This summer Peter and I went on an adventure to Europe. With the help of a stellar memory and my obsessive journalling, I’m sharing those adventures with you.
Our time in Paris got off to an inauspicious start as we spent an hour trying to find our hotel. We arrived at Gare de Lyon with an incomplete map, a screen shot on the iPhone, and Peter’s (really good) sense of direction.
Turns out, streets in Paris change their names almost every block. It was a tense walk, over an hour of lugging our backpacks, searching out better maps, and me thinking, “Who says Paris is romantic?” The story has a happy ending though. We found our hotel and we still like each other.
We stayed in the 9th Arondissement and after check-in and a quick dinner we set out to really explore Paris. Not far from us were two incredibly fancy department stores – Printemps and Lafayette. Now, I’m a West Coast girl who thinks the newly renovated Bay in downtown Vancouver is very fancy. These stores had designers I’d only read about in Vogue. Walking past rows and rows of shoes that cost more than my rent, I was conscious of my beat-up TOMs and my thrifted dress. It’s not just an expensive department store, it’s an insanely fancy one with gold trim, stained glass, and a dome. A temple to shopping, really.
And my TOMs took me to the highest point in Rome, through the trails of Halfmoon Bay, and hiking along the Cinque Terre, so their beat-up nature is like a trophy for my feet.
From there we headed to L’Arc de Triomphe, walking down the long and crowded Champs d’Elysee (which we began to suspect was famous only because it kept its name for more than two blocks). It was just getting dark and we watched the sun set as we reached the Arch. L’Arc is surrounded by busy lanes of traffic and we had almost decided that the only way to reach it was by darting through the oncoming cars when we discovered the underground tunnel that would take us there. (Note: That tunnel was surprisingly claustrophobic.)
It’s strange and sad to recall the battles fought in and for Paris and that as you walk the streets, you are walking through once-occupied territory. It made parts of history come alive in a new way for me.
The next morning we were up and wandering again, starting our day with espresso, standing at the counter of a corner cafe, putting my mediocre French to the test.
More than any other place we visited this summer, people asked how we dealt with people and language in Paris. I took French in school from grades 4 through 12 and while I did okay (not great but decent) then, I have barely spoken the language in the past ten years. I found that while I still understand a lot of written French, I struggled to keep up with the spoken. And most of the time, my mind froze when it came to responding. I just couldn’t think in French fast enough. As well, the accent is definitely very different than the Quebecois style I was taught in school.
Overall though, we didn’t find it very difficult to be non-French speakers in Paris. In other countries, locals would switch to English quickly when speaking to us. The French didn’t do this. They were never rude and they never acted like they had trouble understanding my French. But they would only switch to English when it was clear we really didn’t understand. Sometimes not even then. And, seeing as we were in their country, I really don’t have a problem with that. I have nothing negative to say about Parisians or their treatment of Peter and I as tourists in their city.
We made our way to the Eiffel Tower, walking through the park. Until we reached the tower we weren’t sure whether or not we would go up. But the lines were short so we got into the stairs-only line and had about a ten minute wait (including the fairly strict security you have to go through). The very highest level was closed due to wind (did you know the top of the Eiffel Tower can move up to 10cm?) but what we saw was definitely worth the stair climb.
Before arriving in Paris, Peter and I agreed that we felt museum-ed out and we made the decision not to go to the Louvre. While I hope to visit it one day, I’m so glad we made that choice. Instead, we went that same afternoon to the Musee d’Orsay. From the Eiffel Tower we walked along the river, catching our first glimpse of Notre Dame.
My friend Katie had mentioned the Musee d’Orsay as an alternative museum. We chose it because it’s smaller than the enormous Louvre but also focuses more on modern painters and Impressionists. Lots of Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Van Gogh. It was a great change after the Renaissance art of Italy. We were able to view quite a lot of paintings we had only seen in photos, which was an amazing experience.
We viewed Monet’s famous Saint-Lazare Station, and then went to look at the actual Saint-Lazare Station. Amazing.
Saturday morning, we headed to “des Puces”. Literally meaning “fleas”. It’s as far north as the metro line goes and it’s the largest flea market in the world. It’s been there in various forms for over a hundred years.
We’d done a little research before hand (I found this website quite helpful) and were excited to do something slightly off the beaten track.
This market is huge. From furniture to jewellery to clothing to art, it has everything you could imagine. Vintage, antique, rundown, all fascinating. Lots of different price points too and most vendors were open to a little bargaining. We didn’t buy much but had a great time wandering the streets and looking at everything.
A personal highlight: When we stopped for coffee, the man behind the counter told Peter, “You must be a very rich man.” Peter laughed, looked down at his t-shirt and shorts, and said, “Yeah, sure.” The man pointed at me and nodded, “A very rich man,” he repeated.
That evening we headed out for a real French dining experience. Previously, we had seen a line-up of people outside a restaurant near our hotel and so we decided that so many people couldn’t be wrong and we got into that line.
