It was a chilly morning when we laded in Paris, but no worse than the weather we had left behind in Detroit 9 hours prior. Some people had warned us about traveling on the day before Thanksgiving; widely know as the busiest travel day of the year. Apparently, nobody travels internationally that day, as the international terminal was a ghost town, and everything was a breeze.
Now in Charles De Gaulle airport, we were hustled past customs agents who barely glanced at us before waiving us through (I would later see that the security was much tighter to enter the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay than it was to enter France in the first place) and on to a train terminal.
After buying train passes for 5 days (thankfully in a transaction performed entirely in English, too tired and confused for a complicated French conversation just yet), and desperately needing a smoke, we stopped in at a fast food stand in the airports train terminal. Just to have a place to site down, I bought a couple of Cokes. At about €5 each, or $6, Coke is twice as expensive as wine. This would be the last day on the trip when I would buy any beverage without alcohol, with the exception of coffee.
Into the city, into the underground
Once we were on the train, we rode through the outskirts of Paris (yep, all those places filled with fire damage and graffiti that were part of our news the last few days) while a woman sang “Those were the days” en francais, before passing a cup around. I have to say that French panhandlers work for their money!
Our first experience with a Metro station was Chatelet. Chatelet is one of the more massive stations in the city, because almost all of the train lines intersect there. Switching train lines here was a complex procedure that required dragging our luggage along with a heavy flow of people who were intent on getting somewhere fast, all the while navigating by reading signs that were not in our first language. It was not something I want to do again, but we survived.
After switching trains, we go off at a Metro stop a block form our hotel. Our hotel, Le Grand Hotel Des Gobelins, was a nice little old hotel. The rooms were small but nice, we had our own bathroom, and the staff was friendly and spoke English very well.
Walking, walking, walking
After dropping everything off, we started walking. We would walk a lot over the week, but for our first day we decided to take it easy and just walk to the Seine.
First we walked a few blocks, and looking at my map, I realized we were walking the wrong way (when you travel from place to place underground, it’s easy to lose your bearings); once this was corrected, we wandered to the Seine, and into the Bastille neighborhood, and to a café for jambon et fromage, a ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette that is the cheapest item on many menus, but really good. We would have these almost every day as well. We also had un pichet au vin, house wine served up in small pitchers. Wine was the cheapest thing to drink anywhere, but I wasn’t complaining.
Cafes are social places in the city that are often frequented by regulars. It’s a lot like your neighborhood bar or diner, with the additions of dogs, who are welcome in bars restaurants, stores, etc. This café in particular had a customer with a golden retriever who took a liking to me, and sat with her head in my lap for a half hour. What better warm reception could one get in Paris?
Like I said, we had decided to take it easy our first night, we just took the train to the Eiffel Tower, and were there when they lit it up. When they light up the Eiffel Tower, it’s one of the most godawfully painfully gaudy things you’ll ever see, like a giant epileptic disco ball over the city. The tourists cheer as it’s lit up, and for cheering they all deserve to be put into seizures. That being said, we stood and laughed at it for quite some time.
Nicole at the Eiffel Tower, fortunately/unfortunately after the spastic lights were turned off (Sorry about the quality, but she's the professional photographer, not me! They do get better as we go, though!).
After watching this monstrosity for a few, we decided to continue our laidback evening by walking a few more miles, all the way to the Arc de Triomphe and down the Avenue des Champs-Elysees in a rainstorm.
Once we were thoroughly soaked and miserable (but still in Paris!), we went back to the hotel, dried off, cleaned up, and went to a little restaurant called Au Bon Coin, which our concierge at the hotel had recommended. We had escargots, I had duck, Nicole had lamb, and we had crème brulee, as well as the requisite wine and espresso. It was wonderful. Everything was also served with pommes frites, or French fries. Even though the French like to point out that French fries are not French, they serve them with everything, even in gourmet restaurants. And they are good, better than any fries here. While we did not confirm this, we suspect that the reason is that they are cooked in animal fat, not vegetable oil.
Restaurants in France are generally intimate spaces, which means they are small. But they try to use all of the available space, as many restaurants are really only big enough for about seven to 10 tables. You can get a table for two, but it’s six inches from the next table. It was something we actually got used to very quickly.
One more observation before I conclude my recap of Day One: French people are very nice when you make the effort to speak French. Everyone treated us very well, and most people spoke enough English that they met me halfway, and we got through the exchange. I did however see some ugly Americans who started every exchange with a person by loudly asking “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?” These are the people who were treated rudely; but they deserved it. Everyone I dealt with was very patient with my basic French, and very accommodating.
This concludes Day One. Check back soon for Day Two! We’ll see if I get quite so detailed next time. What do you think; was this too much detail?
Onward to Day Two...