eating my way around the world

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” --St. Augustine

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Location: Chicago, IL, United States

Twitter @nikonjunkie

14 June 2005

2 June 2005 :: Paris

Thursday morning, Nena and I slept in, freaked out because we slept in too late to get breakfast, then grabbed a couple of PowerBars and headed for the Metro. (Did I mention our hotel is in BFE Paris at Gallieni station on the tail end of the metro line? Nothing is close.) Oddly, there was a rather scruffy-looking guy outside the hotel every day grilling corn on the cob in a shopping cart. Undeterred by possible hygiene issues, people were always lined up to buy it. Oh well, he's currently more of an entrepreneur than I am.

During a couple of our Metro jaunts, I decide that Paris is full of crazy people. At one stop, an old man jumps on and starts randomly berating the crowd in booming French. Nobody looks up. At another, a disheveled old woman jumps on and starts singing and dancing her way through the car. Nobody looks up.

Upon arriving to the Louvre, we ran into a bunch of our tour mates that had just completed the express tour of the Louvre - they say in 45 minutes. I am suspicious that this entailed only seeing the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, but figure, "Hey, what a great plan!" The famous glass pyramid designed by Chinese-born American architect IM Pei may be familiar to some of you "Da Vinci Code" fans. Most of the French hate it, but before it was constructed, I can honestly say I had no friggin clue what The Louvre looked like. So there.

I'm surprised nobody cares if you take flash photography in the Louvre. Going by the "everybody else is doing it" philosophy, I snap away.

Our tourmates told us we'd better be prepared to push and shove our way through the crowd to see the Mona Lisa. I'd also heard she was small. So, I go in expecting a crush of humanity (similar to a downtown bar on Saturday night) and a painting the size of a postage stamp. Strangely, everyone's sort of crowded together near the painting, so I just walk around them on the side and right on up to the Mona Lisa. She's not so small, but she is protected by glass, which makes it damn near impossible to get a decent shot. So, in lieu of quality, here's quantity:

More art

A pointless anecdote about the Venus de Milo from my childhood - on one vacation to Mexico of all places, my mom bought a foot-tall miniature Venus de Milo. Somehow, she had it lying in the suitcase, which I was crawling over like a jungle gym. My leg caused the rather heavy Samsonite lid to come crashing down, and the armless Venus was now headless as well. She now sits in my mom's house in Florida, a telltale line of Krazy Glue around her neck. Here's the real deal. I look so thrilled to be in the presence of such an artistic achievement. Actually, my feet hurt and I'm sweating.

Although I recognize many of the artists' names on the walls, many of the greats were so prolific, I don't recognize most of the works.

After the Louvre, Nena and I head off to the Cite metro stop to see Notre Dame, which is on a rather large island in the middle of the Seine. A crowning achievement of Gothic architecture, I'd long admired Notre Dame's ornate pinnacles, flying buttresses and spectacular stained-glass windows. It's basically the only thing I remember from high school Western Civ class. But first, we get lost on this rather large island and end up at what we think is Notre Dame. After many confused conversations with the security guards, we get in and determine that nope, this isn't Notre Dame - it's Sainte-Chappelle, built for Louis IX as a chapel attached to the royal palace.

I'm duly impressed anyway, then I realize there's a staircase - one of many shoulder-width winding staircases that will tax my cardiovascular system on this vacation. After a rather long climb, I emerged into a high-ceilinged, jaw-dropping chamber and immediately yelled, "HOLY COW!" Then I noted the "Silence, please" sign nearby. I guess they get that a lot. I'm glad we stumbled upon this place, because the windows are amazing.

Coming outside, you realize you're at the Palais de Justice - the reason for all the security.

Nena and I then migrated off to find the real Notre Dame, after asking a hot cop first. Wandering off to the Seine, you realize why people think Paris is so beautiful in the springtime. The flower vendors were out in full force (er, bloom?). Some Americans from Ohio thought I was a local and started speaking in stilted French to me. The shirt & bag are from England, and the rest is from Houston. Does this outfit look French? :D

Finally, we turned a corner and there it was - Notre Dame. I only regret I didn't do a walking tour around the outside perimeter, because the back of it is even more impressive than the front facade.

While we were waiting outside (in the scorching sun), a man in a mask kept walking up to passersby, basically to freak the sh-- out of them. I told you Parisians were crazy, but hey, it helped pass the time. No flashes allowed in many portions of Notre Dame, but I flashed away in places where others were. Excuse the dark pictures. The place is truly staggering inside.

In a moment of pure masochism, Nena and I decide to climb the 470+ steps to the top of the bell tower. I will regret this. The passageway up is yet another shoulder-width spiral staircase that goes straight up - and it's seemingly endless. Resting is all but unheard of, as there's no room to flatten yourself against a wall and let another person pass. A throng of children was behind us, so even when my heart was pounding through my shirt, the air was seeming scarce, my lungs were on fire and I was sure that I was due to have an aneurysm at any second, I had to press on. Blessedly, we reached the top and were flooded with fresh air. Poor Quasimodo. I had to sit down for a few minutes to reach a heart rate under 200 before enjoying the view. Behold, the famous gargoyles:

The bell - no hunchbacks in sight, although I'm dragging quite a bit.

After the 470+ steps down, Nena and I decided to do what else - eat. We grabbed a streetside table at the cafe next door, and of course I ordered an Orangina. As with every other place we stopped at, the food was excellent. I had roast chicken with salad (every house dressing I've had has been simply delicious), a side order of frites (again, fries) and to top it off, we decided to split a banana and chocolate crepe. I couldn't leave Paris without trying crepes. While we were eating is when the Americans from Ohio sat down. Once they determined that I was in fact NOT French, we chatted up a storm.

