Maybe I'll start with the whole reason why I wanted to take this trip: In tenth grade, we had to take a western history class starting with (who else?) the Greeks, the Romans, etc., and then the long and twisted relationship between England and France with maybe some Italian Renaissance stuff thrown in and then some Russian stuff leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution. We were studying the French Revolution which included a discussion of Versailles--the gold and marble playpen that Louis XIV/XV/XVI built for themselves for no other reason than because they could. Our books contained a fuzzy color photo of the Hall of Mirrors, and my little fifteen year brain decided, "You know what? I'm going there." I realize now that I wanted to go there because it looked like an opportunity to walk through a giant, sparkly piece of jewelry ... some things never change.
Versailles was the whole reason why I wanted to go on this trip, and it didn't disappoint. It's easy to get there from the city--we took one of the regional train lines to the very end and you're a short walk from the palace. I remember the ride took about 25 minutes--very short.
The town of Versailles is so adorable. On this particular afternoon, the place was dead. We saw more people when we arrived on the palace grounds, but it was hardly crowded. I remember thinking it was particularly cold, and I'm pretty sure it flurried throughout the day.
When you walk up to Versailles, the sheer enormity of the place is astounding. It's so sprawling that you have to turn your head to see the whole thing--you can't just look at it and take it in ... you have to turn your head 180 degrees to take in its full expanse. Imagine building a house that big. I couldn't pan the camera back enough to fit the facade of the palace into one shot.
|I'm sure if I challenged Ron to try looking more awkward, he couldn't do it.|
While the Hall of Mirrors was just as impressive (understatement) as I thought it would be, it's just one tiny sliver of opulence in this place. Everything from beginning to end is so ornate and grand on the most extreme scale that it begins to mess with your head. You almost become numb to it by the end of the afternoon. It makes you wonder to what extent the people who lived here were numbed by it ...
|Crappy photo--I'm pretty sure I gave up and just bought a postcard instead. See far better pictures here. Stuff like this is worth recording with the mind's eye anyway. It was pretty cool, though, to stand exactly where the textbook photo had been taken.|
We wandered the full extent of the gardens and down to Marie Antoinette's little hamlet (a faux provincial "town" built just for her--she would hang out there and pretend to be a commoner ... not joking). We had the whole place to ourselves--we saw maybe five people over the course of three hours. If you go, no matter the season, walk through as much of the gardens as you can--don't skimp on that part.
We spent the whole day here before we walked back into the little town and had an early dinner at a creperie. The train whisked us back to the city and it was the end to a great day. Don't skip Versailles--it's gorgeous.
Another obvious Paris must-see: The Orsay Museum. Of course, go to the Louvre too, but I enjoyed the Orsay more.
(I had an art history prof in college who had two PhDs: one in art history and the other in archeaology. The guy had lived all over the world and studied so many things--I swear, he had to be 90 or almost 90 when I took his Intro to Art History course. He had a thick Eastern European accent, and one day he said to us, "If you had two lifetimes, two complete lifetimes, to see everything in the Louvre ... you couldn't do it: It's not enough time." For every item on display in the Louvre, there's something like three unseen items in storage awaiting eventual display. The complete collection is vast. Last month, I was flipping though my university's magazine, and my prof's obituary was listed in the back. He passed away last May--imagine all the knowledge in his head that he took with him. Makes me so sad.)
(* update * A few days after I posted this, I was listening to Terry Gross's most recent interview with Stephen King. During the interview King said something like, "There's an old adage that when a professor dies, a whole library burns." Indeed--gives me chills. And it's a really great interview--you should listen to it. Listening to him talk about his smashed up leg makes me feel a lot better about my foot.)
