Thursday, October 25, 2012

Running Around Reykjavik, London, Paris: The Travel Journal, Part II

Day Five: Notre Dame, Latin Quarters, Rue de Rivoli, and Montmartre

Still in Soho, London... 

11 PM – we should really be getting back to our hotel, since we have a train ride at 7 AM. Oh, wait, “We Found Love” is playing. OK, back to the dance floor!

11:30 PM – OK, one more song…

12:10 AM – Seriously, this is the last – OH MY GOD I LOVE THIS SONG!!!

After finally dragging our butts away from the dance floor, we made our way back to the hotel (after witnessing a massive fight and a guy dancing in his underwear), knowing we were going to pay hard for this the next day. Or really, in a few hours at this point.

An hour and a half nap later, we got up at 4 AM to get ready for our trip to Paris. Eurostar leaves from St. Pancras station, which is directly across from Kings Cross. While I didn’t get to see Platform 9 ¾, it was still tickling knowing that it was just right next door. St. Pancras is a gorgeous station, prettier than some airports; it’s got amazing lighting, wonderful glass walls, and lots of stylish shops. None of them were open, though; we were there around 6 AM. At 6:40, they finally started boarding, and as I went up to the train track, all I could think of was the super ominous soundtrack from Bourne Ultimatum. You know, the one at the Waterloo Station and Jason Bourne is telling that journalist guy to hide and duck from the bad guys and stuff? Man, I love that movie.
St. Pancras International Station
Anyway, we finally got into the train car, and as much I would’ve loved to see us going through the English Channel, I knew I needed to get any shut-eye I can get. So, I doze off for most of the 2 ½ hour, 180 mph ride to Paris.

When I finally woke up, it was gloomy and wet outside, but who the hell cares? We’re in Paris! I’m in Paris! Look at me, dragging my bag on these Parisian streets.  Watch me say “Je ne parle pas (Francais)”… in Paris! Actually, I could only muster out “Bonjour” before the person I’m speaking to replies in English, to save me from myself. Is it that obvious I don’t speak French? Apparently, it is. Anyway, because we had all our bags with us, of course we had to get bad directions and make a wrong turn, again. This was the second time it happened to us. One more and it would be a “thing.” Thankfully, we found our way to the bus stop and made our way to Danny’s friend’s apartment. We barely had time to unload our bags before we were out on our way to the Latin Quarter.

So, at this point, we’ve been operating on less than 3 hours of sleep, and the toll of traveling was starting to show on our faces. But, as soon as we emerged from the Saint-Michel metro station, it was like a switch turned on in our brains when we saw the wide Boulevard Saint-Michel, the River Seine, the cafés and the cobbled sidewalks. The cobwebs were swept away from my sleepy brain, and I began to really take in Paris – with a silent “s.” Danny saw how fast Margaret’s and my face lit up, so he told us to shield our eyes and led us a few steps forward to the intersection of Boulevard and Quai Saint-Michel. “Now look to your left.” And there it was. The Notre Dame Cathedral. You want to know what a gasp sounds like? It’s when you see the Notre Dame for the first time in your life. (Boy, little did I know I was in for more moments like this the next day. I’d have brought an inhaler, I’d be gasping so much.)

Holy crap, it's the Notre Dame
The cathedral was majestic, as expected. The Gothic architecture, the intricate carvings…the gargoyles! Don’t forget about the gargoyles! We went inside, and it immediately took me back to when I was inside the Almudena Cathedral in Madrid. I was most enthralled by the stained-glass windows; the different colors of glass created such a beautiful effect. I’m not religious, but I appreciate how someone can be really moved by visiting the cathedral, on a spiritual level.

By the time we exited the cathedral, we were famished, so we tried to pass a couple of the cafes before finally relenting and went for a “touristy” spot, to the Esmeralda Café. This was it, my first Parisian meal. Of course we had to sit outside; there was a perfect view of the street where we can watch people, the cathedral’s south side was to our right, and people were smoking into my hair. And, to put a cherry on top of this epically awesome sundae, there was an accordionist playing on the other side of the street. Seriously, can it get any more “Ratatouille” than this? To all my Francophile friends, please know that reference is given endearingly. I ordered a sandwich mixte with fries, and I love love LOVE that they have mayonnaise as one of their condiments. The sandwich was just eh, but I was too hungry to care. A tub of mayonnaise would’ve been awesome at this point. And, again, bigger picture here people…there’s a freaking accordionist playing something French across the street. And I’m people watching. I seriously had to pinch myself. 
Le view from the cafe

