Grandes Expectations, a.k.a “Four Days in Paris”

We’ve just done something that I’ve been wanting to do for almost twenty years. Lisa and I returned yesterday from a short trip to Paris, France. We had a great time, and it’s going to be a little hard to go back to work tomorrow. I suspect we could have enjoyed several more days in Paris, but it seems like the right amount of time for a first (but definitely not last) time.

I first dreamed of going to Paris during high school when French was one of my favorite subjects. I studied it for five years before jumping straight into a 300-level French literature course in my first semester at Grinnell. Taking that class was something of a mistake, since I was a bit out of depth in terms of study skills. It was also my last French course, and I was a little worried that after fifteen years of not speaking French I would flounder helplessly around the streets of Paris; but I realized I was doing fine when I started rather effortlessly thinking of ways to insult the panhandlers (as well as other Americans) en français. To be honest, the only really difficult thing was ordering ice cream.

(Before going too much farther, I want to give a big, big shout out to the staff at the Hotel de Buci in the Saint Germain des Prés section of the 6e arrondisement. I didn’t feel very well a few hours after our red-eye flight landed on Friday morning. And although we arrived about five hours before check-in time, they had us in a room by 10:00AM. It’s these little acts that make all of the difference. So, “Merci beaucoups, Hotel de Buci!”)

We arrived Friday morning without much of a plan for the next four days. We knew we wanted to see some of the big attractions that everyone visits — Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame de Paris, Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, Montmartre — but we wanted to just do whatever struck our fancy. And I think that was exactly the right way to see Paris. Like good Calvinists, we awoke around 8:30 most mornings, which was a couple hours before our neighborhood got going, although the museums and monuments were open by the time we arrived.

On Friday — after my refreshing nap — we went back to Notre Dame (where I had first realized I wasn’t feeling well), walked around the two main islands in the Seine, and climbed the Arc de Triomphe. I love the way Paris looks, with its dense, low-rise cityscape. And our first day was a great introduction to the place. You can’t do much better than looking down on the city or loitering on a quiet bridge of the Seine eating Berthillon ice cream in the early spring sunshine while someone nearby plays an accordion.

Saturday and Sunday were museum and monument days. The Louvre was much bigger than I had expected; we only saw about a quarter or a third of it. I still don’t understand the big deal about the Mona Lisa; but she distracted everyone, and we had a room full of Rembrandt paintings to ourselves. And I had never seen the tiny ship on the horizon in Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa before I saw the larger than life-size painting. It’s always wonderful to see art that I’ve only ever experienced in books, since it’s (usually) much larger and more detailed. And the works are also (usually) situated amidst other contemporaneous works that provide a richer context. That’s all true at the Louvre, but I think half the fun of the Louvre is people-watching. I think the Musée d’Orsay was my favorite of the three museums we visited. (On Monday we went to the Picasso Museum.)

M. Eiffel’s tower was so much more amazing than I had ever expected it would be. The London Eye was great, to be sure; but it’s a recent creation. I kept wondering at the fascination a Parisian must have felt upon seeing the biggest thing yet built rise 1,000 feet over her city, not to mention the pleasant terror of taking an elevator to the top of it. Lisa and I enjoyed it very much.

The area around the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadéro across the river are wonderful but have (by far) the densest concentration of panhandlers and illicit peddlers anywhere we went in Paris. If someone asks you whether you speak English, just say “No!” If you answer “yes,” they will hand you a card with a sob story about being a poor Bosnian with a brother with leukemia who can’t get the medicine he needs. Definitely a scam, since they all say the same thing. (By the time we left I was ready to ask one of them — in French, of course — whether they speak English and whether they could read the card to me.)

And then there were the ubiquitous guys selling miniature trinkets of le Tour Eiffel. Evidently they lacked some kind of essential permit and were likely in the E.U. illegally, because at one point there was a lot of yelling and then a lot of running away from police officers on bicycles. Dozens of West African men were hiding out in the subway, behind fences, etc. Apparently I looked like “The Man,” because when I asked one of them in the station if he was waiting in line for tickets, he looked thoroughly frightened.

Montmartre has a distinctly different touristy feel, and I loved it. The Sacre-Cœur basilica is sublimely beautiful.

On our last full day in Paris, we visited the Musée Picasso, wandered around the Marais neighborhood, did a little shopping for ourselves and friends at the enormous BHV department store, and walked from the Bastille to the Arc de Triomphe along the Rue Rivoli and the Champs Elysées. We also had the culminating culinary experience of our trip.

You see, it took us quite a while to actually figure out Paris’s “café culture.” The sidewalk cafés serve much more than coffee and pastries, but it took us some time to clue into that. And I suspect our feeble American minds never really understood that one might actually eat whole meals on the sidewalk while watching the world go by. Food is meant to be consumed indoors. Or at least ordered indoors and then taken to a park, which is what we did. We interpreted the line spilling out the door of a deli on the Rue Rivoli as a good sign, ordered the French version of a hot dog and fries, and took our meal to the Place des Vosges and had a nice little picnic.

Now, we’d some interesting experiences with French food, and our lunch continued the trend. To be sure, we had some very wonderful meals; but there were some surprises. We weren’t expecting palak paneer (an Indian dish) to have cream cheese in place of Indian cheese. And the next day we still were naïf enough to be surprised by gorgonzola in our Mexican dishes. So we were amused (but not surprised) to see that the French treat a hot dog like a sandwich instead of a grilled item. To make a French hot dog: split a baguette down the middle, add two previously boiled hot dogs, cover with mozzarella cheese, bake until the cheese has a light crust, et voilà. To be completely fair to the French, I’m not sure we actually had any traditionally French food while were there (other than crêpes and pain au chocolat). French food scares me. Not like Japanese food fills me with terror, but still. . . .

So now we’re home, but a large part of me still wishes I were in Paris. I loved what we did, and there’s still more I would like to have done. I find the city fascinating, very dense and low-rise and vibrant and walkable and engaging. It’s the kind of place I would love to have a flat for the occasional week-long or month-long trip. But I think the beautiful people (with their fancy, continental ideas) would give give me a complex, and I’m not sure I could live there for an extended period. To visit, though, was divine.

Sure, the streets are narrow and crowded. And I was only about 50% successful feeding the RER turnstiles my tickets. (Yes, I was briefly trapped in the Musée d’Orsay train station.) And the panhandlers and peddlers are rather aggressive. But it’s wonderful! The people we met were friendly and direct, and they put up with my rather simple French. (Perhaps the source of our nation’s mutual misunderstanding is that they think we Americans are only as smart as the ideas conveyed by our miserable French.) In general, I preferred the French I met to the American tourists I encountered. The food we had was delicious. The art and architecture are great. The prices are reasonable, and there’s always something to do.

So, à bientôt, Paris. We’ll be back before too long.

And I’ll post pictures soon, too.

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2 Responses to Grandes Expectations, a.k.a “Four Days in Paris”

  1. mary says:

    that hot dog sounds delicious!

  2. Mimi says:

    I made the move five years ago, once the mortgage and the student loans were all paid off – it was wonderful. We’ve been back several times now, and there is always this sense of euphoria when Paris Shuttle takes us into the city.

    You will go back.

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