Paris! Par-ee! as they say. The most romantic city in the world. Culture! Art! Love! Blah blah blah. I liked Paris, but I loved Rome more. Nevertheless, the City of Light gave me a wonderful whirlwind of a time, taking in as much as I could during my last stop before mounting the big bird to fly back across the ocean to my home country.
I must say, I was impressed by the metro. Even though I stayed in an Airbnb in a suburb outside the city center, my three-day metro pass made it super easy. I chose that neighborhood, near the Mairie de Clichy station, because that’s where my Bla Bla car ride to Frankfurt, where my flight home departed from, was going to pick me up in three day’s time. It was an early morning pickup and I didn’t want to risk missing it.
First stop: the Eiffel Tower. The line took 45 minutes, better than I’d feared. My first impression was it’s just a big old pile of scaffolding, but once I got close, it did have a certain appeal. More than a certain appeal—it had muscle and sinew, elegance and flair. And to think it was once red!
As I waited in one elevator line after another, a voice would come over the loudspeaker: “Pickpockets are operating in the tower. Please watch your belongings.” This happened again and again. Apparently large gangs troll the crowds. Easy pickings, since everyone’s packed in, obviously has money, and many, despite the constant warnings, insist on wearing their backpacks on their backs.
When I finally made it to the elevator leading to the tippy top, a loud alarm sounded and the announcement went something like this: “Due to a dangerous situation, the building is now closed. Please leave the building.” WTF? Everyone just kind of stood there stunned. It repeated about four times, but no one moved. The ticket checker continued to let people in. The collective thought must have been: I paid to get up here, it’s taken two hours, and I’m not leaving. Finally the elevator opened, we all piled in and up we went. We never heard another announcement.
The crowds at the top were alarming. I got in the wrong line and found myself being herded right back down again. It was one of those times I was grateful for my small size—I squished out of that line and squeezed my way to the windows. The view confirmed how big Paris is. The cityscape stretched on as far as I could see.
By the time I got out of there, it was 3 pm. Could my time have been spent better somewhere else? Most certainly, but it felt like one of those gotta do it kind of things.
I headed for the Place de la Concorde. I circumambulated while rain burst in intermittent showers. The 3,300-year-old Obelisk of Luxor, elegant lamp posts, the fancy fountain with busty, gold-crowned ladies, the Eiffel in the background, the smell of petrichor rising from the broad avenue.
I looked down the Champs-Elysées at the Arc de Triomphe, then turned around and headed for the Louvre. I was overwhelmed by the width of the road, the challenge to even cross it. It wasn’t a pleasant stroll. I know, I sound like a Philistine—I’m supposed to wax poetic, but my feet hurt, the rain was blowing and blustering and, well, I wasn’t strolling beside the one I love.
It was all Napoleon’s fault. He made Paris into a grande city. Only a few neighborhoods (Marais, Montmarte) still retain the original narrow medieval streets. Wide avenues and stately buildings are nice, but not on a human scale. I did appreciate the covered sidewalks, though. It was 4:30 by the time I reached the Louvre.
I got my tickets only to find out it was 45 minutes till closing. I raced for the Mona Lisa. Just because. I again used my petite advantage to squish in toward the front of the crowd that was massing up against the barriers, which were manned by three guards whose unpleasant job it was to push people. It was an unruly bunch. Watching the crowds snapping photos and selfies was entertaining. Why do we take photos of it? None will look better than the gazillion already out there in cloud-land. But there I was, snapping photos, too.
Because so many people say, “It was smaller than I expected!” I expected it to be smaller than it was, so, for me, it was larger than I expected. But man, there are some gigantic paintings in the Louvre. Short on time, I walked on by all the huge Italian canvases: lapis and lofty virgins, holiness and adoration, preferring to spend my waning minutes on the visceral agony of El Greco and the muscular drama of Delacroix.
