I’m in Madrid, Spain at the moment. I shouldn’t be.
I bought bus tickets online to go to Barcelona at 9am…on May 18th, the day we arrived in Madrid. So I’m sitting here at a McDonalds on Calle de Francisco Silvela, Madrid until my new bus, that I had to pay full price for, leaves at 1pm.
The only good thing that comes from my idiocy is the time to write this post. My pain, your gain. You are all welcome.
Paris. The City of Lights.
I was in Paris 14 years ago. I studied abroad the summer between my junior and senior years of high school with the Indiana University Honors Program in Foreign Language. I spent seven weeks living with a host family, speaking ONLY French and taking French classes in St. Brieuc, France. We flew out of Charles De Gaulle so the last two days we were given free rein to roam Paris. Not knowing the next time I might return, I tried to do everything. I went up the Eiffel Tower and wrote my name in sharpie along with hundreds of thousands of others. I raced through the Louvre to see Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. I loved every second looking at Degas’ paintings in the Musée D’Orsay. I strolled through the Gardens of the Musée Rodin, admiring the Thinker, of which I had made a mini-replica for French class the year before. And finally, I walked around the manicured gardens of Versailles. Unfortunately, the palace was closed for renovations so I wasn’t able to see inside.
I had no real desire to go to Paris again. Been there, done that. There are so many places to see in the world and so little time! But I was meeting my 20-year-old brother, Mark, and Paris was the cheapest place for him to fly in to.
I wasn’t broken up about it. This was to be his first trip abroad and everyone should really go to Paris at least once in their lives if they have the means. It is Paris, after all.
I arranged my EasyJet flight from Venice so that I would arrive an hour and half before Mark who was flying Icelandair from Orlando, with a very short layover in Iceland. Although his flight from Orlando was running late, he was still able to make his connection and magically his luggage arrived too.
It had been 10 months since I’d seen him last, but he looked pretty much the same. He had the backpack I’d bought him for Christmas and wore a brave face, though I knew internally he was quaking. It’s a scary thing to really travel for the first time. Fortunately, he has a well-traveled, confident, and, if it’s not too far-fetched, inspiring big sister to, in a very Type-A, control-freak fashion, control the minutiae of the three week journey.
Our first obstacle to navigate was getting to our hotel from Orly. We stayed in TimHotel Berthier, conveniently located right next to the Port de Clichy metro station. First we had to squeeze into the Orly Bus and then switch metro trains a couple times, but we arrived in tact.
Our hotel room was small but really nice- by far the nicest I’d stayed in up to that point. After settling in, we set out to explore the city.
Remember my friend Sarah? She came out to Mozambique for my 30th birthday. Well, a couple days before I arrived in Paris she contacted me and asked what my itinerary was. Then she decided on a whim to come and meet me in Paris. She was staying in a hostel about half an hour metro ride from us. That was the first thing on the to-do list- meet up Sarah. Second was to eat dinner.
We found Sarah easily enough and quickly settled into a cute little restaurant. We ordered our meals. Mark ordered steak tartare. I really wasn’t paying attention, too involved in my own choice of onion soup and salad. Sarah noticed but didn’t say anything because she knows me and I’m a fairly adventurous eater so she thought it might run in the family.
Well, fortunately, it does. The unexpected pile of minced raw meat arrived and Mark didn’t blink an eye. We had a good laugh over his ignorance of what he ordered, but when the server offered to switch it out for something cooked, Mark refused. He ate every single bite of that mass of blood, red beef. He admitted that he only did it because he knew I would make fun of him the rest of the trip if he didn’t (his bad luck, I still have :).
From there we walked to Sacré-Coeur and then on the opposite end of the morality spectrum, the Moulin Rouge. Sarah would have been happy to stay out all night, Mark would have gone along with anything, but I am a total stick in the mud. Eleven o’clock rolled around and I was ready for my nice, warm bed.
The next day found us on the metro. We had a bike tour scheduled with Fat Tire Bike Tours for 10am. We left a full hour ahead of time even though Google maps told me it was only a half hour. It was a new public transportation system to figure out and I hate to be late. One hour and fifteen minutes and four trains later, we arrived at the Fat Tire Office. I blame Google maps! I had typed Fat Tire Tours Paris into the search and it decided I wanted to go to Paris. Just Paris. It was a couple trains later when I realized we were headed in the completely opposite direction. From that time on, I decided to use the maps in every station to guide me rather than unreliable, tricky Google maps.
