May in Paris: Journal of a Long Weekend
When my best friend Margaret (from here on known as MC) wanted to celebrate a major birthday, she didn't want a party or a fancy dinner. She wanted to go to Paris, and she wanted me to go with her. Here are excerpts from my travel journal.
SCAMPS ON THE LOOSE, Thursday, May 8, 2008 noonish CT
MC and I are about 30,000 ft. up in AA424 on our way to Paris via Boston. This is MC's birthday trip, though she doesn't like to be reminded of her age (and since she acts about 16 most of the time, that's not a problem). We are squeezed into coach like a couple of suitcases (1 big, 1 little). The couple behind us are going to Paris too, and they are practicing their French. MC and I are going to wing it (oui! oui!).
We have a 2-hour layover in Boston and a 7-hour flight to Paris. That means we'll get there about midnight Dallas time, and it will be 7 a.m. I realize you aren't supposed to think like that, but you need to. That's why the last time I went to Europe via Boston, everyone began preparing to sleep immediately after takeoff. Guess we better do that too.
P.S. A guy in the very back of the plane has dreadful BO and I got a big whiff of him when I went to the john. I hate the glamour of travel.
In Boston Admirals Club - May 8, 2008 5:15 pm ET
We made the first leg of our flight with no problems if you don't count attacking a fashion jewelry store in the airport and buying our own personal souvenirs before arriving at our destination a problem.
MC bought two bistro salads at a "health food" kiosk and we brought them into the Admiral's Club to eat. YUM! No doubt much better than what we'll get on the plane. While we ate, there was a page for Jennifer Tilly telling her that her plane was ready to take off. We didn't see her, of course.
Now we're going to take our NO JET LAG pills and hope it works. Also a little Xanax - snore. We plan to sleep like angels (although maybe I shouldn't talk about angels in connection with air travel. As for travel in general, the only thing wrong with it is the travel part). I'd like it a lot better if getting there were less hassle.
On a 767 above the Atlantic - May 8, 2008 about 9 pm ET
Well, the flight attendants here are senior (AKA "old"). They have fed us (a mediocre meal at best) and hopefully, they'll soon turn off the lights and let us sleep. There are always freaks and weirdoes on every flight, and this one is no exception. Directly across from us in the middle section is a 50-something guy with a major comb-over who got so excited about this pretty girl with TONS of hair who has the seat next to him. For almost three hours now he has been BS-ing her non-stop, and he's such a dork that when she took off her jacket, he just kept running his mouth and didn't even try to help. Bet he's making a big impression. I hope he eventually shuts up so we can get some rest.
P.S. MC just discovered a nifty travel secret from a flight attendant. If you're on a 767 flight expected to last no longer than 7 hours, you can request Row 17, which is like a private pair of seats with a curtain right by the galley and bathroom. It's like a private biz class seat but in coach. On flights over 7 hours, the seats are reserved for crew members, however.
Still in the 767, Friday May 9, 2008 7:15 am Paris Time
MC and I have decided that the yapping guy (who never shut up all night - no joke) is with a girl from an escort service! Apparently, they've met before, and just moments ago, he asked her what her sign is (I honestly could not make up this stuff if I tried).
MC and I are already worried that we don't have enough cash and are figuring out what we'll do if we run out. Cash is for taxis and trinkets. Credit cards are for everything else.
Friday evening, May 9, 2008 Paris Time
Our plane arrived in Paris only slightly late even though we took off late due to some vague toilet repair issue that needed to be addressed. For some goofy reason, the lighting system was broken and the lights stayed on all night, which wouldn't have been quite so bad except for the creepy comb-over guy talking non-stop to his escort service traveling companion (we finally agreed that this was her job based on her sprayed-on jeans, hair weaves and spike-heel leather boots)...plus some conversations that The Spy (MC) overhead.
We disembarked (airplane jargon) and got MC's monster-size suitcase from baggage claim. It was a beautiful day with no hint of the fact that it was going to be hot as blazes later on. We caught a Mercedes cab with a cute Cambodian driver, who had been in Paris 35 years. Very chatty and friendly.