I ran downstairs to the African, Oceanic and American Art. How these must have blown the minds of Picasso and his contemporaries when they first encountered them. The guards began sweeping us out, but I dodged them, got caught, slipped by the door and headed back upstairs, where the sheepdog guards herded us toward the stairs. “Madame, s’il vous plait,” they said in their polite French way. To reach the exit, we had to pass through the statuary, which disobedient tourists kept stroking, angering the guards. Not an easy job. I was sorry to miss the Vermeers.
The Louvre metro stop was horrendously mobbed. I headed for St. Paul in Marais so I could walk the few blocks to the pleasing cobblestone lanes of the Jewish quarter. I wanted a cozy neighborhood. And falafel.
(Note the date—that’s 1995 for you Gregorians)
A man boarded the train. His face was lined with pain and worry, but he didn’t look homeless. He began speechifying. Everyone just ignored him. I don’t speak French: I couldn’t tell if he was lecturing or asking for a handout, I suspected the latter.
In the pleasing cobblestone lanes of the Jewish Quarter, on the Rue des Hospitalières Saint-Gervais, there’s a boys’ school with a plaque memorializing the 260 children who were deported from there and executed by the Nazis. A horrific reminder of the reach of Hitler and how close he came to destroying civilization.
On the way home, another guy boarded and lectured, almost a recitation. He was younger, with a backpack. A young woman handed him a box of something and he thanked her.
The next day I spotted a band inside a metro train, so I jumped in. Two guys playing sax and tuba, gypsy-style. Among the passengers, I saw little expression, no tapping of feet. A couple of them smiled when they saw my naïve enjoyment. I missed my stop listening to them.
The Paris metro is very restrained. Parisians read, stare at their laps, and sometimes their cell phones (but not like in America). Companions might chat quietly. (Tourists, especially Americans, speak loudly.) They don’t smile at you, or look at you except a furtive glance now and then. There’s a certain type of man of sartorial perfection, tasteful suit with narrow legs, pressed lines, and shoes that must have cost several hundred euros, who is common on the train. He has perfect posture, nose tipped up a bit, and eyes that keep whoever’s in there locked inside.
I found an instructive and entertaining post online about the Metro. http://www.fusac.fr/the-paris-metro-in-26-easy-letters/ I think I should return someday and do nothing but ride the trains, see if I can get pickpocketed.
The Moulin Rouge is at the Blanche stop. I stepped inside and admired the posters, but there’d be no cancan for me, not at 77 euros. There’s a little sleaze in that neighborhood, but not the kind you’d hide from grandma.
My guide to Paris was Atlas Obscura, a favorite travel website that maps out lesser known attractions around the world. It sent me by the restaurant featured in the film Amalie, Café de 2 Moulins, and a store called Tombées du Camion, which means “goods that have fallen off a truck.” It looked like fun inside, but they were closed.
My next stop was the Montmarte cemetery. I spent nearly an hour circumnavigating it, trying to find the entrance. Turns out it was across the viaduct from where I was looking down into its lanes of inviting mossiness and the dead’s own roundabout.
It’s a nice neighborhood for the dead, shady, with proper street signs and ornate tombs shaped like narrow chapels.
I looked and looked for Edgar Degas’ grave, returning several times to where the map indicated it was, but finally gave up. Not until now, right now, nearly a year later, did I realize I’d been looking at it all the time. Degas, Famille de Gas. de Duh!
I saw a man digging a new grave with a small bucket truck and a wheelbarrow. And a woman etching a name using a hammer and chisel. The business of cemeteries. What I didn’t see were all the promised cats. I only saw one.
I took the funicular up to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. I never miss a funicular. At the top, the highest point in Paris, were excellent views of the city, lots of tourists, and Africans selling knock-off handbags and Paris souvenirs. Three cops with major weaponry patrolled out front. No photos in the church. But of course people do anyway.
The Basilica’s apse features the largest mosaic in France, a Romano-Byzantine-style beauty of blue and gold. Active worship takes place while the tourists mill about. Educational placards explain the symbols of Christianity, and there are opportunities to spend money – a gift shop and machines that dispense commemorative coins.
Nearby, at Place du Tertre, portrait artists were doing a brisk business and most were pretty darn good. Atlas Obscura sent me down to Le Bateau-Lavoir on the shady Place Émile Goudeau, where Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Further downhill, at the Square Jehan Rictus, I found the I Love You wall. And I do Love You All for sticking with me through this journey!
