Sunday, April 18, 2010

Forget Springtime, I love Paris in the Summer!

Ah Paris, an experience all its own! During the visit described in last week's blog, Paul and I decided to take a side trip to Paris, France. Like my trip to England, Paris proved to be interesting but with Paul's help I managed not to cause any international incidents.

We anxiously waited in the behemoth that is Waterloo Station for the announcement to board the infamous Eurostar, a train that goes about 200mph, and I thought the trains in England were fast! Being the young American tourist, I took pictures of everything and anything that was interesting and different, including a machine I found in the bathroom that not only air dried your hands but shot a moisturizing liquid into them once your hands were dry! Of course, I took advantage of the few seconds the room was empty before snapping the pictures;) With the telltale flicking sounds of the old fashioned train station signs that I love and miss, it was announced that our train was now boarding! The Eurostar is the longest passenger train I've ever seen and sharply painted in white, yellow and navy blue with the sleek front that Acela passengers are now familiar with. The interior was remarkable to me then although now nearly every Amtrak train has followed by their example and was a far cry from the old fashioned trains Paul and I had jumped on and off during our commute to visit his family. Those trains still had thinly cushioned seats on wooden frames in individual compartments with their own doors that open and close to the outside. Though very uncomfortable, I love that I got to ride in them at least once before they were finally taken out of service a few years ago.

Anyway, back on the Eurostar, we chugged along coming to a stop as we approached the Chunnel (the Channel tunnel connecting England to France) and waited as customs came around to check everyone's passports and paperwork. Then, in a force I thought was reserved strictly for airplanes, the train started moving again, picking up speed as we zipped along so fast I was glad for the darkness outside to keep me from losing my lunch (rule #1 NEVER look out the window at any one given thing for too long while riding on a high speed train!). At the end of the 2 hour trip we pulled into Gard du Nord station and slipped into the funky filthy station that led to the Paris metro line. It was reminiscent of the NY subway system of the 80s complete with stench and graffiti but I was amazed at seeing a double decker subway train! We quickly climbed in and whisked off to the station closest to our Parisian hotel. As we wandered through to street level, we looked at each other and quickly sped past a large American man sporting a cowboy hat and bearing a remarkable likeness to Hank Hill loudly twanging at some poor customer service agent about finding a decent place to eat and "none of this frog leg, fru fru sheeyit"!

Once above ground I stopped and took a deep breath. One thing I noticed during my trips to Europe is the air is so much different than here in the US. I don't know if it's just because I'm always in vacation mode but the sky always seems crisper and the air feels cooler and clearer even in summer. It was about mid morning on a weekday so the streets were fairly empty as we made our way to the Best Western Derby Eiffel. I've never been a huge fan of Best Western hotels but this was one of those rare instances where I found a very elegant and impressive branch of the chain.

Now everyone talks about how nasty and uncooperative Parisians are but as Paul alerted me and I discovered myself, if you make an attempt no matter how foolish you feel at speaking French rather than rattling off to them in English, a Parisian will usually stop you, smiling sheepishly at the assault on his ears, and start speaking to you in English. We were given our room key and headed upstairs. Imagine our surprise when we opened the door to find someone else's stuff inside! After checking three times to make sure we had the right room (despite the fact the key opened the door you still feel compelled to check that you didn't make a mistake) we went back to the reception desk where the staff apologized profusely for double booking the room. There wouldn't be another available vacancy ready for several hours but we were able to leave our luggage with them and wander around the city for a few hours until the room was ready so it wasn't a big deal.

Our first stop was Notre Dame Cathedral. I'm a big fan of Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame and stood there, looking up at this colossal building, just awestruck at the detail involved in a time before cranes and thinking about just how old the building really was. Seeing the place on the screen just doesn't compare to seeing it in real life! Inside, people spoke in hushed voices and sunlight poured in through the large stain glass windows and danced along the stone floor. There was a latin mass finishing up as we entered so we quietly wandered along near the walls looking at a kind of shadowbox exhibit of the Stations of the Cross.

We picked our way through the countless "starving artists" that set up shop on the streets and calling to us in every language they knew to get us to stop and buy something. Our next stop was the Eiffel Tower and we couldn't help but stand directly underneath it and look up (rule #2, make sure to do this in turns so you can catch each other when you start to fall over;). There were different admission prices for the three levels and a fourth if you wanted to eat at the restaurant on top but because of Paul's vertigo we only went as high as the second level. You could also walk up the stairs for free but well... no! You get on this strange little glass elevator that rides slanted up along the legs to your level and although we didn't go all the way to the top, the view on the second level was breathtaking! We wandered around the city and got to see the smaller replica of the Statue of Liberty that sits on a little island in the middle of the Seine, we ate the best chocolate eclairs I've ever had in life and which were about the size of your head and had a fairly forgettable lunch for tourists in a place located underneath a large stone bridge with very large pigeons walking around.

We went back to the hotel to rest and freshen up for dinner and discovered our luggage was already moved into our room which wasn't a room but a SUITE! There was no extra charge and the staff was apparently very happy we didn't explode at their snafu so the manager had us stay in the cute little suite with a giant clawfoot tub, big soft beds and french doors that opened up to a beautiful little cafe garden. Unlike lunch, dinner was very memorable. We wandered around and found a place called Le Royal Tour Brasserie. It was a warm night and we wanted to do the people watching thing so we sat at one of the tables outside. The menu was in French so I was at a total loss, however, Paul was able to translate somewhat and he ordered his usual steak and french fries while I went exotic, determined to try the local cuisine, and ordered a kind of pot pie with what I thought was beef in gravy with vegetables but Paul later informed me was probably horsemeat! The texture was softer and a bit stringier than regular beef but the whole thing tasted great so I didn't care and would probably order it again. This was also my first time ever trying Tiramisu. We wandered around a bit more, the city began waking up as the sun set a half hour before midnight, but we had an early train to catch so we headed back to the hotel.

We were only able to stay one night and only scratched the surface of places to go and things to see in Paris but we hope someday to return and hit everything next time!

Well, that's it for this week. Our next post will take you on the roller coaster ride that was dealing with US Immigration and the nervous breakdowns that ensued. Have a great week everyone!

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