We head to the Newark Airport, on our way to Paris. B had declared
several months prior that we would, under no circumstances, be spending
another Christmas with our relatives. I associated myself with her
sentiments wholeheartedly. Despite the urgings of television movies
on the subject, coming 'home for the holidays' was not the balm
it purported to be, and I don't think that's limited to our two
families. Sure, maybe there are some people who like it still, but
most people can agree that the sheer inconvenience of visiting your
relatives at precisely the same time that every other schmoe on
the planet is visiting his relatives is enough to warrant calling
the whole thing off.
So B had the simple idea (actually, she sort of ripped the idea
off our friends J&M, who probably also weren't the first ones
to think of this either) to travel to a location exotic enough that
instead of becoming angry, our families would only seethe in envy.
We had thought about something warm and sand-covered, but my back-hair
levels are considered toxic and only legal on US beaches (thanks
to Bush for pulling out of the Kyoto treaty!). So Paris was next
on the list.
We had searched for tickets online in the usual places, but the
cheapest thing we could find was $950 apiece. So B went to Priceline
and got us a pair of tickets for $700 total. The only hitch was
we had to get to Newark instead of one of the Queens-based airports.
No big deal, but being unfamiliar with the distance involved, we
get to the airport about three hours early. We buy a copy of Let's
Go! Paris to complement the many other books we'd bought or borrowed
(thanks Sean). Then we sit at a TGIFriday's and plot our trip.
We read up on what will be our home for the next week, in the Rue
St Denis, which is sort of in the Halles neighborhood (2eme Arrondisement
for those who care). Through the magic of the Internet, we have
rented a studio apartment for the whole week, which is way cheaper
than a hotel, but affords more privacy than a hostel. Also, I decided
since I had just turned 30, I was too old to share a bunk bed with
fat, naked Germans.
All the travel books mention our street in particular as being
a place to avoid at night, that it's the center of the sex industry
in central Paris. Yay! No wonder the rent is so cheap. But the location
looks good, right near all the stuff we want to see.
We fly Air Canada, so we connect in Toronto, whose airport is one
of the least intuitively-planned airport in the world. But we find
the plane, and seven hours later we are at Charles de Gaulle. Then
begins the sort of confusion that tends to follow me whenever I
go somewhere with which I am not completely familiar. My problem
is that my primordial instincts are usually correct, but since I
have spent my entire life repressing these drives, I always, always
do exactly the wrong thing. So we're trying to find the train that
takes you to the metro that takes you to the neighborhood we need.
We find the train, and I run my ticket through the turnstile. Then
I decide I am in the wrong place, so I jump over the turnstile and
wander around for a bit, doing my best not to have to speak to any
French speaking people. As will become par for the rest of the trip,
B eventually asks the information desk where the train is: I had
been right. So I buy another ticket and we get on the train.
We transfer to the metro at some point in another confusing volley
of commuters and ticket vendors who don't sell tickets for the trains
we need. Eventually, we realize two things:
1) you get a free transfer at the connecting station, and
2) Paris' mass transit system is like a commuter version of Thunderdome
So we find the metro and lug our bags out onto Rue St. Denis, in
the Sentier neighborhood. The street is lined with sex shops, our
landlady's address being the impressive "Sex Center."
I have visions of our landlady coming to the door in a bustier,
smoking a cigarillo and sporting a fake mole on her lip. But alas,
she actually lives next door, and turns out to be just a regular
She takes us to our pad, trying to downplay the sex shops and prostitutes,
who seem to loiter mostly in front of our door. She leads us up
to our little apartment, takes our rent money and deposit, and gives
us a bottle of wine. Cool. It's now about 11 on Saturday morning.
B immediately passes out so I stroll around the neighborhood. It
turns out we're closer than I had thought we'd be to the center
of the city, so within the first hour I see the Louvre, Notre Dame,
the Pompideau Center, and the Pont Neuf. Best of all, the weather
is something like 45-50 degrees. I buy some lame postcards and go
back to the apartment by way of the Montogreil street market. I
try to wake B up but jet lag wins out and I pass out as well.