We're staying at a lovely boutique-type hotel on the left bank, nicely decorated but not over done. It is perfect with the exception of having an ineffective A/C system. Guess we'll sleep with the windows wide open. Grace is the cute girl who runs the place, and since we had paid for the previous night, she urged us to go to the breakfast buffet immediately (under way each day till 10:30 a.m.). We had fruits, yogurts, cheeses, deli meat (call it what you will, it's still deli meat) and hot tea.
Our room is on the 3rd floor (which is really the 4th floor U.S.) and accessible by either a teeny old cage-style elevator or a spiral staircase that could easily kill you if you wear high heels. Everyone who works here is friendly and helpful, which is good since we phoned them half a dozen times on our first day. Our room is decorated with wallpaper featuring blue parrot tulips and carnations. MC loves that the bathroom has two sinks, one for each of us.
Sunday, May 11, 2008, 12:30 a.m.
In the hotel room ... exhausted
Yesterday, after breakfast, MC and decided to take a quick 2-hour nap. Six hours later we woke up. MC INSISTED we still had time to go to Montmartre even though we had reserved seats for a Seine dinner cruise that first evening. I didn't think we could get there and back in time, but Grace explained how to use the Metro, and we made it there in no time. We took the cable car up the side of the hill, arriving at Sacred Heart Church for a photo op. There were young jocks on the steep stairs to the church walking up on their HANDS (this was no religious pilgrimage ... one guy would carry another guy's feet wheelbarrow-style way half way up the stairs ... and they would change places. Naturally, they were quite healthy looking).
We did a quick church run through, then a block or so away (a lucky guess) discovered the famous area where artists sell their paintings (for too much based on the quality) and do sketches of people on the spot (a' la' The State Fair of Texas). It was crowded but fun. Took great photos, and we both purchased all the gifts we need to take back home. What a good investment of time....
But we couldn't dawdle because of our dinner cruise, so we jumped back on the Metro, returned to our hotel, cleaned up and realized we had NO CLUE where we needed to go for this special dinner. What chuckleheads (and MC with her big, old, fat folder full of travel info but none of the right stuff). So we made an emergency call to our travel arranger in Arizona, and she told us we had a map on the voucher that gets us onto the boat. We said, "What voucher? We don't have a voucher?"
So she has to fax us a map AND a voucher!! OK - #1 emergency resolved....
The cute French boy (name unknown) on the front desk calls us a cab and this funny older guy shows up and takes us directly to the boat (he knows the entire tourist routine), which is across from the Eiffel Tower. So we're on time. We're dressed. We have a voucher, and it's hotter than HELL! I am living with a not-so-thin film of sweat on my entire body at all times. That and Metro employees make me insane ... but more about that later.
MC and I have a lovely table for two next to the window (you pay extra for the window-side tables) and a handsome young waiter from Senegal named Harona. He seems to understand our English pretty well. He brings us each a Kir Royal and the sun starts to set, and the boat leaves the dock traveling past Notre Dame and then turning around and traveling past the Eiffel Tower to Paris' miniature version of the Statue of Liberty and finally docking where the cruise originated. During our two-plus hours, we enjoyed a pleasant dinner (I had a steak and MC had sea bass) with TWO bottles of wine - one white and one red - and we saw all the wonderful sights.
What interested me most was how hundreds of people - mostly young - were sitting, picnicking or just boozing on the riverside, and how they would wave or toast us with their glasses or bottles when we waved at them. We even got mooned by a group of six cheerful river sitters - and in perfect formation like semi-pro mooning drill team. MC says people always done this (the river sitting ... not the mooning) but I guess I've never been in a position to really notice during my previous visits to Paris. We caught a cab home after deciding that the tourist Seine dinner cruise was definitely worth doing. It was a great way to officially kick off our trip.
I just wish it weren't so hot. I've been going sleeveless (something I never do because of my big fat farm girl arms). This demonstrates how desperate I am. And to think we considered bringing coats!!!
In our Room 11:30 am Paris Time
Sunday, May 11, 2008
On Saturday, we rose at 7 a.m. and had a hearty hotel breakfast before being picked up by our little tour van for our trip to Giverny and Versailles. Our tour guide was named Josephine, and she looked very French (skinny, whacked off hair do, no make up, scarf around her neck despite the heat). Her English was difficult to understand but she also did the tour in German for a couple from Vienna (young and in love and kissing on each other all the time ... the girl sat in front of me in the van, and I could see where her hair weaves were attached...as for him, he was tall and lanky with spiky hair, and they spoke English very well so I don't know why the tour guide did the German dialogue...maybe she was just showing off).
