Waterlilies, Tombs, and Happy Hour (Parisian Style)

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.) 

Monday, September 17th.

My long walk home has ruined my plans to get an early start on the day and tick off some of the places on my list.

I eventually get myself in order, and head down to the tourist information office.

After tolerating a long line to get a museum pass, followed by a(n awkward) bite to eat at a nearby bagel place, my first stop is the Musée de l’Orangerie, which houses eight of Monet’s “Waterlilies” paintings in two rooms specially designed to best view the works.

Europe, Croatia 370To my recollection, I’m sure I’ve only seen reproductions of Monet’s works, so I’m surprised at how large they are.

I love the variety of colours used, and I don’t feel rushed as I study each work from one end to another.

There’s also a lower level, which showcases many other paints from artists varying from  Cézanne to Picasso. (I’m sure technically I’m not supposed to, but … *coughs nervously*)

After, I hop on the métro and head over to the Panthéon.

The architecture of the lobby and main level itself – from floor to dome – is a sight to behold.

Europe, Croatia 379Also neat to see? Foucault’s Pendulum. Or, rather, an exact copy of the original, which has been swinging permanently in the Panthéon for 17 years. I’ve heard of the pendulum, but have never seen one up close. Nor has it ever occurred to me that it would be this big.

I head into the crypt of the Panthéon, to visit the final resting places of a number of France’s most well-known names.

I visit the corner that Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau share; I peek in on Louis Braille and Marie Curie (in different sections, of course).

Europe, Croatia 381And the hallways – despite the echoes of the voices of yammering tourists (and shushing by staff) – are immaculate and sleek (and this is me describing a crypt).

Outside the Panthéon, I need to kill time before I go to meet Darlene for drinks. And I’m kind of hungry. So in a moment of weakness, I duck into a McDonald’s. I usually try to stay away from the familiar (or ubitquitous) when I travel. But today, I think I’m at a breaking point. I’m craving grease and batter.

Heading out, I ride the métro to Saint-Michel station, but get a bit lost (surprised?), then dawdle in Shakespeare & Company, so I’m late when it’s time to meet Darlene.

When I finally find her, it turns out she’s brought her roommate Laurent with her. They take me right into the heart of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighbourhood. Many bar and restaurant terraces are already full to the brim with happy-hour-goers, drinking and smoking, by the time we get there.

So now, we’re waffling between finding indoor seats at one of the French restaurants surrounding us, or trying to find the Canadian bar (which I think is called the Great Canadian Pub – someone can correct me if I’m wrong) where ex-pats are known to hang out.

We pick a French restaurant and hastily file inside. Our server’s super-friendly and he provides us with popcorn and olives to accompany our drinks.

Laurent’s really friendly. Originally from the north of France (not sure if his easygoing nature’s a direct product of being from outside Paris), he’s working as – of all things – a spam programmer, but is on the hunt for another, less questionable job.

We don’t hang out too late, as Darlene has to get back to working on her freelance project.

I return to my neighbourhood and grab a bite at one of the local restaurants. Given my late night on Sunday, I opt to turn in comparatively early.

Tomorrow, I aim to make up for a bit of lost time.

Round Trips & Missed Connections

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Europe, Croatia 334Sunday, September 16th.

My goal today is to see the Eiffel Tower and then go on a bike tour.

It happens … sort of.

By the time I figure out how to navigate the métro and make my way over, I realize there’s no way I’m going to make it up the tower and back down in time for the tour.

After inhaling a (not-so) cheap hotdog, I find folks with the Paris branch of Fat Tire Tours who, when they’ve gathered enough interested tourists, take us to their office (which are NOT, as you might think, located at the Eiffel Tower, but a short distance away).

While waiting in line to pay and pick a bike, I start chatting with a few people … and discover that there are a group of Canadians on the same tour as me.

IT’S LIKE WALKING INTO A FIELD OF UNICORNS.

There’s one couple who live in the west-end of Toronto. A pair of sisters from Kincardine, Ontario. A Torontonian who’s now living in New York.

To run into this many strangers at once, from my own country – while on a random tour, no less – fills my heart with a little bit of happiness and pride.