Fighting jet lag and the time zone will characterize our trip from
this point. The first few days are the roughest, trying to wake
up early and go to bed reasonably late. Our main problem is the
nature of things we're trying to experience: On the one hand, we
want to go to the museums and such, which close around 5 every day.
But we also want to experience some Parisian nightlife, which doesn't
start until hours later. Eventually we hit upon a stellar plan:
go out in the mornings, come home in the afternoon and nap, then
go out again at night. Yes, we are nonstop party animals, after
that nap. But we just can't do it any other way. All we do all day
is walk and climb stairs. Everything we're doing at first is too
close to merit taking the metro (which still spooks me a bit after
my previous lame performance). Consequently, we are constantly torn
between our desires to experience the city and our desires to lie
around the room watching "The Osbournes" with French subtitles.
If only we could embrace the Paris culture immediately! The most
striking difference between Paris and New York is the power of French
hanging out. The French insist on plopping down whenever they don't
feel like going further. To that end, cafes are literally everywhere.
There's a reason you see so many cafes in the tourist books; they're
absolutely everywhere. They're like park benches with career waiters
handing out little cylinders of sugar. It is hard for me to get
into the idea, even though I know I like it right away. Just to
sit somewhere. Maybe you have coffee, maybe you get some food. But
it's all secondary to the fact that first and foremost, you're sitting
and hanging out. As the week progresses, we will get much better
at it. I mean, it's completely natural, but in New York you don't
just sit anywhere for hours at a time unless you're boozing it up.
And this is another thing the French don't do like we do.
Beer came late to France, and to this day I don't think they really
get it. This is a culture whose beverages come in very small containers:
little espresso cups, 14cl glasses of wine. The idea of a British
pint must have floored them. In Paris, you sip everything. The idea
of guzzling suds just doesn't fly with them. Sure, some people do
it, but it doesn't seem to be the norm in any part of town. But
us Ugly Americans, we need beer, and on several occasions we can
find regular bars. They're full of English-speakers, and they play
American music. They have neon beer signs in the window. It's nice
to have that to fall back on, but as the week progresses, we go
to them less often. After a short while, the café culture
gets in your system. I'd like to see it happen here in NYC more
often, but the only place I currently frequent in New York that
is like it at all is the Sardine Can, a café-type joint in
Williamsburg (right around the corner from M's apartment). But even
that place has a certain urgency to it not seen in Parisian cafes.
When you walk in, you feel an implacable tension that comes with
knowing that if you don't order enough stuff, the place might not
be open next time you drop by.
So fighting waeriness and a desire for big glasses of beer, we
slowly get the hang of it. I had wondered what the French would
really be like, as I'd heard a lot of conflicting reports. The conventional
wisdom states the French are snotty, that they will give you a hard
time and not help foreigners, especially people from the USA. Other
people had told us that the French are actually quite friendly and
will probably speak to us in English as long as we make some effort
to attempt speaking French first. Our experience tends to be somewhere
towards the middle. In may instances, they are indeed a bit brusque,
even ignoring us on several occasions. At first, this fazes me,
making me feel like I'm just another fat American in a sweatshirt
and baseball cap. But soon I realize they're really no worse than
most New Yorkers. Like us, the French don't have time to waste on
the slow and stupid, which is what we are in their country.
However, as we get through the week, we find more and more people
who go out of their way to help us. I find that I prefer speaking
to people who don't know English all that well. We both try to speak
the other's language, so a nice cultural balance is achieved. The
truly bilingual can be helpful, but it just becomes another reminder
of how we as Americans are never taught to consider the rest of
the world, and I start to see why nobody likes us (not even the
Canadians). By the end of the week, we've encountered a lot of really
good people, some of whom operate the café at the end of
our block. These guys seem genuinely amused by our attempts at French,
and make us feel better by saying "Vous parlez francias tres
Once the ice has broken, we feel a real kinship to Paris. It's
a really beautiful, not too huge place, and the Parisians appear
to enjoy their tourist attractions as much as the tourists do. There's
no Times Square here, no part of town that the natives avoid because
of people like us. Well, the Moulin Rouge is the possible exception,
but we didn't bother to see it.
