I traveled to Paris, France for a vacation in October 2016, and kept a travel diary, and wanted to collect my entries together in one post, and to reminisce on how much I enjoyed my visit there.
Day Two (after initially arriving and getting settled in)
Today I explored Montparnasse, St. Germain, and the Opera Quartier. I started with breakfast in a Montparnasse cafe, of a cafe au lait and croissant. I visited the Montparnasse cemetery, where I appreciated how the cemetery was dedicated to Jewish Parisian residents, with stones on graves, Stars of David and Hebrew writing on gravestones, tributes to Holocaust victims and survivors, heroes of the French resistance, etc. I thought it was a beautiful cemetery, and still haven't been to Pere Lachaise yet, the biggest one of all. I also have not seen the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe yet, I just haven't gotten to them yet.
I walked around Montparnasse a lot, and after the cemetery, I stopped in a Catholic Church called the La Chapelle des Tous les Saints, it was nice and small and quiet. I sat in the Jardin du Luxembourg, it was very pretty and sunny there. I walked a lot around St. Germain, and browsed in an Alexander McQueen store, admiring his fashions and chatting with a friendly saleswoman about his designs and Paris Fashion Week. I went to a used record/DVD store and bought CD soundtracks of Love Jones, La Femme Nikita, Faraway, So Close!, and Leon. I went to the Forum des Images at Les Halles, thinking it was a film museum, but it was an arthouse movie theater in a shopping center, and I didn't want to bother watching an un-subtitled French film and wasting time.
I didn't like the rich and high fashion parts of Paris, as I felt overwhelmed by it, and preferred the smaller, homey neighborhoods in Belleville and the Marais. I prefer neighborhoods that are like Brooklyn and Queens, not like Park Avenue or SoHo. I felt homesick, missing New York and feeling frustrated when I wasn't being understood in French or having trouble understanding other's French, and speaking English after messing up in French, and trying to find something familiar (and not a McDonald's, I saw some of those around and can have that anytime at home). I just really felt melancholy and unhappy in the fancy parts of Paris, the parts that are seen as the most beautiful.
I really adored the Catholic Church La Eglise de la Madeleine, it was gorgeous, and I felt at peace there. I bought two postcards and a short book at their gift shop, and had a lovely conversation with the British shop seller. I visited the gift shop of the Palais Garnier, and bought two postcards with ballerinas on them.
I had dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant, of salad with vermicelli rice noodles and a beer.
I have been able to get around well speaking basic French when ordering food/drink or asking questions, but here is a stupid mistake I made: in a bakery, I was trying to ask what a certain pastry was, and trying to say "What is this?" What came out was "Qui est la?" Which means, "Who is there?"
The woman at the counter looked confused and asked me "Quoi?" ("What?") I tried to fix it, but it came out as "Qui est ca?" which means "Who is that?"
She just told me what the pastry was, and I bought one, but walking out, I realized I should have said "Qu'est-que ce?" which means "What is this?" I just noted that for next time so I don't sound ridiculous.
Observations about Paris:
There are a ton of motorcycles in the city, not just motorbikes. They can be pretty loud, but are really nice-looking bikes.
Parisians are not rude, contrary to the stereotype, and are polite if I ask them a question (more so if I start off speaking French and switching to English if I don't know enough French and they can understand English in some capacity). Conversely, Parisians have been polite to me if they ask me a question that I cannot understand and are nice if I respond in French that I don't understand and only speak a little French.
I hear English-language pop music playing in some places, like when I went to an Irish bar that catered to English speakers, playing music from the UK and America (like Genesis and U2 and stuff like that).
This is the lower tourist season, so I don't hear many English-language tourists. Sometimes I hear an American or British accent, but not often. In my hostel, the other tourists are women in their 20s: two Argentinians (either sisters or close friends) and a Brazilian woman who lives in Geneva. I like how the Argentinian Spanish had this European lilt to it, and myself and the Brazilian woman chatted last night about our struggles with French and our sightseeing.
I had a better day today sightseeing. I went to the Latin Quartier, to Place d'Italie (which was not as Italian as I thought it would be), and had a cafe au lait and a banana and Nutella crepe. Then I went to the neighborhood of Bercy to the Cinematheque Francaise, a museum devoted to French film history. It reminded me of the Moving Image Museum in Queens, with early 20th century film equipment, archives on early film techniques, retrospectives of George Melies and the Gaumont film company, and clips of silent films and 1960s French films (the clip playing on a loop had Brigitte Bardot in it), drawings and costumes from the German sci-fi silent classic Metropolis, an exhibit on notable Japanese filmmakers like Kurosawa, Ozu, Miyazaki, and other Japanese films; and a library and research room. I adored it, and if I understood French better, I would have browsed more of the books in the library. I bought postcards featuring Jeanne Moreau, Federico Fellini, and Giuletta Masina.
After that, I went to the Marais, and went to the Maison Europeene de la Photographie, to see an exhibit on Herb Ritts. It was nice, though small, and I had seen much of his famous fashion and celebrity photography before. I liked seeing how much of a notable style he had to his work that is hard to describe, but had a very modern and b&w cool look of the 80's and early 90's that was incredibly flattering to his subjects. A video played on a loop of his music video and commercial work edited together like one video, and it made his work look more signature, like the Madonna video for "Cherish" blending into Janet Jackson's "Love Will Never Do Without You" into Chris Issak's "Wicked Game" into a Calvin Klein commercial and swirling all together. I was a fan of him as a teen, and fantasized about being famous enough to be photographed by him, but he died from HIV-related complications in 2002. He was a visionary artist, and I enjoyed seeing this show, which I heard if via a subway ad in passing.