Europe, Croatia 341While my bike tour experience in Berlin was nicer in terms of the size of the tour group, Paris is much better, in terms of the space designated for bikes to travel on streets and sidewalks.

The tour starts at the far end of the Champ de Mars, in front of the École Militaire, and winds its way around, passing by such points of interest as the Dôme des Invalides, the Rodin Museum and Place de la Concorde.

Our guide offers choice facts from history as well as pop culture, and even provides a tip or two we may want to use for our sightseeing strategies.

We stop partway through the tour for a drink at the restaurant in the Tuileries Garden; I have a refreshing glass of white wine and a delicious crêpe. And we’re off again, passing by the Louvre on our way back.

The tour’s done by 7:30 p.m. By this time, I’ve bonded a bit with the sisters from Kincardine, Mary and Leah. I’m planning on going back to my flat to take a breather, but they’re leaving almost immediately for the night tour, which has a different route.

We want to meet up and explore after they’ve finished, which won’t be until about 11:30 p.m. Mary has a cell phone, but it’s dead. So we take a chance and plan to meet at 11:30 under the Eiffel Tower, near the spot where the tour company was collecting tourists earlier.

The sisters take off; I stay behind at the Fat Bike centre, to make a list of the places we’d passed on the tour, that I want to visit on foot.

What I don’t realize is that Paris’ métro system slows down considerably in the evening – especially on a Sunday.

By the time I return, it’s 11:45 p.m., with no sight of Mary or Leah.

I hang around for an extra half-hour, in hopes that perhaps they’re late in returning, or maybe they’re wandering around nearby.

Europe, Croatia 359I’m even lucky to see the Eiffel Tower light up and sparkle for a full five minutes. Despite what Parisians might think, I quite like it. I mean, it IS the City of Lights after all.

But I never see Mary and Leah. I won’t see them ever again. I suppose my gift of randomly running into people has either waned with time … or it just doesn’t work in Paris.

I head back to the métro, where I’m faced with another problem.

The station is closed.

Merde.

I try to get my weary synapses to fire. Looking at my map, I take a chance and walk until I come across the next station that’s open and will get me “home”.

I find a station I’m able to access. But the métro line I need ride to get “home” isn’t working.

I consult my smudged, repeatedly-folded pocket transit map and opt to try another line. I hop on the next train and ride it to one of the major interchange stations.

The thing about those interchange stations? They’re huge. Even if you know where you’re going, it takes forever to get from point A to point B. Especially in Paris.

I’m working with the added disadvantage of being new to the system, and – coupled with being directionally challenged – heightens my sense of panic at trying to get to the other line as fast as I can. But it’s all in vain.

Cursing under my breath, I return the way I’ve come, hoping to ride the line in the opposite direction. But that, too, has also now stopped running.

Europe, Croatia 362A loud, piercing alarm screeches throughout the station – probably a tactic to get those late-night stragglers to leave the station.

In any case, I’m tired and screwed.

I eventually surface at street level, directly facing the Arc de Triomphe.

Since I have to accept the fact it’s going to be a long trip, I do the only thing I feel I can do at 1:30 a.m.:

I pull out my camera and snap a photo.

I take a couple of resigned breaths, look at my detailed map of Paris, and start walking.

I walk along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, past the expensive shops and the late-night stragglers grabbing their last drinks for the night, until I hit Place de la Concorde.

After snapping a few more photos – and getting Europe, Croatia 365myself turned around a couple of times – I figure out where I am and find my way back to Rue de la Rivoli and, eventually, “home”.

It only takes an hour, which is better than I expect.

It is said that everything happens for a reason. Perhaps I was meant to get lost. Did I just see what I was meant to see – Paris at night? Or was there something more?

One thing’s for certain: my walk that first day – along with the bike tour – has come in extremely handy.

My Parisian Orientation

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Saturday, September 15th.

Unlike Berlin – where I spent the first couple of days feeling completely out of sorts, directionally challenged and frustrated – I decide to use this day to get myself on the right track before even attempting to go sightseeing.

Also, my friend Darlene (she’s from Toronto, but living as an ex-pat in Paris) has touched base with me and we’re supposed to meet for coffee. She’s also been kind enough to suggest that I should find a local mobile phone carrier for a SIM card.

