In which we are entranced by the Eiffel Tower, and I pretend to be a Vogue Model

All throughout the city of Paris, the Eiffel Tower rises in the distance like a steel beacon, drawing excited looks from wherever you are. With it’s size, it seems tantalizingly close everywhere but really, it’s quite a distance to the West of many city sights. Most travel guides recommend saving it for the last day of your visit, to cap it off and to be able to see the sights from up high and recognize where you’ve been, especially the kids who will squeal with excitement and recognition at the Parisian landmarks they’ve trod on in days past.
Taking the Metro to the Plaza Trocadero in the morning is the best way to start out, really. Exiting the station, you walk westward with the Architecture museum to your left, blocking the view. Suddenly, you turn the corner and there she is in all her metallic glory, rising up overhead into the blue sky. At 9 am, few people are at the plaza and we had peaceful moments to enjoy the sight and take some uncrowded pictures. It is truly stunning up close. As with so many famous sights, many of which are burned into our memories even if we’ve never seen them in person, I tend to feel a bit jaded initially about the visit. It feels as if it would be something familiar and dull. But as always happens, once I’m actually there I’m struck by their intricate beauty.


Going through security, the brusque North African guards in the small trailer searched through my bag, extricating the metal forks I’d brought anticipating a picnic after our visit. The held them up, and with wide eyes shook them at me, barking “Forbidden! Forbidden!” Over and over as if I was slow before unceremoniously tossing them into the destruction bin. Sigh. I later sent an extra 10 euro to my Air BnB host for the offending and now demolished cutlery.


Walking underneath the tower and looking up, you see the dizzying skeletal angles come into a beautiful symmetry. We didn’t have tickets yet as prebook tickets sell out months in advance. The lines were already moderately long for the elevators, but please – why take the elevators when there’s a perfectly good set of stairs? There’s 700 of them and for 5 Euro for adults and 3 for kids, that comes to 2.3 cents per step! You will not find a better deal in all of Paris. We hopped over to the South ticket stand for the stairs and walked on up, with no lines to wait in at all. Our quads hardened by the walks of the last week sailed up the steps, while we listened to the pathetic wailings other American tourists shuffling up behind us. The stairs afford you a very cool view of the tower from the inside one of the legs where you can see all of the crisscross scaffolding that holds it up. What a marvel this must have been in 1889 when such engineering was unheard of, and it was a wondrous innovation. Seeing it now is wonderous for almost the opposite reason – buildings nowadays are created with an advanced technology, and the beauty of the Tower seems almost quaint by comparison. The girl was enraptured, having had her life dream of visiting the Eiffel Tower realized, and ran up the entire way, outpacing us.

The bones of the Tower from the walk up the stairs

We went straight up to the second floor first, and walked around the perimeter before buying three tickets there for the top floor. Eric, falling victim to his acrophobia, began to edge his way towards the center of the second floor almost immediately, as far away from the railing as possible. He begged off the summit and walked back to the safer first floor where we would meet him afterwards.

Paris from up on high

A long glass elevator ride to the top and voila, Paris is laid out before you in dizzying distance. When our eyes had drunk in the views and the wind had whipped our hair into a frenzy, we headed back down to the second floor. From there, you have to take the stairs again to the first floor to visit the multiple exhibitions – the elevators do not stop on the way down. The first floor is often skipped by many visitors, which is a shame as the first floor has a fun gift shop as well as a very cool free activity book for the kids. We spent almost another hour on the first floor as the kids searched out the answers to the clues in the exhibits, and we actually learned a lot in the process! Did you know that the Eiffel Tower has 2.5 million rivets? Or that it has changed colors a few times during its life, going from bright red to yellow to rust red and then finally to it’s current brown color, needing a fresh coat every seven years? Or that it was only supposed to be up for 20 years and Gustave Eiffel had to fight not to get it torn down? We learned about the hydraulics that operate the lifts, and saw pictures from the opening day of the tower as well, and mockups of how it appeared for the three world’s fairs that had featured it. There are also glass balconies on the first floor that project into the center of the tower, where you can walk onto. As they’re not completely clear it ruins the effect a bit, but was still cool.

Seriously beat up shoe-fie over the glass. Eric got nowhere near the transparent shelf

Photo Cred to the boy, who is developing quite an eye

Afterwards, we went to find a picnic to take to the Champs des Mars and fulfill the original objective of our quest to Paris. First we tried the Gourmandes d’Eiffel, alas it was closed on Mondays! Walking up to the next street we happened on another bakery with prepared sandwiches, quiches, and pastries and hopped back over to the open lawn to enjoy in the glorious 70 degree sunshine. I’d downloaded the free Eiffel Tower audioguide and we spent some minutes listening to a few of the selections.