Our other traveling companions were a 40-something couple from Chicago, but originally from the Ukraine, who were rather interesting, and an older couple from a Dallas suburb of all places, who were winding up a three-week European tour.
First, we drove approximately 70 miles into the Seine Valley where lots of fruits are grown (saw yellow warning signs for a deer crossing and WILD HOG crossing!). On the edge of the Normandy region, we turned off the highway and into the little town of Giverny, which has about 500 residents and is restricted from excessive growth by law (we would NEVER have found this place on our own).
As expected, Monet's gardens were in full bloom - both flowers and tourists. But it was actually a much more wonderful place than I'd expected with flowers of every kind and color and wisteria everywhere. Such fragrances! I took dozens of photos (and will later PhotoShop out a portion of the crowds) and sweated tremendously. We toured Monet's house, covered in vines. He was a big collector of Japanese prints, and they were everywhere along with copies (three originals) of his own work. I cannot imagine his fascination with the prints. They seem so ordinary and mass-produced compared to his own art.
Built onto the Monet estate is a giant gift shop much like a gymnasium, full of expensive stuff no one needs. While buying a couple of Monet books, I discovered that my husband's MasterCard, which I'd used the previous evening to pay for our Kir Royals, was missing. I paid with a different card and went outside to a soda stand (in the blazing sun) to buy cold water and regroup. It was so hot that sweat was running onto my eyelids. I never found the card.
After Giverney (which I hope to visit again), we drove to a country inn in the middle of nowhere. I think it was called "The Watermill" since there was a working water wheel attached to the main house. More photo ops.
We ate lunch on a table set up on the lawn in a grove of trees (not isolated since about 100 other tourists did the same). Our meal included salmon mousse and a chicken dish, followed by a tart and ice cream, and during that meal that we got to know our traveling companions and their various stories (three of eight people there were dental hygienists ...go figure...).
After lunch, it was back into the van and a long drive toward Paris with the promised stop at Versailles. During this ride, everyone except the driver and me fell asleep (I couldn't because I was sitting in the middle of the back seat and there was no place to lean).
Versailles is huge, and we didn't have much time. We got a cursory tour from the van of Marie Antoinette's little milk maid park (you couldn't see a thing), and then Josephine took us to the gates of the palace, dropped us off with instructions on our pickup.
Versailles was a big disappointment. You couldn't see the front of the palace due to repair work being done on the exterior (everything was draped). The crowds were thick and sweaty and stinky and pushy (but not as bad as they're going to be as the summer progresses). The audio taped guided tour equipment was cheesy and broken down. If you did hear anything, it was something unimportant like "You are looking at an embroidered bed canopy" (as if you couldn't figure that out for yourself - duh). So we hurried thorough the palace and went outside to the gardens only to discover that our tour tickets didn't permit us to enter that area (CHEAP). The tall lover boy from Vienna complained about this later. Josephine was sorry but very "not my job" about it.
Finally, we were driven back to our hotel where I could take on emergency #2 - the lost MasterCard. Thanks to a dear friend being on the Internet at the same time I was, I got her to phone my husband and tell him about the disaster. He canceled the card and then followed it up with a scathing email to me about my badness. (I didn't call The Spouse directly for fear that the call - plus the one to Arizona - would run up our hotel bill, but actually the Arizona call was very minimal.)
MC and I tidied up and went downstairs. A new girl was at the desk and she spoke almost no English (not a good plan for a hotel that seemed to have a 90% English-speaking customer base). She could answer no questions but she did communicate to MC, the ultimate shopper, that stores stay open till 8 pm and we could find some shops at "Les Halles," an area two Metro stops away.