I hopped around the city some more, looking unsuccessfully for some things, and finding others I didn’t expect.
Then I headed for the Père Lachaise cemetery, but I was batting zero—missed closing time by minutes. No, I wasn’t on a pilgrimage to see Jim Morrison’s grave. I wanted to see the grave of one Victor Noir. The story goes that Noir, a journalist, was sent to Prince Pierre Bonaparte to fix the terms of a duel between loyalist Bonaparte and the radical editor Paschal Grousset over an insult. Bonaparte declined the challenge—calling Grousset a menial. Insult upon insult, someone slapped someone, guns were drawn and Noir was shot dead. Bonaparte’s acquittal caused enormous public outrage.
The life-size bronze statue marking Noir’s grave lies as he might have fallen, his hat by his side. There’s a notable lump in his pants, which has made him popular with the ladies. After 150 years of daily rubbing, the lump—as well as his lips—glows as if a mystical light were hidden in his pants.
That evening, a tough character boarded the metro selling pens I remembered from my school days: the kind that feature multiple inks in one. He held them up and recited: bleu, vert, orange, rouge, jaune, as he click-clicked. No one responded. He tried again. No response. With a disgusted look, he walked down the car. Later, a man with dark hair and eyes, baggy pants, cap, and dirty feet got on, looked around, said a few words and launched into a lament. Despite his half-hearted attempts at dolefulness, his performance was an anemic failure. A Muslim girl next to me was covering her mouth with her headscarf, laughing with her eyes. Someone finally took pity on the poor man and put a coin in his empty cassoulet can and he got off at the next stop.
I spent my last day in Paris along the Seine. First to the Jardin des Plantes—the Botanical Gardens—where also are found the various Museums of National History. I rode the C Train to get there, which was outfitted to look like a miniature mobile Versailles. I rode in Le Chambre de Marie Antoinette.
The Jardin is a long linear garden with museums of Natural History, Mineralogy, Plants, Evolution and other sciences. There’s also a zoo—a menagerie. I so wanted to ride the Carousel of Endangered Species, but it was closed with no hours posted. But it was a beautiful day for walking in a garden.
I got in a little trouble for taking a roped-off trail over to the statue of the lion eating someone’s foot. I replied to the park policeman’s reprimand with one of the only words I know in French: “Désolée!”
My Airbnb host had told me about the Batobus, a hop-on-hop-off tour boat that plies the Seine between the Jardin and the Eiffel Tower. It glides past the Île de la Cité, with Notre Dame rising up proudly, the imposing Hôtel de Ville, the Louvre, and under many bridges. It was nice to travel the city above-ground after all my metro trips. I trailed some of Howie’s ashes into the river. We would have come to Paris some day.
I hopped off at the Pont Royal and found my way to Serge Gainsbourg’s house at 5 Rue de Verneui. The former home of France’s biggest heartthrob, the adoring graffiti covering the façade is a testament to his popularity. During his 30-year career he composed over 500 songs ranging from jazz to rock to reggae to disco to funk. He was a naughty boy, once hoodwinking Rita Marley into singing erotic lyrics, and in his later years an alcoholic mess. In recognition of his iconic status, the graffiti has not been painted over.
Near the Pont des Arts, at the Café des Beaux Arts, I had the best quiche ever. Then I walked out on the bridge. The love locks had been removed just weeks before and replaced, temporarily, by plexiglass panels painted by street artists. The locks remaining on the rails leading up to the bridge were glittering in the sunlight.
I saw a magician on the bridge, cute guy with a silly smile wearing a hat, vest and tie, playing with rope. I love magicians. He made the rope into a loop, added ends from his pocket, then removed the ends. All sleight of hand—probably standard magic for the average magician, but it always dazzles me. He also pulled out a small red bag and made an egg appear and reappear. He was from Sweden.