I called the Fat Tire when we I realized we would be late, but they were great and the tour waited for us. I’m so glad it did because we had an amazing time. The weather was fabulous. Our guide, an American-raised, Frenchman, was knowledgeable and entertaining. We covered so much ground in four hours and I, at least, felt oriented to the city (Mark was just along for the ride).
After the tour, having a better idea of the various things to see, we made a plan of attack. That night Mark and I walked up the stairs of the Eiffel Tower. We were about to make our way down when thousands and thousands of lights started sparkling across the Tower. There was an audible gasp, which I heard first before seeing the lights and I admit my first instinct was TERRORIST…but it was just lights so that was cool.
Full day number two was an early morning start, once again with Fat Tire Bike Tours (because we liked them so much the day before) to Versailles. This time I convinced Sarah to go with us. She’s not much for early mornings on vacation, or physical activity, but she does like hanging out with people so that was the clincher. With a group of around 12-13, we took the train to Versailles with our Canadian guide and got our bikes. Then we spent an hour going around the market buying supplies for a picnic. The tour was, once again, fabulous. Weather-amazing. We visited Marie Antoinette’s hamlet, built in 1783 to resemble her home country of Austria. We had a leisurely ride through the outer gardens and picnicked beside the water. The tour came with a fast pass into the castle. We took advantage of that and I finally was able to visit the palace! It has some great history and I loved connecting the history of the monarchs with the movies I’ve seen and books I’ve read about them: Man in the Iron Mask, Reign, Marie Antoinette, the Three Musketeers, etc. Obviously, those are mostly fiction but using the guise of people who actually existed and walked the same halls I was walking.
The following day was originally intended to include an early morning visit to the catacombs but it was May 8th. Not ringing a bell? May 8th is Victory in Europe Day! I heard that there was going to be a military processional on the Champs-Elysees that morning. Mark and I decided the catacombs would probably still be there but how often would we be in Paris on May 8th?? We arrived early and had a great vantage point near the Arch de Triomphe to watch all the diplomats with their flags proudly waving on their Mercedes, Peugeots and Renaults. The American ambassador drove by in the only SUV we saw in the city- a Chevy, of course.
Finally, the French president brought up the rear, with the window rolled down waving at the spectators. He was followed by the cavalry decked out in their awesome French uniforms, with long hair hanging from their helmets. Pretty cool.
From there we walked to Notre Dame (all the metro stations on the Champs-Elysees were closed for VE Day). It was very far. Then we walked to the Louvre. It was practically empty! Two days before on our bike tour the square in front of the famous pyramids was packed with people queuing to get in. I bought online tickets to avoid that but there was really no need. There was no line and we roamed through the massive museum unmolested.
We attempted to hit everything really famous and visited Napoleon’s rooms, which I hadn’t seen previously. Mark is a pretty fun person with which to visit a museum. He doesn’t bore easily. And we were able to have fun commenting on the works of art. But I started to feel rough about half way through the tour- stomachache. I needed to sit every couple of rooms. It was a serious drag. I wish we could have stayed longer but my stomach was draining any fun out of the day.
I wanted to go back to the hotel and stew in my misery, but I had another rendezvous. This time it was with another Peace Corps friend, Levi and his girlfriend. When I was in Italy I saw Levi post a selfie in front of Notre Dame and so I messaged him to see if he was still going to be in Paris when I visited. Turns out he lives there. So the answer was yes…and no. I hadn’t met up with him earlier because he decided to take that same weekend to go to Scotland. The nerve!
Fortunately, he agreed to meet me right after putting his luggage in his apartment. He lives in the cutest neighborhood that hosts two of the top 50 bars in the world, Candelaria and Little Red Door (according to www.world50bestbars.com). We visited both of them. They were cool; I indulged in water only since my stomach hurt, but the water was definitely topnotch.
I hadn’t seen Levi in the seven years since Peace Corps ended. It was awesome to reconnect, hear about what he’s been up to and meet the lady who stole his heart. Sarah, Levi and I relived some of our more memorable stories and reminded each other of things the other had forgotten. We stayed out until midnight and then raced to the metro to make it back to the hotel before metro stopped running.
And that was Paris. The next day Mark and I took our last metro train to the Orly bus, this time experts in Parisian public transportation. We left in the early afternoon for Nice, but that is another story…