Destination: Paris
Aug 7 2014

My original plan, a six-month stay in France, was split into two parts. This is my journal from the first part, an extended visit to Paris in September 2014. Click the thumbnails at the top to see more notes and photos from the trip.

August 7: Preparation, excitement, and a few (mild) concerns

I chose a hotel that's strategically located on Boulevard Pasteur. Fun fact: the boulevard is named after French chemist Louis Pasteur from whom the term pasteurization is derived. Another fun fact: the hotel's right next to where Auguste Rodin, creator of The Thinker, sculpted a few of his works.

I'm researching points of interest and compiling a list (and checking it twice), and sure enough the excitement is building! But any plans I come up with are tentative at best and I'm determined not to stress myself out. If I succeed in visiting every point of interest, woohoo! If I end up people-watching along the Seine all day instead, woohoo! My goal isn't to take Paris by storm, it's simply to reach the point where I feel like I understand it.

I'll admit I'm nervous about a few things. Mostly restaurant stuff. The awkwardness of eating alone. Outdoor seating etiquette, i.e. whether you just take a seat or if you're supposed to go inside first. Figuring out whether they have a menu (fixed-price meal of several courses) or à la carte. Mastering how the laundromats work. Remembering how the Metro works.

I know, many people wouldn't bat an eye at such mundane things. I suppose my introvert tendencies are seeping through. The good news: these concerns will all be ancient history after just a few days. Once I've conquered the initial awkwardness, the love affair with Paris will officially begin.

August 31: Let's do this.

Bags packed, documents in order, butterflies in stomach with just a few hours 'til SeaTac. This is what it's all about.

September 2: Hours to sleep before I go miles

I assumed this would be a "lost" day due to jet lag and logistics, but it turned out much better than expected. I somehow survived the cab ride from the airport (Charles de Gaulle) to Paris, settled into my humble little hotel room, and took a nap to kill the jet lag. Dinner was at a brasserie right next door. The waiter was kind enough to humor me in French while switching to English when he knew I'd need it. I won't make it a habit to share mundane details like meal choices, but in this case, since duck confit and crème brûlée were both firsts for me, I'm jotting them down as mini-achievements.

Anyway, I capped off the evening by hanging out at the Eiffel Tower and the Seine, snagging some raw video of the 10:00 lights with my phone:

Not a bad way to start the journey!

September 3: Le Flâneur

I've posted some photos and notes from the mini-adventure Le Flâneur!

In other news, even the unexpected annoyances are turning into positives. Despite having the right adapter for French electrical outlets, my trimmer got fried the instant I turned it on. This forced me to discover Monoprix, Paris' answer to Wal-Mart, and it's practically right around the corner from the hotel. Hooray for Monoprix!

No waiters/cashiers switched me to English today. It's either dumb luck or my confidence is building and they're picking up on that vibe. Either way, let's hope the trend continues!

September 4: It's all about negotiating

I wasn't going to write much today as it's a planned "off day" to roam and study wherever fate takes me. But it's not even 10:30 AM and there have been a few moments that have validated all the work I've put into learning French.

The first moment was when I needed to explain to the hotel receptionist that my bathroom sink has a leak that's soaking the floor. Then came ordering breakfast at Café Pasteur. And lastly, a brief chat with the cashier at Monoprix. When the cashier asked, "Vous avez une (Monoprix) carte?" I smiled and responded, "Non, je suis touriste des États-Unis." That's when she launched into a friendly dialogue about a recent trip to Los Angeles, and she was talking so fast I couldn't tell if it was she who went or someone she knew.

As I walked back to the hotel I was grinning ear to ear, because moments like these make me feel good deep down inside. Not just because they've validated my improvement in French, but because they also remind me that language isn't just a matter of tossing words at each other. It's a negotiation, a give-and-take. I haven't had one French person scoff at me for switching to English (or back to French) when needed, and in a couple cases they've done the same thing. So far it hasn't sparked any gross misunderstandings or international incidents.

September 5: They can't all be banner days

Today was one of those weird "two left feet" kind of days with an assortment of awkward moments. I explored the Montparnasse area a bit and added some notes, but there's not much in the way of photos. Who knew cemeteries weren't photogenic!?

Lunch was a minor disaster, mostly due to the rude waitress who seemed annoyed at my very presence. Then there was the bee that wouldn't leave me alone on the terrace. When I finally swatted it away, it flew right past a little boy walking by, and when he turned to see what whizzed by his face, he walked into my table and earned a scolding by his mother. Poor little guy, innocent victim of a chain reaction.

