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The bells of Notre Dame

Quick side note: I’ve uploaded three videos relevant to my last post. The first is of the Eiffel Tower lit up at night; the second is of an accordion player in the streets of Montmartre; and the third is of Nadia’s wonderful apartment…just in case a picture can’t speak quite as many words as I’d like.

While at dinner with a few professors from Hungary and Beijing during the IACCP conference, one asked my specific plans for Paris. I pulled up a PDF of our rough itinerary, handed it to her, and sat back, expecting yays or nays as she scrolled down the list. Instead, she sat back, tossed back her head, and let out a bark of laughter.

One of the plazas I specifically wanted to visit was the Place de la Concorde, next to which I had written, “place where they execute people -- yay!”

Face palm. Sometimes I assume my humor is easily understood by the broader population. And then I remember that it's not.

In any case, this was our first stop the next morning: We emerged from the metro station into a large roundabout dotted with gilded statues, grand fountains, and ornate streetlamps. It was the age-old site of the executions of Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, Maximilien Robespierre, and many others.

A little anticlimactic when it now stands as a roundabout for little French cars the size of Great Danes.

Sufficient research through TripAdvisor, Rick Steves, and many other resources pointed us to something called a Paris Museum Pass, which gave us a full 48 hours to visit as many museums and similar landmarks as we possibly could for a flat rate. (Spoiler alert: it was worth every Euro -- not only did we visit seven museums in those 48 hours, but we skipped to the front of every single one- or two-hour-long line.

We started off with the Musée de l'Orangerie, a small museum when compared with d’Orsay and the Louvre, but which features Monet’s Water Lilies and many other famous works from Rousseau, Renoir, Modigliani, Utrillo (my surprising new top-5 favorite artists), and many others.

Side note: l’Orangerie was featured in Midnight in Paris. If I had access to a Redbox right now, I’d give that film another watch just for nostalgia’s sake, right here in front of our new favorite Amsterdam pub hangout (i.e., where I write this).

Our next stop was the Rodin museum, which featured hundreds of Rodin’s sculptures as well as a photography exhibit by Robert Mapplethorpe. If anyone knows anything about either artist, let’s just say that Ryan didn’t prepare me for what to expect here. I walked in in a caffeine-deprived haze, and within a few seconds I was wide awake. Even now, so close to Amsterdam’s Red Light District, very little fazes me anymore.

We enjoyed our first espressos of the day outside in the museum’s gardens, which were positively lovely. We sat under a line of arching trees, espressos and baguettes in hand, enjoying the perfect morning breeze.

From there, we headed to the Musée d’Orsay, one of the most renowned museums in France. The entrance looked like Grand Central Station with its curved glass ceilings and dozens of arched entrances along every wall, and hundreds -- hundreds -- of milling visitors. It was split by era and type of art, and we took our time exploring the collections and discussing what we saw in undertones.

A stroll through Tuileries Garden, which looks exactly like what you’d expect from an expansive garden in the middle of Paris, led us straight to the Louvre.

And before I discuss the Louvre, let me show a picture of the sight we faced:

We paused for pictures, took a few selfies, and then I turned Ryan and asked, in all seriousness, whether we could finish the Louvre in 30 minutes.

He looked down at me with the look he gives when he’s trying not to laugh and, in a constrained voice, asked if I realized how large the Louvre was.

What I remembered from Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code was a pyramid, and from what we could see only hundreds of feet away, the pyramid looked pretty damn small.

It also looked oddly empty -- no works of art visible through the glass at all.


And it was only then that I found out that the 652,300-square-foot palace extending on three sides of the pyramid and far beyond it was not, in fact, a palace.

I knew the Louvre was a big deal. I didn’t realize it was the big deal -- a big enough deal to attract 9.7 million visitors each year, making it the most visited (and the largest) museum in the world.

Needless to say, after two full hours we’d only seen about 30% of the museum, and that was moving at a fast pace. The Mona Lisa, which is only 30”x20” and sits alone on a massive two-story-high white wall, drew at least a hundred visitors into that one small room, so that it became a survival of the fittest to reach the front of the line.

And once our feet were throbbing too much to continue, we descended into the Carrousel du Louvre beneath the pyramid, where we saw…

…an Apple Store. An Apple Store in the Louvre. It was like finding out that Wendy’s has a Poptart ice cream sandwich: two perfect things, served in a single heavenly place.

And so we collapsed on the floor and enjoyed our first Wi-Fi connection in a very, very long time for two tech-dependent people such as ourselves, and there we remained until security shooed us away.

After enjoying a macaron (rose for Ryan, salted caramel for me) at Ladurée, we made our way out of the Louvre and back into sunlight.

I’ll note here that I’m not a huge fan of French food.

Correction: I’m not a huge fan of cheap French food. And because I’m a grad student, I can only afford cheap French food.

We’re not talking French sweets or pastries -- I can tolerate virtually any kind of sweet or pastry, from a five-star crème brûlée to the trashiest of Moon Pies.

