Sunday, June 10, 2012

Paris with Ellie - Part 1, or, my time in Paris when I wasn't actually with Ellie

Ahhhh, Paris.  Usually, Paris is the first place that students studying in London go.  In fact, reading week, the seventh week of the semester where you don’t have classes in order to “catch up on your reading,” most of my fellow study abroad friends went to Paris for the week.  Having already been to Paris and knowing that I would spend a day in Paris as part of my April Eurotrip, I chose to go to Morocco instead.  Well, as fate would have it, our plans to go to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day fell through and a good family friend of mine contacted me to let me know that she would be in Paris that weekend.  As a teacher, she got spring break off and was going to spend it in Germany with her family.  They were going to be out of town the first weekend of her spring break so she decided to spend a couple days in Paris before making her way to Germany.  She was only going to be there the 18th -20th but since I had classes I had to attend on the 20th, I decided to get myself to Paris on the 15th and spend a few days exploring Paris by myself before joining up with my friend. 

Thus, I found myself spending St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Paris.  Now, there are multiple options for traveling between London and Paris.  The most expensive but also most convenient option is surprisingly to take the Eurostar train.  When people think of backpacking around Europe, they always think of getting an inter-rail pass and traveling on the cheap around Europe.  England, for some reason, is not part of the Eurorail agreement between the various European train companies that lets students travel on the cheap.  Alas, the train between London and Paris can be really expensive if you don’t book well in advance and at off-peak times.   The next option is to take a flight, which actually isn’t that expensive.  If you go on one of the budget airlines, your ticket would definitely be less expensive than a last-minute ticket on a train, but then you have to deal with weight limits on checked bags and having to separate out all your liquids.  Since the train only takes 2.5 hours, the 1 hour flight between Paris and London ends up taking the same amount of time when you factor in check-in time and waiting for your bag at bag claim.  So, I decided to try and save some money by taking the cheapest option, a Eurolines coach ride for £44, or about $77 round trip.  When compared to the nearly £200 it would have cost me to take the train, it definitely seemed like the smart option!  My coach would leave London at 10:30 pm and arrive in Paris at 8 am.  Even though this was a significantly longer journey time than the train or a flight, I figured as long as I slept on the coach I wouldn’t really be missing out on anything and I was spending five days in Paris so I could afford to spend a little more time in transit. 

As fate would have it, I was meant to get off my coach at Charles de Gaulle, one of the world’s largest airports and certainly the most confusing airport I’ve ever been to.  I’ve now traveled through CDG three times and I honestly still have no clue what the hell is going on at that nightmare of an airport.  In London, I easily found the Victoria coach station as signs directed me all the way there.  And even if I hadn’t been able to follow the signs, there were plenty of people around working whom I could have asked.  At the London desk, I had to turn in my printed off confirmation and in return I received two tickets.  In the interest of saving money, (again) I decided to stay on the coach to the final stop, Galleni metro stop, bypassing the CDG stop, so that I could avoid paying the extra €10 airport to city metro fare.  It also saved me a lot of hassle by not having to lug my suitcase so far through the metro.  Anywho, my voyage there was completed without any problems and I arrived without difficulty at the metro stop closest to my hotel, Gare du l’Est without any significant confusion.

As you may recall, I arrived at around 8 in the morning, so I had the entire day to explore Paris.  I stopped by my hotel to drop off my luggage and I was off!  The first thing I wanted to do was go on the “Walk Dead Famous” self-guided walking tour that my awesome TimeOut Paris guidebook recommended.  This walk passed by many of the more famous Paris sites such as the Louvre, but it was really meant to show you the final resting places of some of the great intellectuals who have found their final resting place in Paris.  So, basically it included a couple cemeteries, which I guess is a little morbid, but a lot of these people, especially Voltaire, are some of my personal ideological idols and I really couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to pay my respects.  Parts of the walking tour were meant to be completed on a bike using the Vélib city bike hire but in case you haven’t noticed yet, I like doing things on the cheap so I figured I would just walk the whole thing.  What I didn’t realize is that the distance covered between some of these sites is actually much much further than I thought.  Starting my walk at 9 am, I didn’t finish until after 5 pm returning to my hotel by 6 pm absolutely exhausted.  It turned out to be a great way to orient myself to the city since my walk took me through at least seven or eight of Paris’s 20 “arrondisements” or quarters.  After navigating my way through all of that, I really felt confident in my grasp of the layout of the city. 

Anywho, along my walk, I passed by many well-known Paris landmarks such as the Jardin du Tuileries. 