I tried to "reset" at Luxembourg Gardens, where more bees harrassed me. And so, I decided not to press my luck any further and returned to my hotel room before sunset... just in time to hear my new neighbors, uh, celebrate their arrival in Paris.

September 6: My legs are going to fall off

Easily walked 12+ miles today, even though I took the Metro over to Coulée Verte to start the Eastern Edge mini-adventure. I walked the full Coulée Verte path, then up to Père Lachaise cemetery, then all the way back to hotel. A very good but exhausting day.

September 7: Comfort zone obliterated

Well, I didn't chicken out and went to Théâtre Rive Gauche to see the show entitled Georges et Georges. The place was absolutely packed and I wouldn't have been surprised if anyone had passed out from the sweltering heat. It was a great experience overall and the acting/comedic timing was shockingly good. I guess I'd assumed that a small-ish theatre implied amateurs were on display, but these people were definitely pros.

I only understood about 25% of what I heard, and I'd have every reason to be discouraged by that... but you know what? I choose to see it as a motivator. For now, I'm just going to give myself a pat on the back for going way outside my comfort zone, and now I can say I saw a bona fide show in Paris.

I decided to unwind with a return trip to Pont Alexandre III, and after waiting roughly 90 minutes for sunset I was able to snap the photo I wanted:

September 8: Another big victory

Today was the day I'd been dreading since I arrived, knowing it'd feature the most daunting challenge yet. I couldn't even really enjoy my breakfast, knowing I was just moments away from what would certainly be the biggest opportunity to look like a complete dunce despite all my prior research.

I grabbed my overstuffed bags and started the walk of shame down the sidewalk at rush hour, rubbing elbows with people in suits as I wore my sweatpants and sweatshirt. When I arrived it was just as I expected; confusing signage that was different from what I'd read online, a temperamental coin machine, and no place to hide my look of utter confusion since the whole front of the room was a giant window.

But alas, I managed to figure everything out.

Laundromat conquered. That's what's up.

Chest swelling with pride, I marched over to UGC Montparnasse (movie theatre) to see Lucy. I thought it'd be interesting to flip the script on subtitles for once, i.e. seeing French text with English audio. If only I'd picked a better film; watching the laundry was more compelling.

September 9: A day of rest

Last night I went for a short walk, which turned into a journey to Notre Dame (a few photos added to the Fourth Arrondissement page) and 7+ miles altogether. My body needs a break so today I'm headed to Luxembourg Gardens to do nothing but relax and study.

Side note: I've been to at least one new café/brasserie every day and it's amazing how much the vibe/experience varies from one to the next. If you've ever heard that customer service isn't really a Parisian thing, believe it. But last night I stopped at Le Doucet on Rue de Vaugirard (quickly becoming a favorite street of mine because I know it well) and everything went so smoothly. No drama getting a table, I ordered in French and the replies were in French, the food was good, service was attentive, and the waitress even laughed when I thanked her for letting me butcher her language. It's like the stars all aligned for just one meal. I really needed that.

September 10: It's all about the curves

I was blown away by the façade of the Palais Garnier (opera house) last year, so this time I booked a guided tour. As expected, the interior was equally stunning. The lighting made photos a little tricky but I managed to snag a few...

A few fun facts about Palais Garnier:

  • Though my photo doesn't capture the scale of the auditorium, the Arc de Triomphe can fit on the Palais Garnier stage. Think about that... the friggin' Arc de Triomphe!
  • The stage is tilted at a 5% grade to maximize the audience's view of the action. Performers from other countries often need a couple days to adjust as they're used to a flat stage.
  • The architect responsible for it all, Charles Garnier, was not a fan of straight lines. Almost everything in the Palais Garnier consists of curves, including the steps of the staircases.
September 11: Reclamation

This is a day every American would like to reclaim, and it's with that spirit I'm making it a point to ascend two of the tallest towers in Paris today: Eiffel and Montparnasse.

Photos and details on the Two Towers page.

September 12: Zero Sum

The good news is I got plenty of walking/exercise today. The bad news is that wasn't the plan. The goal was to complete the Fourth Arrondissement mini-adventure by ascending the tower at Notre Dame and snapping some photos with the gargoyles and chimeras.

I thought I'd be clever and get there before 10 AM, when the tower opens. And then...

I love gargoyles as much as the next guy, but not enough to stand in line all day. And so, my already-lengthy walk was extended to see Place des Vosges, which I thought was a bit underwhelming. But the street nearby had a Starbucks, so all things considered, I think I broke even.