The tower and lemonade on a sunny day, bliss

While we were there, a group of likely Roma people began walking around, coming up to groups and asking if they spoke English. In general, when anyone does this to me in a foreign country I shake my head and ignore, and we did the same here. In Paris it’s quite the scam where the groups walk around with some petition on a board, often to support some vague “Deaf-Mute” cause. Then they guilt you into giving them some money. You pull out your wallet and they use distraction and sleight of hand to pilfer cash and cards! We held our bags tightly until they all passed by, not wishing to get pickpocketed again.

Another public nap in Paris. Eric is making a habit of this.

Vogue photoshoot dream acheived. Weird posture, unsmiling gaze, gorgeous background, check. I fault the lack of smize to poor photo direction.

Of course an 11 year old boy would have baser instincts


After naptime and the requisite trick picture taking of the tower, it was time to head back home to the flat. First, though, we stopped in at Petit Bateau as the girl had her heart set on getting a striped dress while in Paris, and it seemed to be the best place. She twirled in the dressing rooms and indeed ended up with a striped dress. Or two.
The boy began to needle his younger sister as older brothers sometimes do, and as we began to tell him to be kinder, she said, “It’s okay. It doesn’t bother me anyway. Nothing could ruin my mood today!” Basking as she was in the glow of the visit to the Eiffel Tower.
Eric and I left the kids in the flat to do a little shopping ourselves and perhaps a happy hour beverage. I was hoping to pick up a few pieces of cool French clothing, however every shop we went into it seemed that the latest styles for women were voluminous fabric sacks that billowed around the body. This seemed to be popular in Japan as well, and when Japanese women wear them on the street, they seem impossibly chic. Unfortunately, for someone like me whose silhouette most closely resembles a rectangle, they hang shapelessly and make me resemble a pool of gloopy mud. Not really my most flattering look. We did, however, find an amazing shirt for the boy at Cotton Doux, printed with rainbow t-rex skeletons the one we got for the boy. Eric really wanted to get one as well, however as is perpetually the case, shirts that fit his torso have sleeves that end halfway between his elbow and his wrist. As 3/4 length sleeves haven’t come into vogue for men as of yet, this looks rather ridiculous and not the high French style he was hoping to emulate.


Though it may not seem entirely possible, we were getting a little tired of our daily cheese intake and so got takeout from a vegan burger place near our flat and headed home for the evening.

Take that workout, SoulCycle

We were beat. I checked the health app on my phone and realized that it had been a long day indeed. We packed up our bags for the early flight the next day and headed off to bed. Paris, we love you.

-s

In which we enter the harried world of tourist Paris, and later seek refuge in the woods and art

Our next day was our first weekend day in June Paris, and the city groaned under the weight of human bodies. Places where we’d previously seen empty were swarmed with selfie-stick armed visitors, there were lines at places we’d simply walked into a few days ago. We descended to the path along the Seine to meet up with our friends at St. Chappelle Chapel. These roads have been converted into pedestrian walks, with little diversions for kids along the way like small playgrounds and climbing walls built into the stones along the bank. It’s a way to escape the crowded overland and move through the city in peace.

Rock climbing along the banks of the Seine

Saint-Chappelle, built in the 13th century, is known for its stained glass, and in this it does not disappoint. The chandeliers appear to float in midair, lending even more of a magical air to the multicolored space inside. While waiting in the short line to get in, a French man behind us struck up a conversation. He had lived in Paris for 20 years but had moved out, and was now bringing his son to come visit for the first time, and was clearly so excited to show him around the glittering city. I know that feeling – it’s the same one I get when I take my kids to the Exploratorium in San Francisco, or introduce them to a favorite childhood book of mine. Some of it is the joy of sharing a beloved experience with your kids, and some of it is the magic of watching them feel the wonder of it for the first time. He told us all sorts of fun facts about the chapel, that the palace courtyard in which we stood was the hall of Kings, and that the pillar on the right when you enter has “29 January 1910” inscribed on it and a line below about five feet off the ground, indicating to where the waters of the Seine rose during the great flood of that year. 

The magical interior of Saint-Chappelle

Onwards to Montmartre and Sacre-Coeur, and here especially was where the annoying side of tourist Paris reared its ugly head. Crowded sidewalks and side-by-side tchotchke shops selling all the same made-in-China crap that will eventually end up in a landfill. I’d premarked a few possible lunch places on Google Maps and we went to check out a creperie. The one  I’d wanted had too long of a wait for starving bellies, but voila internet, there was one around the corner with good reviews. We headed over and it was tiny, with only a few two top tables left. The kids took one table like little gourmands, and we had our own. Creperies are the best lunch options in the city in my opinion. For between 10-15 euro for the lunch special, you get a savory crepe, a sweet crepe, and a drink of soda or cider, the latter of which is served in a wide-mouthed shallow mug. C’est magnifique!

