Sunday, November 6, 2011

This. Is. PARIS!!!!!

Okay, I'm having a great time, but there are a few things I want to whine about first. Like not getting a window on the train, which is irritating, but hey, at least I slept through the whole trip which I also really didn't want to do and because I got up at 4 in the morning because after my downstairs roommate turned on the light I couldn't go back to sleep even though I was pretty much ready to just jump out of bed and go and I don't like getting up that early, I was one of the few people whose room wasn't actually ready when we arrived at the hotel and so there was bag shuffling and it didn't help my being already slightly irritated, and Paris is really rather dirty and the metro positively reeks sometimes and being told we have to stay in groups of 3 makes things difficult when you want to go places other people don't or you don't want to go where they do and finding groups who will put up with you for a while is harder than it has any right to be. But other than that, I like the city. On to happier things.

Also, disclaimer: I can't spell French much less pronounce it. Nor am I finding the symbol thingies here. So...bear that in mind when you come across place names.

So, as I said, we took the train to Paris early this morning and arrived at about 11 in the morning. We set our stuff down in the hotel and parted ways. My group was waiting for Sarah to get back from Sacre Couer but we figured we'd go out a bit beforehand. We went out and explored a bit, and even found our way back afterwords! Yay! We went to a big tall monument in the middle of a roundabout which we might have been able to figure out if we, you know, could read French. (Okay, I can read it to some extent, but understanding it is a completely different story.) (Later discovered it's the Bastille monument.) From there we walked down a park that had an art fair inside which we didn't go to because we knew we'd be seeing lots more art and also didn't want to spend the money. Walked across a bridge, turned back, found our way back to the hotel, and voila! We negotiated some of Paris all on our lonesome! And got a croissant at a bakery on the way back. Sorry, patisserie.

Sarah returned and we checked for tours on the computer because first day, we want to know where we are. More than a vague “Paris.” Because that's too easy. And too hard. Carolyn had a hotel she wanted to find, recommended to her by Rick Smiths. (He's a good friend. Oh, by the way, Rick Smiths wrote a guidebook and Carolyn brought it and good ol' Rick has been our guide and companion for a good deal of the trip. Carolyn and Nicole kept him in their respective bags at various times.) There were several boat tours, but the one that Sarah wanted to do was called “Fat Bike Tours” which ended with a boat tour but cost more. We eventually decided on that one, reluctantly in my case, but now I've decided it was very much worth it. More on that later.

We struck camp and lit out for Cafe March (okay, I don't remember the exact name, but it was something like that) which was a relatively cheap cafe according to Rick. But that's in a place where “moderate” is 25-30 euros a plate. Paris is bleeping expensive! By the way. And grocery stores are as easy to find as pebbles dropped in a ball-pit at a McDonald's playground. Except there isn't a bottom of Paris you can check. So at this cafe, which is on Rue Clare if you ever want to find it (which you will shortly), we had our first French food. Quiches, pasta, that kind of stuff. I got some fried duck. Hey, I figured if you're interested in something and in the country it came from, give it a try! Duck—it's like chicken, but a barely stronger flavor and mostly dark meat. Not too bad. I'm just glad it came sans head or feet, which the ducks in the shops on Queensway all still have.

From there, we headed towards the Eiffel tower where we were supposed to meet our Fat Bike tour guides. On the way, we passed another patisserie with some awesome-looking stuff, and we decided to give it a try. I got a stick of bread with tiny chocolate bits baked in which was just over a euro and it was great. Seriously delicious. And Karen got a raspberry mousse—I mention this because that's where the patisserie got its fame from as far as our group is concerned. Karen was in love with that thing. She looked like biting it was biting into pure ecstasy. (We've decided by now that it's the best in Paris, and if you want to find it when you go to Paris or when anyone you know goes to Paris, it's at the corner of Rue San Dominique and Rue Clare. The ladies there are also very patient with halting French or trying to explain things in English. It's also made me want to have a bakery a bit more if I can get some recipes like that or make some stuff like that. *considers experimentation, casts about for guinea pigs*)

