Half an hour on the MetroLink from Forest Park to Lambert Airport, 13 hours allegedly in the airspace above the Atlantic, and another half hour on the Metropolitan from Charles de Gaulle Airport to St. Michel-Notre Dame, took me seamlessly from 25 with two stamps on my passport, to 26 with three. There have been harder transitions in my life. And now, finally, Europe!
Welcome to the Lou! Don’t stay too long.
Bienvenue à Paris! You win.
Just kidding, I love St. Louis. In all seriousness, it’s not every once-around-the-sun that you get to experience an entirely new-to-you part of the earth but I think that’s a great prospect and tradition to start. It’s also not every day that you get to hobble out of a grimy subway to be greeted by the gothic Cathédrale Notre Dame straight out of the gate. Unless you are one of the twelve million Parisian inhabitants and that’s just your commute.
So very hungover from in-flight birthday champagne, and jet-lagged, I felt a bit guilty stepping into the legendary cosmopolis saturated with lethargy, lugging my suitcase all along the Left Bank, half-heartedly taking in the city’s first impressions. Audrey Hepburn, with whom I share the birthday and like many, feel an affinity for, would not have been proud. Had I been dragging my body around outfitted in Givenchy, I’m sure my beloved style icon and inspiration for nostalgic travel would have forgiven me.
My enthusiasm was sifted out through the blinding high noon light, cast on the equally blinding clouds of construction dust that surrounded us at the cathedral. Instead of counting the ornate gargoyles on the famous monument, or say my blessings, I tallied every nudge I caught to the rib from the push-and-shove gaggle of other early-season tourists (mostly their loosely tethered baggage). Everything more familiar to the crowd, I toured my way through the haze, bringing my attention to the more significant sights, sounds, and structures as I found my way around to the first bridge crossing the Seine. I didn’t know what to look at first and sporadically began to snap the first of over one thousand photos I’d take home from France. I will make a painfully conscious effort to keep these whittled down to the most storytelling shots.
Laying first eyes on the Eiffel Tower.
According to the Impressionist exhibit that I saw just a week before at the Saint Louis Art Museum:
Before reconstruction in 1853, the city was a labyrinth of narrow, winding streets, without sidewalks, between crumbling multistory buildings where many neighbourhoods were dark, unhealthy, and dangerous. Georges-Eugène Haussmann, per Napoleon III, orchestrated the demolition of two thousand buildings and forty streets and built two hundred kilometres of wide new boulevards, squares and parks, along with sidewalks, sewers, and street lighting. This established “L’alignement” or the standards for the height, general design and the materials used for the buildings along boulevards, giving the centre of Paris the distinct unity and look that it has today.
An excerpt from Eyewitness Travel book (I prefer Insight Guides and will take either one over Lonely Planet because I like pictures) did not come close to describing how vibrant and “center-of-it-all” the Latin Quarter would still feel. Another description I came across that warned me not to expect too much came from Matt Barrett’s Guide to Paris France:
…the name alone evokes images of bohemian Paris at its height. In spite of its indisputable gentrification and the loss of its former identity, the myriad streets surrounding what was the left bank’s true student and intellectual center continues to attract tourists and Parisians who hope to discover, or possibly resurrect, a little of that electric sense of change we read of in Camus, Sartre and Beckett.
Nonetheless, I picked the neighborhood for being on the Seine as rivers are damn romantic. This particular hub is also near many of the city’s famous points of interest and I had ambitiously high plans to run along the bank early in the mornings on the cobblestone runway, to see parts of the city transform at sunrise before my eyes from dark to daybreak. No, I really did. I packed my bulky, space-stealing athletic clothes and crummy running shoes in my duffel bag, which occupied space I would have rather used for smuggling cheese back home. Alas, the inconvenience of wishful thinking; I didn’t run once in my nine days in France.
I made a quick wardrobe change and washed the airplane filth off my hands with a squishy oil pod that was the only thing that resembled soap in my petite new dwelling. The bathroom was tiled blue from floor to ceiling with a small 3′ x 3′ x 3′ built-in tub. There was a wash basin that had two faucets with their own turn-knobs, the kind my grandma’s house had. For a couple minutes, I alternated between splashing freezing then scalding hot water on my face, before I spotted the rubber stopper in the corner that I missed for plugging the drain.
