Sunday, February 24, 2008

Paris: It's Not Just Love-Hate

Before going to Paris, I was told it could go one of two ways. I would love it, or I'd have a horrible experience and hate it. I was pretty interested to find out what it would be. I went in with pretty average expectations. I'd never romanticized Paris in my mind like many people do, but I didn't really have anything against it either. It was pretty similar to my expectations going into Rome - and that trip went really well!

We took a 6am S-Bahn (slow train) to Mannheim to catch the super-fast ICE to Paris. It makes a few stops in Germany and near the German border in France, then goes non-stop through the French countryside to Paris. At 6am, the Mannheim train station was a bizarre mix of people who were up really early, and people who were up really late. As we waited in line in the bakery, a strung-out woman behind us was cooing into her cell phone: "You wanna fuuuuck? You wanna fuuuck? Hee hee hee, well I don't feel like fucking with anybody right noooooow..." I assume she was part of the up-really-late crew.

We picked up the train to Paris at 6:40. As we crossed the border, we saw snow on the ground! It hasn't snowed here at all (except over Christmas, when we were away) so that was kind of cool. The French countryside was full of unbelievably tiny towns, each with a big gray church steeple. It was impressively unpopulated compared to the German countryside. As we sped through all these rustic scenes, our train got up to 320 km/h (about 200 mph)!! Sweet! (And a little scary.)

Upon arrival at the Gare de L'Est station, we dropped our bags off at a check-in place just like the one in Berlin. This one was even more expensive at 5 EUR per bag, but was much more efficient than the one in Berlin. Then we started blazing through all our must-see tourist sites, starting with Notre Dame (awesome, especially inside, though I liked the Strasbourg Munster better) and Sainte-Chapelle (I would call this a must-see). We then had lunch at a little cafe. Damon has been to Paris three times before, but remembered incorrectly that Parisians tip American-style. Actually, they tip German-style. Hence, our waiter was probably pretty psyched at our ignorance when he got a huge tip. Doh!

After lunch, we walked all the way from the area near the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower. It's not a bad walk, but it was a lot longer than it looked on the map! At the Eiffel Tower, we started talking to a British dude who wanted us to take a photo of him and his friend. He asked us if we were Canadian. Do Canadians really get that pissed if you accidentally call them (US-)American? (Canadians, help me out here.) Just given the population size of the US and Canada, he had a lot better chance of being CORRECT if he asked us if we were from the US. But he opted for his chances of being INOFFENSIVE instead. Very cute.

Paris Feb 08

We picked up our bags afterward, checked in at our hotel (Hotel Cactus), and had dinner at a Chinese restaurant down the street. The food was pretty good, actually.

The following morning we got breakfast at the hotel - croissants and little baguettes with various simple toppings. Everyone else there was French. We felt like the loudest assholes on the planet. I try to tell myself that it's not just me, but that some languages just don't lend themselves to quietness the way that French does. I don't know if it's really true or not.

We had the good luck of being in Paris on free museums day, so we headed over to the Louvre to join the crowds for the morning. See the photos! It was definitely a highlight of the trip, and of course we only scratched the surface of what can be seen there. Around lunchtime, we noticed there was a cafe there, but Damon thought he remembered from a ten-years-ago trip to Paris that it would be cheaper to eat in Montmartre than in the area of the Louvre.

Oh, how things must have changed in the last ten years. We went over to Montmartre and the prices at every single cafe were absurd. The cheapest thing was often an 8-9 EUR grilled cheese. Finally we found a little crepe stand that had crepes for under 5 EUR, and had that for lunch. They were great, too, so I'm glad we didn't settle for anything more expensive before finding the stand.

