What I Learned From This Sojourn: Paris Layover Edition

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1. When I was 20 years old, I climbed the 422 steps to the bell tower of the Notre Dame and was drafted by our eccentric elderly guide to “ring”the biggest bell. He had me stand under the massive dome, placed the clapper in my hand, and guided me in gently rubbing it along the inside. The sound it produced was magnificent, and that moment for me has always retained its wonder and delight. When T climbed the same steps the other day, and I asked about the bells, he told me he didn’t see any bells. Apparently, they’ve all been enclosed. This is an understandable necessity considering the massive crowds, but it also highlights the importance of getting your snapshot of the world as it is while you still can. I’m glad I got to hang out with the gargoyles barrier-free, and I’m blessed to have had that Quasimodo moment because these things are impossible now. That first (ill advised) trip to Paris changed my life; ringing that bell gave me my wings.

2. My French comes rushing back when I need to use it, although I spoke it mostly out of politeness. Everyone here speaks English at least conversationally, from Metro and McDonald’s workers on up. They still appreciate the niceties though, like a “Bonjour”, a “S’il vous plait”, a “Merci”, and a “Pardon” if you happen to step on someone’s toe. I find all this global English fluency a little embarrassing for our monolingual (and proud) culture. Speaking more than one language makes us smarter, more empathetic, better writers and communicators, and invariably leads to all kinds of inter-cultural exchange and understanding.

3. It’s super easy to get around Paris by foot, Metro, ferry–you name it. Very, very easy.

YOU ARE HERE.

YOU ARE HERE.

4. Next visit, and there are seldom return visits for the roaming Sojourners so Paris must be special, we’re staying in an apartment.

5. There’s a store called Picard that has nothing but aisle after aisle of frozen foods. Yup, feel like having moussaka, fajitas, coq au vin, leg of lamb, ice cream galore, and even frozen herbs and spices? It’s all here and it’s all reported to be quite good. So good in fact that there was a big scandal not too long ago alleging that certain menu items at certain restaurants were simply these same Picard foods, reheated and garnished, so caveat emptor at the sit down spots. For those who knowingly choose it however, this is a cool (blatant and unapologetic pun) dining option for those traveling as a family or on a budget, and adds to the value of staying in an apartment instead of a hotel.

6. If there’s something to get to the top of, my husband will get there by hook or by crook. Thanks to him, we have (many, many) panoramic shots of Paris from the tops of Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the clock window at Musee D’Orsay; the list goes on. Here, a carefully curated set of pictures I like to call “Paris is for The Birds.”

Here I am waiting patiently for him to finish his Notre Dame climbing expedition:
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Notice this shot is taken from the bell tower.

Notice this shot is taken from the bell tower.

7. By far, the Palace at Versailles is the center ring of the circus that Paris tourism in high season can be. DH really wanted to go, so we went, but we waited in line for an hour to get in despite museum passes that guaranteed we could skip lines. By the end, we couldn’t wait to leave.

8. A huge percentage of tourists are from the BRIC nations: Brazil, Russia, India, and especially China.

9. I know I whined a little in a previous post about how spit-shined Paris seems now in contrast to my freshman visit back in the day, but despite the proliferation of Sephoras, Subways, and Starbucks, the April freshness is a welcome change. Even the Metro smells decent.

10. Speaking of which, there are Metro Police and they do not play. Hang on to your ticket and produce it when requested or face a 30€ fine. We were stopped on our way to Montmartre, but knowing this in advance, we were ready.

11. Paris Plages is the mayor’s attempt to bring the beach and seashore to the banks of the Seine for those who can’t close up shop in August head south. It’s a resounding success and quite a whimsical sight, complete with sand, beach umbrellas, lounge chairs, even potted palm trees.

Some great activities, such as dance lessons, air hockey tournaments, and yoga are also offered at the “beach.” Here I am, soaking up the atmosphere, if not the sun (we’re talking AM temps in the high 50s):

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This mini red Eiffel Tower is completely constructed out of metal cafe chairs.

This mini red Eiffel Tower is completely constructed out of metal cafe chairs.

