May 24th – 28th, 2017
We arrived in Paris at at sometime around seven or eight in the morning. They told us to sleep on the plane, but even after the windows were shut tight and the cabin darkened, that didn’t exactly happen. I wasn’t yet used to sleeping upright, and I’m pretty sure there was a crying kid somewhere. Unless I was dillusional after being awake for only twenty hours at that point.
If I was dillusional then, by the end of this, the longest day ever, I would be totally buggin.
We went through security and loaded onto a giant cross-country tour bus that would become extremely familiar to us over the next month and a half. We met up with our tour leader, group leader, and adorable bus driver named Ricardo. And then, finally, we entered our first city.
Paris, around the edges, isn’t much to look at. It’s actually, we quickly realized, pretty gross. The buildings are its saving grace. Everything even in the beginning was “so French.” The old woman with glasses watering her flower boxes and smoking a cigarette. The old bald man shouting down from his balcony at some skinny teenager down below. The cat on the railing stretching itself out in the sun. It was easy to ignore the filth for a while.
What was less easy to ignore was the fact that the roads were extremely narrow and that our bus was extremely large. I’m still not sure how Ricardo managed to maneuver amongst those endless twisting alleyways—for that’s essentially what they were. We thought we were going to scrape the light posts, the sides of buildings, other cars. Somehow, though, we never did.
It took over an hour of this strenuous navigation to finally reach our hotel. We realized several things very quickly. One, that our bus driver was amazing, obviously. Two, that Paris was pretty darn big. Three, that the metro would become our best friend. And four, that our hotel was in a really sketchy far-away-from-the-city-center area of town. Number four was the kicker.
Still, we were within walking distance from some pretty cool things during day-light hours. We were in the 17th arrondissement, which I proudly knew was a district on the snail shell of Paris thanks to a fashion book I had read before departing. Every block here had the Cutest Cafe Ever situated conveniently on its corner. Moulin Rouge was less than two metro stops away. Montmartre and Sacré-Cœur weren’t far away either. And it was the latter place that, after checking into our hotel at one, we began to excitedly walk towards.
We wandered aimlessly around Montmartre for a bit, our destination in mind, but maps and landmarks still an abstract concept. First and foremost, I think, we were in awe of everything, everything was shiny and we were crows, pulled to and fro without a single thought.
We saw this Love Wall mural, which I had seen online before and briefly fangirled over before we were dragged on by something else, something lovely and dazzling and new. There were art fairs, fruit stands, so many flowers. There were people everywhere, people and bread and tourists and birds alike. Even here, where there were fewer iconic landmarks to draw the masses, here where there were more native French-speakers than anyone else.
Soon, we couldn’t resist another thing we all idealized: crepes and french fries. Our stomachs, by this point, were empty. We were running on E. So we stopped, finally, and had our first meal of the Very Long Day. By then, I had been awake for about thirty hours.
This was our first restaurant visit of the trip. We ate outside of one of the aforementioned Adorable cafes. The waitress was kind, amused at our accents. Our view was perfect: we had found some side street deep in the heart of Montmartre that, if I were to go back, I could probably never find again. The food was reasonable and exactly what we needed.
We learned that meals in Europe are slow, and that you have to ask for the check. We also learned that they do not split checks, and that it is rude to even ask. Venmo became another best friend.
And so did we. For each meal was like a bonding experience. We talked freely, happily, endlessly. When neither waiter or waitee is in a hurry, when there are people to watch and things to discuss and learn…it’s all quite lovely. And, apparently, very European.
After our first lunch of the trip, we explored some more, all the way until dinner several hours later. First, we went to this really strange shop that I can only describe as specializing in knick-knacks. Floor to ceiling: knick-knacks. It was another thing I had found in that book of mine, and I was surprised and excited to see that we were actually right next to it on my map app. When we did go inside, I kept thinking, over and over, that the Little Mermaid would have loved it. It was weird, but great.
And again, somehow, very “French.”
Afterwards, we just kept wandering around Montmartre. And tried and failed to both spell and say “Montmartre.” Repeatedly.
We walked on and on until finally we figured that we could reasonably read our maps and figure out where we were in relation to other things. So now, after our day of meandering with the Monte Carlo and Amelie movie dreams somewhere in front of us but always beyond grasp, we finally went for it. We found Sacré-Cœur. And up we climbed.
It’s a hill, you see. At the bottom, we turned the corner and saw the tell-tale carousel. Then, you look up. And there’s the basilica, cathedral, site of something worth pilgrimages—maybe a piece of Mary’s cloak? Whatever it is, there were tons of tourists there for it.
Or perhaps they were actually there for the same reason we were. No, not the movies, though that was a huge pull. But because this is the only hill in the city of Paris. It’s true, everywhere else is flat. So you know if you’re going uphill, ever, you’re going North, towards Montmartre in the 18th.
