Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Week in Paris (Part One)

After successfully receiving my visa, I had under 2 days left in the USA to finish packing, go out with my friends one last time, and bid everyone adieu.  I had been so wrapped up in my visa ordeal that I hadn't had much time to mentally prepare for leaving everything and everyone I love behind for 9 months…so unfortunately those last two days at home were equally stressful!  It was great to see everyone one last time, but then I was reminded just how much I hate goodbyes.  Although saying goodbye was extremely hard, I realized the only reason it sucks so much is because I am so very fortunate to have amazing friends and family in my life – and for that, I wouldn't change anything.

And so the strenuous journey begins!
On Saturday, September 14, my parents drove me out to Logan Airport in Boston to meet up with my two friends, Eric (my housemate and best friend from Paris who lives in nearby Stafford Springs, CT) and Kasey (another one of my best friends from Paris, who lives in Maryland) who are also doing TAPIF – we were able to work it out so we all flew over together.  Unfortunately, I had a bit of a surprise when I went to the counter to check in with my beastly luggage.  We had booked our tickets through a website called Student Universe, which gives crazy discounts to anyone under age 26, and only paid $344 for a one-way ticket from Boston to Paris, quite the bargain!  I had been surprised that in addition to the amazing price, they told me that IcelandAir allows trans-Atlantic passengers not one, but TWO free checked bags, and that instead of the usual 50 pound limit per bag, we were allowed 70 pounds!  It sounded too good to be true!

…And like most things of that nature, it was.  The nice man at the counter informed me that the website had provided me with false information, and then said it would only cost a mere $120 per suitcase to take them with me.  At that point, it’s not like I could easily unpack 40 pounds of clothes and shoes to leave with my parents, so the guy felt bad for me and thankfully only charged me for one bag.  After a painfully teary goodbye with my parents, Eric, Kasey and I boarded our IcelandAir flight and watched out the window as the North American mainland disappeared far below us…

Got a little lesson in Icelandic lullabies on the plane... 
Next stop: Iceland!  We landed in Reykjavik at midnight local time and had an hour and a half to try some interesting Nordic sandwiches for dinner, and then boarded another plane bound for Paris, where we arrived on Sunday morning at 6:05 am Paris time.

Dinner time in Iceland!
Not sure how much I paid exactly, but it sure did hit the spot
After much research, we had decided that renting an apartment for our week in Paris and splitting the cost three ways was more economical than staying in a hotel or a hostel where we would have to spend lots of money going out to eat for every meal.  We found a small apartment on Rue de la Glacière in the 13th arrondissement of the city – Paris is split up into 20 different neighborhoods – that ended up costing us each only the equivalent of $170 or so for the week. 

One small problem: we were on the fifth French floor (equivalent to the sixth floor in the US). With no elevator.  We each had 100+ pounds of luggage with us.  And we were exhausted due to lack of sleep during our flights. 

Quick caffeine break at the airport before our 6 am struggle-fest
Let’s just say that we received many strange looks from Parisians, muttered a multitude of choice words and thankfully found solace in lots of laughter as we made our way from Charles de Gaulle airport onto the RER train into Paris, struggled from the train stop to our apartment, and made the arduous journey up a millions stairs to our place.

We finally made it!
After a 3 hour midday nap, we all rallied and went out for dinner at an Italian restaurant on our street; despite our love of French food, we were in no mood to spend more time wandering the neighborhood looking for the perfect spot.  Two bottles of wine later, everyone’s spirits were lifted and the three of us set off for Bastille Pub, our absolute favorite bar when we all lived in Paris while studying abroad.  We chatted it up with the bartender and ended up closing the bar, and he loved the fact that we, his new “American friends,” had chosen to come back to France and back to his bar so much that he gave us all free shots.  Not bad for our first night!

Our happy bartender friend at Bastille Pub
The next morning, despite the fact that I was still exhausted, sore, and covered in a mural of bruises from lugging my suitcases all over creation, I set off for a solo stroll around the city.  I love people-watching and taking pictures, and Paris is a great city for that!  With no particular agenda, I took the metro to Notre-Dame, walked around the St-Michel neighborhood, strolled around the Louvre and through the Jardin des Tuileries to Place de la Concorde.  