Which means navigating/braving that terrible, multi-level monstrosity of a mall from the day before.

After a few wrong turns, I find my way into its depths and find a mobile carrier which – relatively speaking – turns out to be much more customer friendly.

This small hurdle cleared, I take a walk to see if I can find my way around. I begin with Rue Saint-Martin, and just start walking. I make a left here, and take a right there, then try to find my way back. Which I accomplish. Sort of.

I then take a longer walk to see if I can find a main street and navigate using the map from my travel guide.

After a couple more wrong turns, I find Rue de Rivoli and just walk west – past all sorts of shops, past the Louvre (which makes me cuss aloud at the sheer number of blocks it inhabits – it’s well over 60,000 square feet!) until I get to (what I will later discover to be) Place de la Concorde.

I check the time and figure I have just enough time to get back before my orientation walk with Nathalie. I return to the flat sweaty, winded (from taking all of those stairs – Nathalie’s flat is on the fourth floor of her building) and with 10 or so minutes to spare.

Natalie arrives. She’s a smaller, somewhat slight woman, and today, she’s dressed in black. She admits a bit sheepishly that she’s overdressed for what’s turned out to be an unusually warm day for Paris. (Perhaps I’ve brought the warmth with me?)

We begin with our neighbourhood – she shows me places she recommends for good pizza and chocolates, and even if I want to listen some jazz one evening.

She takes me out of the arrondisement (we’re in the Marais), showing me buildings that house two theatres in the area, and then over the bridge to Île Saint-Louis, where she points out all the tourists lined up for Berthillon ice cream (which she says, contrary to what guidebooks might say, is NOT, in fact, the best).

Europe, Croatia 397She also points out Shakespeare and Company, Paris’ oldest English-language bookstore, and recommends a walk along the Seine which – if followed correctly – will lead me to an Islamic centre that serves tea and sweets.

On the river below us, we notice a group of boats that – as Nathalie reckons – is up from the South, for some sort of special event. We don’t get too close, though – Nathalie warns (with a glint in her eye) that southern French cuisine is quite rich.

We walk around the Latin Quarter- but not for very long, as it’s packed with other tourists. So we return to the other side, crossing another bridge. Nathalie allows me to get another look at the two theatres we passed earlier, gives me a brief overview of their importance, and points out a statue I can use as a landmark when I’m on my own.

We see two protests taking place – one for Syria, and another one I’m not entirely sure of. It’s turns out it’s a group of illegal workers who are demonstrating to demand that the French government grant them papers to allow them to live (and work) here.

We pass them, and back into our neighbourhood. Nathalie takes me to “the best ice cream” she’s ever had – an Italian-styled gelateria called Pozzeto.  And man, is it EVER good.

I’ve told Nathalie about my frustration with – and desire to – write, so she shows me a couple of other spots to sit and write, or meet other writers.

We finally part ways; she tells me to call her at any time, if I have any questions. (I decide to keep my calling to a minimum. I feel I’ve pestered her enough leading up to this trip.)

At the flat I check my phone – Darlene’s attempted to e-mail me. So I call her back, then head out to meet her.

I take the train out to the suburb of Bourg-la-Reine, where she’s staying with a friend. When I arrive, Darlene’s been working on a transcription project and is fighting with her computer, which started giving her grief the moment we hung up.

I let her pick away at the transcription bit longer (while my tired feet rest), before she gives up for the moment, and we go out for a walk.

Europe, Croatia 328She takes me to this ENORMOUS park, called Parc des Sceaux. It’s absolutely beautiful – like something out of a 19th-century novel, set on the grounds of a wealthy French estate.

Between the fountains and manicured trees, and I haven’t even seen the Tuileries yet, all I can think is, FORGET THAT. THIS is a park.

We don’t stay very long, as the park’s closing and the sun’s setting. So we head to a local Japanese restaurant for dinner, which Darlene was first introduced to by her current roommate/shelter-saviour, Laurent, who happens to be out of town visiting friends in northern France. Funnily enough, he actually calls Darlene midway through dinner to check up on her, and is nice enough to say hi to me.