He asked if any of us had a bill, so I volunteered 10 euros. He made the expected jokes about taking off with my money—he wasn’t a pro in his delivery, but he was charming. A small crowd gathered, but they were a bit standoffish. He had me initial my bill, then made it disappear. Then he went through his whole routine again. He kept saying, “Soon I will do a trick with a KNIFE!”
When he finally got to the trick with the KNIFE! he pulled out a lemon and cut if open. Squished into a little ball in the middle of the lemon was my 10 euro bill. I was impressed. Two couples dropped some coins into his hat, but that was it. I was indignant. How much were these people spending on lodging, on dinner, drinks and museums? They couldn’t spare some coins for this young man who was working so hard to bring a smile to our faces? I gave him five euros and a hug. (He gave me back my ten.)
My next stop was Un Regarde Moderne by the Place Saint Michel, a wonderfully chaotic underground bookstore that can’t be much more than 300 square feet, with tiny passageways between the thousands of volumes piled against the walls and in the middle, several layers thick, vertical, horizontal and topsy turvy, threatening to fall on you at any moment.
Then across the Seine to the Île de la Cité. When I asked my friend Jane Popov for her favorite place in Paris, she told me about the Sainte-Chapelle, a gothic gem of a chapel. Located in the courtyard of what was once the royal palace, it was built as an enormous reliquary to house King Louis IX’s collection of Christ relics, including the Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, and, Good Lord!, the Holy Sponge. I was disappointed to learn they’re now hidden away in the treasury of Notre Dame.
Satisfyingly gothic on the outside, with marvelous gargoyles springing off the walls, the inside is still a treasure house. The vaulted ceilings on the first level are patterned with gold stars on a field of rich blue. The red and blue columns are decorated with fleur-de-lis and castles. It’s a small space so you feel as if you’re clothed in rich garments or trapped inside a jewelbox.
Upstairs the ceiling soars and the walls are all stained glass, each window telling a biblical story in dazzling detail. It would have been a contemplative place but for the crowds, everyone straining their necks to piece out the stories on the glass. Binoculars would have been helpful.
Over at Notre Dame a mass was about to start. After the delicate elegance of Sainte-Chapelle, the cathedral interior seemed muted, the exterior more impressive. I was glad to hear the mass conducted in song.
I crossed back over the Seine on the Pont de l’Archevêché, which was still drenched in love locks—soon to be removed as well. Vendors were selling them and couples were penning their initials on new ones.
On my way home, I counted how many metro stations I’d passed through on my short visit: 26 stations on 10 lines. And I never had to make more than one transfer. I didn’t make it to all the places I wanted to see in Paris, but I never managed to get an early start and my feet could only take so much walking. I was, frankly, worn out. Not from Paris alone, but from a solid year of constant moving, hoisting an often heavy pack on my back every few days, tromping down concrete sidewalks and over mountain roads, sleeping in ever-changing beds, poring over internet sites looking for lodging and transportation, sucking in new information, regurgitating it in my journal, and reworking it onto my blog, bumping along on buses, trains, rickshaws, jeeps, taxis, planes and camels, pushing my introvert boundaries to meet and interact with strangers, coping with uncertainty and language barriers, and learning to trust the world and all its marvelous people.
I won’t say my ride to Frankfurt was uneventful, but it all worked out. I overnighted in Frankfurt in a pleasant hostel in one of the sleaziest neighborhoods I’ve ever seen. A block of “sexy hotels,” strip clubs, and creepy guys sneaking out of them. Followed by another squalid block of junkies, their faces ravaged far beyond their years, parked on the sidewalks rolling joints, making deals, rolling up their sleeves. I’m a liberal, tolerant person, I’ve seen a lot, but these folks were really fucked up. Geez. I travel through a big chunk of the third world, but where do I find the seediest neighborhood? I guess I kind of enjoyed the irony.
The good news is my redux through the Istanbul Airport was nothing like the first time. It looked like a completely different airport. I didn’t recognize anything. Signage was helpful, staff was pleasant and efficient. It was all Turkish Delight. Had my experience one year before been some sort of hellish mirage, the twilight zone? Turkey, all is forgiven. New York City, I’m on my way.