The ever-beautiful Notre-Dame, celebrating her 850th birthday this year
Flowers in the Tuileries
L'Arc du Triomphe du Carrousel, guarding the path between the Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries
Entering Place de la Concorde
Gold, gold, everywhere
Hieroglyphs on the Obelisque
The boat, one of the symbols of Paris, whose motto is Fluctuat nec mergitur,
Latin for "It is tossed by the waves, but never sinks"
For whatever reason, I had been humming songs in my head and when I got to Place de la Concorde (where the guillotine once stood and publicly severed the heads of thousands during the French Revolution), the song Heads Will Roll by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whose refrain is “Off with your head!”, was ironically the tune of the moment – call it fate or just my subconscious, but I found it pretty amusing.

After grabbing a crêpe oeuf-jambon-fromage (ham, egg & cheese), I enthusiastically ventured inside the Louvre to go say bonjour to my favorite works of art.  Much to my chagrin, it had started to rain, so all the tourists in Paris decided to head inside as well.  But at least I had held onto my student ID card from the Université de Paris, which grants the bearer free admission, so I sneakily covered the 2011-2012 school year with my finger and was admitted free of charge!

I'm so nerdy that going back to the Louvre was almost like being reunited with a long-lost friend!
Hey there, Mona
Hands-down favorite work in the Italian sculpture gallery: Cannova's beautifully lit "Psyche Revived by Love's Kiss"
Underground entrance to the Louvre
"You've really got to hand it to Venus de Milo...I mean, how else would she eat?" (sorry, couldn't resist this one from my art history days!)

Now totally drained of energy, I met up with Kasey, Eric, and his Parisian friend Zoe at Café Penty, where we had a delicious thé à la menthe.  The bartender fills a tall glass with tea leaves, a fresh sprig of mint and multiple sugar cubes, adds some boiling water and tops it off with a handful of pine nuts (interesting combo, I know) – et voilà!  Hands down the best tea I've ever had.

After whipping up a quick stir-fry back at our apartment, I set off with Kasey to go get the keys to her apartment.  She’ll be working as an English teaching assistant in the 19th arrondissement of Paris but also found another job as an English-speaking babysitter for a family who lives in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt.  In exchange for picking the kids up from school each day and entertaining them for the afternoon at their house, the family is renting their studio apartment in the 15th arrondissement to Kasey for a mere 71€ per month, which is insanely cheap for Paris!  Her apartment is small but cozy, and I hope to be visiting her there a lot when I have free time to go back to Paris!

How exactly does one "smoke quietly"?
That night we decided to explore our own neighborhood to see what the 13th arrondissement had to offer, as none of us had been previously familiar with it.  This area of the city is far away from touristy attractions (which are always noisy, crowded, and full of English-speakers) and thus provides a better look at the slice of life led by many Parisians.  Of course, this includes nightlife as well!  We found a quiet little street with a couple of bars where we started chatting in French with some locals who turned out to be really cool.  It was amusing for us because we played the “guess-where-we’re-from” game, and when they decided that we definitely weren’t British or American, we must therefore be Czech!  Bizarre, I know…
Eric and I enjoying a drink in the 13th arronidssement
Cool graffiti in our neighborhood
It gave us confidence to know that our French had definitely improved since our first stay in Paris, when we would never have dared go to local bar (where the bartenders would switch to English the second they detected a non-French accent when you ordered your drink), never mind strike up a conversation with a couple 20-somethings.  Without trying to be overly stereotypical, in our experience, Americans and anything to do with our culture (music, movies, fashion, etc.) are fascinating to French people for whatever reason - one of our new friends was even swapping quotes with us from the hit TV show Breaking Bad, which happens to be one of my favorites! It’s always nice to find people who share common interests with you when you’re so far from home.

My favorite - macarons! Delicous French almond-based sandwich cookies that come in every flavor imaginable.  Today's selection: salted butter caramel, blackberry, passion fruit & basil, almond & vanilla, and coffee
By Tuesday we were all really exhausted – sugar and caffeine can only keep a sleepy, jet-lagged traveler moving for so long! – so it was a pretty low-key day.  We strolled around Montmartre, one of my favorite neighborhoods & once home to the Impressionist painters, admired the beautiful Sacré-Coeur basilica, checked out some of the area’s quirky little shops and headed back to the apartment to regroup.  