Tales of Beheaded Bishops and Despondent Divas in Montmartre

    Montmartre is probably best known for its magnificent Sacre Coeur Basilica, and for good reason. It’s gorgeous inside and out, and it affords pilgrims worldwide an absolutely breathtaking view of the city. What I found out today, though is that Montmartrois (residents of Montmartre) really can’t stand the place. Long story, but suffice it to say they liken it to the Disney Castle.

    T and I learned this today on a great pay-what-you-wish Discovery Walks guided tour of the neighborhood. These are young, mostly native Parisian guides who take visitors on quirky, yet educational walks throughout the city. They work solely on tips, and at the end, you can pay them, or not (really). I don’t know how anyone could have the heart to stiff them though; if our guide, Marie, is any indication, they’re more than worth the suggested 10-14 euro gratuity.

    Our Montmartre guide, Marie, hard at work with the Sacre Coeur in the background.

    Our Montmartre guide. Marie, hard at work with the Sacre Coeur in the background.

    Anyway, let’s start with St. Denis, the beheaded first bishop of Paris. Here he is:

    St.  Denis taking "things" into his own hands.

    St. Denis taking “things” into his own hands.


    Sentenced to death by the Romans in the Third Century AD, he requested crucifixion as his mode of execution. According to legend, his executioner was supposed to crucify him high up on Montmartre hill, but he didn’t want to bother with the climb, and instead decided to behead him. Miraculously, St. Denis retrieved his head where it fell (there’s now a church there to mark the spot), carried it up to Montmartre, and crucified himself.

    Another Montmartre legend was Dalida, femme fatale and diva deluxe:
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    Any Haitian girl of my generation who grew up in a partially French speaking household probably had a mother like mine who listened regularly to French pop via hi-fi records or 8-track tapes when she did the household chores. Because of this, Dalida is as familiar to me as any American popular artist from the 70s and 80s. Apparently, after having had three husbands who all committed suicide, not to mention a very controversial affair with former French president, Francois Mitterand, Dalida, or “the Black Widow” as people began to call her, committed suicide herself. Her mansion still stands as the most expensive house in Montmartre, and pilgrims stop by pre or post-prayer at Sacre Coeur to rub the bust of her bust for good luck in love. Anyone else notice some irony here?

    Dalida's bronzed boobs polished to a high sheen from all the palming.

    Dalida’s bronzed boobs polished to a high sheen from all the palming.

    Just for fun, here’s my favorite Dalida song:

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=b6pIJyfpDZo

    MORE MONTMARTRE PICS:

    Movie poster we saw on the Metro heading to Montmartre. Another one for the "you can't make this stuff up" file.

    Movie poster we saw on the Metro heading to Montmartre. Another one for the “you can’t make this stuff up” file.

    The Sacre Coeur , mocked and maligned as the Disney Castle by Montmartre natives and locals.

    The Sacre Coeur , mocked and maligned as the Disney Castle by Montmartre natives and locals.

    Part of the crowd in front of the Sacre Coeur

    Part of the crowd in front of the Sacre Coeur

    The Moulin Rouge, located at base of Montmartre, hosts cheesy Vegas type shows for 185 euro pp.  We opted for pics out front and Toulouse Lautrec paintings at the Musee D'Orsay.

    The Moulin Rouge, located at base of Montmartre, hosts cheesy Vegas type shows for 185 Euro pp. We opted for pics out front and Toulouse Lautrec paintings at the Musee D’Orsay.

Bonjour, Paris!

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Our hotel: not fancy, no elevator, no TV, no AC.  Choose it for friendliness, character, price, and location

Our hotel: not fancy, no elevator, no TV, no AC. Choose it for friendliness, character, price, and location.

After the exhilarating intensity of India, Paris welcomed us for our four-day layover with serenity and seventy-degree weather.