We had trouble at the Metro's automatic ticket dispenser and got zero assistance from the rude male employees on duty, who pretended not to speak English. Everyone in Paris speaks English and about 42 other languages as well (people in the U.S. can barely speak English and if you don't believe me just go read some ads on craigslist). Anyway - my two experiences with the Mertro guys tells me:
- 1. They are obnoxious
- 2. They are rude
- 3. They hate foreigners
- 4. They aren't going to help you on a bet
As a result, it cost us $6 (double the correct price) to get to "Les Halles," and when we finally arrived, all the stores were closing. I can see why the young girl sent us there. It was The Hood and everyone was very young, dressing their age or wearing ultra-odd outfits. Two middle-aged American career women were sorely out of place. So we returned to the hotel via the Metro (and thanks to a nicely beefed up French guy who spoke English, had a big tattoo on his neck and made change for us from a $5 Euro. The Metro machines don't take bills, another great commuting convenience.)
By this time, the girl at the desk had been replaced by Benoit (the adorable geeky night clerk) and he called three restaurants before he found one willing to take us at 9 pm. It was a 15-minute walk from the hotel. The place (name forgotten) was airy and comfortable, and the walls were open on the street. People were sitting both inside and out, and service was slow (as in Dallas slow ... everything in Dallas happens fast). But we enjoyed great healthy food - a salad and free-range roasted chicken with rice and morels for me and a goat cheese/artichoke appetizer and steamed veggies for MC.
Dessert (not so healthy) was vanilla crème brule for the b-day girl and a rich chocolate tart (soft and warm inside with chocolate ice cream on top) for me. Perfection! One bite would have sufficed, but I ate it all. After that chow down, MC wanted to go to the Eiffel Tower - all the way up to the top. So we walked the approx. 1 mile to the Tower and found that about a ZILLION people had beaten us there. Guess that's the place to be on a Saturday night if you're young (or a tourist).
We saw a bright electric sign for admission to the Tower (in French, of course) and we purchased admission tickets at a suspiciously low 4 Euros each. We thought we'd bought tickets for the elevator to the top, but about 200 steps up the Tower (and watching the orange cage-like elevator pass us by several times) we figured out we'd bought tickets for THE STAIRS! Sure, we could have easily climbed to the top - assuming we were Olympic athletes and about 40 years younger.
Finally, we made it to the first level, and we tried to get a drink at the new restaurant there, but they were closing down. It was night, but still SO hot (not helped by our unplanned stair-climbing adventure). We then managed to get on the DOWN elevator (it was body to body ...the most packed in I've ever been for anything since I attended a major apparel sale at in the ‘80s) and we retraced our steps to our hotel. We stayed up and read past midnight. There were kids on the street below our window making all kinds of "I don't have to go to school tomorrow" noises. MC said they kept at it till 6 a.m. I actually have a gift where I can say "I don't hear that" and sleep through pretty much anything. MC is not so gifted.
In Our Room - Monday, May 12, 2008 1 am Paris Time
We slept away a good part of Sunday and missed breakfast. But we also figured out how to get ourselves from the hotel to the Rodin museum (not far). As I recalled from my honeymoon, admission is free on Sunday, but that has changed. Now it's free only on the first Sunday of the month (which this was not).
We did window shopping as we walked, and I saw some wonderful things I'd love to clutter my house with (example: a life-sized black horse - wooden? - with a regular-sized lamp-plus-shade coming out of his head). We had to wait in line for admission to the museum, but it was worth it. The gardens were larger than I remember and even more wonderful. We enjoyed it there - even MC who is proud of the fact that she's not big on culture.
We then took the Metro to the Louvre stop (despite our hatred for the automatic ticket machines and the dreadful men who work at the ticket counters, we were getting this thing down). The Louvre metro exit has been immensely dolled up. Gone are the grubby floors and walls, replaced by cool underground shops. Needless to say, we never made it to the museum, but we did get some shopping done.
Again, we rushed back to the hotel to patch on ourselves in order to be ready when Francoise, our chauffer to the Moulin Rouge, arrived in his van. There was only one other couple on this "tour" - Tom and Terry, a pair of senior citizens who live in separate states and just travel together and shack up several times a year (very "Same Time Next Year"). We obviously got quite comfortable with each other before the night was over.
Francoise left us in a long line of people and gave Tom a pass that permitted four people in the door. About two couples ahead of us - guess who! John of the airplane and his hoochey mama pay-by-the-date girlfriend. Can you believe that? What a small world. And sometimes creepy too.