 And the Louvre

Before embarking on my discovery of some of Paris’s hidden treasures.  Along the way, I stumbled upon this statue of Molière, the Shakespeare of the French language, even though it wasn’t specifically listed in the description of my route.  It was so refreshing to find such a marvelous memorial to one of the greatest authors of all time and to not see a single other tourist.  A simple five minute walk away the Louvre awaits, the mecca of all tourists, which has completely sold out to over-commercialization and foreign influence and is constantly abuzz with the flashes of hundreds of cameras.  I quite preferred this quiet spot, sitting by myself, reveling in the greatness of Molière desperately hoping that some of his prodigious talent would grace my own writing (don’t hold your breath for this one though; I am still an engineer after all). 

Next up, I stopped by the Comedie Français to see the actual remains of Molière which are supposed to be contained within a statue inside the front hall.  The Comedie is also supposed to hold Voltaire’s brain in some kind of statue in their museum.  Unfortunately, the Comedie was closed for construction work and I wasn’t able to enter.  I was proud of myself, however, since I was able to use my French to ask a lady sitting at a desk in a side entrance if I could see the main entrance and understand her response. 

Next up, I crossed from the right bank to the left bank, by way of the Ile de la Cité, crossing paths with Notre Dame along the way.

I also walked through the area around the Sorbonne University which is a very interesting area in its own right.  As student areas tend to be, it is a very liberal part of the city and is often home to protests.  Walking through the streets I saw many congregations of students and plenty of revolutionary posters everywhere. 

My destination was the Panthéon, however, which is the final resting place of Voltaire’s body minus a few organs which have been distributed throughout various museums and memorials.  The Panthéon was originally supposed to be a church, but during the French Revolution the revolutionaries redubbed it to be “Aux Grandes Hommes la Partie Reconnaissants,” or “To the Great Men the Party Knew.”  Thus, the Panthéon is now the final resting place of many of the French Enlightenment’s greatest writers, philosophers, and mathematicians.  I really really wanted to go inside the Panthéon, but I hadn’t even reached the half-way point of my walking tour and the sun was sinking in the sky informing me that I needed to start spending less time aimlessly meandering, gazing, and appreciating and more time getting from point A to point B.  So, I told myself I’d skip the Panthéon today, and come back in a couple days when Ellie arrived thinking she would probably enjoy the area too. 

I skipped out on visiting a church around the corner from the Panthéon because it was out of the way for my next destination and the remains that it contains weren’t of particular ideological importance to me.  Thus, I zig-zagged my way across the left bank, cutting through the Jardin du Luxembourg which was really quite beautiful.  The weather was fantastic so I couldn’t resist sitting down for a few minutes to soak up a bit of the beloved sunshine which I have so dearly missed in London.  Not long after, I stumbled upon the gorgeous church Saint-Sulpice and had to walk through.  The sheer number of beautiful churches in Europe never ceases to amaze me since in America most churches are pretty average looking buildings with a few rare exceptions. 

My next stop was to admire the École Militaire before continuing along the long walk to the Trocadéro for the amazing view of the Eiffel Tower.

By the time I got to this point, I was so exhausted from all that walking I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel.  I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the room; I had quite low expectations since it was one of the cheapest single rooms I could find online.    

I also had my own private bathroom which I hadn’t expected but was very welcome.  Everything seemed like a normal hotel until the next morning when I left the lady at reception asked me to leave my key with her.  Now, I have since discovered that this is considered normal in parts of the world such as Mexico and France, but at the time I was really freaked out.  I asked the lady, how am I going to get my key back that night. She assured me that someone would be at the desk 24 hours, but that wasn’t my real concern.  I complained that anyone off the street could come and ask for my key and gain access into my room potentially stealing all my stuff, or worse.  She laughed off my concerns as ridiculous saying that she would recognize me and wouldn’t let anyone else have my key.  Still, I was skeptical.  Sure enough, that night when I got back, there was a different person who I had never seen before sitting at the desk.  I asked for my room key and he handed it over, no ID check or anything.  Maybe it’s just really American of me to feel nervous about something like that, but what the heck that’s still the sketchiest room key situation I’ve ever found myself in.  Thankfully, none of my stuff was stolen and I never found a rapist in my room, so I guess it’s safe enough.  It still creeps me out though. 

