A Travellerspoint blog

Final Day in Paris

Tuesday, Oct 11, 2016

Ben arose early, we shared our last pastry and hug together (in that order), and he was off to the metro, with planes, trains and automobiles in his near future. I slept a bit more and arose to pack my bag, before locking up and leaving my suitcase in Philippe's private corridor to claim later.
Knowing I had a few hours ahead of me, I elected to search out a 'quartier' we hadn't yet visited this weekend. I decided upon the catacombs of Paris and set off on the metro. As it was an unfamiliar line, I vacillated at one point in the tunnel, only to be approached by a kind stranger who asked if I needed help finding something. (The Parisians I've encountered have done a lot to dispel the stereotype I expected to find.) When I reached the catacombs, I saw an immense lineup, the longest I've seen in Paris to date. There was no way I wanted to wait two hours to get in (they only allow 200 at a time) so I moved on to the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg, a beautiful 23-hectare green space in the middle of Paris' city streets. It is anchored by the Palais du Luxembourg, which now houses the Sénat, the Upper House of French Parliament. I wandered about, enjoying the mix of people lolling on the grass, reclining in one of the thousands of green metal chairs allocated to Paris parks in recent years, eating during their lunch break, or otherwise enjoying themselves. I paused to watch some school boys playing soccer, a majestic stone column and some statuary stemming from the 1600s standing in as goalposts. This is a park enjoyed immensely by Parisians and it offers many designated areas for pétanque, tennis, ping pong and other recreation.

When exiting the gardens, I looked down an adjoining street to see an imposing building facing me. Intrigued, I went to investigate and stumbled upon the Pantheon, which sits on an impressive intersection it shares with the Pantheon-Sorbonne University. The Pantheon was originally built as a basilica to house the city's patron saint Genevieve's relics and was meant to rival Saint Peter's of Rome. However, finished in 1790, it only remained a church for one year as it was converted by the French Revolutionaries into a mausoleum to house the remains of great Frenchmen; buried here are the likes of Rousseau and Voltaire, and writers Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. Marie Curie was the first woman interred here on her own merits and now, others have followed. A person could spend quite a bit of time in the crypt as there's lots to read about the various people interred there; of course, it took me longer as it's only written in French. Above, in the beautiful sanctuary, there is a replica of Foucault's pendulum, a simple device used to initially demonstrate the rotation of the Earth. So, this building has something for everyone, and honours great pioneers of science, politics, philosophy, writing, etc.

Stepping out into the bright sunlight, after have been figuratively and literally cloistered with the greats, I took a moment to take in the beautiful university on the corner and the Eiffel tower in the distance, noting several groups of students and others oblivious to their surroundings. I think I am like that in Victoria too, not recognizing the incredible harbour and seascapes for what they offer to those new to the city. Knowing that I had but a little time left in Paris, I elected to spend a few minutes inside a crêpierie eating a warm crepe with banana, cream, chocolate, and coconut ice cream, choosing this as my final memory of Paris. And then it was back to Montmartre to collect my suitcase, hop the last metro to Gare de L'Est and claim my train seat back to Nancy, where Thierry kindly collected me at 9:00 PM.

Although it was a long shot, I had been hoping to run into Jenn's daughter and her PCS teachers as they are here this week on their biannual PCS Paris trip. I hope they had as wonderful a visit as we did.

Evan asked whether having some French under my belt helped me enjoy Paris more this time around. In response, I can say that this time, I definitely had more actual conversations and could order in French without merely pointing and grunting, as happened during previous visits. I also felt like I understood the French more as a people, if you will, knowing how to greet them, how to end a conversation as expected, and understanding that they are actually a very polite culture, much like Canadians. Therefore, I felt more comfortable in their presence. And in Paris, except for one time, when I used my poor French, they still responded in French rather than English, so that was an improvement too. I feel more comfortable now, diverging from merely ordering what I see to actually asking for a particular item with an ingredient I want, as I've done a few times in Nancy or Ludres.

When I returned to Ludres, everyone wanted me to describe the scene of surprise, to which they added many comments of kudos for Ben. Myriam had told her colleagues of his whirlwind trip and they were amazed as well, touting him as a real romantic -- and it's probably hard to impress the French in that department! Even Marine, when seeing my initial post on Facebook, challenged her new boyfriend of three days by saying, "When we've been married for twenty-five years, here's the type of thing you have to do!"

Posted by mzemliak 09:38 Archived in France Comments (1)

Happy Birthday, Ben!

Monday, Oct 10, 2016

It was wonderful being able to wish Ben happy birthday in person, and better yet, in Paris! In fact, my jibes in earlier blogs about me celebrating his birthday in Paris, albeit alone, probably pushed him over the edge into making those flight reservations.