I mostly hung out in the Marais today, because I really loved how it had a Jewish and Arabic presence with falafel and schnitzel shops, mixed in with small art galleries and smaller high-end fashion, and then the streets around the Bastille were all winding with a lot of hip cafes and boutiques, and I could easily get lost in the narrow and twisting streets (which I did get lost sometimes walking in Paris, but not in a bad way, more just seeing the personal characters of neighborhoods and walking off of my original path). I really prefer smaller neighborhoods with their own cultures, and felt more at ease than when I was on St. Germain and feeling overwhelmed by the upper class world. I had a pita sandwich there, sat in a church for a little bit, walked around more, hung out in a Starbucks to charge my phone and have a green tea, then went back to Belleville, and had a salad for dinner.
On the subway back, I had nice interactions with Parisians. A woman went to hold the same pole as me, then got a static shock and laughed about it with me. Then I later let a woman and her toddler daughter have my seat, and I could understand them a little, the girl was saying in French, “I want to eat," after seeing someone else with food, and the mom saying stuff like "OK, we will eat soon." I liked having short, friendly chats with people in French, and feeling like I passed as a French speaker as long as I didn't have to say a lot, and could pick up on tones and gestures more so. Most of my interactions with locals have been with making purchases or ordering food/drink, so I haven't had much of an connection with people, so these shared moments in the train were nice and made me feel better about connecting through speaking French and not struggling or hesitating as much, just being more at ease when it is about everyday people.
I visited Versailles today, and it was lovely. I couldn't afford to see the palace or the gardens, so I took photos from outside the gate, and walked around the town, which is ridiculously pretty. Like it doesn't even look like a real town, more like a pop-up book for tourists to be in a fairytale version of Europe. I enjoyed taking a nearly-hour long train ride to Versailles, passing various French towns and seeing country and suburban life and cute houses. I took photos of the town and a cathedral, which I included here, and enjoyed taking a day trip from the city.
I had dinner in Montmartre, and since I didn't eat all day, I ate two crepes (a ham and cheese one and a chocolate one) and a small cafe au lait. The place was a cute little cafe, with very friendly staff (when I paid up, one guy asked me to stay longer to hang out with them and listen to live music, but I politely declined), and the radio music was a mix of French and English-language pop music, so I heard Mariah Carey's "Without You" and that song that goes "take me to church" by a recent band. Then I walked around Montmartre, seeing the local bustling nightlife, before catching a metro back to my hostel.
Tomorrow is my last day, and I don't have much plans. I likely will see Pere Lachaise, either the Catacombs or a museum of letters and manuscripts by notable authors and artists, take a visit to finally see the Eiffel Tower, and just meander. I really loved seeing Paris, and feel like I saw a lot, even if not everything. I am ready to go home, and miss New York, my loved ones, and my little Sam.
I had a good last day in Paris. I visited Pere Lachaise, and enjoyed walking all around and seeing the graves of Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, and others. The cemeteries there aren't depressing, they are more like celebrations of life with really beautiful headstones (for the rich and famous, anyway). I was surprised to see a grave for a victim of the 2015 terrorist attack, a young woman killed amongst others at the Bataclan. There were tour groups and various other visitors, so it was busier than when I visited the other major Paris cemeteries. It just felt like a very respectful place to be in.
I found a little Creole restaurant in the neighborhood, and had a cafe, as I wasn't in the mood for a meal or having a rich Creole dish. The place was small, but warm with a lovely brown color, and the radio played rock bands like The Rolling Stones and The White Stripes. The manager was this handsome white man who was tall and thin, and reminded me both of Anthony Bourdain (but quiet) and Jim Jarmusch. The other manager was a plump black woman with shoulder-length dreads. I complimented them, saying in French "It's nice to have a Creole restaurant in Paris." :)
Afterwards, I went to the Catacombs, and that was something that was thrilling, nerve-wracking, and amazing. The underbelly of the city was made into a cemetery for 18th century Parisians in the 1800s, as well as a place for casualties of war. I waited on line for an hour, and it was worth it. I was most scared by the winding staircase going down. It is 130 steps of steep stairs with a low ceiling, and it winds so much and goes so deep down ( like 20 meters below), I felt like I was going down into a neverending staircase into hell, and kept taking breaths to calm myself in a small space.
The Catacombs don't have a tour guide, but rather well-lit passages with arrow directions on the walk, and forbidden entry ways locked up, and I would read signs in French (that I halfway understood) about the 19th century quarries, the water aqueduct built in the 1600s, and then, the many halls full of skulls and bones of ancient Parisians. It was a little unnerving to see so much of the human remains, and arranged like walls on either side of the passageways. My phone battery was dead, so I couldn't take photos, but I didn't want to anyway, it just felt disrespectful to do that, as these were once people.
In all, I really loved visiting the Catacombs, as I hadn't seen anything else like it before, but it was creepy and I was a little on edge while walking through halls of death. At least the cemeteries don't have the remains on display, and have beautiful artwork on their graves to celebrate life.
I went to see the Eiffel Tower, and it was gorgeous. It looked like a radio antennae from afar, but when I was close to it, I was amazed by its architecture. Just huge and steep and beautiful. I didn't go in it, I just walked around it, but I was just craning my neck up like "Damn."
I walked alongside the Seine, and by then, my feet were killing me. I got blisters from walking so much, my shoes are roughed up, and I had a large chicken and cheese crepe for dinner, my one real meal of the day (besides a complimentary croissant with the hostel breakfast), and had a nice conversation with the crepe stand salesman, a Pakistani man who let me practice my French with him, and we talked about Paris and New York.
I loved visiting Paris, and seeing so much of the city and practicing my French (for better or for worse) and getting to be on another continent for the first time. I likely will not return, due to costs, so I really wanted to take advantage of this week and see and do as much as I could. I will likely print out my photos so I can put them in an album at home. This truly was a memorable trip.