When in Reims for a week and a half, I thought I liked French food. Turns out that Reims, due to its proximity to Germany, boasts more German-based food than it does French food.

And as much as I hate to admit it, I really like pork products.

So after two days in Paris, I was missing German food…and within an hour of leaving the Louvre, we found ourselves in a flammekueche (read: German flatbread) restaurant, where I held my fork like a hammer while trying to hack away at my meal until giving up, wrapping my flatbread into a burrito, and gnawing at it like a cavewoman while Ryan covered his face with his hands.

That night, we met up with Ayse -- a good friend from summer school -- and her husband, John. We found a Route 66-themed restaurant with cheap meals and drinks and enjoyed the Parisian night, tree-lined street, and hilarious restaurant décor. (Let’s just say that it resembled Arizona…sixty years ago.)

We began the next morning with a visit to the oldest public square in Paris, the Place des Vosges, circa 1605. We took a leisurely stroll around the historic buildings that looked down on the small square of grass and fountains before winding our way to the Conciergerie, which was one of those museums you don’t really think you need to see but afterward consider one of the coolest museums you ended up seeing. (There have been a few of those in Amsterdam, too. I might also just be a skeptic.) The Conciergerie boasted Marie Antoinette’s cell prior to her execution, the cells of many other prominent Parisian figures, and a historic part of the French royal palace. It stems from the 11th century, when it was used as the seat of France’s medieval kings.

Next door, surrounded by government buildings and the Palace of Justice, was Sainte-Chapelle -- yet another example of a severely underrated site.

Hands down, Sainte-Chapelle was more beautiful than the Notre Dame. Did it make me cry? No -- but it also wasn’t the site of one of my top two favorite Disney movies of all time. (I had this song stuck in my head for days, by the way.)

No, Sainte-Chapelle (video here) boasts some of the most beautiful stretches of stained glass I saw in France.

Next was the Notre Dame, which -- as I’ve just said without any trace of regret -- brought me to tears. We were lucky enough to arrive just before a service, and I happened to stand within feet of the procession (and the pope) as they made their way out of the sacristy and into the cathedral.

And our last evening in Paris was spent in a leisurely manner, strolling through the student-filled Latin Quartier and the expansive Luxembourg Gardens (video here). Had we known that Paris all but shuts down on Mondays, we would have had a much busier day -- but alas, Versailles and the Hunchback of Notre Dame-featured Catacombs will have to wait for Visit #2, hopefully in the not-terribly-far future.

However, that isn't to say our visit didn't end with a bang: I haggled a 45€ bottle of champagne down to 10€, which we shared while sitting on the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower for one last time. We'd just finished our only sit-down dinner in France -- which was perfectly French in nature and still very affordable -- before forking over 2€ for banana-Nutella crêpes and making our way over to one of France's most well-known landmarks. We joined hundreds of other viewers for another sunset, another light show, and another beautiful end to a full day.

And thus concluded our lovely three days in Paris. In retrospect, as much as we loved this city (and as much as I loved my two weeks in France), we are head over heels in love with Amsterdam.

We love -- love -- this city.

And that will be a tale for another day.

Note: more pictures below


Notre Dame

Place des Vosges, Paris's oldest public square

The medieval portion of the Conciergerie


One of the neatest bookstores I've ever seen, Shakespeare & Co.

Luxembourg Gardens (or perhaps 5% of it)

Twilight in Paris

Wi-Fi in Paris is as hard to come by as bathrooms in Reims (…and in Paris, for that matter). I write this in Amsterdam, which is covered in both Wi-Fi hotspots and (thank God) bathrooms, now marveling at any Internet connection speed greater than 1 Mbps. (To give an anchor, y’all, average connection speeds are around 25 Mbps. I was pulling my hair out.)

So here I am, Wi-Fi and all.

When I first stepped off the (early, early, early) train into Gare de l’est, my first feeling was one of relief: Whereas Charles de Gaulle -- Paris’s airport -- felt overwhelming when I’d first arrived a week and a half before, nothing felt new now. In the absence of more than basic French, I was used to scanning signs for illustrations to point me in the right direction; I’d picked up the right pace and mannerisms to keep my head down as I pushed my way through the crowds; I’d learned that Americans say “sorry” (désolée) and “excuse me” (pardon) far too unnecessarily.

And so it was that after five minutes of journeying through one of Paris’s largest train stations, I emerged onto a boulevard and felt another wave of relief. As though it had prepared me for what to expect in the coming days, Reims now seemed nothing more than a miniature Paris. The streets, architecture, signs, and people seemed almost identical, but on different scales -- and armed with at least three maps of Paris, I was ready to handle a super-sized Reims.

Meanwhile, Ryan was going through absolute torture to reach the same neighborhood of Paris. After taking a red-eye flight from Phoenix to London (without sleep) and a red-eye bus from London to Paris (with two hours of sleep), he was ready to curl up on the pavement and use his backpack as a pillow. Nevertheless, we met each other at the doorstep of our AirBnB in Montmartre, one of Paris’s more artistic neighborhoods perhaps a 10-minute metro ride from the Seine.