The Orsay used to be a train station:
|I'm looking at this photo, and I'm thinking to myself, "I was allowed to take pictures in there ... right?"|
There's a cafe on the other side of the massive clock:
Since my art history class was still relatively fresh in my mind, I got to see more things that (naturally) I had only observed in school text books. My most FAVORITE THING???? Her:
|Degas' Little Dancer. I think I walked around her glass case twenty times. I love that her tutu is made of real fabric. I don't know why--I just think she's gorgeous.|
|When I was putting together the photos for this post, I thought to myself, "Was The Little Dancer the subconscious motivation for buying this skirt?? HA! I haven't thought of this sculpture in years, but maybe she was on my mind?" I guess you like what you like.|
Anyway, my general impression of the Orsay was fresh and bright--I don't remember it feeling exhausting.
Before I forget, a safety announcement: Do NOT try to cross the traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe. There's an underground pedestrian tunnel that runs under the street--don't actually CROSS the street at street level. We almost figured that one out the hard way.
When you do cross under the traffic to the Arch, DO pay for a ticket to go all the way to the top. Then, watch traffic go around the circle for a good hour. You'll marvel at the Vespas weaving in and out of the Smart Cars and narrowly missing the buses that barge right into the circle and yield to no one. It's the coolest show in the city.
Erin: You asked me the other day, "Do people ever just come up to you and talk to you? And you don't know who they are?" It actually happens ALL THE TIME--here's one of a thousand examples: Before we climbed to the top of the Arch, I stood at the bottom and just stared up at this massive structure. I noticed at some point that I was standing on top of something that was under the sidewalk--I must've looked really confused because a little old man walking by stopped and said something to me. I looked at him totally baffled and asked him [in Italian--because my brain defaulted on it here in complete desperation to talk to people] to repeat himself.
Him: "[Whatever the French word for "spot light" is.]"
Me: [desperately repeating the word hoping it will mean something to me ...] "OHHHH!!!! La luce??!! LA LUCE!!! It's a spot light!" (For some stupid reason, I really thought that if I used Italian to speak to French people, they would totally get me.)
Him: "Oui oui oui!!"
Then, he came and stood shoulder to shoulder with me--he wasn't much taller. He pointed his finger straight down the Champs-Elysees:
Him: "Champs-Elysees." Turning slightly and me with him: "Le jardin des Tuileries ..." and then he turned the two of us all the way around in circle and pointed to every major destination in the distance surrounding the Arch. It was the coolest thing ever.
Me: [Totally thrilled] "Grazie."
Him: "De rien ... bonne annee." He waited to see if I would get it.
Me: "Bonne annee bonne annee bonne annee ... HAPPY NEW YEAR!! BUON ANNO!"
Him: "Oui! Bonne annee!" And he tipped his cap at me and off he went. I watched him walk off, and I didn't hear Ron coming up behind me.
Ron: "Who was that?"
Me: "I have no idea."
I was so prepared to be hated over there because we were American. Everyone says, "Oh, the French: They HATE us." No: They don't, actually. They really don't. I wish people would stop saying that this is true ... especially the morons I've met WHO'VE NEVER GONE TO FRANCE and INSIST that it's true anyway. Shut up already.
|I was so happy that I had survived my first semester of grad school ... I had no idea that the next four months would be a nightmare. Every time I see this picture, I feel bad for myself because I had no idea what was coming.|
One of the coolest streets in the city is Rue Cler--in one stop, you can buy some wine, bread, cheese, dessert, caviar ... whatever you want for the best meal ever. We only stopped by once and it happened to be at night:
|Of ALL the stores on the street, I get a perfectly crisp shot of the butcher's window? Really?|
Other night shots from around town:
The Opera was around the corner from our hotel. We walked by it a million times, and we never made it inside:
All of the guidebooks said that the interior of the Opera was not to be missed. We were approaching the end of our week, and I wasn't sure if they would be open on the Epiphany. In Italy, they would definitely be closed, but who knows in France? So I called up the Opera and the woman who picked up the phone answered in French:
Me: "ummm, uhhh, Allo ... Parlez-vous anglais?"
Me: "ummm, uhhh, Parlez-vous italien?"