After a satisfying lunch, Danny showed us around the Latin Quarter, and it was just so nice walking around these narrow streets and witnessing life around me. We stopped by a boulangerie for some baked goods. I got a pain au chocolat, which was buttery, flakey awesomeness. And when I saw the chocalaterie Maison Georges Larnicol and its displays of pastries, I knew I just had to go in and get some of those haute French macarons.
Mmmm, macarons
From the Latin Quarter, we took the metro to Rue de Rivoli for some retail therapy…and wine therapy. At this point, Margaret and I were crashing fast (even after I chugged a grande Americano from Starbucks), so Danny proposed we get some drinks and go from there. Now, I realize that wine makes you sleepy, but eh, whatever. It has sugar, so that’ll keep me up? We sat outside a café, this time with all our chairs to the back of the restaurant so we were facing the street; this was so fascinating to me, having chairs literally set for people watching. So, there we were: ranking the hotness of people passing by, Margaret sipping on her coffee, Danny drinking his wine, and me snapping in and out of sleep.

Perfect people watching spot on Rue de Rivoli
After we finished our drinks, we walked – well, I hobbled, really – to the many shops on Rue de Rivoli. I’m sure we only did a tiny fraction of this famous shopping street, but some treasures were found. I finally relented and bought flats from Zara, after a few days of varying feet pains; really anywhere from slight discomfort to a deranged monkey stabbing my toes. It’s the first time I’ve bought anything from a Zara since Spain, and sadly it was men’s shoes, because they didn’t have my giant ogre foot size in the women’s section. Thankfully, they look more unisex and actually look pretty hip (or so I tell myself). So, after relieving my Clarks (which I still love and will do to the end of its life), I happily sauntered to the rest of the shops, until it was time for us to grab dinner.

Dinner was at a lovely brasserie called Aux Trois Maillets, which had open air seating in the middle of this pedestrian street in Les Halles. Like most restaurants, they had a prix fixe menu, and for about 13€ you have an option of appetizer + entrée or entrée + dessert. I got the confit de canard (sautéed duck) and a chocolate crepe. The duck was absolutely delicious; fall off the bone, fatty, salty dark meat. And then there’s the crispy fatty skin, of course. Why don’t I have more duck more often? I live in Minnesota for god’s sake; we have hunting season! The crepe was just OK, but it definitely left me wanting more.

With a belly full of goodness, we set out to meet Danny’s friend, and our hostess, Ida. We walked past a couple of shops and restaurants and arrived at an open space where we found guys…practicing roller derby? And a few more steps down were a group of girls and guys doing a dance routine in roller blades or skates. We were witnessing a Wednesday kind of activity done by Parisians; it’s like running into a group biking or running session by Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. After Ida wrapped up, we met another one of Danny’s friends, and we headed over to the Pigalle neighborhood to see the Moulin Rouge. Funny moment happened on the way, though; so we were walking down Rue de Rivoli to our metro station, then out of nowhere BOOM. There was the Eiffel Tower from afar, lit up beautifully. Margaret and I literally stopped in our tracks. Meanwhile, the locals and Danny kept walking and talking, oblivious to these two yahoo American tourists taking pictures of this thing they’ve seen so many times.   
Really crappy shot of the Eiffel Tower at night

It was fascinating how much the Moulin Rouge contrasted against the other clubs and restaurants near it. There were hordes of people crowding around the famous cabaret, even buses (seriously, there was a bus) of Asian tourists clawing for pictures of that recognizable windmill. After a snapshot or two, we were done with all that, and started walking towards a bar for some drinks. Now, I may not remember 100% of what happened in that bar because we were seriously sleep-deprived at this point – we were definitely paying for staying out the night before – but I do remember thinking “this feels so ‘Friends.’” Or “Amis” I guess. It was nice observing these tables of friends, chatting over glasses of wine, laughing over who-knows-what, nodding along to the soft music. I also remember that the house wine was very good, and that a man should be pouring it at all times. It was a warm, fuzzy, local feeling. That’s probably also just the wine talking, too.

12:10 AM Day Six It’s time to go back to Ida’s apartment. Good night, house wine. Good night, Montmartre. Good night, turnstile jumpers. Good night, Paris.

Day Six: Postcard Paris
Pinch me, I’m in Paris. Even after a half day in Paris the day before, today was a showcase of Paris’s greatest hits. Danny was such an awesome tour guide, and I do feel like I was shielded from the oft-heard comment about the “snobby French.” Although, as my new friend Guena pointed out, most French people actually will talk to you in English, as long as you make the initial attempt to speak in French. Even using “je ne parle pas (Francais)” can go a long way in making that first interaction courteous. It’s when people barge in and start blabbering in English that most French get annoyed, which makes sense. I mean, how would we feel if someone comes up to our faces and begins blabbing in another language, expecting that we understand what they meant? It’s all about respect, people.