I’m also introduced to sashimi – although tentatively, since my previous experiences with it have almost never ended well – in return for sharing part of my dinner.

Darlene even tries to get me to practice my French-language skills, which are much worse than I originally thought. Not only it is frustrating for me to form sentences (albeit short ones), just hearing it come out of my mouth is painful, to say the least.

By the time our meal ends, Darlene isn’t feeling so well, so we make a hasty exit, where she helps get me a ticket back into town.

Despite the short time together, it’s still comforting to see another familiar face after swimming through a sea of strangers.

Touchdown in Paris

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Friday, September 14th.

I oversleep a bit this morning, clean up the flat and finish packing. I’m convinced my exit will be uneventful, but I’m dawdling by the time my host, Michael, appears at the flat. I take a few moments to thank him for his hospitality and allowing me to use his flat during my stay.

I arrive at Schoenfeld Airport, where I have my first easyJet experience. It’s … interesting. Especially the part with no assigned seating. I’m in a crush of passengers, essentially boarding a Greyhound bus with wings.

I’m eventually wedged between a twentysomething blonde – who’s wedged herself as close to the window as her slight little frame would allow – and a blond German guy in shorts, who tucks into a bag of fast food at the first opportunity. Ah, well. At least it’s a short flight.

Once safely landed at Orly Airport, I manage to navigate the luggage carousels, and the information booth, whose agent was quite helpful in directing me towards the shuttle train into the city centre.

I get to one of the main train hubs (Châtelet – Les Halles – with little difficulty … until I surface in the midst of a massive shopping mall.

Sure, there are multiple signs and escalators. But – sweaty and tired – where do I exit? Where on earth do I turn?

Just when I’m ready to just throw up my hands and let out a growl of frustration, a young woman approaches me and starts speaking French.

What should have happened (as I had been imagining in my mind for at least a month prior) was that I should have been expressing my desire to get the hell out of this place – in French.

What actually happens is that I say nothing, and a look of anxiety has likely crossed my face; the woman almost instantly switches to English. Turns out she’s a North American in Paris learning French and – as it happens – lives near the Pompidou Centre, which is the direction in which I need to go.

She graciously shepherds me out of the mall and across the Boulevard de Sébastopol, and I can see Rue Saint-Martin just off in the distance.

I make a couple of missteps, but finally head in the direction of the rental flat I’m staying in. I’m just about to set down my backpack and ring my host when I hear (the French version of) my name being called behind me.

It’s my host, Nathalie, sitting at a table outside a bar across the street, wearing a very snazzy (and almost too-warm-looking) red jacket.

“Bonjour!” I exclaim, my voice dripping with relief, and cross the street.

I sit; Nathalie helps me order me a “welcome” rum-and-coke”. We sit there – she in her sharp jacket, and I in my grubby, sweat-laden travel wear – under a somewhat grey, cloudy sky, getting acquainted. I feel very shy and extremely self-conscious (and awkward) at not being able to break into fluent French with relative ease. But I suppose that’s all right.

After our drink, Nathalie takes me to the flat, gives me the five-cent tour, shows me where everything is – including a “welcome” package of little chocolates, meringues, and THE loveliest tea. We make arrangements to meet the next day, so she can show me around the area.

And then I’m alone, in a very quiet flat. No TV. No CD player (despite there being a number of CDs). I poke around, unpack some basics and put those away.

I work through some initial anxiety and go to grab dinner at the nearest place I can find. I’m not yet ready to sit in a restaurant by myself. Which is strange, considering I did so in Berlin with a bit less worry.

The last thing I remember before getting ready for bed, is just sitting in the lone chair in Nathalie’s apartment in the middle of her flat, not doing a thing.

Just sitting there, listening to silence and the muffled, faraway sounds of the neighbourhood beyond the shut window.

And – possibly outwardly, probably inwardly – smiling.

A Last Day Surprise

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Thursday, September 13th.

I start the day a bit out of sorts, which is usually what happens the day before I have to travel anywhere. What it is exactly, I can’t really put my finger on. A sense of resignation? A heightened sense of melancholy/loneliness? I’ve no clue.

