Thursday, April 14, 2011

Gay Paree

Day 5 -- April 8th

After a morning of wandering around London a bit more, we packed up our bags and trooped to the train station to take the aptly-named Chunnel (tunnel + English Channel... so clever) to Paris. The trip was amazingly fast, only about two and a half hours.

We managed to pass the time.

The plan when we got there was to stay with Rachel's friend Juliette, who has an apartment right in the middle of the city. However, when we arrived, we realized we had no way of getting into the apartment and no way of contacting Juliette, who was at work until 8.


So we walked around for a bit, lugging our big backpacks and carrying our smaller daypacks across our fronts and looking like the complete tourists that we are, trying to find an internet cafe. Did I mention it was hot?

The internet cafe we stumbled on was just a long room filled with boxes and old computers and smelling vaguely of urine, but as they say, any port in a storm. The price was exorbitant -- €1.50 for 15 minutes -- but Rachel managed to send a message off and get Juliette's phone number.

Then came the problem of finding a phone to use. All of the pay phones required a phone card, which we don't have, so we did the next best thing: we found a Starbucks and asked to use their phone. The barista was extremely kind (maybe the huge backpacks and looks of desperation provoked some sympathy) and let us use his cell phone. However, upon calling the number that Rachel had found in her gmail, she learned that it was not Juliette's number, but a different friend's with a similar name. Oops.

By this time it was getting kinda late and we were both quite hungry, so we stopped in a bakery for a baguette and a supermarket for some cheese, and sat on a bench near the apartment to eat. Despite the situation, I was in pretty high spirits, enjoying the experience and relishing the fact that we were managing without having the help of technology.

As we ate, Rachel spotted someone coming out of Juliette's building, so she ran over to see if he would let us in. Turns out it was Juliette's roommate looking for us, as she had called him to tell him to be on the lookout for us. So that was solved. Whew.

That night, we headed to a friend's apartment to hang out. Everyone was way cool and I was just happy that everyone spoke English. At about 3am, everyone wanted to go out to a bar, but Rachel and I, being used to the states where bars close down at 2, caught a cab and passed out.

Day 6 -- April 9th

This is the day that I woke up sick (and, I should mention, I was sick for all of Paris and only in the last couple of days feeling really up to snuff again). But we couldn't let this stop us, so we got a croissant and an espresso and headed to the Louvre Garden to walk around.

Then, I'll admit, we went back to the apartment so I could rest.

Day 7 -- April 10th

We'd bought an unlimited 5-day Metro pass and this was the day that we started to put it to use. The Paris Metro, by the way, is amazing. It goes everywhere and the trains come about every three minutes, no exaggeration. Best public transit system I've ever used.

The first thing we did was stop by a major station to book Eurail tickets. The bookings can only be done in person, not online, and some need to be done far in advance. This we discovered a it late, as all the trains to Madrid were booked and none of the alternatives we could come up with were feasible.

So. Change of plans. Instead of heading south and east through Spain and Italy first, we're going to go in the opposite direction, heading north and east to Brussels and Amsterdam next, then south, then west. We'll hit all the same cities we planned, just in opposite order. I have to give major credit to the woman working the ticket window, because we were there for over half an hour trying to figure all this out and she never lost patience. Props to her.

After that stressful but ultimately productive morning, we took the Metro up to Montmartre, which was packed with people as it was a weekend and unseasonably warm outside. We dodged the hordes of people trying to sell overpriced trinkets to tourists to take in the incredible view:

then dropped a euro into the collection basket and stepped inside Sacré Coeur, the huge church at the top of the hill. Inside, it was your typical grand old cathedral -- stained glass, huge arches, elaborate moldings and the like. But as we walked around, all I noticed were the many places to give offerings of money to various saints or pay €2 or €10 to light a candle, and I kept thinking about the corruption of the Catholic Church and how phony it all was until I was completely disgusted and just wanted to leave. Looking at the outside was much nicer.

At the bottom of the hill is Paris's sort of Red Light District, full of sex shops and strip clubs. I of course had to see the place that inspired one of my favorite movies:

Nearby, we went into the Paris Erotic Museum, which was full of erotic artwork from throughout human history and all over the world. African wood carvings, pictures from the Kama Sutra, ancient Chinese drawings, early 20th century "porn" movies, etc. It was fascinating and sometimes hilarious.