We finally made it to the Eiffel, which was lit by this time and we'd seen it sparkle. Why did no one tell me that? The Eiffel tower sparkles! White lights twinkle on and off all the way up the tower for a good few minutes about every hour at night, and it's awesome! Anyway, we met at the Pilier Sud (or South Leg for all us good English speakers) and hiked our way over to the bike shop where they asked us to get into two groups, ours with Billy from Colorado and theirs with Joe from London. Yay, they speak English! It's weird being the one who doesn't understand the language when you're accustomed to your language being dominant even when traveling to another country—or at least to England and Scotland; I didn't speak the language well in Mexico, either, but I had fluent speakers (parents) with me so that wasn't so bad. They also asked us who wouldn't be drinking red wine—in Joe's group, it was the little girl, and in ours it was...all of us. Billy was slightly dismayed. Fortunately, he got over it and decided we weren't all that bad after all. Anyway, we got our California Beach Cruisers (which all had names; mine was Top Hat, Nicole's was anonymous, Sarah's was unpronounceable, I forgot Karen's, but Carolyn had the best named and fortunately not prophetic Flaming Heap of Twisted Metal) and helmets and bright yellow reflective vests, got the safety lecture, were told to herd like a family or like our own car (or just a stampede of wild buffalo that people better respect or else, but that was just me), were told 2nd gear was the best unless you wanted to put it in 3rd but that would give you a really good workout. (Lies. I was coasting at least as often as pedaling.)

Our tour took us past the Military School, through the Latin Quarter, past Notre Dame and Hotel de Ville (o with a ^ but not finding it, as I said), the Louvre, past Princess Diana's Flame and rose memorial garden, down to the docks, then on the boat tour up under several bridges, back past the Eiffel Tower, back to the dock, and then back to the bike shop. But now that I said what we did, let me tell you what we did.

We started the tour heading towards the Military College where Napoleon learned.  Billy told us that the French originally detested Napoleon, but eventually (years after he died) held him up as a national icon and rather admired him.  They even gave him this enormous tomb with a golden dome that you can see for quite a ways.  We went from there to the Latin Quarter.  No, it's not Latin America, it's the student sector.  See, the college that had been built there in 1254 was so old that all the students learned Latin, so that was the part of the city where everyone spoke Latin.  They called this the "Class 5 rapids" as we were going through a good deal of traffic, but the good news is there are bike/bus lanes and enough of us that people didn't bother the bikers.  

This stretch ended at Notre Dame where he told us about the Gothic architecture, you know, about how flying buttresses made it possible to build taller buildings and have, oh, say, ventilation or windows and suchlike.  Also how the gargoyles are for scaring evil spirits and they figured they may as well use them as rain spouts while they were up there.  And why the tower is darker than the rest of it--it's because up until the millennium or thereabouts, that's how dark the whole thing had been.  Basically solid BLACK.  And they wanted to clean it, so they cleaned everything but the tower to show how it had been.  And how did they clean it?  He asked us what we thought, and said no to steam-blasting, sand-blasting, water, soap, vinegar, bleach, and everything anyone mentioned, until we were all bitingly curious (I don't even know if that's a thing, but it is now) and he was ready for his big reveal.  Here it is...Lasers.  Yeah, really.  They got some high-tech lasers and heated the dirt to a temperature where it burned off but the wall wasn't hurt.  Lasers.  Cool stuff.

On the bridge over the river where we were standing, the chain-link or whatever the side fence was made of was invisible behind thousands of locks.  They're called love locks--you write your and your lover's name on the lock, put it on the bridge, and then throw the key into the river and your love will last forever.  Which is why the combination locks that are appearing are...amusing.  Oh, also, don't fall in the river--the police come and get you in their speedboats but if you've swallowed much river water you have your stomach pumped.  And the police are already busy with the drunk people.