I begin my sightseeing on a sober note, at the information centre for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I have plans to also go to the Topography of Terror. But once inside the visitors’ centre, it’s probably best that things don’t work out that way.

I spend a lot of time in here, and it’s not time that’s wasted. Just reading the stories of families who were almost entirely wiped out – or completely eliminated – not only eresonat with me, but seem hard to fathom.

I see reproductions of letters written to loved ones and colleagues … names of those whose fate was tragic … hearing recollections of experiences … all are quite jarring. What perhaps holds my attention more than anything else, is seeing names and hearing voices of some of the individuals who survived.

Europe, Croatia 316Following the visit to the centre, I collect my thoughts nearby over a currywurst lunch, then hustle off to the Pergamonmuseum. This museum essentially houses fragments and reproduced parts of a specific ancient Roman settlement in a region of what is now Turkey.

It’s certainly interesting. But perhaps my mistake is trying to take on the special exhibitions. This eats up SO much time, I don’t have enough time to see what I REALLY came here for: the Near East and Islamic exhibitions, which I hear are absolute must-sees.

I get as far as the artifacts from Babylon, before I decide I’m too overwhelmed, and I call it a day. And with good reason – I just found out the day before that a travelling friend, Jeremy – whom I met in Spain five years ago – just happens to be in Berlin with his boyfriend. They’re staying in Kreuzberg, and just arrived the week before.

We arrange to meet at Alexanderplatz; Jeremy directs me to meet him under “the big world clock”. Now, keep in mind I’ve criss-crossed that open public space around the train station a handful of times over the past few days, and for the life of me, I CANNOT picture this clock.

So, of COURSE I walk around and around and AROUND, and I can’t find it. And because I can’t get my German SIM card to work (and my phone battery is almost drained) I return to the flat to get some WiFi and message Jeremy to tell him that, well, I can’t find him.

Eventually we figure it out, and I meet Jeremy and Mark on the S-Bahn platform. We take the metro to Fredrichstrasse and find a restaurant along the same strip I’d visited with Jennifer from New York. This time, we pick the Indian restaurant a couple doors down from that Cuban restaurant.

Even though it’s brief, it’s simply great to see someone I recognize – one of the small beauties about travel I cherish and appreciate.

We walk back to Alexanderplatz, passing a string of prostitutes – all in similar outfits, as if it’s some sort of regulatory “uniform”. (Not that I’ve never seen prostitutes in other places, but it’s certainly the first time I’ve seen them on my trip.)

After getting me back to my neighbourhood, we all part ways, and I return to the flat to putter around and pack again, for my next – and last – destination.

On Vacation!

Hey kids!

First of all, many thanks for those of you who have been liking my posts and following my blog. In a sea of millions of blogs, I really appreciate that there are folks and fellow bloggers like yourselves who actually like my ramblings enough to follow!

Secondly, I’m on vacation and won’t be around much the next couple of weeks … Apologies in advance, but this lady’s pooped and needs some rest!

I promise to resume posting when I return – and who knows? Perhaps I’ll have even MORE to write about.

Please keep visiting, and feel free to read some of my previous posts. Thanks!

My Random Wednesday

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Wednesday, September 12th.

Europe, Croatia 293Today, I’m hoping to make a go of Museum Island – specifically, the German Historical Museum, as recommended by my walking tour guide from Sunday.

But I have a bit of a slow start – I think I’ve hit my personal wall, and have realized that I’m supposed to be on vacation and need to SLOW. DOWN.

I eventually make it down to the museum by noon and start from the beginning, sans audioguide.

Here’s the problem with me, when I visit museums: I still haven’t mastered the art of efficient museum-visiting. I somehow have this annoying inclination to look at everything – every single cup, armband, plate and sword.

Europe, Croatia 298As if I’m POSSIBLY going to miss something.

So my intention to breeze through the entire building – or at least, the main wing – turns into a huge time-sucking exercise, which only lands me somewhere around 1830 before I decide to put an end to my visit.

I go to the museum café for a sit-down and a pastry. At first, no one so much as gives me a menu to peruse – and the café isn’t even all that full. So I move from the four-seater to the closest table for two – right in front of the glass case filled with case, and the cash register.