Ick


Myself? I prefer Sartre to Camus, don’t you?

Goat cheese with marmalade and hazelnuts

We headed up the stairs to the cathedral after lunch, being accosted by men who tie a bracelet onto you and then demand money. Most of us walked on by but as we’re a large group a few were bound to get trapped in the net of deftly lassoed embroidery floss over a pinky finger before being able to shake free. Some steps up the hill later and we stood at the base of the white travertine cathedral, built in the years around 1900. 

Sacre-Coeur, the steps, and lounging tourists

I downloaded the free audioguide, and the boy and I listened to a few seconds as we walked around. It should be mentioned here that this was NOT one of the boy’s best days. He kept picking fights and bickering with his sister, and then me. We were listening to the audioguide together on low speakerphone volume, him standing on my right hand side. The girl was on my left and talking to Dana on her left. The boy then leaned over and across me, nearly knocking over a cordon holder in the process to ask the girl what she was talking about, as he can’t bear a discussion to be had without his input. She rebuffed him and wouldn’t really tell him, which I say fair – you can’t expect people to repeat every conversation which you’re not part of. But then he leaned back to me, annoyed that his sister wouldn’t acquiesce to his demands and became upset that I continued to listen to the audioguide without his presence. “You’ve got to pick – you can either listen to the audioguide with me or walk over and join their conversation. You can’t try to do both at once,” I admonished. Apparently this was too much for him to handle and he got very upset and started fighting back with me. As Sacre-Coeur is meant to be a silent space, this means we had to walk out of the chapel a few times to work this out. Even then, it wasn’t finished and he continued to needle his sister and at one point actually hit her later in the day. 

View of the heat shimmering city from the top of Sacre-Coeur

I’d like to chalk it up to heat and fatigue and hunger, but it’s still obnoxious to deal with at the time. Small graces though – the next day as we were walking along he apologized for his behavior the previous day, “I’m sorry for being so mean yesterday,” he admitted. And this I appreciate, for we all have days when we’re just not quite ourselves for whatever reason, but I’d venture that most of us adults aren’t quite as good at acknowledging it. I know I’m not. More importantly, it goes to the rhythms of travel with children. Not every moment is sheer delight – almost every day are small squabbles, corrections, and minor breakdowns. We get through them, and memory is good sandpaper to erase the edges of the hard days, and leave behind the soft glow of happy times only. 

At the “I love you” wall, Montmartre

We were all spent by the end of the day. I will share here an unpopular opinion, but it is this: Sacre Coeur is skippable unless you are someone who loves seeing cathedrals. If that is the case, do not miss it, but if not, then don’t bother – at least not on a weekend day when the descending hordes make it impossible to enjoy the experience. The area of Montmartre surrounding was lovely, and I wish we’d had more time to just wander the streets, but given the heat and fatigue, it wasn’t to be. Hot, sweaty, and feeling squashed into the city, our flat and dinner was a true relief.
 

Sunday was another looming weekend day, and we decided to avoid the city and seek refuge in greenery. My initial plan was to take the Metro to the Bois de Vincennes on the Eastern border of Paris, but I couldn’t find a bike rental place for kids that was open on Sunday. This ended up being a very happy accident. We ended up instead in the Bois de Bolougne on the Western edge of Paris. When I’d read up about it, I saw a Frank Gehry building – the Foundation Louis Vuitton – that looked beautiful and housed an art museum. I bought a family ticket online and off we went. Arriving at 11, we rented bikes and rode around the park for an hour first. Not really knowing where to go, we got a little off track and out of the really lovely woodsy part. If I did this again, I’d make sure to look up some riding  paths first or at least stay in the western side of the park. It was hard for me to enjoy the ride, honestly. I felt some of the Paris gloss had worn off after the day yesterday in tourist ville, instead of where we had previously spent it in “pleasant surprise-ville” or “picnic-in-a-garden-ville.”

When we’d walked in earlier we’d passed by the Jardin d’Acclimation and saw a queue. What’s the queue for? As it turns out, the Jardin is actually a very large space containing green areas for picnicking and also an amusement park, paddling pool, sprinkler area, and multiple playgrounds. Busy though it was, it is almost entirely French with few tourists that we could hear. A ticket to the foundation also gets you entry to the Jardin, and this was a fun surprise. We got surprisingly tasty sandwiches from a little shop outside the park and walked in for a picnic before our museum visit. My travel mood was restored! I had again the enjoyment of a pleasant surprise and a delightful picnic in a park! 