As I've said before, I have a thing for foreign cemeteries so we went in search of nearby Montmartre Cemetery. It stems back to the early 1800s but is very much in use today. In some cases, there were family plots reaching back centuries but still active as recently as this decade. While the tree-lined roads were clean, many markers and tombs were very aged and in disrepair. Ben was itching to get at them with a power washer, a not unexpected response from him. We were intrigued by a recent grave that stood out among the classic, imposing statuary; it was kind of outlandish, labelled the deceased as a ' réalisateur' (director), and included four large, colourful pictures of its owner. I was intrigued later and Googled him to find out what he might have been famous for; it turns out it was porn films. Hmmm. The graves we searched for were those for Emile Zola and Alexandre Dumas, fils, a writer himself (it turns out that little word 'fils' is pretty important as it means 'the son' and signifies this was actually the son of the man who wrote 'The Three Musketeers,' not the great author himself, as we originally thought). I saw a total of three black cats in our short time there -- seemed appropriate somehow.

Before leaving Montmartre for the day, we visited 'le mur des je 'aime', or the 'I love you' wall, where those words are captured in over three hundred languages, including American sign language and French Braille. It seemed the most appropriate spot to visit, considering Ben's efforts to get here. However, as we are not sappy, we didn't linger long.

The next sojourn was in a newer area of town, and while not formally in the Paris suburbs, reminded us that Paris can look like any other city too. We traversed the 4.5 km stretch of railway-turned-walkway known as the Promenade Plantée, which took us over bridges and through tunnels. It offers unusual views of Paris apartments close up and an aerial view of several streets; the transformed viaduct is lined with many plants and has smaller green areas contained within it. Ben and I enjoyed our time away from crowds and the opportunity to view some other Paris architecture. As the end of the trail was near the Bastille, we skirted the busy intersection to find a little cafe a few streets back from it. It provided the right kind of French cuisine (not as expensive as some!) for Ben's birthday lunch: an omelet, French onion soup and, of course, salad verte. Again, Ben noted that the coffee is very good here in France.

Everyone raves about the 'pain au chocolate' but I really don't see much of the appeal in them with their small, single piece of chocolate when there are these curlicues of dough shaped into snails (and actually called 'les escarots' here in the pâtisserie) laden with chocolate bits. Now, those are to die for. After lunch, our second trip of the day to the bakery was followed up by a third just moments later, as that second escargot was too hard to resist. I think this was the first year in thirty that I hadn't made Ben a birthday cake but I figured the six French pastries we ate today more than made up for it.

We visited a church in the area that we'd seen on an earlier trip because we were drawn to its pleasing, well lit and peaceful interior (Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis). It felt 'homier' than most. Given that it had started to pelt rain, we went in search of the Paris galleries, interior malls covered by arched ceilings. The first were built in 1799 but we could only locate a couple of blocks' worth and didn't want to continue searching in the escalating rain. We felt this was a really good time to see a museum so chose the nearby Pompidou Centre, which I had been interested in visiting on this trip. We had three hours left for opening hours and were surprised this wasn't enough to cover all the rooms. It is quite large -- mind you, nothing like the Louvre -- and we spent quite a bit of time with the exhibits, learning about René Magritte, and a show on contemporary art in Russia between 1950-2000, in addition to the permanent exhibits. The Russian items proved very interesting, with many of a political nature. The permanent collection is rounded out with a fair number of works by Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Warhol and Barnett Newman, whom we Canadians may better recognize as the artist of the controversial "Voice of Fire" (now estimated to have risen twenty times in value since the National Gallery purchased it).

On the way back to the apartment, we found the boulangerie still open so bought more sweets (yes, that makes nine today) for the morning as, sadly, Ben was leaving early and we wanted to make sure he had his quota of Paris pastries. It had been a whirlwind experience but not one either of us will ever forget.

Posted by mzemliak 15:48 Archived in France Comments (1)

Baquette 1, Kraft Dinner 0

Sunday, Oct 9, 2016

Fortunately, Ben was able to adjust really well to the time change and we slept deeply and well into the morning. Given that this was Paris, and that we usually like to cram as much as possible into a day of sightseeing, we knew we would have a full day ahead of us. Our first stop was the requisite view of the Eiffel Tower, the usual crowds swelled by those competing in and watching the annual '20 Kms de Paris' run, which finished just as we were mulling about. After ordering the obligatory crepe from a street vendor, we sauntered to the Arc de Triomphe, rising majestically at the confluence of twelve grand avenues, and took in the sights along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

