Happy Flamingo Day! While you enjoy a bird-shaped cookie or a pink margarita, have a read about our adventures in Paris (which were, unfortunately, entirely devoid of flamingos).
After just a couple days in London, it was time for the next chapter in our trip: a quick trip over (or rather under) the channel to Paris. When I did my semester in London, I only took a couple other international trips, which were both brilliant (Germany and Greece), but even though it was only a two and a half hour train ride and I had studied a little French, I missed out on France altogether back then.
As my baking skills have developed, I’ve encountered a lot more French terms (especially pastry-related ones), and eventually decided that, yes, I really ought to go to France if only for the bread, cheese, and pastry. Those are, after all, some of my favorite things in life, and that would really be the place to experience them.
My friends who had visited France, in accordance with the generally accepted stereotype, agreed that the French people tend to be less patient with tourists who don’t speak French. I could understand this, and remembered from my break in Greece how delighted the locals were with my clunky “please” and “thank you” (παρακαλώ and ευχαριστώ). I brushed up on my French in the months leading up and watched some travel vlogs to figure out how to make the best of our short visit and find that perfect balance for traveling: the more authentic experiences (which are often the best and most meaningful) and the touristy experiences (which everyone is going to ask you about). Even with three semesters of college French, I didn’t know a lot about what to see in Paris aside from the super touristy things: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysees. But all I really cared about was food.
We ended up with a loose plan to see the major landmarks, including time at the Louvre, visit the Paris Catacombs, and take a guided pastry and chocolate tour.
We took the Eurostar from London to Paris, a 2.5 hour direct route from St. Pancras train station in Central London to Gare du Nord in Paris, including passage through the chunnel. Okay, I’ve been told that no one in England calls it the chunnel (a portmanteau of “channel” and “tunnel”), but it’s so fun to say that I don’t know if I believe it, and the vast majority of my audience is American anyway, and every American I’ve mentioned this train ride to has excitedly asked, verbatim, “Did you go through the chunnel?!” so for clarity’s sake I am lovingly referring to it as the chunnel.
The Eurostar runs very frequently through the day, and to make the most of our time (and money), we booked the first train of the day, which had slightly lower ticket prices (with the non-monetary cost of waking up super early) and would get us to Paris more or less in time for breakfast. The Eurostar website advised us to arrive at the train station an hour before departure time to ensure that we had time to get through security and border control before boarding the train, and this was easily the part I was most nervous about (I was very effectively squashing anxieties about taking a train under 30 miles of sea water). Kalen and I had watched several videos about this specific journey to prepare ourselves, but every border control I’ve ever seen has signs prohibiting photos and videos, which makes sense for security purposes, but does nothing to calm the nerves of anxious travelers. If you, too, want to be prepared but can find little information on what you need to know about going between London and Paris, I’m here for you.
As I’m writing this, it’s been a month now since we went to Paris, so some of the details are a little fuzzy. The biggest takeaway is this: get to the train station with the recommended amount of extra time, and follow the line (which will be longer than you expect). Higher class tickets get to bypass some of the line for a priority check-in type experience, but we were done traveling in ultra luxury, and went through the economy line. Guards speaking both English and French were directing travelers to security turnstiles to scan passports and train tickets (the same set up we had encountered upon arrival in London, with the passport and face scanners), followed by airport-style baggage security (except that we didn’t have to worry about liquid allowances). Bags and coats went on a conveyor through x-rays and people went through metal detectors. After collecting our things, we scanned our passports again and gave them to customs agents who stamped them.
And that was that. We found a place to sit until the train began boarding and decided we couldn’t actually wait three more hours for breakfast, so we shared a coffee and breakfast sandwich from a Pret A Manger, one of only two or three businesses on that side of security open and with food and drink.
The train ride itself was nice and uneventful (which is really how I prefer train rides to be; no Murder on the Eurostar for me, thanks). The train was comfortable and had free wifi, which was nice, and while it said that the service may be spotty, we didn’t have any trouble with it. We also didn’t have any trouble with the chunnel itself. I had wondered if I might feel claustrophobic with the whole English Channel above my head, but it didn’t feel any different from the other, shorter tunnels we went through beforehand, or from being on the tube. It was considerably less stressful than when we ran through the Detroit Windsor tunnel on our half marathon. By the time I realized we were actually in the chunnel, we were out again, the morning sun shining down on the French countryside whizzing past the windows.