Picnicking in the shadow of the building, so pretty


I wasn’t sure what to expect from the institute. I knew there was an art exhibition, but not much else. Friends, this is a fabulous place and deserves a stop by all who come here. The building itself is something else, with swooping reflective glass wings that guard over it. Depending on the angle, the roofs reflect the cloudy sky or the shimmering movement of the fountain below. 

Currently there is an exhibition featuring African artists, which had some of the most innovative pieces I’ve seen recently. There’s an excellent free audioguide which comes with a pair of very cool earbuds clad in wood which you get to keep at the end of your visit! If you go, get the audioguide. 

Woven tapestry by Athi Patra-Ruga “The votive procession (to exile)”

Series of hairstyles of Nigerian women, J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere

Series of West African masks made out of found objects, by Romuald Hazoumé

After the galleries, we wandered around the building itself and admired the angles from the interior. 


Then the Jardin beckoned – there are a lot of fun rides to be had for 2.90 euro/ticket, but we wanted to get in a little more time with our friends, who had opted for museums and the tower that day. The kids settled for a run through the playground and then the misters to cool off, and back home we went.A metro ride later and we were at the Place de Republique, where on summer weekends they have a kiosk with free board games to borrow and play on tables set up on the plaza and a bunch of free outdoor games for children scattered around. We met back up with Rob, Dana and S, and left the kids to the games. We went across the street where we could still watch them playing and had a beverage to end our time in Paris together. Occasionally I’d see the girl running across the way, foam sword in hand in front of her chasing away an enemy and with a white felt crown on her head, looking all the world like Max from “Where the Wild Things Are” just without the wolf suit. Then I’d take a sip of my Provençal rosé and return to the conversation. 

Free games at the Plaza de Republique

Saying goodbye to our friends

After returning to the flat and eating leftover meze, we began to hear what seemed like live music just out the window. A piece finished and I heard clapping – it WAS live music! I craned out of the window but couldn’t see any players. We were tucked in for the night, but my curiosity got the better of me and I headed down the stairs to see where it was coming from. As it turned out, across the street in the little bar were musicians who looked like they’d gotten off of a concert gig and were now just playing for fun. Tarantella, the Star Wars theme, Hey Jude – all were up for grabs for the tuba, stand up bass, violins, cello, and trumpet players. Another pleasant travel surprise! Eric and I went over to listen and play a game of backgammon on a magnetic travel set I have. I am loath to report the truth, but it will be told – he won the game handily

-s

In which I get pickpocketed, and Eric nurses a Brutalist hangover

After a lazy morning in with more croissants, fruit, and yogurt, we headed out for a day at the park. Passing by the Centre Georges Pompidou along the way, our first stop was to the Musee Cluny, the Medieval Art museum. It is housed in one of two remaining Medevial buildings in Paris, and contains multiple medieval artifacts and the ruins of old Roman Baths that used to be onsite. As always, I’m a sucker for anything fiber arts related, and they have a room with seven other “lady and the unicorn” tapestries, clearly a popular motif of the middle ages. Was it the only art form of the time which allowed phallic symbols? Perhaps so. 

Really, the tastiest yogurt ever.

I now feel free of the need to try and visit the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, their medieval art museum. Whenever I go, I talk about how I’d like to visit and see the unicorn tapestries there, and now it’s something of a running joke with Sapana because it’s really far out of town and we never make it there. Spirit, you  are free of the need for more medieval art! (But really it would be nice to make it up there sometime)

Contemplating the sartorial appearance of a knight. One word: heavy

Unicorns! Lions! Monkeys! and a millefiore background. This tapestry has it all.


We strolled down to the Jardin de Luxembourg, intending to pick up bread, cheese, and vegetables along the way for a picnic. I assumed that I’d be able to walk up any street and see a million fromagerie and boulangeries. While there are a lot, they do need to be found. We wandered around for longer than I would have liked in the hot Parisian noontime, and I resolved next time to pre-pick some selections and save them to my googlemap. We found a fromagerie on that app and headed over. Upon entering what was actually a food hall type of place with many smaller vendors, we found the cheese shop closed. I walked over to the butcher next door and asked in French, “What time does the cheese shop open?” “Not until 4 pm!” she explained. “Oh…” I replied, “We were hoping to get cheese for lunch. Do you think the Marks and Spencer food shop next door would have some?” At this she visibly shuddered and placed her hand on her chest, as if to say “God forbid one eats cheese from Marks and Spencer.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that for this American, cheese from Marks & Spencer in Paris would probably be tastier than anything I was used to back home. She told us to go up the street for an open cheese shop, however upon following her instructions there was nary a fromagerie to be seen. We ducked into a Carrefour supermarket, away from her offended eye and bought some brie and comte, some fruit, veggies and two bottles of Heinekin and headed to the park. We got waylaid by a pastry shop and picked up a lemon tart too, because Paris. 
Friends, thus began a perfect afternoon. Walking into the garden from the North entrance, we found ourselves on a path lined with trees that opened into a plaza with a pond in the center. Beyond were rows of larger trees fiercely manicured into severe rectangles arrayed in rays extending southward. I kept remarking to Eric that I felt we’d wandered into an impressionist painting! 