The restaurant was large, noisy, and crowded but that only seemed to add to its unique, chaotic charm. Our waiter greeted us in rapid-fire French and then saw our confused smiles.
“Where are you from?” he asked in English.
“Canada,” we told him.
He nodded, seemed to consider this and then offered a small smile. “You are welcome.”
The menu was completely in French and so ordering was a bit of guesswork. To me, this type of thing is part of the fun of travelling. We opted to do the full course meal and as a starter I ordered “tarte de campagne”, which I translated as “country tart”. That sounds nice and innocuous, right?
I still have no idea what I ate. My best guess is cold liver in pastry.
Peter ordered boeuf tartare. “Boeuf” is beef, we knew that. We weren’t sure about tartare though. My mind went to tartar sauce. Maybe it was a steak that came with tartar sauce? Either way, Peter likes beef so he ordered it. As soon as his entree arrived at the table, we realised where we’d gone wrong.
In English we call this “steak tartare”. Probably should have figured that one out. Either way, it was surprisingly delicious. You might have noticed that I went with the safer option of “poulet et frites.” Also delicious.
An attempt to order a single glass of wine brought a whole bottle to our table but I didn’t mind that so much either.
When we ordered dessert, I ordered something with apricots. Peter was, I think, going to order something chocolate but encountered some confusion when the waiter asked if he wanted to do a cheese course.
“You order cheese?” our waiter asked.
“I have to order cheese?” Peter responded.
So while I enjoyed a warm apricot pie, Peter ate a small, hard round of goat cheese.
When planning our time in Paris before we arrived, I had two goals. One involved drinking wine (quickly accomplished), the other was to visit Shakespeare & Co.
Shakespeare & Co is a famous English bookstore on the Left Bank in Paris. It’s been around since 1919 and was a hub of the expat literary community that included Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and many others.
It’s a gorgeous little shop with an antique book room, an area for new books and an upstairs full of corners to sit and read, typewriters to work at, a piano, and a lending library. A definite highlight for me.
While we were in the neighbourhood, of course we had to visit Notre Dame.
You can’t read Victor Hugo and not want to visit Notre Dame!
Although we didn’t go inside the Louvre, we couldn’t miss viewing its iconic exterior. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition of glass and stone, old and new.
The crowds of people around the museum didn’t make me regret our decision not to go inside. Instead we relaxed in the park and wandered through the nearby carnival and ate churros.
Parks and green spaces were something I loved about Paris. Of all the cities we visited on this trip, it was the only one that had real parks. At least, in this Canadian’s opinion. We loved being able to sit outdoors, surrounded by trees, enjoying a quiet moment in the midst of touristing.
In that vein, Luxembourg Gardens were another highlight. Lots of open space and lots of people enjoying that green space. Also, very competitive bocce games.
Now, when I’ve played bocce, it tends to take up a lot of space. You might play in a park and end up moving all around the park, throwing those balls across walkways, water hazards, and other people’s picnics. That’s not how the French do it. They play in tight formations, going back and forth in straight lines. And they take it seriously. Crowds (small crowds but crowds nonetheless) gather to watch the games. The extra serious player have magnets on strings so they can pick up their balls without having to bend over. (It’s a game, not a strenuous sport, right?)
It was definitely fun to watch.
Less up-my-alley outdoors-wise was something called “Paris Plages”. We heard about this before we arrived in Paris but it was still strange to see. It appears that in the summer, sand is trucked into Paris and they create an artificial beach along the river. Not that people swim in the river. It’s simply an area to lay out in the sun. While people walk by and tourists look at you from bridges above. Not appealing to me at all.
Leaving Paris, we took an overnight train, so we had one final day to spend. From our hotel we walked to the neighbourhood of Montmartre. I’ve heard purists say that tourists have ruined this little area of Paris but, since I have nothing to compare it to and I was a tourist, I rather enjoyed the neighbourhood.
For us, the main focal point was the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. One of the more unique-looking churches we visited. Also, one of the strictest regarding dress code. (Fortunately it was a cooler day and we were already pretty covered up.)
The church was crowded and still clearly in use as an actual church, which is always nice to see. We spent time wandering the streets of Montmartre, looking in shops, and avoiding teenagers with fake petitions. A well-dressed, older French man sitting with his sketchbook outside a cafe beckoned us over and insisted that he draw me.
“She has a face that must be drawn, not only photographed,” he told Peter.
Flattering, but we knew he only wanted to sell me a drawing of myself so we thanked him and moved on. We encountered more scams in Paris than anywhere else on our travels but a little forewarning kept us on our toes and we never got into trouble.
In the end, we thoroughly enjoyed Paris. There’s a lot of hype about this city – and much of it is deserved – a lot of rich history and fascinating corners. But the best part of really being there was seeing how much it’s simply a city. A place where people live and eat and go to work. I hope to be back.