I must say the Moulin Rouge is a giant ($200 per person) rip-off. The food was DREADFUL - honestly, more like prison food (though I've only eaten in a prison once and I won't even go into that). Obviously, food is not the attraction at the Moulin Rouge. Instead, its skinny, small-breasted girls with long legs and lots of feathers. The show moved fast but was far too long. Still enjoyable in a sort of old-fashioned way (acrobats & a ventriloquist a la Ed Sullivan) with topless girls and LOTS of costume changes. Example: the girls first came in looking like big feathery red tomatoes and then they let the feathers fall into a kind-of-a skirt. it was that sort of thing. One girl swam with pythons (which I thought couldn't swim) in a glass swimming pool that came up out of the floor. There were all kinds of different sets and costumes but if they were trying to tell a story, it made zero sense.
The girls also did the can-can before the show was over, which is what you pay for I suppose. All the singers had on microphones but they lip-synced to every song. It was a very athletic show, and they do it twice a night. Boy, those feathers must get sweaty. (BTW, the food service was dreadful and the building décor was extremely frayed, but they kept the lights very low so no one would notice). After the show, we left the Moulin Rouge in a massive crowd and boarded our van for the ride home.
In our Hotel Room, Monday, May 12, 2008 Almost 10 pm
MC is packing, and we've laid out all our treasures and photographed them (a group shot) for posterity. Our taxi to the airport arrives at 9 am. We've had three people try to scam us on this trip:
- Boys at a metro station
- Girl in middle-eastern outfit in front of Galeries Layfayette
- Gypsy woman on a street about ½ miles from our hotel.
I guess we have "tourist" written all over us!
Today we raced to the Madeline station and walked over to Galeries Layfayette, a very chichi domed shopping area made up of several separate department stores in the same locale. MC was looking for a skirt that she had in her head, and she tried on one garment, but she never found exactly what she was wanted. With the dollar so devalued, every skirt started at $300US and went up from there. A very dismal shopping situation, I must say.
Then we wandered (I say wandered because we got lost several times despite having a map) to Rue de Honore to window shop at Chanel and Dior and lots of other over-priced places, many of which we'd never heard of. Some clothes were beautiful, some were plain and some were downright weird. As I told MC, just because they call it fashion doesn't mean everyone needs to wear it.
Well, the sloppy look seems to be "in" (just like in the US). Dresses - cotton or knit - over leggings or jeans AND a T-shirt. Like two layers of clothing (as if the wearer is escaping from a war-torn city in the middle of the night and trying to carry as much with her as she can at one time). Very wrinkly, bulky and ugly ... and not limited to the young and foolishly hip. Today I saw a short, plump matron with grey leggings over fat calves, topped with a magenta dress covered in all sorts of colorful little doodads. It would have been mildly cute on a 14-year-old. I know she thought she was hot (and she probably was in all those clothes!).
Saw one boy with jeans so low his ENTIRE butt was showing (he had on colorful print boxer shorts - but we really didn't want to know him that well). Lots of bra straps visible (thank you, Madonna, for contributing to the culture of the world), but it gave me another reason for not feeling bad about going sleeveless. Lots of tattoos too (like in the US). The city was crawling with young people and cyclists. Lots of mopeds too - very noisy - but not a Harley in sight. Guess that's too American.
Saw numerous dogs - mostly small and furry (poodles or mini-Benjis) or small and hyper (Jack Russell). Our last evening in Paris we ate at the bistro ½ a block from our hotel. We sat outside with a bunch of chain smokers and two people with dogs (one a Jack Russell).
On the 767 heading to Boston 1:30 pm Paris time May 13, 2008
MC and I tried to get our cheapo AA Advantage tickets changed to a direct DFW flight (getting us home about 10 hours earlier - no joke) but AA was determined to make our "free award" trip as long and grueling as possible.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT ... John and hoochey mama are on our flight again. Are these people stalking us? For some reason, they are not sitting together on this flight. Maybe she's off the clock and needs some quality time with herself.
The flight is not full, and it's taking off late and a screaming baby is in the back. I think it's French. It's screams sound French to me. MC is taking up three seats in the middle so she can cover up her head and sleep. I got a photo for the album....