Everything was easy, from the overnight nine-hour plane ride, to the train from Charles de Gaulle, to the faithful Hotel St. Andre-des-Arts, to which I’ve returned after a 26 year absence. Of course, with the building having stood on Paris’s left bank since the 17th Century, there was really no chance that it would be going anywhere. When I first came to Paris in 1988, I booked a quad room here, sight unseen for three friends and me, based solely on the bargain $60/night rate. While its charms are largely based on character and its “decor” decidedly rustic, it turned out to be best decision we could have made in terms of location (6th arrondissement, Left Bank). Nearly thirty years later, I still couldn’t find a better deal in this very prime location. Lore also has it that that the hotel used to serve as a barracks for the Bourbon kings’ musketeers; that Henry James wrote Daisy Miller here; that certain African-American expat jazz musicians did their best work here etc. Let’s just say, this place has had a historical following, and manages to thrive in today’s economy without a real website or any other wholesale Internet affiliations.

Our first stop was the Notre Dame for the 10:00 Gregorian Chant mass, which was lovely, if a little disconcerting. I’ll be the first to admit to being a very lapsed Catholic, but houses of worship are houses of worship. Period. Why do hordes of non believing tourists insist on coming in for photo ops ( and I mean planting themselves, cameras in hand, mid-center aisle) during someone else’s spiritual and sacred time?

Also on the subject of tourists, the sheer number of them here is pretty incredible, but then again, the last time I was here, China was still a relative mystery, as was the Internet.

A few hours later, we went looking for this famous falafel place– L’As du Fallafel–in the Marais district, Paris’s traditional Jewish neighborhood which now also boasts a thriving gay community. The neighborhood was great, the falafel though…let’s just say I’ve had better from the grease trucks on Rutgers campus. Big fail. So much for online hype and lines that snake the corner.

I had other plans for Le Marais, which included visiting Victor Hugo’s home which was converted to a (free!) museum, but we took the scenic route and missed it by a few minutes. This was a big disappointment for me because I knew I wouldn’t be able to fit in another stop during our four short days. Summer daylight hours in Paris extend to about 10:30 pm, so it’s pretty easy for the uninitiated to believe it’s much earlier than it is, especially if you throw in a quick nap after a long plane ride.

Generally speaking, the Paris I remember has also mellowed somewhat. When she and I were both a little younger, she was supremely lovely, but with an edge–that little bit of figurative and literal grime every old great city needs as nod to its turbulent history. Now I return to find that student dive bars have been converted to Starbucks, and should I run out of fragrance, no need for the hike to the perfume shops on The Champs Élysées, there’s a Sephora up the block. Sadly, there also aren’t as many mom and pop boulangeries and patisseries as I recall, but I’ll try not to brood too much. After all, I’m in Paris! Tomorrow, we’re heading up to Montmartre which I hope will confirm my suspicion that The City of Light, in her haste to brighten things up, may have missed a spot behind her ear.

On the RER train from Charles de Gaulle

On the RER train from Charles de Gaulle

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T at the back of the Notre Dame, his favorite of the many cathedrals we've visited on my worldwide cathedral tour.

T at the back of the Notre Dame, his favorite of the many cathedrals we’ve visited on my worldwide cathedral tour.

Notre Dame de Paris in all her buttressed glory.

Notre Dame de Paris in all her buttressed glory.

First stop after church was the boulangerie for pain chocolat and croissants.  Only our hotel's free breakfast (a Paris rarity) of fresh baguettes and coffee kept me from eating here at least once a day.

First stop after church was the boulangerie for pain chocolat and croissants. Only our hotel’s free breakfast (a Paris rarity) of fresh baguettes and coffee kept me from eating here at least once a day.

Lovers' locks on the banks of the Seine River

Lovers’ locks on the banks of the Seine River

Yes, that IS a mime in a striped shirt in this panoramic shot.  Ok, maybe not but this tourist is trying awfully hard to look like one.  You really cannot make this up!

Yes, there IS a mime in a striped shirt in this panoramic shot. OK, maybe not but this tourist is trying awfully hard to look “Parisian.”

Groupons for Macarons…and Bistros and Marshmallows

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We welcome bargains in any part of the world but in Paris, they are an absolute must.  So far, I’ve been able to snag deals on Groupon.fr for our one “splurge” dinner at a restaurant owned by Gerard Depardieu, and for froyo and marshmallows– both in the pricey 6th arrondissment of our (not so pricey) hotel.   These delectable looking  macarons are part of another Groupon which we won’t be in town to enjoy.