Children sailing boats at the Garden of Luxembourg, Paul Michel Dupuy

Finding  a shady bench, we set up shop, tearing the bread apart and slicing the the cheese and vegetables into it with a plastic knife. Eric used his bottle opening ring to pop the caps off the beers, and we munched away in happiness. Below us was a pond where colorful wooden boats lazily made their way around in the breeze, chased by children holding long slender bamboo poles. When the boats would reach the edge of the pond, the poles were used to push them off into the center again, their little sails billowing out when they caught the wind.  

I like to send the kids out on small missions in foreign countries, especially in ones where they don’t speak the language. I feel it helps them to learn how to operate in unfamiliar circumstances, and at this point they’re comfortable with this. They went down on their own to find out how to rent boats and how much it cost, scurrying up a few minutes later with the verdict – 4 euros for 30 min. I handed them a 10 note and off they scampered to get their boats. The boats sail for a country – the boy wanted Japan but it had been taken, so he settled for Ireland instead. The girl, she sailed for Spain, and I suspect it was partly because her boat would then match her dress. Without electricity or motors, children happily sent the boats around the pond, devising races and competitions. Beware though – some flags look quite similar, as the boy discovered when he found a little pirate trying to poach his Ireland boat instead of the India boat that he actually owned. The cheek! 

Once the maritime adventure ended, we headed over to the large playgrounds. 2 euro for the children to enter, and 1 for the adults. Eh, I could take pictures from outside the fence and save 2 Euros. We handed them enough coinage and found a bench where we could watch in but not actually have to sit among the running bulls. As it was before 3 and not Wednesday (because French children just don’t have school on Wednesday) it wasn’t terribly crowded. The kids befriended a couple of other visitng American kids, Eric took this time to enjoy a nap in the shade, while I read a book (The Sympathizer) and took a few pictures. We ended up spending almost four hours total in the park, and enjoyed every single second of it. 

Fast times on the flying fox

Zut Alors! The Métro!


We popped down to the metro and found it…packed. Cheek by jowl (and guarding our pockets) we made it home and conjured up dinner. This evening from Maison Plisson, a high end small grocery store and cafe around the corner from our flat, akin to Dean and DeLuca. Fresh ricotta and spinach tortellini and a side salad made a perfect summer meal.


After dinner, we let the kids entertain themselves (translation: play Minecraft and some game called Animal Jam on the iPad) while Eric and I scouted out some speakeasy cocktail bars in the area. The first one was Candelaria, in which you walk up to a hole-in-the-wall taco joint with maybe six seats in it, serving up fresh tacos off a flat grill. At first we looked at each other, thinking, this can’t be the place, but then we saw someone exiting through a false wall in the back! We slid on through and found ourselves in a small well lit space, the bottles behind the bar glowing from golden light. 


We texted the kids, and as they were fine we decided on another stop – the Red Door. There was a doorman holding the false door open, so this element was no surprise this time, but the fun was that all the drinks were based on architectural styles. Eric chose a “Brutalism” which came served, appropriately, in a concrete columnar glass. Perfect. I chose “Modernism” mostly because it came in a very long-stemmed bowl cocktail glass which felt quite elegant. We chatted with the British waitress afterwards – the staff was responsible for the thoughtful drinks, and she told us they considered various ingredients for months before putting the drinks together. The Brutalism, for example, has ingredients that are all treated rather harshly – burnt roasted orange, oxidized vermouth – down to the coated and fried baby’s breath garnish on top which was indeed edible. I took a bite of the flowers, syrupy and crunchy without being overly sweet.

 

Brutalism and Modernism side by side in cocktail form


—-

The next morning, Eric woke up with a headache and nausea. “I feel terrible,” he groaned. “I think you might have a hangover,” I replied. “I only had two cocktails though!” he said back. Unfortunately, when you are generally a relatively light drinker of beer (no more than two a night) two cocktails with any possible combination of alcohols can easily do you under. For better or worse, I was not so afflicted and so once it was clear that Eric wasn’t suddenly struck with meningitis or another life threatening condition, the kids and I took off to see the pyramid of the Louvre and then visit the Musee d’Orsay, complete with a picnic in the Tuilleries along the way.