When we finally leave, the return trip is harrowing. Instead of
moving towards an increasingly exotic place, we head for the gathering
shadaow of America. The lifhgt back is longer and we are surrounded
by loud French children, who shriek and kick the backs of our seats.
We connect this time in Montreal, where misinformation forces us
to track down our luggage and find the limitations of the airport
staff. Nobody seems to know what to do, and we're left sweating
it out until right before our flight leaves. To cap it off, airport
security confiscates B's knitting needles and my box of matches.
They do not, however, take any of the several lighters I have. We
get back to Newark and find the US cold and snowy. At first it really
sucks being home, but there is enough big glasses of cheap beer
to keep us placated for the time being.
As for the big touristy things to do in Paris, here's a rundown,
in no particular order:
Eiffel Tower: We walked all the way over to this thing,
journeying through the Tuileries garden, over to the Left Bank and
through some neighborhood that looked a lot like Brooklyn Heights,
in that it contained old buildings that appeared to be incredibly
expensive. We walked up to the first observation deck and took a
lot of pictures, then decided not to bother going up the rest of
the way. Paris is such a short city that you need only go up a few
flights to get a good view of everything. The Tower is big and brown,
though we learned it has been many colors throughout history, like
yellow and bright orange. I guess it's too expensive to buy anything
but brown paint anymore. Ask our old landlord, he'll tell you; he
painted everything brown.
Arc de Triomphe: The Arc is in the middle of the Champs
Eleysees, so there are cars all over the place, and is not really
all that impressive if you've seen the similar arch in Grand Army
Plaza in Brooklyn. That's just my opinion. That part of town kind
of sucked, too. Nothing happening.
Pont Neuf: Um, we walked over this bridge many times; it's
an old bridge.
Notre Dame: While we were visiting this place, the choir
was practicing for Christmas mass, so that was pretty cool. But
they couldn't seem to get through more than a measure or two before
they stopped. I finally learned what a flying buttress is and yes,
it's most striking.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery: Because we figured most other stuff
would be closed on Christmas Day, we went to this enormous cemetery
to see the famous dead people there. I felt a little guilty at first,
until I saw the huge map they have at the entrance, pointing out
the specific celebrity locations. We hit most of the worthwhile
graves, and stopped to see Jim Morrisson's final resting place,
which was being casually guarded by a couple of cops to keep people
from writing graffiti all over it. On our way to this location,
we stopped in a café for deux express and got to see that
the French find Mr. Bean just as funny as the Brits do.
Sacre Coeur/Montmartre: On Christmas Day we went up to this
neighborhood in the northern part of town. This is supposed to be
the neighborhood in which Amelie takes place, but we couldn't really
see it for all the millions of tourists who were swamping the area.
I guess every other visitor in town was there because not much was
open on Christmas. Sacre Coeur was cool, and true to the guidebooks,
the view from the church was great. Which brings up another little
point about Paris: they love to look at themselves. Whether it's
interesting vantage points from which to view the city, or the countless
mirrors placed on the sides of buildings, Parisians always have
an option for self-reflection of some kind.
The Louvre: Probably our most misguided venture. We got
up really early to go there, hoping to beat the crowd and command
a full 12 hours of sightseeing. Well, we sort of beat the crowds.
We went through and saw all the famous stuff, but then lethargy
set in and we stepped out of the museum to get some chow in the
lobby café. It was then I realized I had dropped one of the
tickets to get us back inside. After a few stressful moments, we
convinced ourselves we didn't need to shell out another 8 euros
to see any more old art. We went back to the apartment and promptly
Pompideau Center: The best surprise about this place is
that they have a postage stamp machine on the main floor. I had
bought some stamps already but I didn't have enough for all our
postcards, so this thing came in real handy. And there was a lot
of cool art, and the building is bizarre looking and whatnot. I
dunno, I get sick of looking at art quick. However, I never seemed
to tire of watching The Osbournes on our apartment TV, complete
with poorly translated French subtitles. Odd, that.