So, being the only hill…it had one of the best views of the city.
I imagined that Amelie’s blue chalk arrows were everywhere, leading me up, up, up. It made the admittedly arduous climb slightly easier.
We left for dinner, our first welcome meal of the trip. We were served from a set but delicious menu, some kind of pasta and chicken I think. There was panna cotta for dessert, that I remember.
And then we all went our separate ways. Groups had not really formed yet, so everyone stuck together, and in more varied pairings, than they otherwise would have or later did. People either continued to explore Paris, went back to the hotel to sleep, or began the collective hunt for the cheapest wine possible. Or, ya know, all of the above.
At the end of my thirty-six hour day, I went with a group of my new friends to the Eiffel Tower. We had only been strangers mere hours and days before, but already we could see how much a trip like this, how much navigating and wandering around a new and strange city, could bring people together. We didn’t want to walk around alone here so soon, and especially not at night. It took team work, in the beginning, to figure out the trains. And, of course, it was just fun.
We didn’t get to climb the tower that night, though others did. But we did get to walk around it in the dark, watch it sparkle on the hour and walk under it to gape at its misleading size.
At the end of the night, we all made it back to our new tiny and poorly wired hotel rooms with their clean sheets and odd showers. And then we knocked out. The Longest Day Ever was complete.
The next morning we had our first classes abroad. We had had a week of pre departure classes, so we were old pros now; we knew what to expect. Our art history professor Tracey went first, showing us slides and telling us stories about a certain period of art. I loved these hours and lectures. Tracey is and was amazing and I am so sad that I cannot take her class a hundred times over. I didn’t mind that this was how we were to spend every fifth morning at all.
Then, however, we had music class. And I’m not a music person. We learned anything from music theory to the history of composers to the physics of sound. I wasn’t a fan then and I’m still not a fan now. The first part of the morning, in other words, was highly preferable.
After our classes, though, we had free time for lunch and travel before we had to be at our Next Thing: a music museum.
We took the metro to the 19th, as it was where the museum was located. We figured we would eat nearby so as to not have to stress and worry about travel times and train delays. There are no train delays, which we learned soon. However, the train itself was a painful forty-five minute endeavor. The museum, our professor failed to mention, was all the way across the city.
Once we got to the 19th, after ages, in other words, we walked around in search of food. Instead, we found murals.
This was the first time on the trip that I was really relied upon by strangers for navigation. I was one of the few with the downloaded maps, you see. I also, apparently, was one of the few that had their head screwed on right and didn’t blow a gasket when we took a wrong turn or two. I was on a mission, with a destination in mind, but I also wasn’t stressed. No one I was with could make a decision. They were all hangry and completely reliant on group think to make their decision on What to Do Next.
I don’t put up with that. And I also had the maps. So we were all stuck together, something about stress and unhappy families all being alike. By the time we all actually did find food stands and restaurants (really, why were there not more around the river and park up there?!) I was done with people. At least, done with being in charge.
The music museum had a lot of instruments in it. That’s all I really remember. Cases and cases of instruments. It’s kind of funny, actually. It was organized by type, then by era, so it traced through all of their development and what have you.
I’m more of an art girl.
As I had decided that I was #done with people, I was extremely happy about what I was headed off to do next.
I had messaged my friend Margaret from high school the day before. She took a gap year after graduation and before she goes to college to be an au pair, or a nanny, in Paris. So, during my remaining free afternoon, I went to find her.
That’s why, on day two of being in a foreign European strange abroad unfamiliar city, I ended up on the metro by myself.
Ok, well, to be fair, the city wasn’t completely unfamiliar. I had been there in tenth grade, so I knew generally where the city center and a good number of landmarks were. I knew what was around the river and where the Louvre was, basically, and I still stand by the notion that to navigate there that’s all you really need.
To also be fair, I rode about halfway with a group of people from my group who also happened to leave the museum at the same time. But as far as navigating the downtown metro and sidewalks? All me baby.
We met up at a place that, the first time I had visited, I had wanted so badly to visit but had never had a chance to: the Shakespeare and Company bookstore.
It’s tiny, cramped, full to bursting with books and people alike. There are corners full of books, stairs and walls displaying quotes, desks covered with typewriters and plants. I loved it.
It was so sweet to see Margaret, and we picked up right where we left off. We talked of Paris, traveling, classes, books, people, our lives. We had coffee and talked even faster.
She and her boyfriend showed me around the area by the river. I had been there before, but I was seeing it through new eyes. They knew how to do it right, they said, so Right we did.
That, I guess, was how we ended up cutting in a really long and winding line of tourists to see the inside of Notre Dame.
After seeing the cathedral that Tracey had told us about mere hours but what seemed like ages before, we went to do something else that was completely necessary for a Parisian tourist like myself to do: eat more crepes.
Margaret showed me where the absolute best crepes in that neighborhood were. I knew I met up with her for something.