September 13: Pretty close to perfect

I took the metro to the northeast corner of the city for the final phase of the Eastern Edge mini-adventure, arriving at a jewel of a park many tourists don't know about: Parc des Buttes Chaumont. After spending a couple hours of peaceful bliss at the park, I enjoyed a less-than-healthy croque monsieur (avec des frites, bien sûr) at La Pelouse, then earned my lunch by walking the 5.3 miles back to the hotel.

The weather couldn't have been better, I walked a completely new set of streets, and most of the French interactions were very smooth today.

September 14: Lazy Sunday

I left the camera behind, refueled at three different cafés throughout the day, and studied for a while at the Gardens. And... that's pretty much it. A lazy day and I liked it!

September 15: Champs-Élysées

Today featured the exploration of Les Invalides, Champs-Élysées, and Arc de Triomphe. I've posted some notes and photos on the Champs-Élysées page.

The highlight was definitely Arc de Triomphe, which really doesn't seem to be all that huge from street level:

But once you're inside and climbing a spiral staircase for what feels like an eternity, you realize the Arc is a beast of a monument. The payoff at the top is worth it, though:

September 16: Le cheval est fort!

Had to share an amusing moment:

There was a beautiful white horse in front of an empty carriage parked near the Eiffel Tower. The kid inside of me wanted to drop everything and pet it but I decided to keep walking. At 9:00 PM the tower did what it always does on the hour: sparkle with thousands of lights and elicit cheers from the crowd.

You see where this is going...

The commotion spooked the horse, and suddenly its three handlers (two young women and one slightly older man) were being whipped around, flailing about like renegade garden hoses with the water on full blast. Trash cans and metal barricades toppled over but somehow the carriage stayed upright.

The horse quite literally dragged the hapless handlers half-way to Avenue Suffren before order was restored, but I have no doubt it could've run wherever it wanted.

Moral of the story: you can lead a horse to the Tower but you can't make him stay.

September 17: The Twilight Circuit

I shot some video from the route I've been walking on a regular basis around Paris, hereby nicknamed "The Twilight Circuit" because the walk usually lasts from 6:30 to 9:30. Don't panic when you hear my horrible French, I've added subtitles to those parts. :)

And just in case you're curious, here's a map of the circuit:

September 18: It rains here, too!

An uneventful day (by design) except the thunderstorm that rolled through in the afternoon. The first rain I'd seen since arriving here! I walked the "circuit" a couple hours later and it was nice to experience the "fresh out of the shower" version of the city. It cleans up nicely!

September 19: A low-key day

Just studied at the Gardens and walked the "circuit" today, no photos or anecdotes to pass along. Tomorrow might be even more low-key, my very sore body is saying "enough already with the walking!"

September 20: Ups and Downs

Today's unintentional theme was "ups and downs," one of those days where I felt like I was in some sort of karmic pinball machine. Let's break it down...

Up: Sacré-Cœur Basilica
I respected my body's call for mercy and took the metro to/from Montmartre, photos and notes are at the Montmartre page. Unwittingly establishing the "up and down" theme for the day, I snapped a quick video of looking up at, and then down from, the Basilica:

Down: Inside the Basilica
The inside of Sacré-Cœur is awe-inspiring and deserving of respect, so when I saw the many clear signs forbidding talking and photos, I obeyed. I wish I hadn't been in the minority. People were not only snapping photos and videos (some using flash), but also yammering away despite the repeated hushes. Men, women, adults, children, all guilty. Maybe stuff like that shouldn't bother me, but it did. I also raised an eyebrow when I saw coin-operated souvenir machines inside the Basilica. Couldn't help but picture Jesus taking them outside and punting them a couple hundred yards.

Up: Coffee break
I found a quaint little café behind the Basilica and got myself a café crème to go.

Down: Coffee break
I was quickly shooed away from the outside tables by the teenaged cashier, who informed me that I'd paid less for a to-go coffee and thus couldn't sit at one of the dozen empty tables (none of which were set in any way). I guess the policy makes sense, but it was yet another awkward moment that I really didn't need.

Up: Personal redemption at Café de Luna
Last year I could see Café de Luna from my hotel room but didn't have the guts to go there by myself. Today I went there for lunch and had a second coffee just to rub my 2013 self's nose in it.

Down: Crankiest waitress of all time
The waitress at Café de Luna was the crankiest I'd ever seen, with a perpetual scowl and a habit of walking away before I could even finish my requests.

Up: The Return to Boulevard Pasteur
When I returned to the Pasteur metro station, I admit I was irritated at... well, people in general. My attitude was getting sour, I just wanted to "reset" in my hotel room. But as I was trudging up the first of many staircases heading up to the street, I noticed an elderly lady off to the side. She was only half-way up the steps, a bag draped on one shoulder, and her other bag sitting on the step. It was clear she was struggling, but that didn't stop people from whizzing right past her and one teenaged boy from nearly knocking her over.