 

Most of the time when I’m out and about, I just put my money in a deep inside pouch of my backpack, but today I thought that with going into tourist territory, I’d be better off with my money in a fanny pack (yes, I do have one) right in front of me. As we boarded the relatively empty metro at our first stop, I suddenly felt a few people shove into me forcefully and push me back. I was pushed into the kids, they were pushed into the people behind me, and I couldn’t tell what was happening. A group of British women behind me started talking about times when they were pickpocketed, which made me wonder. We were all crammed intogether in a small space, and then one of the women, teenager really, who had pushed me picked up my coin purse off the ground and handed it to me. Turns out – I HAD been pickpocketed! Given that my attention was entirely on the kids, I hadn’t noticed the group of women hanging around at the station looking for easy targets (me). When they pushed us all in, my focus was nowhere near my money and it was easy for them to zip open my bag and then lift out my coin purse. Now, I actually keep my credit card, driver’s license and a little cash in that, but if you were to pick it up it feels empty. After the thieves got off at the next stop, I checked my coin purse and saw that everything was still in it. The cash, about 50 Euros, wouldn’t have been a huge deal, but to lose my license and credit card would have been a real hassle. The British tourists behind me said that they thought that perhaps the would-be thieves returned my wallet because they felt found out, but I partly think it’s because they thought that there wasn’t anything valuable in it. At any rate, deep into the backpack went the little coin purse. I kept the fanny pack for my phone and for decoy. Mostly though, I felt incredibly foolish – here I am, someone who’s been all over and considers herself a savvy traveler, getting taken for the oldest trick in the book. Sheesh. 

The Louvre? Who cares! BUBBLES!!

After this, we exited at the Louvre where I was triply careful, and walked past the pyramid. I gazed upon the I.M. Pei piece in wonder and gawked at the huge palatial buildings around me, the former Paris residence of Kings Charles V through Louis XIV.  The kids saw “BUBBLES!!” and ran off to play, with barely a sideways glance at the architectural masterpiece. One of the really nice things about having more time in a place is that you don’t have to feel rushed to always be getting somewhere, so bubbles it was. 

MORE BUBBLES!


We spent about twenty minutes in front of the Louvre while they chased bubbles big and small in the sunshine, before heading to Eric Kayser to grab a baguette and some drinks. This time, I’d marked out a few places before we set out for our trip so we wouldn’t wander forever. I’d brought some cheese and salad from dinner the night before, and we settled for a picnic in the Tuilleries. After this we walked over to the Musee D’Orsay, the Impressionist museum across the Seine from the Louvre. Housed in a former train station, the building itself is a gorgeous sight. I’d purchased e-tickets that morning, so we just walked into the museum and skipped the line. Side travel note: I cannot tell you how many times I’ve skipped a line buy buying e-tickets. Why everyone doesn’t do this is beyond me, since most of the people I see in lines are staring at their smartphones. I’ve even bought e-tickets while waiting in a line and then simply left and walked into the speed entrance. Granted there are times this isn’t possible, but for all others, why not? It is always, always worth the extra Euro per person. 

Looking up at lady liberty

There’s an exhibition at the D’Orsay currently on spiritualism and Impressionism. It was packed. We moved slowly, waiting for popular paintings to be able to get in closer without pushing people. Whenever I go to an art museum, I always like to find an artist I like who I’ve never heard of before. This time it was Odilion Redon, who paints dreamlike scenes that draw you into the miasma, so different from other impressionists who generally stick to real-life scenes, painted softly. 

Tree on Yellow Background by Odilon Redon. (Sorry for the crappy photo, best I could get in the crowded gallery)

While the kids and I were looking at an artwork, and I pulled the girl closer to me so that she wouldn’t be in someone’s way, I heard an angry British voice behind me (again with the Brits! What country is this?) “See there?! You just moved in front of me!! I was trying to read the information and you just moved right in my way!!!” I looked back at the man who was at my eye level and said coolly, “There’s no need for that. I wasn’t aware that I moved into your way. All you had to say was ‘Excuse Me, I can’t read the sign anymore,’ and I would have happily moved aside.” “Well! I can’t even look at a piece of art around here without people stepping in front of me!!” he exclaimed back. “It seems to me you need to work on your manners.” I admonished quietly. “My manners are FINE,” he said back angrily. “That’s … debatable,” I said. He moved on, and a French woman next to me said, “You guys are being fine! I don’t know what his problem is. Some people just want to be unhappy.” Indeed. We walked through the rest of the gallery, not letting the incident mar our time there, and later crossing paths with the French woman from time to time and exchanging words of amazement with her about the beautiful paintings.

I CANNOT find the. name of this artist. Internet, if you know it, help.