Many adventure novels, movies, and travel stories often depict a protagonist effortlessly happening upon their perfectly timed adventures. They stumble into time-honored nooks and gems as naturally as they do the underground, insiders-only, gas-lit pubs, never so much as glancing at a map or train schedule. They luck their way through foreign countries, carelessly getting into just the right amount of trouble with just a touch of jail-time and have strange new conversations with cellmates-turned-blood brothers.
I accepted that this would not be the case for my France. Having spent less than a month learning the language, I knew this would limit me to few real conversations with the locals. I knew it’d have its dull and frustrating moments, but the trip was freaking magical and I was constantly coming upon storybook scenes in the city and country-side. I had hoped to find at least one of the many cafes in town that famous American artists in Paris frequented back in their day, but it seemed like I ended stopping in at all of them just by walking around for hours, choosing ones that looked old, established and cool.
Much needed coffee and much more people watching at Les Duex Magots. I’ll be honest, besides it being one of Hemingway’s favorites, this was not a special spot to visit. There are just too many tables and people forced into one corner. The service attitude reflects this. Though the patrons across the sidewalk and away from the foot-traffic did seem to have a better experience than those of us, brick and mortar-side.
I concluded my walking tour of the city by looping back to the square at Notre Dame. I peeked into a couple of other cathedrals as I came upon them on day one, more so for shade than sanctuary, but their cool halls couldn’t quite steal the show like the enormous and impressively detailed stained glass windows of Notre Dame. If it weren’t for the noisy, obtrusive crowd, the massive mass would have given me chills. Catholics know how to evoke a sense of presence. I resisted the urge to convert with great difficulty and the overwhelming need to reprise Esmerelda’s “God Help the Outcast” from Disney’s 1996 musical hit, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Esmeralda knows what I’m talking about.
Churches are the oldest intact buildings in the city, and show high Gothic architecture at its best—Notre Dame cathedral and the Sainte-Chapelle are two of the most striking buildings in the city. The latter half of the 19th-century was an era of architectural inspiration, with buildings such as the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, built between 1875 and 1919 in a neo-Byzantine design. Paris’ most famous architectural piece, the Eiffel Tower, was built as a temporary exhibit for the 1889 World Fair and remains an enduring symbol of the capital with its iconic structure and position, towering over much of the city.
After figuring out how to operate the self-cleaning pod-shaped public toilet/spaceship near the cathedral, I headed home and crashed my stiff body onto an even stiffer futon in the loft of my unfamiliar apartment. The cloth and wood of the room had more of a foreign fragrance than the city outside. At twilight, my room was hot and the pillows rough and itchy, but I was grateful for a chance to finally hit what felt like actual hay.
Groggy and unrested, I peeled my eyes open some hours later. It was after dark, seemingly like the street lights might have just turned on. I was tempted to sleep my life away but forced my bloated, throbbing head off the pillow to get sight of the sounds of the locals drinking and singing in the alley below. They were not groggy or jet-lagged and they were having fun. So I pulled off the sheet and took the winding staircase down to the atrium and pushed the giant double doors of the building out to the street. I started south, choosing the narrowing way of the alley road, away from the lights of previously charted Quai de Conti and toward the glow above the dark and winding buildings, into what only sounded and smelled like the right place to be at dinnertime.
They say you can’t have a bad meal in France. And with the exception of the especially manure-y andouille sausage, they are right. Andouille A.A.A.A. (pictured left), is a truly terrible taste that leaves an equally terrible aftertaste, and if you can imagine, an even more rancid breath. Just looking at this picture makes me squint, I can feel the fumes stinging my eyes again. This coming from someone happy to eat escargot, ris de veau, and boudin noir!
I was much more happy with the cheese and truffle spaghetti I ordered to see how the French do spaghetti. I would order this again, especially with a side of melty camembert to smother over slices of baguette. Slightly funky, mostly creamy, wholly decadent and delicious. I blame this first meal for drenching me in dairy and sending me way into my food comas that made morning runs a total impossibility.