Now, I certainly am not the best American, but Fitzgerald understood that anyone who knows Paris knows art, love, and culture. I can’t take credit for that either. To truly know Paris would take considerably longer than the five days that I spent there. However, I do feel like the small glimpse that I got was enlightening. This is hard to believe considering how I was feeling when my journey started.
Flying to Paris was a bittersweet moment. I couldn’t help but linger on everything that I had experienced in Rome. I wanted to savor every moment in that beautiful city. Paris was a rude interruption to my musings. Just as when my roommate and I had first arrived in Rome and instantly missed Norway, when we arrived in Paris we instantly missed Rome! I literally had to force myself to focus on Paris. I didn’t want to regret my time there because my thoughts were stuck in another place. Travel is all about living in the moment!
The directions that we had printed out that directed us from the airport to our hostel were incredibly helpful and specific up to the point where we got off the metro. From there it just said, “The hostel is just a five minute walk from here.” Great. Five minute walk in what direction??? So we picked a random direction and started walking. Not the most strategic or savvy of our plans, but good ole guess and checking never fails. As we walked along we started to notice a shift in the types of stores we were seeing. We went from seeing “Bip Burger” and a supermarket to the blinking neon lights of “Porno Shop” and “Erotic Museum”. In fact, there wasn’t a single appropriate store. No one tells you that Moulin Rouge, the famous cabaret club, is right smack dab in the middle of a pretty sketchy area. The types of people we were seeing were different, too. On the benches we passed by were men holding the necks of half empty bottles of alcohol. Needless to say, we reversed, picked up our pace, and tried to look tough. It was not the best first impression of Paris!
Moulin Rouge. There’s a Starbucks right across the street.
Seeing Paris in the morning light gave me a completely different vibe. The Paris I had seen the night before seemed like a bad dream once I saw Paris come alive in the morning. What a different feeling from Rome though! The buildings have more wirework and more neon lights. At first I thought the neon lights cheapened the look of the city. I was still infatuated with Rome’s nostalgic appeal. Going to Rome was like stepping in a time machine. Paris seemed much too modern. It felt…rushed. Everyone walks with a purposeful stride.
The French are taller than the Italians and have more delicate yet sharper features. Everything about them seems exacting and new. Moving moving moving. Never stopping to sit and appreciate the moment. Much different from the relaxed feel of Rome. In Rome, many store owners would stand in the doorways of their shops and have a cigarette as they waited for customers. In Paris, it is rare to see someone pause long enough to even smoke a cigarette. They smoke while walking or driving to their next destination. I even saw a biking smoker. They are definitely multi-taskers!
However, the French aren’t too preoccupied with their busy schedules to give up common courtesy. Despite all the rumors that I’ve heard about the rude French I found just the opposite! One woman saw us with our map and confused looks on our faces and stopped to help us find our way. Another day, I needed help finding an ATM and every person I talked to was extremely accommodating. Although the Italians are considerably louder than the French, the French are definitely more talkative to strangers. Many times we had someone come up to us and say something and we had to say, “Je ne parle pas français!” (just now when I checked the spelling on Google translate I realized we were pronouncing it all wrong…may explain some of the reactions we got :S). The French don’t speak very good English though, so instead of switching to English like the Italians did, often the conversation just ends. Or my personal favorite was when they just kept on speaking French even though I clearly did not understand a word they were saying. They definitely have a certain pride about their language. EVERYTHING is in French!!! You name it. Even the most touristy areas. The captions under the art in the Louvre. The historical information in the rooms of the Palace of Versailles. The metro. Everything.
Another thing that sets the French apart is their sense of humor. Or maybe it’s just that I looked like a particularly gullible person. Twice, I had a French person look at me with a completely serious face and lie to me just to see my reaction. A woman who worked at the hostel told me that the Wi-Fi cost extra and as I told her we wouldn’t be wanting any after all she burst out laughing for a good five minutes. It was free; she was just messing with me. Another time my roommate bought food at a concession stand and when I ordered the same thing seconds after the worker announced with a solemn face that they were closed. My face must have been pretty alarmed at the idea of not getting my baked potato because he wasn’t able to keep a straight face for very long!
As I’m sure you’ve noticed food is very near and dear to my heart. It is the one area that I am quite adventurous in. French food was delicious! I am really going to miss European bread when I go back to the United States. The French eat perfectly crispy baguettes with every meal and they are wonderfully cheap! They also have many outdoor fresh produce markets and instead of bistros like in Italy, they have restaurants called brasseries everywhere you turn (don’t confuse this with the French word “brassiere”…very different meaning!) On our last day in Paris, my roommate and I split a 16 euro (over 20 bucks) gourmet meal in a brasserie. The first course was escargot in a garlic butter sauce. It came with these strange clamp and prong contraptions. We ended up using our fingers and probably disgracing ourselves… Once I managed to forget I was eating snail it was delicious! Second course was a salmon fillet with a warm lemony dill sauce and for dessert we had the best crème brûlée I have ever tasted!!!