Day 8 -- April 11th

By this time, we'd been in Paris nearly three full days and we hadn't been to the Eiffel Tower. Clearly this had to be our next stop.

Once again we avoided the many sellers with their piles of multicolored miniature Eiffel Tower statues to feast our eyes on the real thing. I have to be honest though -- the Eiffel Tower is kinda ugly up close. It's much nicer from far away, when you don't see the dun-brown color of it and you're not swarmed by other tourists on all sides.

We didn't go up because we figured it wasn't worth the long line or the price -- besides, what good is a view of all of Paris without the Eiffel Tower itself in it?

Still, the photo ops were impossible to pass up.

After this was Notre Dame, which, with its free entrance and lack of money-grubbiness (though you could still buy a candle for €4), pissed me off a lot less than the Sacré Coeur.

My distaste for Catholicism notwithstanding, the place is really very beautiful. I took some pictures, though they of course can't do it justice.

The stained glass, the archways, the moldings, the paintings, the huge extravagance of it all really made me understand why this is one of the big places to see in Paris. Very impressive.

When we left, we stood by the river for a minute while we figured out what to do next. Rachel thought she remembered the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Co. being nearby, so she pulled out her map to see if it was listed there. As she looked, I let my gaze wander across the street and spotted something.

"Is that it?" I asked, pointing directly across from where we happened to be standing. Rachel looked up and grinned. Serendipity.

I loved this bookstore, even though it was a bit too crowded for comfort. It's everything a bookstore should be: smallish, books crammed in every available space, kinda quirky. Lovely.

At dinner that night, we experienced some of that famous French hospitality -- you know, where they ignore you for long periods of time. Eventually, being impatient Americans, we forced the issue and asked if we could pay just to get out of there. I guess this is one of the reasons you don't tip here.

Day 9 -- April 12th

We wanted to go to the catacombs, but as soon as we saw the line we turned around and headed straight back.

Instead, we walked around the kinda gay neighborhood and hit up some thrift stores, which were tiny and crowded and even a bit claustrophobic. When a square meter of space is worth as much as it is here, you learn to economize.

Juliette had told us about a falafel place, not remembering the name but only that it had a green front and would have a line, which was actually perfect information to help us find it. It was delicious, though I felt sorry for the falafel place directly across the tiny street that was getting no business. Location, location, location.

Day 10 -- April 13th

[We somehow managed to lose all the pictures from this one day. So, apologies, but there are no pics for the catacombs and the Louvre.]

We went back to the catacombs, determined to see some old bones no matter how long the line. We got the youth price (yeah! under 25!) and headed down the 100+ stairs to the catacombs deep beneath the city, below the sewers and the subway.

It was creepy, even before we got to the bones. The passage was narrow and not terribly well lit, with dripping ceilings so low we nearly had to stoop to stay clear of them. Plus, there were these dark iron gates blocking off the side passages, and I kept joking that that's where they keep the monsters.

Because that's totally where they'd keep the monsters.

The part of the catacombs with the bones was incredible. I couldn't even begin to guess how many skeletons were down there, the long arm and leg bones arranged neatly to form walls of bones with skulls placed artistically in rows and crosses among them. So. Many. Bones.

It was hard not to get creeped out, I'll admit, being around so many dead people. But then I'd see a parent with a couple of kids and feel sheepish about being scared. Anyway. Cool experience, not recommended for the squeamish.

After a pizza lunch (we've eaten so much cheese here -- it's everywhere and we're both pretty sick of it by now), we went to the Louvre.

The Louvre is so big that it would take all day just to walk through all the galleries, let alone see every work of art. So we decided to hit the big ones.

First, the Venus de Milo and all the other ancient Greek sculptures.

We stopped by the Mona Lisa, of course, but it was in bulletproof glass and separated by a wooden barrier and a rope, plus it was mobbed by people. Not really that impressive, though I do appreciate that it was revolutionary for its time and all that.

The best part, I thought, were the apartments of Napoleon III, with incredible chandeliers, gold-plated EVERYTHING, plush carpets, giant paintings, and ornate furniture.

Day 11 -- April 14th

We visited Paris's modern art museum, the Pompidou, which has some pretty great views of the city:

plus, you know, some really cool artwork.

Then we walked down Champs-Elyssés to the Arc de Triomphe. Huge and impressive.

Brussels is next!

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