Anyway, that was a big tangent. We started off our packed day with a stop at the Place de la Concorde, which had a great view of the obelisk…and half the Eiffel Tower. It was very foggy, and for a moment I was scared that we weren’t going to get that gorgeous view of la Tour Eiffel. From there, we walked through the Jardin des Tuileries and ran into the Louvre. In the words of a 13-year-old girl, OMG. I could see how someone could come in, kill an old man and put him in a Vitruvian Man pose and disappear without anyone catching him; it would take forever to find him in this huge museum. (Da Vinci Code, anyone?) I’m glad we didn’t go in – that’s for an in-depth Paris tour – I would’ve walked for hours. We did get some lovely glamour shots from outside the museum, before proceeding to the streets of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, where a lot of lovely interior decorating shops were located, including a home decor store where I found the cutest reusable tote bag. 

Tom Hanks went underneath through that pointy thing in the back. Yay!

Up until now, we’ve been lolling around for an hour or so now. However, that loll quickly turned into a sprint as we realized that it was nearing 1 PM. See, Danny planned to meet with a friend at the Eiffel Tower, but that thing was a freaking mirage. We would walk/run a couple of blocks and think we’re there. Psych! It’s still a ways away. I could always laugh about things like this after they happen, key word being after. To make things worse, it started to shower and we didn’t bring our umbrellas because the forecast said “zero” percent chance of rain. Kill the weatherman, seriously. As the shower turned into rain, we ran into the nearest café, as Danny continued his trek to find his friend. As we got settled into our table – it was lunchtime, anyway – Danny showed up with his friend, 30 minutes past their agreed upon time. It was fate; his friend was about to leave because we hadn’t showed up, but because it started raining, he decided to stay put. And then he sees his long-lost friend. Running towards him in the rain. And they shared a hug and laughed and cried. Ok, so I made a lot of that part up, but isn’t that reunion still the sweetest thing ever?!

Following a lunch full of merry storytelling – and a weird meal of hotdog and fries for me (who the hell orders frankfurter and fries for lunch?) – we turned the corner and met up with the granddaddy of all Parisian attractions: la Tour Eiffel. Unlike the White House, Disneyland castle and the Buckingham Palace, this one did meet my expectations, and then some. It is a magnificent beast of steel and lights, yet for all its enormity, there’s still something very delicate and smooth about it that’s reserved for the slenderest of structures. It’s hard to describe, but one thing for sure is true: it took my breath away.
Prince, glancing up at Eiffel

Of course we took a lot of pictures of this glorious beauty, including a unique one that ended with me getting hit in the face. It was totally accidental, and I couldn’t stop laughing after it happened, but what an awesome life story. Picture in front of the Eiffel Tower = priceless. Getting accidentally kicked in the face by a friend in front of the Eiffel Tower = FREAKING EPIC.

After building some fun memories with Eiffel, we bid goodbye to her and headed on towards the other stars of the show: Arc de Triomphe and Champs-“please don’t make me pronounce this again”-Élysées. It was amusing watching the carousel of cars circling the Arc de Triomphe; how they get in and out of that roundabout I never did find out. We crossed through a tunnel and emerged underneath the Arc, where we got a great 360-degree view of the avenues that jut out from this massive monument, including the most famous of them all, the Champs- Élysées. After some much needed foot break, we started walking down the shopping haven of old rich, nouveau riche, and us. Thankfully, Champs- Élysées had some stores that I actually could go into without feeling like I need to scrub up first. ProMod is a fashionable apparel & accessories retailer – think French H&M – where I got an adorable handbag/body bag. I bought it half because it was cute, half because I wanted to be able to say “I bought something from Champs- Élysées; look how en vogue I am. Now, kiss my ring.” Yes, in that sentence I was both fashionable AND the Pope.

Arc de Triomphe

Shot taken as we precariously stood in the middle of the Champs-Elysees
We walked one side of the grand boulevard, got some croissants from Paul, and then walked the other side of the street. Frankly, I liked the side with the ProMod and McDonald’s better. Had Ladurée been opened on the other side, it would’ve tipped my hat differently. Also, why is there a line of people waiting to get into the Louis Vuitton?

Tired from a full, amazing day of sight-seeing, we headed back to Saint-Michel to have dinner before meeting Ida and Guena. Because the heavens decided to open up again, we had to run into the first restaurant we saw, and that’s where we had dinner. The place was quaint, and the server was such a charmer, but the steak frites that I had were just OK. I was starting to get concerned; I wasn’t having mind-blowing food in Paris like everyone said I would. So, I made a mental note to actually search the internets for where to eat for our last meal tomorrow.

Like the night before, we did as the locals do; going to a bar and chatting about life. We went to a place called “The Gentleman” and had some pretty cheap (and good) beer – change the sport on TV to NFL and we could’ve been in any sports bar in Minneapolis. And, maybe nix the DJ in the corner, take out the smoke machine, and have people speak English. Ok, maybe not a sports bar in Minneapolis. And this city is so unlike any other.

