A couple of years ago, I won a grant to be used to study the parts of Europe that were centrally responsible for historic European conflict and for European unity today: France, Germany, and the Low Countries in between. The trip for that grant began on August 5th. In order to maintain my marriage, Laura went as well, and we left from Michigan following the Girard reunion in Caseville. I’m writing this blog mainly so that I can remind myself later all of the things that slipped away from my old man memory as we navigated through Europe; consequently, this entry is a bit long, which may be a good thing if you are in need of some bathroom reading.
Having travelled to Europe before, we had some exerience navigating through cities and planned to see Europe mainly on our own, without a whole lot of guides. If you haven’t been to Europe before, or if you are one of those people who avoids big cities altogether, you probably want one of those “on rails” tour where someone will handle all of your transfers and such. Since neither Laura nor I really like to be told what to look at, a self-guided tour was ideal, and we understood European transportation enough that disagreements would not be of the marriage-ending variety. Hopefuly.
Our flight across the ocean left at 8:00 pm and arrived in Paris at around 8:30 am; the key to avoiding jet lag was to sleep as much as possible on the plane, a task for which Laura is uniquely suited. She slept an amazing five out of six and a half hours on the plane, barely remaining awake until the plane took off. Once in Europe, continue to combat the jet lag by staying active all of the first day, only going to sleep at night. To carry out this plan, we hustled to the airport taxi area, managed to get a cab to our hotel near the Eiffel Tower, had the hotel hold the bags (check in wasn’t until the afternoon), and went to a late breakfast.
Laura had slept through most of the meals on the plane, and had now reached the point of ravenous hunger. However, finding a random restaurant in France that met her dietary restrictions from colitis was tough. We were able to find a place that was kind of a tourist trap closer to the Eiffel Tower that would work. The giveaways for a touristy restaurant in Paris are:
- The default menu is in English with giant color pictures
- There are multiple burgers/cheeseburgers available
- They advertise “American” breakfasts. This was the clincher for us because Laura can actually eat eggs.
Then we bought tickets to go to the top of the Arc and began the ascent. There were even more stairs than at the Hatteras Lighthouse. My neice Tabby would never have made it.The view of Paris from the top is excellent (not Eiffel Tower excellent, though – if you only have time for one or the other, definitely go to the Eiffel Tower). At the top of the Arc are two raised daises that can be used to get a better view of th city and/or take selfies. Overcoming international confusion about how lines work, Laura and I got to see Paris from the dais. Once we climbed down the 284 steps and exited through the secret passage, we began our stroll down the Champs Elysees, one of the main boulevards in Paris that connects major mouments and houses high-end stores. The birds in Paris are pretty bold, maybe because there aren’t as many cars in France as in the United States and the cars are generally not as big. A few birds strafed us on the avenue at an altitude that, in America, would have caused them to be obliterated by someone’s Hummer. Later, one of the strafing birds executed a successful bombing run on Laura, but we were able to dodge the overly aggressive wildlife on the Champs Elyses and do some people watching. An ornate gate and perfectly manicured garden path led to… Finally, we came to the Place de la Concorde, where we could see all the way down the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. Some takeaways from the walk:
- Americans REALLY like to advertse on their clothing that they are from America. For the French, those shirts must seem like some kind of tourist warning labels.
- Paris isn’t as bike friendly as a lot of other places in Europe, maybe because the mass transit system is so good.
- In America we have a cultural norm where I might think a stranger is an idiot, but it is “impolite” for me to show that I think a stranger is an idiot. This norm does not exist in Paris.
