France on Fridays: À Travers La Ville

LES DEUX AMIS EN FRANCE
Across the City • Friday, June 2

This will be our first full day in Paris, and the morning greets us as if we are the city’s favorite guests. Bright sun pours through the thick brocade curtains to wake us from our much-needed 10 hours of sleep. The sky is crystal blue and the air crisp and cool.

Our room is tiny — big enough for two twin beds, a small desk, and a path from one to the next — decorated in pale blue with golden-yellow accents. The beds are comfortable, though I doubt we would have noticed otherwise, as exhaustion is not choosy where it puts its head. At one end of the room, a large, eight-foot tall, wooden window opens, sans screen, onto a concrete courtyard three stories below; at the other, a television on which we watch the local weather, CNN and the funky European music videos we fall in love with.

The bathroom, by comparison, feels enormous. Its marble-tiled floors stretch from one end of the room to the other. A large window allows light in. At the far end sits a long, thin tub with no shower curtain, and a small shower head affixed to the faucet by a hose at calf-level. As I stand there, in the middle of this funny little tub, perplexed at how to actually “take a shower,” I start laughing. And keep on laughing as I try to soap up with one free hand, then rinse my hair…and the entire bathroom in the process.

“I don’t want to know,” DeLinda laughs at me from the other room.

“No. You don’t,” I laugh back. “You’ll see.”

We have the luxury of enjoying free petit dejéuner each day, and they are not — as my sister so aptly pointed out — the American attempt at a “continental breakfast.” Le Petit Dejéuner? My second favorite meal. Every one of them! Imagine the most heavenly pastries: croissant, pain au chocolat (fluffy square croissants dotted with bits of dark chocolate), pain aux raisin, petit baguette, all perfectly light and buttery. And as if that were not enough, we can select from fresh strawberry, blackberry, plum, peach or rhubarb preserves. Or cheese! Cheese for breakfast! Camembert and Emmental. Or yogurts, real yogurt, thick and creamy with fresh fruits. And coffee — now that is what I miss most about France. The coffee.

Ironically, on a two-week diet that consists primarily of pastries, cheese, yogurt and ham, I lose about eight pounds, my abs never look better, and I have a tan to boot! But, I imagine that walking ten hours a day and carrying a 10-pound backpack has something to do with it, non?

Rested and well fed, we trek off. And where is the first place you go on your first full day in Paris? The Eiffel Tower, bien sur!

Our first ride on the Paris Metro with its white tiled walls and maze-like tunnels is exhilarating. And no pickpockets in sight; we had heard they crowded the Metro stations one-per-tourist waiting to grab at you and ruin your vacation. Clutching my backpack, I ride warily at first, but settle in to a big-city familiar, this-isn’t-so-bad ease, as we shuttle southwest across the city.

Being in Paris is quite surreal; it is not exactly as I imagined — that romantic, sepia-toned city with Gene Kelly dancing on the lawn. Paris is real and gritty. There is traffic. There are lots of people. There are cars honking and homeless people pandering. At times, it’s hard to imagine you’re in a foreign city, in a foreign country. Often, you get the feeling you’re in Disney World, holding your E-ticket for the Notre Dame Cathedral ride or the scenic Seine boat cruise. And then…you turn a corner and see, peeking from over the rooftops, the Eiffel Tower!

We begin our slow procession to the Eiffel Tower from the Ecole Militaire, up the pristine expanse of lawn called the Parc du Champ de Mars. We walk slowly, down this long aisle, as if to meet our intended, only our intended is this grand world wonder and celebrated landmark.

At the base of the tower, we stand, looking up. It is immense and beautiful. The detail of the metal structure is fine artwork, as is the geometric way the grassy Parc du Champ de Mars and the River Seine criss-cross beneath it.

We ride to the top, and I close my eyes in excited panic. The view is breathtaking, out and across the city in all directions. You see the grand view, you see the small details, and you take a deep breath.

The sun is our friend this day, and it lights up the city with a blue-sky backdrop one could only wish for. DeLinda and I walk around, and walk around, and take it all in for hours: the people speaking different languages pushing to get the best view; the glistening white Sacré Coeur cathedral on the hilltop; the smell of coffee; the dizzying height; the path of the Seine as it wanders through the city. It is like nothing I imagined, yet everything I hoped!

Suddenly, it’s noon and time to return to the hotel for a whirlwind tour of the city, courtesy of our travel agent, Liz at Sundial Travel, who listened to our very first ideas for the trip and magically made it all happen for us avec la perfection!