After a walk through the van Gogh and pointillism galleries, we headed back home to meet up with Rob, Dana and their son S who had flown over from Timisoara to meet up with us!! I’m again floored by people who take time and space out of their lives to meet up with us, and am always, always grateful. This time dinner was from a traiteur, a tip we’d learned from Bruce the bike guy. Traiteurs are takeaway catering places, and we’d walked by a Greek one near our house the last few days. This time we went in and found a little place with a cooler full of delicious looking Greek spreads and foods.  I asked if I could take a picture, and the woman there said “only of the food! I don’t even have any makeup on!” I told her truthfully that she looked beautiful, and snapped a few shots. 

 

We loaded up on dolmades, olives, hummus, artichoke spread, greek salad, tabbouleh, and sarmale that the proprietor told us “people come from far away to eat.” She wasn’t wrong, and we had a happy evening catching up over the delicious food.

-s

In Which I Embarrass Myself in French, and we begin our plan to eat all the carbohydrates in Paris

19 years ago, I travelled solo to Europe in the summer before starting medical school. One of my favorite memories from that trip was having a picnic lunch on the Champs des Mars park in front of the Eiffel tower with a gathered  crew of like wanderers from the youth hostel. The girl has also had a lifelong (9 WHOLE YEARS) wish to visit Paris and see the Eiffel tower. Thus, I decided to end our year with a week in Paris. But then it turned out we could spend a few days in Reykjavik on layover on our way home, so that changed a bit. But that’s a story for another blog post. 

We flew in relatively early, landing in Paris before noon. The first thing we saw was sunshine, glorious glorious sunshine, and coming from Ireland we nearly lay down on the airport sidewalk to soak it up, but thought it might be frowned upon. We hopped into a taxi to get to our flat, and I began speaking French with our driver. This proved only moderately successful.  I took French from 7th grade through some relatively advanced college courses, at one point was conversationally fluent. I remember my French professor, a thin sprightly woman named Sophie who had dark-rooted blond hair that frizzed past her shoulders in messy waves, who always wore all black clothes with a black leather jacket and smoked a cigarette outside before class. She was really far too cool for San Diego, land of cargo shorts and flip flops. She always yelled at me for my terrible grasp of the negative construction.  When I tried phrases in my mind before arriving here, Spanish words would worm their way in so that I was speaking some bizarre form of a mutated Romance language patois. Our Algerian taxi driver, however, was a patient listener and helped me to figure out some of the words, and having been here now for a few days it’s coming back to me. I’m sure I sound like a three year old, and at one point told the hostess at a restaurant that “she need to go sit outside” instead of asking if we could sit outside, garnering a furrowed brow and slightly offended look. I corrected myself, she broke into a smile and waved us to a table.

The view from our 4th floor flat, across the street from St. Denys

We’ve a little flat in the Marais, clean and modern in what’s clearly an old building. The Marais is one of the oldest districts in Paris and the one least touched by modernization. Whereas much of Paris is characterized by large grand boulevards and Haussmanian architecture, the Marais retains its near-Medeival heritage. Many houses are fronted by large double wood doors that open into a courtyard, created for horse and carriage to pass through and then have room to turn around. “Le Marais” literally means “the swamp,” and was a waterlogged area for vegetable gardens until drained for French nobility to build grand mansions. After the Revolution in 1789, the nobility declined as did the area, becoming a more working class neighborhood. It then became an important Jewish & immigrant neighborhood, before turning into a gay friendly neighborhood, before being completely gentrified by what our taxi driver referred to disparagingly as “bobos” and what we would call yuppies, if we even use that word anymore.  For visitors like ourselves, however, this means a delightful place with small narrow streets filled with boutiques, bars, restaurants and museums. 
 

Crossing the bridge to Ile de la Cite, the breeze flapping up Stitch’s ears

After dropping off our bags, we went on a mission to find crepes. This proved surprisingly more difficult than we’d anticipated, and we didn’t find a restaurant until we’d wandered onto Île de la Cité, and were grandly rewarded for our efforts. We continued to Notre-Dame, and walked in to look at the cathedral, built and remodeled over the years. I particularly like the gargoyles myself, edging the stone as protective spirits. In that they shuttle rain away from the structure, in a way, they are literal protectors as well.

