I am 47 years old, and I had never been to Europe, or even out of the continental United States, at all. I’d always wanted to go to France, and to Italy, to the motherlands—I am half French, half Italian, so I’d wanted to start with the lands of my heritage first. This year, I began my world traveling by going to France with my partner, Martin.
We flew to Dublin, then connected to our flight to Paris. We landed and went to baggage claim for our luggage. There was a gentleman with a tray passing out croissants to the waiting passengers. Really?? Yes, really!! How civilized! We got our luggage and our bearings and found the train line we had to take to our hotel. We changed trains at Gare Du Nord, got off at Richard-Lenoir. Then, following the GPS, we walked to our hotel. It was in the 11th Arrondissement (district), quite a ways from the famous, tourist-y areas of Paris. It was, in a few words, a regular neighborhood.
After showering off our travelers' grime, we went out to explore the neighborhood. I kept staring at the buildings, which looked just like every picture I had ever seen of Paris. There were markets, several cafés and patisseries (bakeries). We had lunch at Café Merlin—poulet avec frites (chicken with fries), and greens. We had wine with lunch, like you do, a glass of Sancerre and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Crème brûlée for me and a dessert sampler for Martin. So excellent!
I attempted to speak French with our server, albeit awkwardly, on my end. I have learned French since I was a kid, but the last time was as a senior in high school—thirty years ago! I should have reviewed it the last few weeks or months before we went, but alas, I did not. So I stumbled through, but at least I attempted it. And with simple words, I did it. Next time, I will review the words I don’t remember and the parts of speech, like past, future, past perfect and future perfect tenses, and increase my vocabulary count.
We went back to the room and rested a bit, then ventured out again in the rain, and in the dark, and took the subway, “going anywhere”. We emerged at Cité, near the Bastille, Notre Dame and the Seine River. We walked and imbibed the city, under lights. The gorgeous buildings were lit from below. On the way back, we had an “Amélie” moment (if you haven't seen the movie, go! See it now!) and did the photobooth in the Métro station. I adore photobooths, and every time we see one, we have our pictures taken, making weird, adorable faces.
The next day, we went out with our minds on a mission, and a mission on our minds: Blé Sucré, a patisserie. We are devotees of Phil Rosenthal’s show, “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having”, wherein he travels and features the best food in select cities all over the world. He claimed that Blé Sucré had the best croissants in Paris. Blé Sucré backed that claim up. We had plain croissants and café crème (coffee with frothed, steamed milk), and ate in the park across the street. Sheer bliss!! They flaked when you bit into them, and were airy and butter-flavored. Perfection!! And the café crème!! It’s a deep, dark coffee with steamed milk. The best coffee I have ever had in my life. I have no idea how to recreate it—I’ve been trying. It’s with the zeal of an alchemist that I am trying…The closest thing I have found is a flat white at Starbucks, but for home, we might have to get an espresso machine. Aw damn…
Afterwards, we went to a cemetery, the Père-Lachaise, that was near our hotel, and also which, coincidentally, a friend of ours had recommended to us when he was there the week before. We saw small mausoleums and beautiful headstones. I even looked inside one of the mausoleums and found a statue of the woman who was buried there, inside! I looked for both of our family names, but didn’t see them ("Martin" was all over the place in France). It was hard to find our way, so I found a map online, and it showed that both Frédèric Chopin, the composer, and Jacques Louis David, the painter, were buried there. The quest was on! We went round and round looking for Chopin, and finally found him—we had gone by him, but had looked in the opposite direction! We left rose petals on his grave. Then we looked for, and had an easier time finding, David’s grave. I knew I was going to be seeing some of David’s paintings in the Louvre the next day, so it was good to visit him. I later found out from an instructor of mine who had gone there that Jim Morrison is also buried there—I would have LOVED to have seen his grave!! And now, I am looking at the map I had found online and seeing the famous people I ALSO would have loved to have found: Balzac, Honoré Daumier, Ingres, Molière, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Georges Seurat, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Richard Wright. Gah!!
We stopped at a local market on the way back to the hotel room and got some wine. We sat out on the balcony of our room and enjoyed some wine, a baguette that we bought and carried with us, like we saw the French do, and people-watching. We got to rest a bit, which was lovely. And necessary. Introvert… (raises hand)
We walked to a café called Les Cents Kilos (the 100 kilos) for dinner. I had a burger and frites, which had a delicate onion flavor, and Martin had penne with gorgonzola crème sauce and pastrami. The penne was also amazing—such a blend of flavors!! Martin thought he could recreate it at home (and he did! Successfully! Also, again over a campfire and a propane stove—the man is amazing!!). We thoroughly savored our meals--there was not a mediocre or bad meal to be had.