DeLinda and I are greeted in the hotel lobby by Thierry, the charming Frenchman who will show us his city. We speak in broken French and English, but he is impressed that we speak what French we do, and that we had studied it in school. He seems to appreciate our questions about where we are and what we’re seeing. We chat amicably, sharing pieces of Paris history and its monuments with each other as we make our way across the city to pick up another passenger.

We call him “Joe.” It seems an appropriate name, though DeLinda and I both mean it with all of the “average American” sarcasm a name like Joe conveys. Joe is young—mid-twenties, from Chicago by way of India. He works for GM and is in town to market Hummers to the French.

“Watch out,” he says, “Hummers are about to invade Paris!”

Has he been out of his hotel, we wonder? Has he seen the size of the streets? The size of the cars? Hummers? In Paris? Mon Dieu!

Actually, Joe has never been to Paris. He doesn’t know anything about the city. He doesn’t speak a word of French, doesn’t know a thing about the places we visit on our tour. His only concern is getting a picture of himself in front of the Eiffel Tower to show his friends, “been here, done that.”

“On your left,” points Thierry, speaking from a prerecorded cassette, “is the Hôtel des Invalides, with its…”

[insert sounds of the 1812 Overture]

“Hello?” says Joe, taking out his cell phone in a this-is-very-important, corporate way.

“Yea, I’m in Paris. Oh, just for the night…” he continues on, while Thierry politely waits to continue the tour; while DeLinda and I watch the city race by the car window.

“Sorry about that,” says Joe.

“And so, on the right there, is the River Seine. And to our left, is the Louvre and the Tuileries Gardens.”

[insert sounds of the 1812 Overture]

“Hello?” says Joe into his cell phone once again.

“Hey, how are you…” he continues.

Thierry pauses, and DeLinda and I fume.

“We’re now entering the famous Latin Quarter,” begins Thierry again.

[insert sounds of the 1812 Overture]

“Hello? says Joe.

I smile, embarrassed, to Thierry in the rear view mirror. DeLinda and I look at each other. We are no longer feeling polite.

“Excuse me,” I interrupt, tapping Joe on the shoulder. “Do ya think you can turn that off?”

“Oh? sure,” he responds. You can tell it never occurred to him.

“We’re now entering the famous Latin Quarter,” Thierry begins again, with a deep breath and a return smile in the rear view mirror.

We continue our tour…through the tiny, crowded streets of the Latin Quarter to Notre Dame Cathedral. We listen to short stories of Paris and its history — ancient mixed with current: like the impressive carved Colonne de Vendôme, constructed in 1810, that stands dramatically in a courtyard next to the Ritz Carlton where Princess Diana dined the night she was killed. We pass grand monuments from Napoleon’s time, while familiar names and places from the pages of The DaVinci Code creep into the conversation.

As we drive across the city, speeding along the Seine, through crazy traffic, up the Champs-Élysées towards the Arc de Triomphe, to the Eiffel Tower, through winding narrow streets up to Sacré Coeur and a breathtaking view of the city — we are overwhelmed. Like name-dropping at a cocktail party, these famous sights and places we have known about for half our lives are suddenly right in front of us. It is impressive…and humbling.

Thierry leaves us, exhausted, at the doorstep of our hotel, four hours later. We are hungry and make our way to a brasserie near Saint-Augustin—Le Pépinière announces its red awning. We sit at a small table not far from stree-view. DeLinda notices the woman behind me applying fresh lipstick after each course; two businessmen eat and talk energetically a few tables away. It is familiar, yet excitingly foreign.

Our waiter is kind and funny. We make our best effort at the end of a long day to use the words we know. We order — steak frites and small glasses of chilled Bordeaux. We say merci. We smile. A lot. Unlike at home, the wait staff does not feel the need to check in every five minutes. Here, we are left to enjoy our meal, uninterrupted. It is a nice change of pace.

At meal’s end, we wait for our check. But it does not come. Our waiter passes us several times, smiling. We smile back.

“How do you say ‘may we have the check, please’?” I ask DeLinda.

She thinks for a moment. “I don’t remember.”

We have left our French dictionaries at the hotel, so look to our memories, casting glances upwards, as if the French words will magically appear on the ceiling. The waiter notices and comes by the table.

Vous aimez toute autre chose? (would you like anything else)” he asks.

Non, merci,” we respond, smiling. He will bring us the check now.

He does not.

“How do you say ‘may we have the check, please’?” DeLinda asks me.

Je ne sais pas,” I shake my head, embarrassed.

The waiter notices and walks by the table. He places his hand thoughtfully on his chin, looks to the ceiling pretending to find the magic words, also, and thinks out loud with a smirk, “Hmmm? Hmmm?”