By this time, we were ready to check into the hotel, so we hopped on the metro by the Louvre and made our way back to the hotel. Most European hotels have tiny elevators, and this one was especially tiny. It could barely fit Laura’s enormous suitcase plus one human being, so I carried my suitcase up the equally tiny staircase. Then we headed off to dinner at the un-European time of 7 pm, which is hours before most Europeans eat. In fact, many restaurants in Paris don’t even open until 7 or 8.Needless to say, the restaurant was not crowded when we arrived. We got some French-style steak, narrowly avoiding ordering our steak Tartare, which is raw. The restaurant was just south of the Eiffel Tower area, so we decided to stroll through the neighborhood after dinner. Along different streets in Paris, there are flea markets selling everything from cheese to scarves to souvenirs. There are also many street sellers who usually sell mini Eiffel Towers and the like. Laura’s favorite street merchants are the guys who sell water bottles for one Euro, which is cheaper than many stores. We briefly thought about getting a ticket to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
We finally gave in to the jet lag, and we planned to get up fairly early to go to the Paris Catacombs in order to beat the line. We didn’t count on the jet lag combining with the super effective shutters on our hotel windows helping us to sleep about 12 hours straight. Laura found an American famly about a quarter of the way up the line that had been waiting for over two hours, and that helped to clarify the situation for us: we would see the Catacombs some other time. Since we are leading a student tour group to Paris (among other cities) next year, we can just add the things to that trip that we could’t do on this trip. Because it’s all about what works for us.
Having aborted the Catacombs plan, we went to plan B, eating at a outdoor cafe and people watching. Laura was delighted that Parisian cafes served plain hardboiled eggs (something that fit the diet); she was less delighted by the people near us smoking, which seems to be much more common at European cafes than at restaurants in the US, where the smoking laws are much more restrictive. One of the guys near us was actually rolling his own cigarettes, which was novel since people in the US seem to use rolling papers for mainly for something other than tobacco.
We took the Metro to the Louvre, which we had only seen briefly on our tour of Paris two years ago.The Louvre is absolutely massive, so the key is to pick a few things that you want to see on a given trip. Then, if you are travelling with Laura, cut in half the number of things that you want to see. We skipped seeing the Mona Lisa the last time, so that was the number one priority this time around. Fortunately, there were awesome things to see along the way.
While photographs are allowed in the Louvre, selfie sticks are not due to the high number of visitors.Finally, we arrived at the Mona Lisa. The key to getting close to the Mona Lisa seems to be:
- Time your approach to the painting so that you go in between the large, obnoxious tour groups from the United States or East Asia.
- Keeping your center of gravity low, ram though the people in front of you.
We weren’t interested enough in a Mona Lisa selfie to ram through, so we went to see other awesome paintings.The rooms that were decorated as they had been in the age of Napoleon III were also very cool. It total, we spent about three hours in the Louvre, which shattered Laura’s earlier record of 2 hours and 45 minutes spent in a museum. We left around 4 to head o Montmartre, and Laura bought a baggette to eat while walking, which is very Parisian. Most tourists that visit Montmartre go up to the Basilica at the top, which offers great views of Paris. Visitors can get to Sacre Coer via the stairs…
I feuled up with some ice cream from the shop across the street and we made our ascent. The stairs were actually fine; the street vendors, not so much. They were the most aggressive we have seen in Europe, with one grabbing me and one grabbng Laura in order to get us to “buy” something by putting a bracelet on us. Once clear of the street vendors at the botom, the visit was much more enjoyable. Throughout, Montmartre, there was street after street of shops and restaurants.
One of the things I love about Europe is how often we have turned a corner to find something cool by accident.For dinner, we had initially selected a Vietnamese resaurant that I found online, but that restaurant was closed because the owner and his famly had gone back to Vietnam until Ocober. We found a suitable backup with some outdoor seating in a square and tried some different foods.
After dinner, we walked through some of the bordering neighborhoods.
The neighborhood was so nice that I was wondering why more student tour companies didn’t feature the area as part of an overall tour of Paris.
Tour companies, good call. I’d rather not have to explain to high school sophomores what the latex arm in the shop window with the suction cup at the bottom and balled fist at the top is for. I’m not even sure I COULD explain it. Visiting the Champs Elysees and explaining the mystery of why people wait in line at Louis Vuitton is much easier.