Even having seen these sights twice before did nothing to dampen our excitement as they have the power to awe a person many times over. It was such a beautiful day we took advantage of a boat tour along the Seine, enjoying the new perspective of Paris architecture from the water. There are bridges, each of which is a different style, spanning the river every two or three blocks, While Paris proper is a large city, it is still very walkable given you have enough time and stamina. We had both so tried to counter the pastries we had that morning by traversing the small roads spanning out from the Seine, seeing Place de la Concorde, the Jardin des Tuileries, the outside of the Louvre, Palais Royale, l’église Saint-Eustache, Tour Saint-Jacques (all that remains of a church destroyed during the French Revolution), the Île de la Cité, and Notre Dame. We took time out to have a small coffee and hot chocolate at a sidewalk cafe and watch the passing parade. We were pleasantly surprised to find the bill totaling only 6 euros, which was a lot less than the two pastries we felt we needed to try shortly after. In the evening, we walked along the Seine, reveling in the night views. The highlight was seeing the Tour Eiffel at night from Place du Trocadéro.

I had brought my remaining box of Kraft Dinner along to Paris with me, imagining I would be having simple suppers but, when Ben saw that in the apartment, he blanched and said, "I didn't come all this way just to eat Kraft Dinner!" In the evening, we searched for an African restaurant our host had recommended but when we found it, we realized its dozen chairs were already taken, seemingly by one family in the midst of a lively event. So, we found something else along the way and had a quick snack before polishing off some more baguette, cheese, wine and chocolate.

Posted by mzemliak 03:05 Archived in France Comments (2)

How 'Fou' is That?!

Saturday, Oct 8, 2016

Marine drove me to the train station as she was headed out to study all day in the 'bibliothèque' anyway. The TGV offers a really smooth, fast ride to Paris, traversing the 350 km in 90 minutes. It felt like I was there in no time. The train station Gare de L'est is connected to the metro lines so it is very easy to immediately transfer to Paris transit. Once you have tried one metro in a large city, it's simple to adjust to any other metro. Having relied on this form of transport to get around many major European cities, I am sold on it. I headed down the stairs into the subterranean walkway, feeling the warm wind propelled by the trains rushing up to meet me. The tiled walkways, dual streams of people, colorful advertisements and prolific graffiti all contributed to the familiarity. It took less than half an hour to traverse the two lines and arrive at the intended meeting point with my AirBnB host, Philippe. (Ironically, he chose a cafe named 'Le Refuge'.)

I waited for a few minutes and presently, Philippe arrived and introduced himself. We walked the five minutes to his apartment, he providing an orientation to the quaint Montmartre neighbourhood along the way. The apartment was very small but sufficient. After all, it was just me and I would be out most of the time. There were two rooms: a complete bathroom and another room that contained a couch/futon, small tables, the world's smallest kitchenette, and a block of cubbies. The total area came to just 12 square meters, or 130 square feet, which makes my mom's suite seem huge (see, Mom, it could always be worse!). Ben and the girls had wanted to hear from me as soon as I arrived, presumably to know that I wasn't met by some deranged French killer in a beret. But when I texted them to verify all was well and I would be going out exploring shortly, I received a quick reply from Hannah saying 'Don't leave just yet, Mom.' And within two minutes, she and Abby phoned me. The conversation went something like this:

<niceties, blah, blah, blah>
Me: You guys are up so late. It's 3 AM there.
Abby: Well, I wouldn't be if I didn't have to.
Me: Why do you have to be? Dad said he would watch for my text.
Hannah: Well, Dad's not here.
Me: Where is he?
Hannah: Dad's gone to Paris to meet you, Mom.
Me: <Pause> Huh?
Abby: Dad's in Paris right now, Mom.
Me: What do you mean? I don't understand. How can your dad, ...how can Ben, be in Paris?!
Hannah: He wanted to surprise you himself but his plane was late and...
Me: WHAT?! Ben's in Paris, THIS Paris? You mean, Paris, France?
Abby: Yes, he's--
Me: BEN'S IN FRANCE? RIGHT NOW?!
Hannah: Yes, he's--
Me: THAT'S CRAZY! HE'S CRAZY! HE'S 'FOU!' <pause> Let's go over this again. I don't think I'm understanding correctly...
Hannah: He's at the airport right now, Mom. In Paris. He's catching a train to meet you. He will be there soon. We had to stay up to make sure you knew he was coming.
Me: I don't believe you. But, wait, you wouldn't lie to me about something like that. Abby, maybe, because of the tricks I've played on her in the past, but not you. So, he's really HERE!!

It then started to sink in that my responsible, careful, and fiscally-minded husband had actually thrown caution to the wind and had decided to join me in Paris for three days! How romantic was that! (I asked him later if he would have joined me if it was, say, Flint, Michigan and he said he still would have but, in that case, he would have brought his own water.) This was unbelievable! Ben had planned to arrive just before me and be waiting at the metro station when I disembarked; however, his plane was held up in Seattle for four hours so he didn't get to witness my initial surprise.