We have been detected! We laugh. He laughs.

He will bring us the check now.

He does not.

C’est combien?” DeLinda suggests

“This is how much?” I translate. “But isn’t it rude to just ask that way?”

It is better than nothing, we agree.

The waiter approaches the table again, and DeLinda says that magic words,

C’est combien?

“Ah ha!” he says, smiling and laughing. We laugh, too, at the moment, at ourselves, as he brings us the check.

Merci beaucoup!” we smile to him in unison.

I wish I had a photo of him. Our thin and funny waiter with the moustache, rubbing his chin, drawing an invisible question mark in the air with an audible “pop.” Laughing at us kindly. Laughing with us.

I wish I had photos of all of the people we met along the way — Jamie in his wrinkled suit, Thierry and Joe on our tour; Pasquale and Henri, the good Samaritans who rescue us from our smoking car; the young middle-eastern hotel owner in Honfleur; the round, jocular concierge at the hotel in Paris where we spend our last night. I want to remember their faces, but they fade now, like their names.

This was my first big trip. My first time out of the country — unless you count a school trip to Canada and those 15 minutes in Mexico. There are things I will remember for the next one: pack less and bring a smaller suitcase, write in my journal throughout the day; and take pictures of the people — all of their faces, all of their smiles.

After dinner, we stop at Le Monoprix for snacks — and water. Liters and liters of water. “Hydrate!” will be our mantra on this trip, and DeLinda the water guru. “Here,” she will say to me often, “drink more water.” Lotion, lip balm and water — our hydrating talismans.

It is evening, now, and the streets are quiet. To our surprise, the sun still sits high in the sky. It feels like two in the afternoon; it is closer to six. We don’t notice this at first. And then, several days into the trip, we realize we have not seen darkness since we arrived. There has been daylight in the morning when we wake, daylight when we’ve crawled exhausted into bed at night. Despite our successful avoidance of jet lag, our inner time clock wakes us up before the city rises, puts us asleep just as the “City of Lights” wakes.

It will be another eight days before we see nighttime in France, when we will race excitedly to the porch of our hotel room in Annecy to watch the moon rise up over the Alps. For now, we pull the shades down and the covers over our heads for darkness.

• • •

Les Deux Amis En France, ©2011 Jen Payne. All rights reserved.

See also:
L’introduction
C’est La Vie
La Plus Longue Journée

Photos ©2011, Jen Payne, DeLinda Fox.

10 thoughts on “France on Fridays: À Travers La Ville

  1. i like the list for your next trip: pack less, write more and taking pictures of the people (not just the scenery!) paris – what a wonderful place to be!

    1. The trip was a merveilleux whirlwind, but I think by the second or third day my handwritten journal was down to shorthand lists of what we did for the day. Much of what you’ll read is from memory or stories triggered from photos – this writer’s brain retains so much, it’s scary sometimes!

      Ah, Annecy. Lovely! Have you been?

  2. I’m sure you’re not like Casey, who waltzed with the strawberry blonde — his brain was so loaded it nearly exploded, the poor girl would quake with alarm —
    (You do know the song? Maybe?)

    Yes, I have been to Annecy. A couple of times, with great delight. The extraordinary color of the lake — unforgettable. The last time I was there it was April, and there had been a freak snowstorm, and all the pansies and primroses were shivering in the snow!

    1. I do know the song – the melody at least, and the first few lines. I forgot that this head explodes – and expect mine will at some point! : )

      Lucky you…Annecy is a LOVELY town! Funny, we were there in a freak heat wave that set temps up in the 90s and NO snow to be seen! A ride on that gorgeous lake was just the ticket!

  3. Your stories from France are bringing back so many of my own memories from Paris. I haven’t thought of them in years! Your awe of the Eiffel tower matches my own as does your love of continental breakfasts. They seriously know how to eat in France. :-) What I miss most is what most people in the States cringe at . . . the snails. I’d never eaten anything like it and I loved them. I distinctly remember polishing off a whole plate while the Eiffel tower shimmered across the street.

    1. Snails? Somewhere along the way, there’s a story of snails coming up. Most certainly not as romantic or appetizing as you describe! But isn’t it fun to remember the flavors of travel? Like the breakfasts. Or the coffee. Or the croissant. Or the snails…

  4. Chère Jen,

    J’adore vachement cette histoire charmant! Paris est vraiement la ville la plus incroyable du monde, n’est-çe-pas? Mais, à la même fois, c’est vraie de toute la France…
    J’attend avec impatiènce les mots des prochaines journées!

    Je t’embrasse,

    Carol

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