We arrived at Gare du Nord and got off the train. We didn’t expect to have to scan our tickets again to get out of the platform area, but judging by the bottleneck of people, we weren’t the only ones unprepared. I had seen several warnings that the train station was a particular hotspot for pickpockets and others looking to take advantage of tourists, so we held our bags close while we hunted down a ticket kiosk to get tickets for the bus and metro. We found the ticket kiosk, but we didn’t see any grifters. Other research we had found recommended purchasing a “book” of ten tickets for a weekend in Paris as a more economical approach than the passes specifically made for a weekend or a whole week or for visitors. There was also a card option that seemed to be like an Oyster card but it required a photo and we didn’t want to mess around with a photo booth; we wanted to get out there and start seeing Paris!
We were able to catch a bus right in front of the train station that took us very close to our hotel, which was only about four stops away. In other conditions, we probably could have walked it, but we had a lot of luggage with us (sure, it was only three days in Paris, but it was two weeks away from home in total), and the bus ride wasn’t bad.
This was the easiest bus experience we had in Paris, and it unfortunately lulled us into a false sense of security. I’m typically not used to taking buses anyway, but I’ve done it without problems in other cities, and this first Parisian bus ride proved no different. After that, though, we had considerably more trouble with the buses. One bus stopped and told us the bus was terminated and everyone had to get off. No problem, just catch the next bus from the same stop and continue on the route. But the new bus never came and after half an hour we decided to hoof it.
Another bus we caught stopped in the middle of the route and the driver got out for a smoke break. I’m not sure if he was just due for a break, or if the bus was ahead of schedule, (communication was a problem), but it felt very stereotypically French as he stood in the rain smoking his cigarette. We later realized that we had boarded the correct line, but in the wrong direction. It seems our phones, while directing us to the correct bus stop, couldn’t tell which side of the street we were on. We were lucky that we were already near the end of the route and the bus just turned around. The 20 minute bus trip became a 45 minute bus trip, but at least we ended up in the right place eventually.
We never did figure out why we couldn’t get the hang of the buses. We were using the RATP app, which is supposed to be the official public transportation app in France, but it didn’t ever have information about which lines or stops were inexplicably out of service. Two young women kindly told us that one bus we were waiting for wouldn’t be running, and tried to direct us to a stop that would get us on the right path. They said they thought it had to do with the transportation strikes resulting from President Macron’s decision to raise the retirement age. We did see evidence of unrest over that, but I wouldn’t even call it rioting; bikes and scooters thrown in the street, a smashed porcelain sink on a sidewalk. When we researched it later, news reports only listed that Friday as having transportation strikes, but with normal service on Saturday and Sunday, but Friday was the only day where we had no trouble at all with the buses, so je ne sais pas.
We stayed at the Hotel Saint Louis – Pigalle and were very impressed. The listing online had made the hotel itself seem much bigger than the boutique stay that it was, but that really didn’t matter. The staff were so friendly and personable, and happy to give recommendations. The room was charming and beautiful, with gorgeous wooden floors. I was afraid that, being such a small and old (though thoughtfully updated) building, we would hear everything through the walls and door, but we never heard any other guests. I was amazed. Can whoever soundproofed that hotel come soundproof my house, please, because the guy next door has been weedeating for three hours.
We even had a tiny balcony, just enough to open the doors and look out at the street, with heavy blackout curtains that knew what they were about. And the bathroom was brilliant. I’d heard that the French don’t bathe as often as Americans, but the shower was every bit as luxurious as the one at the Conrad had been, and such bathrooms are not designed by people with low regard for personal hygiene.
Our plan for the rest of the day was to find something to eat, wander around in Paris, and visit the Louvre that evening. The Louvre is vast and it is impossible to see everything in it with a single visit, but the Internet has plenty of information about how to make the most of your time in what might be the most famous art museum in the world. Several sources said to visit the Louvre first thing in the morning to beat the rush, but one website (unfortunately, I forget which one) pointed out that everyone gets the same advice to go first thing in the morning, so everyone does. A better trick was to go on Friday evening, when the Louvre is open late and most of the crowd has dispersed. I checked this tidbit against that beloved chart you can sometimes find on Google that shows you how busy a place is hour to hour, and it seemed to confirm that after 5 on Friday evenings was really a pretty good time to see this world famous collection. I booked our tickets accordingly.