With a couple of hours to spare, I decided to get a few French staples -- fruit, cheese, bread, and chocolate -- leaving him to choose his own wine. As I navigated the cobblestone streets, I heard what sounded like live music coming down the street. And sure enough, there appeared to be a parade. Could this be for Ben, I thought? In actual fact, it was Montmartre's annual wine festival, and I had stumbled upon the colourful festivities that augmented the weekend's celebration. Ah hah, so THAT'S why he's here this weekend. It all made more sense now.

I met him in the early afternoon, in front of 'Le Refuge,' gave him 'what for' for lying to me and then hugged the stuffing out of him. He explained that since Philippe had indicated his place was strictly for one person only ('no boyfriend, no girlfriend allowed'), he was forced to break into my Airbnb account, get Philippe's email, contact him on the sly, verify it was OK to crash at the apartment and get the address. (I don't think I'll ever really trust him again.)

We then got on with our day, starting our rubbernecking in Montmartre. This arrondisement is a maze of little streets, with many of them seeming to lead to Sacré-Cœur. If we found ourselves going uphill or mounting one of the many stairways, which we often did, we knew we would reach the basilica, as it is at the summit of the hill. As we meandered our way there, we walked through the fabric district, with several shops selling scads of material. In addition, we navigated what Philippe called the 'roots' section of the neighbourhood, with many different ethnicities visible. Each street has several cafes or restaurants, some just a few metres wide and many representing a different culture from the next. As we neared Sacré-Cœur, the tourist shops thickened, as did the crowds. Because of the wine festival, there were dozens of booths set up selling foodstuffs (fois gras, pates, sausages, nuts, etc. and of course, wine and beer). It was such a popular venue that we literally got squished among the crowds. We nipped inside the basilica and then descended the hill to visit a few more streets, taking in some local musicians in Place Tetre. However, despite the price, the memory of the smells from the food booths enticed us to return to the church grounds and buy our dinner there: a ham and raclette sandwich, made from heating a hard wheel of cheese and scraping off the melted part into a sandwich; and a gooey, cheesy fried potato and bacon dish that clogged my arteries just by looking at it. Given that the majority of people had a glass in their hand, Ben felt naked without one so we rectified that as quickly as possible. With the food, beer, and wine samples, we were content to spend the next hour chatting on the steps waiting for the setting sun. To end the evening, we scouted out the Moulin Rouge and walked through the Pigalle district ("little Amsterdam, if you know what I mean, " said Philippe) to get home.

It turned out to be a very different Paris trip than I had first imagined.

Posted by mzemliak 04:28 Archived in France Comments (8)

Pancakes and Maple Syrup

Friday, October 7, 2016

Having collected the myriad of ingredients and dishes the night before, I was fairly prepared this morning and curiously anticipating my pancake classes with the three grades of 6- and 7-year-olds. When I got to the school, a couple of the teachers helped me with arranging the room to accommodate the four stations, complete with crepe makers and parceled-out equipment and ingredients. I chopped a dozen apples into tiny pieces, as I've come to prefer pancakes with them. I had prepared a step-by-step PowerPoint that identified all the foodstuffs and utensils first and then described each action. It was peppered with pictures so that everyone could follow along. Each of the three classes had between 20-24 students so each table had about six students. Fortunately, there were some parent volunteers and a secretary recruited from the front office to help out, in addition to each teacher. Many of the students willingly repeated the English words but it was obvious they were eager to get to the real meat, so to speak, of the lesson. If not for the adults present at each table, it would have dissolved into a gong show, as I could only float from table to table, checking on methods and readiness, and quizzing the students on the odd word. As it was, the cacophony grew louder until the requisite bellow erupted from the teacher to stave off the noise for another few minutes. At one point, when a small girl broke an egg outside the bowl and her parent asked for another one, I realized we would be short for the next class so sent the hapless secretary to the store for more. Each class was scheduled for an hour, with the next one following immediately on its heels. As the class ate, or escaped back to their room, a couple of us furiously did washed the utensils. The kids had a great time, and enjoyed the finished product. Due to the high cost of the maple syrup, I had planned on one tablespoon per kid; as measly as that sounds, it was more than enough as there were quite a few who looked askance at the viscous, amber liquid and preferred to eat the pancake sans topping. (We actually ended up having half left!).

My project management expertise really came in handy: I prepared sufficiently, managed the time well, corrected for unexpected mishaps, understood the objectives, knew my audience, and applied quality control to the delivered product. Transferrable skills! And aside from one little lad who said to me in French "When you're in France, you speak French, not English" (I wonder who he's quoting), I think we progressed a little on the objective to improve the students' English.

Totally wiped after the morning of overseeing, cooking and cleaning, I caught a couple of buses back to Ludres, slept for two hours and packed my bags for my early departure to Paris in the morning.

Posted by mzemliak 10:42 Comments (2)

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