Anywho, on my second day, I slept in and took my time getting ready in the morning.  I started out the day returning to the Trocadero, where I had finished my day before.  The nearby Passy cemetery was my first stop.  This cemetery is the final resting place of Debussy and many of Paris’s finest.  The tombs themselves are all beautiful.  Many families have built entire mini-chapel mausoleums where several generations have found their final resting place.  The ground is elevated and has a beautiful view of the city.  I was surprised to see that the funeral is still in use with graves dated as recently as 2011.  Not surprisingly these were all within generations old family mausoleums; I can’t even imagine how expensive it would be to buy into that cemetery now.  Next up I walked to the Maison de Balzac (author of the Comedie Humaine, Eugenie Grandet, Cyrano de Bergerac and other such greats) only to be sorely disappointed to find it under construction. 

My next destination was the Wine Museum which proved surprisingly difficult to find.  It’s tucked away at the end of a dead end street accessed only by other dead end streets resulting in me spending a lot more time walking than was strictly necessary.  I was quite pleased when I did find it though.  I was especially proud when I walked in and talked to the guy at the front desk in French.  He even handed me a French audio guide until I politely asked if I could have one in English.  I was so proud of myself for speaking French!  Each time I talked to someone, I got a little more confident and I remembered a little bit more.  The museum itself was also pretty cool.  They had lots of artifacts from wine makers of old and different shaped wine glasses from throughout the ages.  You may be surprised to find out that the “stemmed” wine glasses are a fairly recent invention in wine drinking history.  At the end of the visit, I got to taste a glass of a French wine.  I wish he had told me more about the region, the grapes, and how it was made, but alas, it was still a pretty good tasting wine.  It was definitely worth the visit!

At this point, I’ve tasted a fairly broad range of wines.  I’ve made it my personal mission to learn as much as I can about wine while in Europe.  The crazy thing is, the more I learn about it, the more I realize that I don’t know anything about wine!   I still feel overwhelmed reading a wine list or walking into a wine store.  There are simply too many appellations, varietals and production techniques for me to ever possibly learn all of them.  So, when I look at a wine list, I can recognize the few that I’ve tasted before, but it always seems like there’s 10 that I haven’t even heard of!  I’m always searching for new appellations and varietals to try out.  I’ve found it easier to pick out which wines I don’t like, and I can say with certainty that I don’t like wines from the Pouilly Fumé region in France.  Describing what I like is significantly more difficult.  In Spain, the waiter recommended a wine that was fabulous.  But since the waiter picked it out off the list, I have no idea which region it came from.  Generally speaking, I’ve come to the realization that a cheap bottle of French or Italian wine is always better than a cheap bottle of Australian wine.  But, for some unfortunate reason, Australian wine is always cheapest in London so I keep drinking it even though I’m not particularly enamored with it.  I’m definitely going to start looking for more Spanish wine because it’s generally cheaper than French and Italian wine being less renowned for wine but of similar quality. 

One fun way to explore different wines is to go to Whole Foods in London where they have a wine bar that’s like a soda fountain.  Basically, they have about 20 different bottles of wine in a glass case hooked up to a dispensing machine.  You can grab a glass from the rack on, then insert your whole foods wine bar card, then push the button to dispense however much wine you want.  The smallest option is a 25 mL which is just barely enough to taste the wine, but it’s great because it’s really cheap.  Sometimes I’ll put £15 on my card and try upwards of 10 different wines that would be way more expensive if I were to buy a full sized glass of each.  The point is, I have been making the most of my time in Europe to try as many different wines as possible!

Well, to get back on the subject of Paris, my final stop of the day was the Monet museum.  This little treasure is something I found recommended in my guidebook.  Compared to the more famous Paris art museums, it is pretty small, but that didn't mean the collection was at all lacking!  The name is slightly misleading as there all kinds of amazing impressionist art works housed there by many artists other than Monet.  In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the beautiful art and bought a print to bring home.  

When I returned home to the hotel, I made use of the free wifi to check Facebook, and to my surprise, I saw a post from Ellie.  She had posted that she was already at the airport and that she was excited to be on her way to Europe.  "On her way to Europe? I didn't think she was coming until Sunday," I thought to myself.  So, I checked the copy of her itinerary that she had sent me, and sure enough, she left St. Louis on Friday night to arrive Saturday morning.  Thank goodness she had posted about her departure on Facebook!  Otherwise I would have had no idea that she was actually arriving on Saturday.  And with that revelation, I went to sleep prepared to wake up early in the morning to meet Ellie at Gare du Nord.

And since this post is already quite long, that's it for this one!  All of my Paris adventures with Ellie will be covered in Part 2 yet to come.

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