Not far from our hotel, we found a bakery and got in line. It wasn’t a big place, but there were several locals in line, and that’s what you really want to look for anyway. The case was filled with beautiful pastries and sandwiches, and since it was about 10:30, not quite breakfast and not quite lunch, we split a veggie quiche and a slice of apple tart, which I successfully ordered in French without anyone getting frustrated and impatient with me! What a rush! I mean, I wasn’t eloquent by any means, but it felt like such a victory. Had the shop been less busy, I would have purchased several more stunning pastries, which I know would have been amazing.
Afterward, we set off through the city heading vaguely in the direction of the Louvre. We admired the architecture and passed several little shops. I got to practice my (very basic) French once again when a woman asked me about Madeleine. I don’t know if she was looking for a shop by that name, or just somewhere to buy madeleine cookies, but I understood enough to tell her, “je ne sais pas,” at which point she realized we were just as lost as she was, probably more so, and she apologized and went on her way.
I really enjoy being asked for directions when I’m in another country. I think mostly because it means I must not look like a tourist and I look nonthreatening, and these are both good goals to have most of the time. It happened to me when I was studying in London, and I think it happened to me in Greece, though I never figured out what that woman was actually asking. I just know she approached me with confidence that I would understand what she was saying until my dumbfounded look convinced her otherwise. Anyway, since I have a terrible sense of direction, I can almost never help anyone who asks me for directions, but it’s a nice assurance that I don’t look lost, even if I might be.
As we wandered, it began to rain. One of the phrases Duolingo taught me was, “Even when it rains, Paris is beautiful.” Paris may have still been beautiful in the rain, but it was certainly less fun. We weren’t the only ones who thought Paris was less walkable this way. We found ourselves about 20 feet behind an English family who were discussing finding a taxi (which tells you it was not a nice rain, if even they were fed up with it) to take them somewhere. Their young son thoughtfully inquired, “Are black cabs mainly found in Britain?” His father replied, “Yes, that’s right.” The boy then asked, “Where are the white ones?”
Overhearing that exchange was definitely the best part about walking around in the drizzle. We had brought an umbrella, but it was a pretty sad one, barely big enough for one and prone to flipping inside out if you breathed on it wrong. As such, we kept our eyes peeled for places we could duck into. This is how we had our first actual French crepes, from a small shop that offered seating away from the rain. Kalen had Nutella with strawberries and I had an apple crepe. They were pretty good, but I think there were better crepes to be had elsewhere in the city. For sweet crepes, they just weren’t as sweet as I expected them to be.
We also made our way to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in the Latin Quarter. We had to wait in line to go in, but not for very long and a sign explained that they limit the number of people in the shop so that the bookstore can be enjoyed the way bookstores are meant to be enjoyed, quietly and without too much crowding or rush, so guests can browse the shelves and sit for a bit in the reading room. Because of this wording, I suspect they had this practice in place before the pandemic, but I’m not sure. Either way, the line still moved relatively quickly and they certainly knew the magic number of people to allow in. The spaces between the shelves were fairly tight, and there were plenty of other people around, but it didn’t feel like there were too many people, and we enjoyed browsing the shelves of books, both new and old.
Shortly after we left Shakespeare and Company, we decided the rain wasn’t going to let up and we were both pretty tired of slogging aimlessly through the rain. We decided to see if we could get into the Louvre earlier than planned which would serve the dual purpose of getting us out of the rain and giving us more time to look at, well, everything.
One of the videos we had watched to help prepare us for the Louvre suggested going in a different entrance, particularly the Lion Gate, rather than the main entrance at the Pyramids, but that entrance wasn’t open on Fridays, and it appeared that the Pyramid entrance was our only option. We saw a staff member in a high-vis vest and explained that we had tickets for 5 o’clock, but wondered if we could get in early. The guard explained that because it was only 2 o’clock, we would have to wait in the line for people without tickets. Well, we reasoned, it’s either walk around in the rain for three hours, or stand in this line for three hours. Both options were pretty miserable, but the option of standing in the line held the possibility that we might get out of the rain sooner.