Day Seven: Sacre Coeur, and almost home

We wanted to see the most of Paris from great heights, so we headed to Sacre Coeur on our last day. Now, I knew we were going up a long flight of stairs when we get to the base of the basilica, but I didn’t expect the long walk up from the metro station. There were 142 circular steps (we counted on the way back) to the metro exit – and no escalator – and it was kind of funny seeing all these people dropping like flies as we come around and corner to discover another set of steps. Thankfully, we made it all the way through to the bottom of the basilica, only to be faced with another gargantuan climb. It felt really good making it all the way up, though, because the view of the city from up here is unmatched. And, it was the perfect day to be up here, with the sun beaming brightly down on the City of Lights.  

Ah, Paris.
Sacre Coeur's newest fans
There was also a lively farmer’s market around the basilica, selling delectable foodstuff like sausages, different cheeses (of course), spices, mustards, and more. What a wonderful idea to buy some food, some vin, and then sit down on the steps of Sacre Coeur for a gorgeous picnic. We had plans for lunch though, since I actually used Trip Advisor to find a crepe place nearby that I was excited to try. So, maybe next time. The promise of a tasty lunch didn’t stop us, however, from getting lured into a stall with some delicious looking pastries. We got a pastry that tasted like donut with some custard piped in the middle. Yummy. 
Mmmm, not donuts that taste like donuts
Then, a few stalls later, I witnessed what was like a magic show: the vendor would pull this half wheel of cheese that’s been sitting under a heat lamp, slice a baguette in half, then cut some of the melting cheese and spread it into the baguette. It was spellbinding, and I knew I just had to have it. Danny and I split a baguette with cheese and prosciutto, and I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited watching my food getting prepared, as was evident by the ten or so pictures I took of the process. When I finally tasted the raclette (as I later found out it’s called), it was a revelation. This was the most amazing sandwich I’ve ever put in my mouth. It was cheesy, and creamy, and rich, and unctuous from the prosciutto, and salty, and a little tart from the pickle, and crunchy, and this is the longest run-on sentence but I don’t care because this raclette is the best thing since bread and cheese. It was a beautiful thing to hold in my hand as I bid goodbye to the wonderful views of Paris and headed down to Rue de Trois Freres for some crepes.

Melty cheese. Drooooool.
We were the first people in Creperie Broceliande, which opened at noon. Soon enough, though, the restaurant was packed, and it was easy to see why. This restaurant specialized in Crêpes Bretonnes, which are crispier and awesomer than any crepe I’ve ever had. I had the Crepes Parisienne, which had cheese, ham, and mushrooms. Jesus H. Christ, there was a party in my mouth, and y’all are invited. Then, for dessert I had the subtly sweet salted caramel. Wonderful. This was turning out to be the best food day in our entire trip so far. And, of course, it had to start in Paris.

Seriously, check this place out when you're in Paris
Sadly, we had a 4 PM train ride back to London, and by 6 PM local time, we were back catching to catching a bus on the left side of the road again. We grabbed dinner at the Pride of Paddington, which was the restaurant where we saw the boxer-clad guy dancing his heart away from two nights ago. We were greeted by this cute Australian server, and had really good English pub fare one last time. I did have a bacon cheeseburger, but who said hamburgers are an American thing? Plus, the burger was pretty bomb. 

After taking the Heathrow Connect to the airport, we caught a free bus ride to our hotel. And for the last time, because we had all our bags with us, we had to do our signature move: get lost finding the hotel entrance, dragging all our stuff a couple hundred yards to the lobby, only to find out it was the wrong Holiday Inn. But of course! It wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t get misdirected one last time. This trip had been full of funny memories like that; new nicknames had been assigned (I’m Mariel “No Change” Lisud now, since I was always a couple cents short), new mantras had been established (“We stop when we die”), new phrases had been spoken (“OMG, it’s so cute I just have to beat it with a tire iron”).

That’s the best thing about taking a trip with friends. It’s not the sights you see, or the food you eat, or the stuff you buy. It’s gasping with your friend when you two see the Eiffel Tower for the first time. It’s splitting a raclette or a donut with your friends and watching each other’s eyes grow big as you both take a bite of all that awesomeness. It’s being relentlessly teased by your friends as you beg them for change to buy that purse. And, yes, it’s getting kicked in the face.

The Diversity Tour 2012: Margaret, Danny, and Mariel
My first time in London and Paris would not have been as delicious, as hilarious, and as memorable if it weren’t for my friends. And life wouldn’t be as full if I didn’t take chances like this. I look forward to the many travel adventures I see in my near future, and I can’t wait to get my passport bent and tattered as it fills up with stamps from all over the world.  

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