Her: "No. Espanol."
Me: "Oh! Espanol! [me--in Italian] Va bene, you speak in Spanish and I'll speak in Italian, and I'm sure we can understand each other."
Her: [in French] "WHHAAAT???" [Hysterical laughter with other people in the background, and THEN in perfect English] "I'm sorry, I can't help you." [More laughter before she slams down the phone.]
All week long, everyone we had met had been so cool--she was only jerk I encountered.
We never made it to the Opera--the one day we went, it was closed.
The last thing I'll mention is Pere Lachaise Cemetery--not the same kind of beautiful as San Miniato, but huge and quiet and sprawling. I loved it. Most people make a pilgrimage here to see the graves of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Gertrude Stein, Edith Piaf, and Marcel Proust. You have to take the train to a spot far from the center of town. I remember regretting that we didn't spend more time walking around in that area.
|You couldn't pay me to kiss a common surface, but that's what people do (for free) to Oscar Wilde's grave.|
When it was time to go home, we actually took the "chunnel" to London and met up with my friend, Annie. The plan was to fly home from London the next day.
We did a whirlwind tour of the city, and it poured rain the whole time. I was so jealous of Annie's jeans and boots--I think they were just brown cowboy boots and boot-cut jeans. Her socks weren't all soaked like mine. I immediately began my own boot collection the following winter. (How does this always come back to feet? This is sick.)
Eventually, we found this cozy little pub and we hung out for what had to be six hours and finally just caught up. It was the most relaxing part of the whole trip.
Annie says, "Oh, by the way: How are you guys getting to the airport tomorrow?" I don't remember our exact plan, but it heavily relied on the tube. "Well," she said, "Public transit is threatening to go on strike tomorrow, but who knows--I doubt it'll happen." To be safe, we called and arranged a cab to come get us the next day just in case the tube wasn't running.
The next morning, Annie and her roommates started leaving for work one by one. No sooner did the first roommate leave when the front door opens and there she is: "Hey guys??!! Tube's down! We need cabs!!"
Ron immediately got on the phone and confirmed that we still had a cab. "Yeah, yeah, sure," they said. "Problem is, traffic's bad. What time's your flight?" Oh crap--a sinking feeling began to set in. Annie wished us luck but she had to go to work: "Call me if things really go wrong--I can make arrangements for you."
We sat on her couch and stared at the clock. I forget how much time went by, but it was enough to make me start crying. Those plane tickets were expensive, and it looked like we wouldn't get to use them. Just when we totally gave up, there was frantic knocking at the door--our cab! The guy all but carried us to the car and shoved us in: "Let's go!! I can't use main roads--they're jammed. We'll have to go the long way."
Basically he took these gorgeous country roads all the way to the airport. It was actually pretty relaxing ... and he got us there in time. We jumped out of the cab, frantically pulling at our luggage. Ron took every last dollar from his wallet and half handed it/half threw it at our driver. Meanwhile I was literally dying from laughter on the curb because I was so happy we made it. The guy is like, "I can't take this--it's too much ... no no no," and Ron's going "TAKE IT!! We don't need to buy new plane tickets thanks to you! THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!" And we shot inside the airport ... and made the flight. We could not believe it. Annie couldn't believe it. "Oh man! I thought you guys were screwed! Good for you!"
If you can go to Paris, GO to Paris. If you can only take ONE trip to Europe your whole life, I think you should go to Rome, but if you pick Paris you won't regret it. Make sure you try ALL the food, pack shoes that won't betray you, clothes that are pretty and make you feel good, and walk whenever you don't really need the Metro. Study a little art, learn a few new words (and don't fall back on your Spanish or Italian or whatever--it'll help you with reading, but not speaking), and be SUPER polite to everyone--it makes everything so much easier (and isn't that what you should do anyway?).
And buy as many Eiffel Tower souvenirs from the tourist kiosks as you can. And buy a few for me because I wish I had bought more.