We climbed up to the top of Montmartre (all humming the above song) and checked out the area (see photos). We wandered around getting coffee and pastries and looking at windmills, then worked our way back down the hill and headed over to see the Arc de Triomphe. It was much bigger than I imagined! It's out in the middle of a traffic circle and though there were signs we couldn't figure out how the hell to get out there, so we just enjoyed it from afar and then headed down the Champs d'Elysees. (Pardon my lack of appropriate accent marks.) Frankly, it's awful. Skip that, unless you have a hankering for some McDonald's or a CD at the Virgin Megastore.

We had dinner in the Bastille area with some friends from our Boston days, who recommended checking out the French National Library. So, the next day, after a walk in the area of the Jardin du Luxembourg and crepes in Montparnasse, we headed over there. The library was closed for Monday, but they let us in (for lack of being able to talk us out of it, haha) and we got to walk around the courtyard hallways, which was pretty cool. After this we headed back to catch our train back to Germany.

So, Paris. It definitely has the air of a very important place with more stuff to check out than anyone could in a lifetime. I like the emphasis on the arts, both old and modern. I kind of love how they are so adamant about speaking French, even if it's clear you can't understand a thing. This must be a great plus for people trying to learn French. In Heidelberg they always try to sabotage your German-learning efforts by switching to German. Also, I always hear about how rude the French are, and didn't find that to be the case at all. Maybe they are, but it's not as big of a shock coming from Germany as it would have been coming from the US. I'm not sure.

The biggest disappointment was that everyone talks about how beautiful Paris is, and that just was not the case at all. It was distinctly NOT beautiful. This might have a little bit to do with the time of year, but I don't think that was the main issue. The buildings are all the same drab color. The roads are wide and hideous and everywhere. The Champs d'Elysees? What a nightmare! There isn't a single pretty thing about it. Not one! Berlin isn't pretty either, but no one says it's going to be, and Berlin is cheap and feels electric. Paris is built up as some gorgeous, romantic place, and isn't. It can't even dream of being cheap, and it feels important, but not exciting.

Also, because so many American cities - probably every single one I've lived in - dream of being like Paris and try to emulate its boulevards and cafes and parks, the funny thing that happened was that Paris felt more American to me than any other place I've been in Europe. I almost felt like I'd already been there, even though I hadn't. That was unexpected!

I'm interested in more views on Paris, so feel free to spill in the comments if you have a couple of moments!


  1. I had to laugh when I read the description of the train station at 6am.

  2. When I first went to Paris as a kid with my parents, I had, as you say, romanticized the city so much that I was horribly disappointed with my first view of the place. Which, seen from the outskirts, on the way in from the airport, is decidedly unlovely. That said, me, Paris is beautiful. Not the Champs-Elysées, admittedly, but walking down by the river on Ile St-Louis at twilight, or watching the rain drip down the faces of the statues in the Luxembourg Gardens...well, I guess I haven't stopped romanticizing it, have I? BTW, my experience of French speakers insisting on speaking French was precisely the opposite of yours. When I was studying there and desperately eager to practice my French, people almost invariably answered me in English! Although that was ten years ago, so maybe things have changed since then?

  3. TQE: It's the ultimate people-watching destination.

    Jen: That's really interesting about your different experience re: speaking French! I can't imagine what would have changed in 10 years so maybe it's just luck?

  4. I went to Paris expecting not to like it and ending up loving it.

    I actually found that most people who knew english were willing to speak it to us - remember, it's not taught in the schools in France like it is here in Germany.

    Next time you go you have to hit the Catacombs... very cool. And I agree with you that while Notre Dame is excellent, I've seen better. And poor little Sainte-Chapelle always gets overlooked.

    The Arc de Triomphe is uber-cool at night. When you go up top you have a great view of the Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance (the underground tunnel to get to it IS tricky though)

  5. was there 3 days ago for a day. I went there with a open mind. I hated it there. Why go to a place full of mean nasty people. It is smelly noisy and crowded. I would not spend a cent there again. And the funny thing was that as we were entering back into the US they were calling for French interpreters at the customs. Maybe we should tell them the same thing we hear as tourists in Paris. Why can they not learn English before coming to our country.


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