Across the river from Notre Dame was Hotel de Ville, or rather the Paris Hotel de Ville because every town in France has one because it's the mayoral residence or at least used to be and also the court.  Paris is actually the only one where the mayor still lives there.  The current mayor has apparently, along with everything else he's been up to, has organized what's called "White Night" except in French but I forgot how to say it in French, which is a phrase meaning you stayed up until the night was white again...meaning you were either partying or studying a little harder than is good for you.  This "White Night," though, is the first Saturday of October (Or the second?  Something like that.) and all the buildings--museums, cathedrals, government buildings, etcetera, are open for 24 hours (probably sunrise to sunrise or so) for free.  He's also created a city-wide free cycle hire that's so amazingly successful that other towns like London or Denver or Washington are also creating them.  (Hear that, Salt Lake/Provo?  Nudge nudge.)

On this stop we also went across to another island to a little shop where they sell ice cream.  Amazingly delicious ice cream.  That up until recently was only available on the one island but now is sold in a few shops in mainland Paris where they are proud of the fact, and it is never packaged or shipped out of Paris for any occasion.  And it's made fresh every day.  This island is also the home of the most expensive real estate in one of the most expensive cities on the planet, because there's limited access (no metro or bus stops), and who was it, Johnny Depp, Meg Ryan (specifically mentioned) and some other famous and overly wealthy people own pretty much whole floors of apartment buildings there--one place has seven windows across that are all one room.  They're basically one-floor mansions or something like that. 

We got back on our bikes and went down the river to the French Academy of the Arts or something like that, I can't remember the name, but it's got a bridge connecting it to the Louvre.  The Academy/College/what-have-you is where the French language is regulated.  Stringently.  Some of their recent decisions:  "hot dog" and "weekend" can be used in proper French, "computer" and "email" cannot, and "iPod" is a masculine word.  The aforementioned bridge is a strictly pedestrian (and bike) bridge, enforced by the fact that there are bridges down the length that you might be able to get a smart car around, assuming you could get it up the steps on either side.  This, and its location, makes it a very popular hang-out spot and the location of almost nightly open-air concerts in the summer.  

Anyway, we crossed this bridge, got back on our bikes, and biked through the Louvre.  Yeah, you heard that right, we biked through the Louvre!  I mean, obviously not through the galleries, but it's got a courtyard in the back and that big open space in the front where the pyramids are, and we biked through the arches to get out to the front.  It was pretty awesome.  Oh, and by the way, very pretty decor on the outside.  Stopped for a "photo op" in which my group made ourselves the Louvre pyramid.  Fun times. 

We then biked down to the harbor--which took us past "Princess Diana's Flame" which was actually a gift from the States in return for the Statue of Liberty and the real memorial is a rose garden, but no one really cares about that, apparently-- and jumped on a boat, which took us down past many of the places we'd already been and we got some more fun tidbits on the way.  For example, the bridge that goes to the National Assembly is made of rocks from the Bastille.  Nicole pointed out the irony on that one.  (Nicole has a quick mind--she's the one who cracked us all up as we sailed under a bridge that had some carvings of goddess figures--Carolyn observed that they were very manly women, and Nicole said "Yeah, Herm-Aphrodites!"  (In case you missed it, she said it like the Greek goddess.  Hence why we laughed.)

We ended our boat ride by floating (sailing? no sail...) past the Eiffel Tower and Billy filled us in on its history, also known as why he has a man-crush on Mr. Eiffel.  (Emphasis on the second E and not the first.)  They had a contest for the design for the gates of the World Fair, and the Eiffel Tower just barely beat...guess enormous guillotine.  Yeah, really.  They wanted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.  But Eiffel won, and then he had 20 years to plot how to make sure his tower lasted longer than 20 years.  He happened to also be a genius and was working on creating radio signals, and told the army they could, you know, put one of these receivers on top of his tower.  So they did and they liked it, so his tower stayed.  I'm sure he gave out a "Boo-yah!" at the news or something.  (Or the one we joke with here--Tusken Raider grunts.)  And then, a few years later, war broke out, and a few years after that, it ended.  Because they caught German radio transmissions that put the blame for the war on them.  Which was the receiver on the Eiffel Tower.  (Eiffel:  "Boo-yah!")

By the time this was over and we got back to the bike shop, it was past our curfew of 11, but we had called Peter before starting to warn him we'd be out late.  Great way to start our trip, breaking one of the few rules we had.  

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