Copied from journal entires and emails sent after my first trip to Paris in February, 2003. I was 20 and studying in Rome for the semester.
I have just returned from a wonderful French weekend! Four of us single girls decided at the beginning of the semester that we would escape to Paris for Valentine’s Day, hoping to find love in the city of romance. Our weekend started, as most weekends do here, on the train. We booked a couchette (aka, a petri-dish where germs and bacteria grow and attach themselves eagerly to any present host) for Thursday night so that we would get to Paris early enough to enjoy all of Friday. The first problem is that there were people already in four couchette and, to make a very long five minutes of confusion short, we found that we had booked our tickets for the 14th instead of the 13th. Enter extremely cute French conductor who told the four of us to stay on the train and that he would find a place for us. There were open seats in a nearby couchette since its future inhabitants weren’t boarding until Florence, so the four of us, along with Javier and Josef (our new French friends) chilled in the overheated, over-germed, cramped couchette for about two hours. Because I think you will find it amusing and because it makes me laugh, allow me to retell the story of Javier and Josef and why they were in Rome:
Two weeks ago, in France, Josef met a group of students traveling from Australia. Being the romantic Frenchmen that he is, Josef fell madly in love with one of these students and he followed her to Rome, the next stop on her school trip. The only problem is that Josef doesn’t speak English and his beloved doesn’t speak French, so Josef convinced his best friend, Javier, to come along as a translator. Poor Javier followed the Love Birds all around Rome and translated everything for them – including the “romantic speaking,” as he put it. On the day that we met these two, the Australian girl had just left for Melbourne. Josef was crying and broken hearted. Javier was pretty relieved that his translating duties were over.
Now, back to the train… these two men were very nice to us and promised that we wouldn’t get kicked off the train in Florence. We got out our maps of Paris and they showed us good places to see and things to do on our limited visit. They couldn’t believe that we were only going to stay in Paris for three days, but we explained to them that it was the tragedy of the traveling study abroad student.
When we got to Florence, the extremely cute conductor (now also proving to be a comedian – or flirt – as he constantly made faces at us through the window of the couchette) came and gave us two options: either get off the train in Florence and catch the next one the following morning or pay the difference and get moved to a first class car. Obviously we opted for first class but the first class conductor (not cute, not funny, not nice) didn’t like this idea at all. After four round trips from second to first class, it was finally settled and we invited Javier and Josef to sit with us for a while in our new, swank car. The extra 18 euro was well worth the upgrade – it even included a complimentary breakfast (served by the angry conductor) the following morning.
Once we arrived in Paris and quickly figured out the efficient metro system we found our hostel. The name of this place, no joke, is the Peace and Love Hostel. It had quite the facade, complete with flashing purple lights. Once we got to our room we smelled something funny coming from the bathroom. Sure enough our roommate, Evan from Canada, was on the toilet smoking a joint in the bathroom of the Peace and Love Hostel. (Insert your own joke here.) We said a quick goodbye to Evan (still on the toilet) and headed out to lunch with our maps and lists of must sees.
Over a bowl of authentic French Onion soup we realized that there was no way we’d be able to do everything on our list so, painfully, we made the cuts and set out to our first destination: Museum d’Orsay. This was one of my must-see’s and I’m so glad that we made it there! Monet, Degas, Renoir, Manet, Gauguin… it was incredible to see them all up close! Since we were feeling museumy and it was just across the river, we jumped over to the Louvre. Okay. Seriously? This place is enormous! I was completely overwhelmed and can completely understand how one could get lost in there. Rather than tackling the many, many maps we followed a crowd of Japanese tourists to the Mona Lisa. It was worth seeing because, hey, it’s the Mona Lisa, but the reports I’d heard were accurate: it’s far smaller than I had expected. Imagine an entire wall display, hundreds of tourists from every country taking pictures (despite the many NO PHOTOGRAPHY signs) and one funny little woman gazing out at all of her admirers, smiling coyly.
