. Plus, I thought it would be "Da Vinci" -esque to go at night and added in the fact that the last time I was there, I didn't really give the museum enough time past the Mona Lisa (sorry Jay but we definitely rushed through it). Unfortunately, once again, we didn't give All Saints Day enough recognition because when we arrived, we found out late night hours were suspended this night for the holiday. So we left and instead walked close to the Eiffel Tower for good nighttime views.
We woke up early the next morning to go to Versailles, since later in the afternoon my friend Tracy would be arriving to Paris. It was a good thing we did go early because there weren't any crowds when we arrived aside from some early rising tour groups
When Tracy sent me a text message that she was standing in front of the Starbucks waiting for us, we both laughed. We had successfully traded Starbucks to-go coffee for sit-in cafés all over Europe, and here was our friend from home waiting in front of this American institution (although quickly becoming a European one as well). We must have spoken a mile a minute trying to catch up (imagine that, two Speech Pathologists speaking fast) once we sat down at a café, while poor Chad was just trying to keep up
The next morning, we left Chad asleep and grabbed some coffee before saying goodbye. It was fun to say goodbye this time because we knew we would see each other in a few days for my birthday. After she left, we headed to Père Lachaise cemetery and wandered through the many rows of gravestones in search of famous people. We saw Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, and many more. The Holocaust memorials were separated by concentration camps, each with its own powerful monument. After that, we split up; I went shopping for something new for my birthday and Chad went to do "things" (I suspected some of it was birthday related!)
We have had a long standing tradition in my family of being woken up on our birthday morning with a piece of toast and cheese with a candle accompanied by a birthday song. Chad picked up on this tradition many years ago, but I didn't expect him to pull it off in a hotel room in France. Well, he did, and woke me up with a baguette and Laughing Cow cheese wedges with a burning match as the candle. He sung to me in his best morning voice and decided that he was more disappointed than I was about me turning thirty because he no longer had a wife in her twenties! We took our time getting up and headed to Luxembourg Gardens for breakfast. Although it was cold, it was a beautiful day for walking around the park. We drank hot coffee and ate breakfast outside. We watched kids play soccer, adults meditate and participate in Thai Chi classes, and toy boats float in the river. Many people were doing exactly what we were doing, sipping a hot drink and watching people go by.
It was definitely weird spending my birthday six hours ahead, there were no phones ringing or emails sent because everyone was still sleeping! It was nice though; we walked down the Seine, stopped in some shops, and even stopped in Saint-Sulpice to see the gold line leading up to the obelisk in the church featured in the Da Vinci Code. We walked to the Eiffel Tower and shared a crêpe while we sat in the grass looking up at the massive tower. We laughed at people taking pictures in the "Pisa-like" stance, pretending to be holding the tower up
We climbed to the second platform, and after 700 stairs, we decided we were high enough. We stayed up there long enough to see the sunset, and then hopped on a Seine River boat back towards the hotel to change for dinner. Just as the boat pulled away, the tower lit up and began to sparkle. We joked that it was singing happy birthday to me! Chad had talked about getting us tickets to see Moulin Rouge that night, but since we didn't know until the last minute which city we would be in for my birthday, and it was Saturday night, we couldn't get tickets. We had the slim option of trying to get into the bar area, but decided that, like the gondola ride, this was one of those extremely expensive touristy things that should wait for the next time around. Instead, courtesy of some very generous family members, we indulged in a very fancy dinner where the waiters double-kissed me and brought us champagne instead of embarrassing me with a rendition of the Happy Birthday song
Clearly, we slept late the next morning, and finally got up at one o'clock for some food. Since Chad let me out of going to museums on my birthday, this was our last chance to go to Museé D'Orsay. It actually worked out better that we waited because we ended up going on Sunday when the entrance was free. Sure, it was a little more crowded, but no one bothered us once we plugged into our iPod for the Rick Steves' tour of the museum. Although we spent two hours there, it was a great tour that gave us the highlights of each room. I really liked this museum the first time I went, and even more the second time. One thing I didn't see the first time around that I was very impressed with this time was the ballroom, not for the sculptures or paintings that hung inside, but solely for the room itself. We went back to the hotel and packed up our stuff for our departure the next day.
We were scheduled to take the overnight bus from Paris to Amsterdam, so we left our luggage at the hotel and headed out for our last day in Paris with no plans at all. We walked around and poked our heads into shops, intermittently stopping to warm up with a hot cup of coffee or tea at the nearest café. We spent some time on a bench down by the Seine River and sat quietly with our own thoughts. I thought about how different my experience was in Paris this time versus the last time I was here