Tada! Le Moulin Rouge
Le Mur des "Je t'aime," a wall covered in 350 different ways to say "I Love You" (in a total of 211 languages)
Eric went to a vernissage (the opening of an exposition at an art gallery) with a group of his French friends, so Kasey and I naturally headed off to Happy Hour and I enjoyed a delicious mojito aux fruits rouges, with blackberries, strawberries, currants and blueberries muddled in it – délicieux!  And then it was time to be super indecisive about where to go to dinner…we ended up wandering around random streets for nearly two hours looking for the “perfect” place to eat.  What a problem to have, being in Paris, one of the gastronomic capitals of the world, and not finding anywhere up to our standards (which, when you’re on a budget, admittedly can’t be too high!).  We settled on a place near Châtelet and I opted for my favorite, confit de canard, duck which has been preserved in its own fat and is then oven-roasted to fall ever so deliciously off the bone!
Posing in Montmartre with the beautiful view of the city below
Love it around here! So picturesque!
View of Paris from the steps of Sacré-Coeur
Sacré-Coeur basilica
Place des Abbesses
Wednesday started off with a bit of administrative business, as the three of us went to La Boutique SNCF (a store which handles French National Railroad matters) to buy our Cartes Jeunes.  Essentially, if you’re under 26, you get all sorts of crazy discounts on all sorts of things throughout France, and thus the discount card you buy at SNCF will save you a boatload of money anytime you chose to travel by train.  As the railway system throughout France and the rest of Europe is extremely efficient and makes stops pretty much anywhere your little heart desires to travel, it is often a cheaper, more convenient way to travel versus flying.  You pay 50€ for the card, and then anytime you buy a train ticket, you mention that you have one (kind of like AAA) and get a discount.  For instance, before leaving the US for France, I had already gone online and purchased a one-way train ticket from Paris to Forbach for 70€ (about $90) – it would have been cheaper to make multiple stops and change trains along the way, but with all my bags I wasn't about to do that!  When I bought the carte jeune, I asked if there was any way to retroactively get a discount on that ticket, and the ticket agent was able to bring the cost down to only 52€!  So essentially my discount card only cost 32€ and was well on its way to paying for itself already.  The card is valid for one year and is definitely something to look into if you ever plan on spending extended amounts of time in Europe.

A little mugshot-esque, but it will do!

After another afternoon of strolling along the quais of the Seine River and eating the world’s most delicious falafel from L’As du Falafel in the Marais (if you’re ever in Paris, this is a MUST!! Best 5,50€ lunch in town!), Eric and I headed back to our old apartment in the 20th arrondissement to spend a lovely soirée with our host parents, Béatrix and Quentin.  We were elated to be invited back, and I think we were just as happy to see some familiar faces as they were.  Oddly, it felt as if we had never left, and we all were able to pick back up right where we had left off.  They are hosting another student from Sweet Briar College this year, Rebecca, and it was nice to chat with someone who was about to embark on the same amazing adventure as we had and reminisce about all the cool things we had done during our own stay. 

Mmm, falafel!
Don't be fooled by imitators - this place is worth the wait!
As per usual, Béatrix prepared quite the spread of food for us: an entrée (appetizer – yes, totally backwards from the US…in French it actually means “entrance” and is thus more logical) of hearts of palm prepared two ways, first tossed with homemade vinaigrette, second mixed with cubes of feta cheese and sliced cucumbers; the plat (entrée) was chicken marinated in a spicy chili pepper sauce served over rice, then came a course of bread and assorted cheeses, and for dessert we enjoyed almond cookies served with a scoop of mango sorbet and coconut ice cream – not to mention a couple bottles of wine!

Dinner with the family: Béatrix, Quentin, myself and Eric
A quick word about the Béatrix’s famous chicken – Eric and I both distinctly remember having the same mouth-watering meal as our first dinner with our host family in Paris back in 2011.  She then made it again while we were there when her best friend Chantal came to spend a few days at the house, and here we were again, 2 years later, eating the same delicious “welcome meal” that we so vividly remember!  We asked her if she had done this on purpose, and she had no idea of the coincidence!  Needless to say it was a great surprise, and I envy anyone else who heads over to Béatrix and Quentin’s house for dinner; there, you can never go wrong with delectable food, hand-selected wine, and great company!  It was so nice to see them again, and I look forward to visiting them again and again throughout my time in France.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah for you Rach! I can't wait to read the next post~always such great info. Love you tons and tons! XXOXOXO