I finally had a chance to do something in French other than ordering food. Hallelujah.

"Je peux vous aider?" I asked her. Her eyes lit up and she started gesturing and saying some things that I couldn't exactly interpret but I knew what she meant. I picked up her bag and we walked together, very slowly, up the staircases toward the exit. We took a couple breaks and I'd ask "Ça va?" (you OK?) and she'd nod and reply, "Oui, merci."

At one point I told her I was still working on my French, and she laughed and said, "Ça ne fait rien, je ne parle pas anglais!" (no matter, I don't speak English!). When we finally reached the street she thanked me repeatedly, but truth be told, she was the one who did me a favor. It was the "reset" I needed. Not only does it feel good to help someone else, it feels even better when you cross a language barrier to do it.

September 21: Quarantine

Maybe I walked myself into exhaustion and became vulnerable, or maybe it's inevitable when one spends this much time amidst millions of tourists, but I can't deny it any longer: I've caught a cold. I've gotten more than enough mileage out of this trip and the timing could've been worse, so I really can't complain. There's a steady rain today anyway, so it looks like a "stay in the hotel room and see what French television is like" kind of day.

September 22: A little bit of history (just this once)

Unwilling to be sidelined a second day, I dragged my sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching self out of bed and made it over to the Cluny (medieval) museum. This was my kind of place as the museum itself is a gothic mansion! Anyway, I won't bore you with photos of stained glass windows and tapestries but the highlight involves something I knew about before coming to Paris.

You may have noticed that the façade of Notre Dame has a row of statues representing the Kings of Judah, as shown in this crude cellphone photo:

The heads of those statues are NOT the originals. During the French Revolution, angry mobs mistakenly thought the statues represented kings of the French monarchy and thus chopped off the heads. But in 1977 the buried/discarded heads were accidentally discovered, and they now reside -- you guessed it -- in the Cluny Museum:

September 23: One more view from the top

Musée d'Orsay was one thing left on my list so I got there bright and early. To my dismay, the queue was already spilling into the street. After much deliberation I decided to wait in line for 90 minutes before shooting a video clip. The wait was worth it:

[insert sound of needle scratching record here]

Wait, what? Well, I didn't say which line I waited in. Sorry d'Orsay, but if I'm going to wait an eternity to see something, I'll go with the chimeras high up the Notre Dame tower.

Note: a few photos from the tower have been added to the Fourth Arrondissement page.

I then toured the archaeological crypt underneath the cathedral, which doesn't make for exciting photos but does send chills up your spine when you see ramparts and bath houses built over 1,700 years ago.

Of course the geek in me was most fascinated by the interactive screens that walk you through the evolution of the cathedral:

Tomorrow's the last day of the trip and the blues are starting to creep in. I was just starting to understand the rhythm of the city, too. Oh well. I'll do my best to make tomorrow a day of celebration and reflection, mourning won't do any good.

September 24: The last stroll along the circuit

No dramatic photos or grand finales to share, I spent the day reflecting at Luxembourg Gardens and enjoying my last meals at Café Pasteur and La Mise Au Verre.

There were a couple bouts of sadness today, but not for reasons you'd expect. It's beyond the sadness of leaving Paris, it's something I'm not sure I can even explain. I watched various groups of Parisians congregate at the Gardens today, catching bits of pieces of random conversations. And that's when it hit me: it wouldn't matter if I studied French the rest of my life, I will never truly know what the life of a Frenchman is like.

I'm very content with my own life and not suggesting I want a do-over. Not at all. It's just a bit sobering when I realize that cultural diversity, while beautiful and necessary, also comes with the bittersweet reality that we're all outsiders to one another and we always will be. Whatever it was that defined us in our childhood, when our eyes were wide open and taking it all in, it was a one-time deal.

Philosophical rambling aside, rest assured that I'm looking forward to a dream-filled flight and a triumphant return to my own bed tomorrow.

September 25: The return to Seattle

The first night in Paris I knew I wouldn't sleep with the window open; she's a lovely city but her noise is relentless. I tried to shrug it off and said to myself optimistically, "That's going to take some getting used to."

Today was, as expected, a long day in airports and airplanes. I've been back home for a little over an hour now and things feel weird, like the water pressure in the shower and the sounds the doors make when they close. And driving. And stores being open past 9 PM.

The most unsettling difference is the silence. It's like a heartbeat is missing. That's going to take some getting used to.

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