We left the Louvre as it closed, somehow finding the exit, and went back to the Hostel – the flashing purple lights made it easy to find in the dark. No sign (or smell) of Evan we quickly changed and headed back out to the Opera house. That’s right, the four of us naively thought that we’d be able to get seats to whatever opera was showing in Paris on Valentine’s day. Believe it or not, we somehow charmed ourselves into seats. And not just any seats. We got €100 seats for only €20 – provided we stand in the back for the first act. For the second act we were escorted to the tenth row and told to enjoy the show. The opera was Falstaff and given that it was sung in Italian with French supra titles, we had a little difficulty following the story, but were able to enjoy it just the same. After the opera we found an adorable little caffe and enjoyed a cappuccino and shared a couple of desserts. That night we fell asleep to Evan snoring and the buzzing of the purple lights. Peace and Love, baby!
Saturday was designated as our shopping day. We had a wonderful breakfast of strawberry crepes and fresh juice before heading to some stores that had been recommended to us. I’m not really one for shopping, but I did treat myself to a fantastic bag from Herve Chapelier* and found a couple of little gifts. After a quick lunch of baguette sandwiches (how French!) we headed to Notre Dame Cathedral. It was beautiful (and the only free part of the entire weekend) so we stayed there for a while, admiring the architecture and stained glass. We also lit candles for our families back home and listened to a visiting children’s choir.
The other three girls took the metro back to the hostel to take a nap but I decided to walk back along the river, stopping at various vendors along the way. I know very limited French (almost none) so communication was a bit of a challenge, but a few of the vendors spoke Italian, so we managed. Before joining the rest of the girls at the hostel I treated myself to a cappuccino and sat in the window of a tiny little cafe, writing in my journal. I made friends with the waiter, Andre, who wanted to introduce me to his nephew the following weekend and was upset that I was leaving Paris so soon. He wasn’t the only one.
That night the four of us went out for dinner and then to the Eiffel Tower. I was pretty bummed that no one else wanted to climb to the top with me, despite the cold. They did agree, however, go to to the first tier for a drink. We also told everyone that it was Nicole’s birthday, so they treated us to a complimentary dessert. It was lovely.
We decided to get up early on Sunday morning and head to Versailles, about thirty minutes outside of Paris. It was well worth the trip! The four of us took an audio tour of the castle and the gardens and I can’t decide which part is my favorite. Of course I had scenes from A Tale of Two Cities in the back of my head the whole time and as beautiful as it all was, I couldn’t help but think out all of the starving people in Paris at the time of Versailles’ fame. I could have spent hours walking around the gardens and I’m sure that they are breathtaking in the spring and summer when everything is in bloom.
The rest of Sunday was spent checking things off of the list… we visited the Red Light District (yikes), Moulin Rouge, Arch de Triumph and Pere Lachaise Cemetery. The cemetery wasn’t necessarily on my list, but it was number one on Suzy’s, so off we went. It’s a strange thing, sightseeing in a cemetery but it was an experience nonetheless. We visited the resting places of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison and a few others but it wasn’t the graves and tombs that I found intriguing. It was all of the pilgrims who were so clearly having spiritual experiences. Showering graves with flowers, candy bars, mix tapes, handwritten letters. One stoned man yelled at us for being there, reminding us that when Jim died we hadn’t even been born. I asked one of the maintenance men how often they clean up all of the candy and flowers and such but he just laughed, saying he wouldn’t dare touch any of it.
After another quick walk past the Eiffel Tower during the day and one last Parisian meal, our weekend in Paris had come to an end. We gathered our things and boarded our couchette, second class seeming even worse after our brief experience with first. We fell asleep to the clickity-clack as the train made its way back toward Rome.
*Eleven (!!!) years later, I still use that Herve Chapelier bag all the time and get compliments on it on a regular basis. Of all of the things I’ve purchased on my travels, that one may be my favorite.