After about an hour, though, I became extra uncomfortable. For one, I had to pee. I hadn’t peed since we left the hotel earlier that morning, and even though I hadn’t had nearly enough to drink in those four hours, it had all been expertly filtered by my kidneys, which I could practically feel self destructing as I stood in the rain. After another half-hour or so, I told Kalen, “I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I need to find a bathroom, even if it means we go all the way back out of the Louvre to a cafe or something.” With the patience of a saint, Kalen obliged and we ducked out of the line and searched for an exit. As though we had been the victim of some unfathomable curse, every exit we approached was barricaded. We crossed the courtyard at least three times before coming to an archway with a vast crowd pouring out of it, and we spotted an older couple making their way up the stairs against the flow of people. There weren’t any signs indicating that this was specifically a one way staircase and followed them. At the top of the stairs, we found the doorway that had issued forth the crowds of people, and across from that a small hallway, empty except for a single, small elevator. The other couple had pushed the call button, and the doors slid open. We all looked at each other and wordlessly got in.
I don’t know that the other couple spoke English, and we didn’t really speak French, but without any verbal communication, all four of our faces said the same thing: “Did we just break into the Louvre? Shouldn’t it be harder than that? Are we going to be arrested when these doors open?”
And then the doors slid open to another empty little hallway. We all exchanged a shrugging smile to say, “Good luck, I couldn’t tell on you if I wanted to, so I hope we aren’t accomplices!” and they ducked into another elevator. We peered around the corner and discovered a flight of stairs, at the bottom of which was a giant fucking mall.
The Louvre has gift shops inside, but it also attached to it has the Carrousel, which is an underground mall attached to the main lobby of the Louvre. It has Louvre merchandise as well as other actual independent stores, restaurants, and a bathroom. The bathroom was pretty stupid, €1,50 each, we still had to wait in line, and it was not especially clean and not all the stalls were functioning, but I was about in tears by this point, so I willing to pay much more for much less.
But mostly I was in complete disbelief that none of the travel blogs nor the guy giving directions in the courtyard had mentioned it. American capitalism and consumerism have a lot of wrongs to answer for, but they would have directed me out of the rain and into a fancy mall to hang out and spend money for two hours a lot more efficiently.
So here is my big Louvre travel tip, spelled out simply: Go on Friday evening, after 5, but whatever your plan is, if you get there early don’t wait in the stupid pyramid line, go kill time in the Carrousel where it’s comfortable.
We found souvenirs for friends, had a coffee, browsed a few shops, and at a quarter to five, walked into the Louvre lobby with no problems, no lines, and no rain whatsoever.
There was also magnificent coat room in the lobby with hundreds of free lockers (which also weren’t mentioned in the video we watched, because the YouTuber definitely left his bike tools behind a bush in the courtyard and they got stolen). Pro tip: the locker doors are glass so you can see your stuff, but for extra ease finding your things, take a picture of the locker number before you leave.
I know there is a lot of the Louvre that we didn’t see, but we saw an impressive amount nonetheless. I hadn’t realized how much sculpture was at the Louvre (as opposed to paintings), and that was that vast majority of what we saw. Maybe I should have done more research about the Louvre’s collection, but it was almost more exciting not knowing what priceless treasure would be around the corner. We knew, of course, about the Mona Lisa, and almost every travel blog and vlog lists it as overrated and underwhelming. Still, we’d come 4,600 miles and stood in the rain for an hour and a half. It felt foolish to be so close to the most famous painting in the world and not see it. As we made our way generally that direction, but still stopping to gape plenty, we rounded a corner to find a crowd, and in the middle, the Venus de Milo. I’m not an art buff, by any means, but it’s staggering to unexpectedly stumble upon something so famous and beautiful. These most famous pieces have a bit more security, naturally, but we were struck again (as we had been at the British Museum), how accessible so many of the pieces were, not behind glass or stanchions or with guards clearly posted nearby. The trust that these museums had in public decency was almost as marvelous to me as the art.
Another piece, far less well known, spoke to me on a more personal level. Jean-Baptiste Théodon’s personification of Winter so perfectly expressed exactly how I felt at having stood in the rain for an hour and a half only to find that I could have been in a mall the entire time (that feeling is cold and uncomfortable with a generous helping of self-pity and disdain for the mess around you).