 

In front of the famous cathedral, the breeze has died down making Stitch once again lop eared

Ironwork detailing on the doors

Our Catholic schoolgirl lights a candle for St. Therese

We continued on to the very tip of Île de St Louis, to see the love locks left by romantic hopefuls on the fences surrounding. You engrave your name, close the lock on the fence, then throw the key into the Seine. The more famous bridge with love locks is the Pont des Artes, where they’re cut down as they damage the structure. Honestly, I get the idea behind it, it’s sweet. But it seems to me a modern and damaging form of graffiti that will eventually destroy the beauty and the structure itself, is this the legacy you wish to leave? Not to think of the keys rusting at the bottom of the Seine, which I can’t imagine are good for the environment or the fishes. Akin to carving initials into a tree stump, what is it about young love that requires some form of violence to prove it’s legitimacy? Call me a curmudgeon if you will.

 

Across the bridge to Shakespeare and Company, an English Language bookstore on the Left Bank. Opened by an expat American, Sylvia Beach, its other branch in Paris had been a literary hangout for Hemingway, Joyce and other authors of their ilk. That branch is closed, but the one across from Notre Dame remains. No pictures are allowed inside, sadly, but to wander among the tall narrow winding pathways filled with gorgeous books is an experience. Upstairs is a quiet reading area that echoes the reading library at the former space, complete with nooks and slumbering cats, where you’re welcome to sit and relax.

The only picture we got outside the shop, taken the next day. The girl kept trying to photobomb and I got so annoyed that I just walked away instead of waiting to get a picture without the random tourist in the background.

Here, of course, is where we were when a terrorist decided to attack a police officer with a hammer just across the street at Notre Dame. Eric writes about this eloquently in his post here.  I was at the front register when I heard two loud sounds from outside. Couldn’t possibly be gunshots, I disbelievingly thought to myself, but I’d turn out to be wrong.  I had been waiting for an employee to bring me a copy of “American Gods,” so we were still in the store instead of walking past Notre Dame right when it was happening. (She showed up with the book, but it was a heavy hardcover and I felt too guilty to get it, knowing that we’re carrying everything with us. Now of course, it feels like a talisman protecting me, as had we not been waiting for it we likely would have been walking across the plaza at the time. I went back a day later to buy the book, and alas, it was sold out.  I bought a copy of “Anansi Boys” instead, I hope it serves the same protective influence.) The store employees closed the doors and told us to all stay inside. The kids were nervous and scared, but sat in a corner reading books calmly.  After sheltering in the store for a while in limbo, I asked someone scrolling on their phone what was happening and learned that it was one person with a hammer who’d been shot. Feeling safe to do so, we left through the side entrance and took a long route home, staying well clear of the Notre Dame area. Later on, we talked it over with the kids, and over the next few days answered more questions from them as well, hoping to help them process what had happened. 

 

Eric and I dropped the kids at home and went to find bread, cheese, vegetables and wine for supper.Given how expensive Paris can be for food, our goal was to eat in as much as possible.  As always in a new neighborhood, it took a little longer but home we came and after a deliciously fresh sandwich, to bed, content at our first good day in Paris, terror attack and all.

 
___

Given that it’s bright here until well near 10 pm, we slept in in the morning before heading out for a leisurely walk through the Marais, stopping by the remnants of the old city wall and various other architecturally interesting buildings, ending at the St.Paul Metro, where we hopped on board to get a bit outside the city and meet Bruce for a bike ride along the Marne. 

Remnants of the medieval wall, now surrounded by cellphone checking teens. Bookends of new and old in Paris


Bruce is an American who’s lived in Paris for many years and runs bike tours in Paris and also in the countryside. If you are planning a trip to Paris, I highly recommend his tours to get out of the city – email him at French Mystique Tours. We did a three hour bike trip along the Marne, and it was lovely. As we wheeled past the geometrical French cottage houses, the boy burst into song, “Little town, it’s a quiet village, every day, like the one before…” 

Cycling in France is a bizarre experience, in that cars respect bikes on the road. Vehicles on the right have right of way, which is respected by car and bike alike. If we were going slowly on a narrow one way road, cars slowly trailed us until they could go past, with not a one getting too close or trying to squeeze around. Used to being nearly run over by Irish drivers, we were hesitant at first around the cars until we realized they really weren’t going to hurt us. 

 At one point, the girl’s front tire slipped on a curb and the bicycle tumbled sideways, throwing her off of it onto her palms. Without tears or wailing, she picked herself up slowly and rolled up her pants leg to see how badly her knee was skinned. We waited back, asking if she was okay. “I think so,” she replied. “My thumb hurts.” In all honesty, I was worried she could have broken her wrist, as she landed on outstretched arms. A quick finger and wrist exam, though, didn’t reveal anything other than some bruising, so off we went again. That girl, she is tough.

 

Returning to the town of St. Maur des Fosses, we walked back into the quiet center for a drink and a waffle at an outdoor cafe before returning to Paris, our cozy little flat, and a well deserved night of sleep. 

Attacking waffles with a Viking manliness, and YES to rose in French summer


-S