A floppy-haired, moustachioed server comes up to me and says, “Tach!” which startles me. I’ve no idea what my face looks like to the server, but I’m hazzarding a guess that my eyes may have opened to twice their size, and I’m possibly sporting the blankest expression I’ve ever worn since my vacation began.

The server says it again. If the bewilderment on my face was slight before, it’s on full display now.

He finally ends my suffering by explaining it’s some type of casual greeting, to which I was supposed to have replied, “One beer, please”, in German. Sadly the moment’s wasted on me, since my language skills are non-existent; I awkwardly ask for a hot chai and a piece of cake.

By the time I emerge from the museum, I realize I don’t have enough time to visit the Pergamon Museum, which was my other goal for the day.

Europe, Croatia 311So instead, I wander over to the DDR Museum – an interesting and (in my opinion, almost absurd) look into life for East Germans under the Iron Curtain.

This museum is a bit nuts. EVERYTHING – from the fashion, to specifically-made products, to when (and HOW) East Germans vacationed (which includes a diorama-display of naked miniatures), makes the impression these people were under … almost surreal.

And to think: this went on for decades. And it didn’t even end all that long ago, if you think about it.

My museum-seeing day done, I go to meet fellow Fat-Tire tourist Joanna in another part of town – we’re going to try some currywurst and some (apparently) good falafel.

Before we embark on our evening’s adventures, we stop by Joanna’s vacation rental so she can collect something from her guest room. She’s renting a room in the industrial-looking live/workspace of a German couple. The wife is an interior designer; the husband makes furniture.

The whole scenario is cordial, but absolutely (almost painfully awkward). Me, a complete stranger, waiting for another complete stranger, in the kitchen of complete strangers. We make conversation which, as brief and a bit uncomfortable as it is, is not terrible. We speak about the cycling communities in Berlin and Toronto – the couple says in Berlin’s case, it’s actually becoming a problem (although, I suppose, that perspective all depends on whom you speak to).

I even find out that the wife – when she was in high school – did a student exchange program in Canada. In Brampton. I’m not kidding.

The awkwardness ends when Joanna and I take off, for Curry 36 – said to be one of the best places for the famed currywurst. It’s well worth the trek. It is ONE of the tastiest things I’ve never had. I split one with Joanna, then we go to the falafel stand just feet away, and split a falafel (with no onions). Also very tasty! And not filling, which is a nice feeling.

We take the metro to Revalerstrasse, where the warehouses of RAW are located. Compared to seeing it during the day by bike, it looks a bit daunting/sketchier in the dark. As we get closer, though, we see the glow of lights in various establishments.

Europe, Croatia 313Joanna wants to check on this one bar (relatively new to the area), which caters to gamers. The exterior (which we saw the day before) is spraypainted with images of video game characters.

The interior, however, is anime-sleek – a bar at one end; tables for dining, and special sections for playing games out in the open … as well as “VIP” rooms for parties, and another room at the far end, specifically with a roundtable for serious gamers – complete with monitors.

On this night, it’s empty, as it’s only mid-week, and we’ve arrived about 40 minutes before closing. So I get a drink for the road and we continue wandering.

We drop in at another bar, where it’s sparsely populated, and the DJ was already spinning. (I couldn’t tell you what genre, to save my life. It could’ve been drum-and-base, for all I know.)

I order another drink, and we take in the scene before us. The place eventually begins to fill with more patrons, all obviously younger than ourselves. Joanna starts getting into the music and starts moving in the corner we’re occupying. Two female Berliners notice Joanna’s jiving, and obviously start making comments about her dancing abilities, amongst themselves. I see this and think it’s not really warranted. But who gives a shit?

I eventually leave my seat and let myself to move to the music. It’s feels like an eternity since I’ve done something familiar that doesn’t require a verbal language. And it feels good. For a while.

We set out for “home”, but discover that the metro has stopped running. So we split a cab and go our separate ways – with Joanna asking me to remember the cab number, just in case anything happens. (Wait – I get, that it’s all about “safety first” and all that … but are cab kidnappings a thing in D.C.?)

It’s a nice evening out, and finally a chance to get a little taste of Berlin’s nightlife during my stay.