A platter of escargot with some delicious French baguetes.
But Paris isn’t known so much for its food as it is for its fashion. Shopping was definitely something that I was looking forward to! Shopping in a mall in Paris has a different feel than shopping in a mall in the U.S. The stores (I’d say they are the equivalent of American Eagle or Pacsun in the U.S.-nothing like Gucci or Chanel) have guards in nice suits by the doors. Talk about initiative not to steal! I saw two women have to open their purses and let the guards search through them. The prices weren’t all that affordable either…I went to several thrift shops as well but didn’t have much luck. It is hard enough to find something good in a thrift store in the U.S. where I am familiar with all the good brands! I ended up buying things at the outdoor markets.The outdoor markets were…an interesting experience. We went to two types of markets. The first one was strictly an antique market. I tried buying a little box, but I think the man selling them was offset by the fact that I didn’t speak French. I asked him if he spoke English in French and he just shook his head disgustedly and walked away. This was the only time I encountered a rude Frenchman though. Needless to say, my endeavor ended with me sheepishly walking away from the market with empty hands. I also saw another American there (he was an antiques dealer) and learned a little bit about the whole haggling method. He let the seller know that he knew his antiques and lowered his voice a bit and the price dropped too! Unfortunately my attempts at haggling were less fruitful.
Here is one of the stands at the antique market. I think this picture captures the essence of Paris so well. Fashionable, romantic, and the perfect blend of vintage and modern.
The second market we went to had a little bit of everything. There were shoes, coats, jewelry, vintage dresses, antique furniture, and handmade leather bags. I bought two things for 10 euro each which is as cheap of a price as you can get. It was odd because they had some American brands like Hollister selling for ridiculously high prices and other American brands like Adidas, the North Face, and Nike selling for a little cheaper than in the U.S. The culture of this part of Paris was very distinct. Most of the population was black. We felt even more out of place than we already did! Everyone seemed to think we were Spanish and would greet us with “Comó estás?” They must have a lot of Spanish visitors. I also got asked if I was Lebanese. Overall it was a day filled with surprises!
The Palace of Versailles. Words cannot express how amazing this was!!! As I strolled through room after room of lush extravagance they began to blur together. Trying to imagine Marie Antoinette or King Louis XVI themselves wandering through the hallways is mind boggling. The best part was the garden. Huge expanses of green with sculpted bushes and trees and fountains and statues galore. It’s hard not to be swept up in the moment and get lost in it all. In fact, I lost my roommate at one point. Neither of us have cell phones and we had no preconceived plan of a meeting place. Even this wasn’t enough to shake us out of our rapture; we both just sauntered off in our own directions and eventually wound back up in the same place (pure luck if you ask me!) When we did finally meet we each bought a huge baked potato and sat down under a tree to watch the sun go down and enjoy the beauty of it all.
One of the places in the palace was called “The Hall of Mirrors”. When I walked past the mirror paneling I noticed that there was a spot I disappeared. If you look closely you can see the tips of my boots, but the rest of me has vanished.
Honestly, I don’t remember what a single room in the Palace of Versailles looked like. They were all so lavish that they started looking the same to me. However, too rooms did stand out. Everything in this room was yellow and another one was pink and green themed.
Our flight home was a nightmare. It was at 9:00 a.m. so we woke up at 5:30 in the morning and were on the metro by 6:00. Everything was going smoothly until we learned our last connecting metro line happened to be closed. So we started walking…in the wrong direction. Once we realized we were going the wrong way we reversed and started running. We arrived out of breath at the bus that was leaving for the airport and asked what the departure time was. The answer wasn’t relieving. “Now”. Once we bought tickets we sprinted to the bus only to find that it was full and we would have to wait for the next one to leave. Luckily, it turned out there was just enough room for us on the first bus and we slumped down in our seats in exhaustion. We couldn’t fully relax yet though. The time we were scheduled to arrive at the airport was around the time the gates were scheduled to close. The moment the bus stopped we were dashing inside, passports and tickets in hand, but we soon discovered that apparently the airport has two buildings and we were in the wrong one. We ran to the other one and looked at the clock. 8:15 a.m. If we had gotten there ten minutes later the gates would have been closed. You’d think as we sat on the plane and thought about how lucky we were to be on it we’d be happy. We weren’t. Just the thought that we were so close to things going so bad was hard to accept.