Meanwhile, the people on Nena's side heard us speaking English and exclaimed at how great it was to hear this (they were Canadian, but we didn't harass them too much). The crepes finally arrived, and putting priorities first, I moved on to that and let the Ohioans finish my fries. The crepe was wonderful. Like a fluffy little thin pancake, but smothered in heavenly goodness. More Orangina. We left fat & happy.

After the long metro trek back to Gallieni station (and walking by the guy grilling corn in the shopping cart), I went downstairs in the hotel to catch up on email before getting ready for the evening. Around 5:40pm, I started noticing tourmates walking by, all dressed up for the Moulin Rouge. I thought this was weird, since we weren't due to leave for the better part of an hour. When I saw Tiffany walk by in a dress and heels, I stopped her to ask just what the hell was up. She then told me we were leaving in 20 minutes. Meanwhile I'm sitting there, still sweaty from the day's trek, checking email.

In one of many moments of panic on this trip, I close out of everything and take the elevator to the lobby to double-check the activity sheet. I yell to Joey on the way past that I thought we had until 6:30pm to get ready. "No, 6pm sharp," he replies. I point at the activity sheet, which says . . . 6:30pm. Some joker (who I'll murder later) had changed it to read 6:30pm, while Joey's photocopy still reads 6pm. Breathlessly, I tell the group waiting in the lobby that I'll be ready and back downstairs in 15 minutes.

Never mind the fact that I haven't showered. Never mind the fact that I have to do my hair and makeup. Never mind the fact that I need to put on my favorite little black Prada dress and Donald J. Pliner strappy heels. I love a challenge - I can do this. In what will be known as one of the greatest achievements of my life, I manage to pull it off. Somehow, the space-time continuum warped to allow me to arrive downstairs no later than 6:00pm sharp, clean, styled and fully dressed for a night on the town in Paris. I even had on makeup that didn't look like it had been applied in traffic. My tourmates were impressed. I curtsied.

Gareth once again skillfully maneuvered us through Paris rush-hour traffic, and we arrived at the world-famous Moulin Rouge for dinner. They led us to a stagefront table - incredible seats. While we waited for dinner in the elaborate expansive theater, we were serenaded by a cabaret singer on stage. A few couples danced - our tourmates Celeste and Antonio showed they could cut a rug. All very romantic and magical.

I'm sorry to say they confiscated cameras at the door, so the only photo I have inside was the €26 professional photo we all split - me, Art, Jojo, Tiffany, Audrey and Holly:

The more wine and champagne they brought, the more fun the conversation. Dinner (although talked down by Joey) was delicious. The French really know how to do bread & butter, but the salad was great, the steak was tender and just perfect, as were the roasted potatoes. Dessert was a sorbet, and after a short musical interlude (Eric Clapton??), on with the show . . .

"Féerie” is the Moulin Rouge's latest show, filled with Vegas-style showgirl extravaganzas, astounding acrobatic acts, comic mimes and one memorable act in which an aquarium rises from the stage, and a girl inside "dances" underwater with a rather large python. It's all indescribable, but if you have Windows Media Player, click here to enjoy a 79-second clip. (Note: I said "Vegas-style showgirls," so yes, there are boobs involved. You've seen them before, but perhaps not real ones.) Oh, evidently French men have no qualms about appearing in metallic silver outfits with matching boots & hats.

Maybe it was all the champagne, the wonderful meal or the great company, but all in all, what a truly incredible experience. I'm glad I followed the "what the hell, you're here" philosophy and coughed up the €160 to go. Memories for a lifetime are worth every penny. Outside after the show, most everyone was heading next door to the club Joey had arranged for us to get into.

However, some of us weren't leaving Paris without having seen the Eiffel Tower at night. Since we were staying in BFE and the sun was setting so late this time of year, it wasn't easy to see Paris after dark. The metros stop running at midnight, but we'd beg, borrow, steal or tie ourselves to the roof of a taxi to get back. Whatever it takes. But first, why not a few photos in front of the iconic windmill. Me, Tiffany, Audrey and Joey - and our bus!

We arrived at the Eiffel Tower and now I saw what all the fuss was. Compared with the hustle and bustle of the day, this late at night, it's quiet and still, and people seem to revere the tower in hushed tones. (Only now that I'm home do I notice my camera has a Night Landscape setting. Oops.)

Already lit from below, in recent years lights have been added to the entire length of the tower, and when they start twinkling and a beam of light shoots from the top of the tower at midnight, it's one of life's truly magical moments.

I'm sure no one expected us to reappear at the club, but we were't done with this night yet! The hardest partiers of them all - the Aussies, Joey and Holly:

Hey, we're clubbing in Paris!

We drank, we laughed, we danced til our feet hurt. I learned that "American geeeerls!" are quite popular with French guys. Maybe they think we're attractive, maybe they think we're easy, but politics aside, they sure do like us. :) I promised Joey that we'd shut that club down, and we very nearly did. I handed the crown over to Audrey as we were creeping up on 3am and I sensed she had no intention of leaving anytime soon. A few of us hopped a cab (writing your hotel's address down really does help with the language barrier!) and after an only mildly terrifying cab ride, stumbled into the Campanile Bagnolet for our last night in Paris - and a short (but good) night's sleep.

Things I Learned Today:
1. Spiral staircases are the devil's work.
2. Crepes might just be France's redeeming virtue.
3. Raising an eyebrow and a finger while asking "toilette?" will bypass the language barrier and avert many an emergency.
4. Drink refills are apparently an American phenomenon.
5. I can get ready in 15 minutes, shower and all, if I really have to.

Orangina count: 7
Champagne/wine count: Endless

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