A little further on we spotted the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a sculpture I wasn’t as familiar with, but was nonetheless awed by. To capture such fluidity and movement in stone, and with tools and methods so simple compared to today’s technology, seems beyond human capability.
We did eventually see the Mona Lisa, and true to every report I’d read, there was a crowd around it. The crowd was corralled in twin lines, to allow everyone to get reasonably close. And, again in agreement with everything everyone’s ever said, the Mona Lisa is a very beautiful painting, and much smaller than you imagine. There was an information panel about some of the details in the painting as well, but it was on the opposite side of the room, so that we only saw it after we’d already seen the actual painting. It would have been far more interesting to read about the details and then look for them in the original.
All the same, we saw it. And the crowd wasn’t horrendous. The line moved quickly. And we weren’t being rained on. All wins in my book.
After we were all arted out, we found some dinner and enjoyed some really marvelous pizza before heading to bed.
We had two things planned for Saturday, which wasn’t a lot, but they were the two things I was most looking forward to: The Paris Catacombs and a Chocolate and Pastry Walking Tour.
We had booked the pastry tour well in advance through Trip Advisor, and it was one thing from the original trip in 2020 that I was most disappointed about having to cancel. The Catacombs were a much later addition, but that was not entirely my fault.
If you want to see the Paris Catacombs, and I do recommend it, you must book your tickets in advance as they often sell out. When I went to book ours, I found a notice that due to some sort of ticket fraud (there was no further explanation than that), tickets were only being sold a week in advance. I made a reminder to log back in a week ahead of time and order our tickets. When I did, I found a new notice that the tickets were now only being sold only four days ahead of time. So in the midst of triple checking that we had everything packed for our flight to London later that afternoon, I had to stop and try to get our Catacombs tickets. And I did get them, but I didn’t get quite the ones I wanted. I had hoped to get tickets for first thing in the morning to give us plenty of time to view the Catacombs and get across the city to our chocolate tour at 2:00. The tickets sell out quickly, however, and the earliest available was 12:15. Still, everything I read said the Catacombs took about an hour to an hour and a half to get through, which would get us out around 1:30, and I figured we should be able to take the bus from there to La Marais, the neighborhood where our chocolate tour was, in half an hour. This was, of course, several days before I realized that the Parisian bus system hates me.
It was the ride to the Catacombs that we ended up on the bus going the wrong way and when the bus driver stopped for a smoke break in the rain. I kept an eye on the time and began to grow more and more anxious as our ticketed time crept closer. Our tickets specified that they were good for entry from the time shown to fifteen minutes after, which meant that, if they were being sticklers, at 12:30 we would be S.O.L. My mind also began spiraling out of control with the various chain reactions that this slow bus might have. We could get there and not be allowed in. Or we might be late and allowed in anyway, but then take too long and be late for the chocolate tour, the chocolate tour I’d been waiting three years for. Or we could be late and not let in and still not be able to get to the chocolate tour on time because I could not traipse across this city in the rain again. I sat on the bus openly weeping at the thought of all the time and money wasted in trying to schedule the only two things I really wanted to do in Paris and not getting to do either of them.
We pulled up to the Catacombs bus stop at 12:35 and ran across the street to the entrance. I showed our tickets to the guard behind the stanchion and asked, “Nous sommes trop tard?” He looked at the time on the ticket, opened the barrier but then said, “too late.” My jaw dropped, but he waved us in. Either I’d hidden my tear-streaked cheeks remarkably well or he just wasn’t a very good comedian, but we got our audio guides and descended the steps to the empire of the dead.
The Catacombs are a vast ossuary assembled in ancient limestone mines far below modern day Paris. They contain the bones of more than six million people, arranged here in the late eighteenth century as a solution to the overflowing cemeteries that were creating health concerns in the city center. The part of the Catacombs that is still accessible by tour is just shy of a mile, so it doesn’t take very long to go through, especially if you walk and listen at the same time. The audioguide was very good, explaining the history of the mine and its conversion to an ossuary later. It points out specific landmarks in the ossuary and discusses the history that is preserved there, and our “walk and listen” method seemed to have been exactly what was intended, as a leisurely walking pace delivered us at each point exactly at the right time.