Latin Quarter: I dunno what happened. I guess we never really
found it. Or maybe lots of stuff was shut down for Christmas, but
we never got to any place that seemed cohesive enough to call the
Latin Quarter. We ate dinner at a brasserie that had the word "Latin"
in the name. Close enough. One aspect of our forays to the Left
Bank that I liked was when at one point we found ourselves in an
area of tiny interconnected streets, full of restaurants and people
everywhere. At first, we thought this must be the famed Latin Quarter,
but the guidebook warned of a place known to locals as "Bacteria
Alley." It's a place full of poorly-maintained ethnic restaurants
that lure tourists in who think it's the Latin Quarter. But all
it has to offer is mediocre food and botulism. It turned out that's
where we were. J'accuse!
Le Marais: A neighborhood we wandered through a lot. Lots
of expensive stores, and a street called Rue de Mauvais Garcons
(Street of the Bad Boys). Also home to the one Jewish section of
town, Rue de Roisiers, which was cool cuz it was full of those stores
like you can still find in the Lower East Side that sell humorous
mezuzahs and other pitsel shmattehs. We wandered around some more,
and were lured in by neon signs in a window. It turned out to be,
of course, and Anglo bar. The bartenders sounded American and they
played lame classic rock and charged way too much for a pint and
stared at the TV. It was like we were home. We ended up back in
this neighborhood on Christmas Eve, looking for a place to have
dinner. Many restaurants were closed already, and we had hours to
kill before midnight, when we were to attend mass at L'Eglise St.
Gervaise, which is in the same area. We were heading for the Jewish
section, since we figured they'd be open, and passed a place that
said "Couscous House" which was still open. It soon became
apparent that the word 'couscous' was always a good sign that something
would be open on a Christian holiday. We then proceeded to eat the
single biggest meal of our trip. We ordered the prix fixe menu,
which is actually a really good idea that hasn't been properly delivered
in America. The only down side is that it's a ton of food, any way
you look at it. But the food rocked, and we stayed there right until
we went to the church.
Eglise St. Gervaise: B's boss recommended this place for
midnight mass, because they favored a Gregorian Chant over organ
music. It was bizarre to see nuns all dolled up in their old-fashioned
draperies, singing without accompaniment like they must have centuries
ago. But I guess it's no stranger than the Hassidim in New York.
I've never been to a mass before, midnight or otherwise. I had read
that the French, although fiercely Catholic, almost never attended
church, except of course for Christmas. This makes me wonder what
the rest of the year is like, because in Paris there's a huge ancient
church every couple of blocks. Are they just deserted all year long?
Anyhow, everybody Frenchy and his mother were at this mass, I can
only imagine the zoo that must have been Notre Dame at the time.
And lemme tell you, those French folks were bored out of their minds.
It wasn't nearly as solemn an affair as I thought it would be. We
stayed for some of the sermon, which near as I could figure was
all about how hard it was to be religious in our modern world and
the necessity to be good and such. Man, do preachers ever get new
material? B won't even let her freshmen students use that "modern
The Metro: What a cute little subway. That's what I kept
thinking. The trains actually look a lot like the light rail thing
in San Francisco, narrow, clean cars, relatively silent. There appeared
to be two models of train. The older model stumped us at first because
the doors do not automatically open at a stop, a latch has to be
flipped manually. For the first few times we rode it, we would stand
dumbly in front of the door until some kind person would reach over
and open the door for us. We got it eventually. The newer model
of train isn't as quaint, it looks like the monorail at Disneyworld.
The doors here do open automatically, so that's cool, but the best
part was how the new trains are connected. They have those accordion-like
connectors you see on big buses, and because of this, there is no
separation between cars. You can look all the way down and see anybody
who is riding. This would never fly in New York, since every rider
has to glance around at each other. If the cars were all connected
this would take hours and nobody would get off the train.
Exterminator Shop: I'd read about this place somewhere,
it turned about to be in our neighborhood. It's just a pest removal
service, but at some point the owner got it in his head to keep
the vermin he killed, taxidemied in the window. So there's basically
a bunch of stuffed rats in this storefront. What I especially liked
about it is that none of the animals were preserved particularly
well: their fur is matted and dirty, the fake eyes aren't put in
well, and they're not posed in any particular position. I think
most of them were stuffed in the same shape they were in when the
rat poison took effect.