After dinner, we took the train to see the Eiffel Tower. We just saw it from the outside, not going up inside it. We talked about it, but the drive wasn’t strong enough in either of us to actually do it, so we didn’t, and we took sweet pictures with the moon behind it. I also got a fabulous picture of a lesbian couple making a heart with their hands in front of it! Then we took a walk up Avenue Kléber and reached L’Arc de Triomphe. Again, we didn’t go up in it, but took lots of pictures of the outside. It was nighttime, so it was illuminated. We came across the Champs-Elysées, the famous boulevard. Unfortunately it has become a retail nightmare, garishly full of shops, like you see in America. We stopped and got some ice cream, and then we came across a surprise—an outdoor hookah bar, sponsored by The Marriott. We went in—we were the only white people, and I was one of two women. Mostly it was people of Middle Eastern descent, whose culture hookah is part of. The hookah smoked really beautifully, smooth mint. We also had gin-tonics to go along with it. And we talked deeply and satisfactorily. Such a sweet night…
The next day, we hit the Louvre. This was the Big One! I’d made a list of what I wanted to see, so we could go directly there instead of wasting time, wandering. On my list of must-sees: The Mona Lisa, the Venus DeMilo, the Winged Victory (the Nike) of Samothrace, Jacques Louis David, Johannes Vermeer, Egyptian antiquities. We followed the vital map, and the signs on the walls, and found each of the things on the list (except Vermeer--he was on tour at that moment)…and sometimes I found unexpected surprises like Elisabeth Vigée LeBrun, whom I adore, one of the few women artists to make it into the chronicles of art history. It was a self-portrait with her daughter, not the famous one of her painting, but I recognized her face and her style right away. At times, I got a little verklempt. I saw famous paintings I’d only seen in books before, like the "Mona Lisa", “La Grande Odalisque” by Ingres, “Oath of the Horatii” by David, pieces of history like The Egyptian Book of the Dead…Things that famous hands had touched, made, invented, midwife’d…things that I’d learned of when I was young. And here they were, after all these long years, and here am I, witnessing their existence, instead of reading about it…It was emotional for me, but a happy emotional, like crying at someone's wedding.
Afterwards, we walked to Restaurant Cinq-Mars, to have dinner, but when we asked for a table for two, they said they needed reservations, so we made them for the next night and said that Cinq-Mars was my family name on my mother’s side. The hostess was happy to hear that and was pleased that we’d be coming back. We had dinner around the corner at Les Antiquaries, instead: French onion soup, frites and crème brûlée. We enjoyed the hell out of crème brûlée this trip…You can barely find it in the States, so we binged on it.
The next day was shopping day—getting souvenirs (“What’s the French word for ‘souvenirs’?”) for loved ones. We ended up walking through the city, seeing wonders along the way—some art galleries, a Métro station that looked like a submarine, a gorgeous park, a mini Cooper, and all of the colored doors in Paris—and then ended up at Notre Dame Cathedral. Gargoyles, ho!! We took a million pictures trying to get all of them that we could. Also tried to scope out where that famous picture of the one with his head in his hand would be by looking at the building behind it, pulling it up on our phones, and, lo and behold! the building is still there, with the same windows!!
Dinner, ce soir-là: Restaurant Cinq-Mars…
The hostess remembered us, and smiled so warmly. She brought us complimentary champagne, “for family”. My heart melted...We had escargots (well, Martin had them—I would have, but they had pesto on them, and I didn’t want to risk the pine nut exposure—I DID know how to say “Je suis allergique aux noix”, though!) and a fromage plate with a basket of French bread. For the main course, he had filet of cod with mashed potatoes and I had sausage with mashed potatoes. And once again, crème brûlée for dessert. It was the best meal of the trip.
And then the next day, after having breakfast again at Blé Sucré, we were flying back home, a 30-hour travel day. We brought back wine and chocolate and gifts. We brought back experience and observations. We brought back vignettes and stories and jokes. We brought back memories.
I thought of my mother, two years gone from us now, and how she would have loved this. When she was still lucid, she’d wanted to resume speaking French with us (that is our heritage, and we learned to speak French in school, while she learned it at home from her parents and extended family), but we were so preoccupied with figuring out her illness that we never did. So I spoke French for her, as well as myself. I saw the Seine for her as well, saw the Louvre for her as well, drank wine in the middle of the afternoon in cafés for her as well…because she no longer could. I was her ambassador in flesh. We took pictures in front of the restaurant, took matches, their business card (an old B/W photo, with their name, address and phone number stamped on the back), and chocolates with their name on the label...souvenirs. I will remember this.
Beyond that, for myself, I saw for the first time how other people do things. Again, this was my first time outside of the United States. Not to romanticize the French, but I did notice that in the four days I was there, I didn’t see any foolish behavior in public. No yelling, no impatience, no teenagers spilling bravado all over the sidewalk. Nobody gunning motors or squealing brakes. No cat-calling or leering—I felt incredibly safe and not just because I was with a man. I didn’t see that behavior towards other women, either. People seemed to be polite to each other as a matter of course, adults going about their days. In comparison, Americans can seem rather adolescent, at times. And I didn’t anticipate going back to that. And I realized I didn’t call anyone a fucktard in my head once while I was there—talk about adolescent behavior (or rather, thoughts)! But the minute I got back, there I went, again. Of course, I’m old enough to know that I saw but a snapshot of Paris, and I’m not making a judgement based on one frame of exposure, but damn, it was different than what I have gotten used to. And it was pleasant. I loved: taking the Métro, eating at cafés, the high caliber coffee and food, drinking wine in the middle of the day as well as at night, the gorgeous architecture, the statues, the roundabouts, the people driving scooters and motorcycles, people smoking nearby and you NOT smelling like their cigarettes after, hearing little tiny kids speaking French, that you could stay at your table and savor your food as long as you wanted because the server wasn't relying on tips to live on, the Art Nouveau decor and fonts in design and architecture of building interiors and exteriors, that the sidewalks were terraced, that it's a walking city, that it's an art city.
I wish I spoke better French so I could have had conversations with people, to see how they thought about things. I wanted to philosophize over wine. I wanted to talk politics and tell them, I don't support that cretin. I wanted to tell them I’m a figure model, to pose for an art class!! I wanted to draw their figure models, because I’m an artist! And there are other places I want to see like the Catacombes and Versailles and the Musée d’Orsay, the graves of the people I mentioned above at Père-Lachaise…and goddamn, back to Blé Sucré for breakfast. I’m going back one day. There’s so much more to experience, more souvenirs to acquire.
In my mind.
Vive La France!!