Nadia’s apartment was as Parisian as could be expected: After climbing eight sets of curling stairs (with luck, the elevator might have held one person), we walked into a single room with large windows that opened onto a large, sunny courtyard far below. The space was just as efficient as the rest of Europe -- Murphy bed, two small chairs and a table, a square-foot-sized kitchen area with a single stove eye and mini-fridge, and a tiny bathroom with a shower so small that I had to step out to turn around.

And it was lovely. So lovely, in fact, that we couldn’t resist leaving the windows wide open while we were there to tempt in a cool breeze and listen to the sounds of the neighborhood around us.

We stayed close to the apartment that first day and explored Montmartre in all its historic, cobblestoned glory. Unlike many parts of the city, these streets were narrow -- only fitting one car and a sidewalk at a time (and the French love their lane-sized sidewalks and lane-sized bike paths that take up half of any given road). Balconies were lined with flowers and ivy, iron patio tables clustered around corner bistros, and we could hear the distinct sound of an accordion far off in the distance. It might have been a set for “Midnight in Paris”.

After grabbing some much-needed caffeine from Coquelicot, we visited the Wall of Love -- a tile wall that features words of love from more than 300 languages around the world -- and hiked our way up the 270-stair climb to Sacré-Cœur, France’s most famous basilica that boasts one of the largest bells in the world (i.e., 19 tons). From the summit, we could look out over Paris where it stretched into the far distance…and as the days passed, many times we could look toward the horizon and see Sacré-Coeur where it sat overlooking the city below.

We wandered into Saint Pierre de Montmartre, which was first built as an abbey in 1133, and strolled through the artist-filled Place du Tetre where it lay nestled in a tree-covered plaza. A narrow alley led us past Erik Satie’s house, where a young man sat playing a cello with loving tenderness, before we headed up to Picasso’s studio around the corner and wound our way back down the hill to gaze up at Moulin de la Galette, a windmill and restaurant that served as the site of Renoir’s famous painting.

That afternoon, we visited one of Ryan’s only non-museum requests: Galleries Lafayette, a six-story department as ornate as many churches I’d seen in France. If Barney’s is known for its fancy designers (few of which I’d ever heard), Galleries Lafayette would be known for its fancy…everything. Instead of separating between stores within the mall, each store was given a booth -- a Ralph Lauren booth (swoon), a Gucci booth, a Prada booth, even a Starbucks booth that had the nerve to sell 16.9-oz bottles of water for more than $4. Best of all, you could climb to the sixth floor and look out over the mall around you as it lay sprawling beneath a massive skylight.

Because we’re so far north, Paris doesn’t grow dark until 9:15 or 9:30 p.m. (I write this from Amsterdam, of course, where it’s 10 p.m. right now and I’m working only from natural light outside, which will be the case until around 10:30.) So even after dinner, there was plenty of light to take the metro to the Arc de Triomphe, symbol of Napoleon’s 1806 victory over Austerlitz, before strolling down the Champs-Élysées -- regarded as one of the most famous streets in the world.

Side note: I’m not entirely sure why Champs-Élysées (SHON-sell-e-say) still boasts so much fame when the history that made it famous isn’t even recognizable today. On the one hand, it does connect the Arc with the Obelisk of Luxor (originally located in the entrance to Egypt’s Luxor temple) and on to the Place de la Concorde, site of many public executions including that of Marie Antoinette. So yes, much history -- very little of which is actually conveyed during that walk. On the other hand, it now feels similar to Rodeo Drive, or maybe an upscale commercial street with many Westernized shops and chains. 

Then again, never in my life have I complained about upscale commercial streets with Westernized shopping options.

I’m missing my point.

And then, when we’d reached the obelisk and began to wind our way past the royal palace and toward the Seine, we saw it. It loomed over the five-story buildings, vanishing gradually as we drew closer. We made one turn after the next, tripping over cobblestones as we kept our gazes fixed on the sky, and then -- after making one chance turn -- we saw it.

The Eiffel Tower stood, as regal as the pictures have made it seem, beyond a long stretch of perfectly green lawns and manicured shrubs. These lawns were dotted with picnickers, couples, and selfie-taking teens, all of whom seemed to be waiting for something to happen.

Within moments, it became clear that the Eiffel Tower is just as tall as I’d hoped it might be -- and it’s beautiful. More beautiful than Google portrayed, and more special than I thought I would find such a cliché world landmark. And just as we’d taken a round of selfies only dozens of feet from where it stood, we heard gasps, applause, and cheers.

The sky was, at that point, beginning to darken into a deep violet, and the Eiffel Tower now stood out as clearly as day: It was lit up from top to four-footed bottom and sparkling with flashing lights. We passed under the structure and climbed Trocadéro Gardens to gaze out at this spectacle as the Fountain of Warsaw played out its timed water show. Nothing could have been more perfect.

And then, thoroughly exhausted (in Ryan’s case, with only a few hours’ sleep in three days), we made our way back to the apartment, opened the windows to let in the night breeze, and started planning our next day.