We didn’t exactly rush through the Catacombs, but we didn’t dawdle, and we emerged in the gift shop about 45 minutes later, where, hoping to avoid a repeat of the debacle with the bus, Kalen booked us an Uber to take us to the meeting point for our chocolate tour, and even with the brilliant efficiency of our driver, traffic meant that we got to our destination without a minute to spare.
The chocolate and pastry tour ended up being my favorite part of our entire trip to Paris, and not just because we got to try a variety of world class chocolate. The tour that we booked had the option to choose which neighborhood we wanted to visit: Saint-Germain or La Marais. I didn’t know much about the history of either neighborhood, so we eeny-meeny-miney-moe’d it and booked the Marais tour. Our guide, Thibaut (or Tibo, for short), was excellent. His English was great and we spent three hours walking through La Marais, trying chocolates, macarons, and pastry. Thibaut gave us the history not only of the specific shops we visited and their specialties, but also the history of the neighborhood as a whole. He was friendly, knowledgable, and engaging. The tour was also a private tour, which meant that it was just us.
I also hadn’t realized how much of a relief this tour would be. If you’re not an introvert, this might not make sense, but I’ll try to explain anyway. I’m perfectly capable of making phone calls and ordering meals and making purchases myself, but at home, I frequently let Kalen, my very extraverted husband, handle such extraneous social interactions, particularly phone calls. I choose self-checkout whenever I can, and restaurants that let me order from a tablet or my phone or even fill out a paper checklist automatically get brownie points with me. But while my French was limited, Kalen’s was even more so, and I was taking the lead on all of it. Besides that, I had been on constant alert, trying to listen and decipher all the chatter around me in case something was relevant or important. The social part of my brain and my translation matrix were running at maximum and it was wearing on me. But for the three hours of this tour, I could let go a little. Thibaut explained everything in English and then conveyed our choices to the vendors for us. It was exactly what I needed.
Chocolate (and macarons and pastry and sorbet) make everything better, but even without the sweets, this would have been a fascinating and informative tour, and two of the best pointers we got would make any trip to Paris better. Thibaut pointed out a beautiful drinking fountain, one of 106 Wallace Fountains, installed over 150 years ago to provide clean drinking water, free, to the public.
Another tip that Thibaut gave us was if you see an open doorway, go in. Even if there is a security guard, let them check your bag and then see what’s on the other side of that doorway. You never know what beautiful scene you might find, like a grand courtyard or a quiet park.
We ended the tour on Île Saint-Louis with the best sorbet we’d ever tasted (raspberry/blackberry and pear) and a view of Notre Dame, still under reconstruction from the devastating fire exactly four years prior. We thanked Thibaut and, looking back, I feel like we ought to have tipped him, but there’s so much confusion about tipping abroad anyway. If you see this Thibaut, we’re terribly embarrassed and hope you know it was our own ignorance and not any dissatisfaction that drove our mistake.
Happily plied with chocolate, pastry, and sorbet, we concluded that the only other thing we really needed to make sure we saw was the most obvious one: the Eiffel Tower. It had turned into a beautiful evening, and I was still holding a grudge against the buses, so we decided to walk the three miles from Île Saint-Louis to the Eiffel tower. We had plenty of daylight for a stroll and really wanted to see the monument all lit up at night anyway. There’s a river walk that runs on either side of the Seine and it made for an excellent stroll where we saw lots of people exercising and dancing and enjoying picnics. The path is below the regular street level but a bit above the river and provided a nice escape from the bustling traffic.
We took a few detours as well, venturing back up to the busy city above, to view a few shops and to buy a baguette to snack on while we walked. It was just a standard baguette from one of hundreds of boulangeries, but to say it was nothing special would be the cruelest of lies. It was the kind of baguette that will visit me in my dreams for years to come, tantalizing me with flavors and textures that are just unattainable here. The crust was crisp and firm without being tough; the interior open, soft, and chewy. And the flavor! A standard baguette is technically what we’d call white bread, a phrase co-opted to mean bland and basic, but the subtleties in this bread could make you weep. Barely yeasty, slightly nutty, warm and comforting even at room temperature, and the browned crust revealing the caramelization of the natural sugars in the wheat. It was a thing of beauty, and we savored every bite.
Just before we got to the Eiffel Tower, we found somewhere to eat dinner, Le Campanella, a nice little restaurant with several appealing options on the menu. Our waiter was friendly and enthusiastic, speaking English pretty well (better than my French!) but visibly happy with my attempts at French. I had a veggie lasagna and Kalen had some adorable little cheese raviolis.
We also experienced our only food miscommunication here, as I struggled to order a hard cider to drink. The French for cider is cidre, but is pronounced more like seed-ruh. That final -re is hard for me to effectively pull off, so I pointed at the menu and gave the English pronunciation. The waiter, however, brought me not a cider, but a sidecar cocktail, which was one of the drink options Kalen was considering anyway, so we all three had a little laugh over the misunderstanding, assured him it was just fine, and enjoyed the rest of our meal.
Every time we ate in France, we encountered tiny tables. I never felt like we were ordering especially large meals, but we always struggled to fit all the food on the table. The only time it really did feel like our fault was when we ordered two desserts. I knew we wouldn’t be able to finish them but we only had two and a half days in France, and I felt like we should make the most of the culinary experience. As such we shared a creme brûlée and profiteroles, although in my defense, I wasn’t expecting the profiteroles to be enormous. (Just between us, the creme brûlée was the better choice of the two.)
A short walk later, just after dusk, we rounded the corner into the Champ de Mars with a beautiful view of the the Eiffel Tower, shining with golden light against the night sky, and within a minute, the sparkly light show began.
The tower was bigger than I expected, and much prettier in person (not that it looks bad in pictures). It’s just such a famous monument that I had assumed it was overrated, but it really was beautiful, and we were pleasantly surprised at how sparse the crowd was. Maybe the day’s intermittent showers had kept people away. They hadn’t deterred the army of vendors, though, selling various Eiffel Tower replicas, (small, medium, large, lighted, unlighted, multicolored, keychain, vibrating) or walking around offering, “Beer-wine-cigarettes.”
Now properly dark, and three miles from our hotel, we decided we had walked enough that day and, rather than trying our luck wandering from bus stop to bus stop, we opted for the Metro. I’m pleased to report that the Metro worked just fine, and while the London Underground will always be my favorite public transit rail system, the Paris Metro got us where we needed exactly as I hoped. The station where we exited, though, either didn’t have automated ticket turnstiles or they were broken, because there were several transit staff stationed by the exit with handheld machines furiously scanning everyone’s tickets to exit, which was a little chaotic, especially since I accidentally grabbed an old ticket from the day before out of my pocket instead of the one I had used for this particular journey.
After packing up our things in the morning, we made one last sightseeing venture to the basilica of Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre. It was a Sunday morning and the walk up the hill to the basilica was full of markets and the biggest crowds we had seen on our entire time in Paris. This was also the only time we encountered any of the various scams that every travel guide warns about, particularly people trying to put a bracelet on your wrist, ignoring your protests, and then charging you for it. The guides didn’t include a warning that the scammers would also accuse you of being racist. So that was fun. Not. The crowd and atmosphere certainly detracted from the stunning and unique architecture of Sacré-Cœur and the view of the city. I wish we had had a better experience with that.
Rattled and ready for a breath of fresh air, we wound our way back down to the hotel to collect our things and make our way back to London. Because our return train was later in the day, there were more far more people at Gare du Nord than there had been at St. Pancras in London, and we arrived well ahead of the recommended time allowance. I was glad we did because the line to get through security and border control was a little less intuitive than it had been in the other direction. The passport and facial recognition scanners also seemed to be giving people a lot more trouble, and it was on this occasion that I realized I am either in a very good position or a very bad position for when the machines rise up and take over the world, because even when everyone else was having a lot of trouble, my face always scanned on the first try. I don’t know if that means the computers like me, or I’m just very easy to identify.
We eventually made it through, though, and enjoyed one last baguette that we had purchased that morning and stored in my bag. It was an interesting trip, complete with ups and downs, but all largely unexpected. Contrary to the stereotypes, I don’t think we encountered any French people that I found to be rude or disrespectful to us. We enjoyed some excellent food, art, architecture, and culture, and I’d love to see other parts of France someday. But for now, we were ready to head back to London.
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