All jokes aside, the Nutella and strawberry crepe that I had, standing on the bustling sidewalk the Latin Quarter laughing with my friend who now speaks fluent French, was life-changing. So life-changing, in fact, that when I dripped melted chocolate onto my yellow and white shoes, I didn’t even really care.
Crepe still in hand, and with only a little while before I had to go back to the hotel to change for our music class outing later that evening, we went to an open-air farmer’s market held nearby. Again, so “French.”
After saying goodbye to my wonderful happy lil Margaret and her boyfriend, I took the train to the hotel, changed into too fancy of a dress, lost an earring, ran down a hotel hallway, met up with another group of new friends, and hopped back on the train. That took about ten to fifteen minutes. I lost my sanity somewhere along with the earring, I think. But I had successfully survived my first solo city outing. And, after a while, I ignored the missing earring debacle and focused on that instead.
We raced (as much as you can race on a train) back to the 19th. Yep, the forty-five minute train ride we had had to take earlier. And then, we entered our first music event. Our first concert.
We all had high hopes, I think. It was Mozart, everyone knows Mozart, it’ll be great. But I think everyone fell asleep at some point.
It wasn’t bad, per se. Just not riveting. And definitely a snore to fifty something students who have each been running around a new and exciting city all day, likely on very little sleep. We were all exhausted, in other words.
Going to this concert and those that followed was really cool though, because I know that it is something that I wouldn’t have gone and seen on my own. I never would have chosen to go to the symphony and see Mozart performed had it not been done for me, and for a grade. Because I love movies, plays, shows, and art museums. But a symphony? Yeah I had fallen asleep for a moment. But it was a good experience nonetheless.
After the show, we took pictures.
This was the most we dressed up for any of the concerts. We hadn’t had much precedence, ya know? Like, none. I wore heels, for crying out loud. But hey, now I can say that I walked two miles around the cobblestone streets of Paris at night wearing strappy heels. And I felt pretty dang fabulous doing it, so that’s all that really mattered.
None of us wanted to go back to the hotel, so after several failed plans and changes of plans and debates of plans, we somehow ended up near the river. We got to see everything lit up, wandered around the Louvre with its glowing silver pyramid, got to shout and sing and holler in the strangely quiet city streets. Damn tourists, amiright.
It was so lovely. We got pretty lost, but my map was still in use, so it was ok. And the river was right nearby, leading us wherever we needed to get, a solid backbone to a solid city.
The next morning was very blue. We went to the Louvre around when it opened, and were ushered in.
The touristy photos were a must. I had to fight for that box too, man.
I had almost but not quite forgotten how wild it was, for I had visited there in tenth grade too. There were people everywhere, jostling one another, coming up out of the earthworks, probably from hell. Literal fire ants.
I wanted to go back and see Napoleon’s Chambers, but they were, of course, closed for renovation. This is the most appropriate reason to say “c’est la vie” I have ever had.
Instead, we saw Nike. And she was glorious.
Seeing the things that we learned about just days and weeks before in Art History class was incredible. It made the pieces so much more meaningful. We knew the stories and contexts behind the works, knew what was going on during those time periods. They gained a new importance, and we gained a much greater appreciation. It made fighting through those packed and endless hallways okay.
After escaping the Louvre, we had two hours before our Next Thing. So, on the way to finding lunch, we wandered through the Tuileries Garden.
It was really hot.
So the shade was an absolute blessing. And these trees looked like something straight out of an impressionist painting.
We kept walking towards food and the Paris opera building, our next destination. We found some cool street things along the way.
And then our Phantom of the Opera Afternoon began. We went on a tour of the Palais Garnier, and it was amazing, gorgeous. The ceilings, the walls, the chandeliers…so detailed and so, so beautiful. It was horrible that this was the first opera building that we toured, really. Our expectations were screwed.
I mean come on. The ceiling was a Chagall.
It was funny, though, because Parisians back in the day hated it because it was so modern and clashed with the rest of the decor. I love when art makes people mad.
There was also another pretty lil gem hidden here. The opera house had its own little spin off of Versailles, right down the road: it had its own mini Hall of Mirrors.
After the tour we were tired and still hot, so we went shopping for a bit, as this was apparently The district to do it in. But alas, the shopping was futile and like the stereotypes would have predicted, me and four other friends ended up in a nearby Starbucks.
This, however, was no ordinary Starbucks. This wasn’t the super hero of Starbucks’, either; no. If Blair Waldorf or Marie Antoinette was a Starbucks, this would have been her.
They even had really good wifi. And the chocolate-filled muffin I had? AMazing.
Soon I wanted to explore some more. The friends I was with were tired, or wanted to go shopping, or simply do other things. But I was now fearless. I had conquered the metro by myself the previous day. I had won. I had proven that I was completely fine taking off on my own. So that’s what I did.
I went to this beautiful mall, mostly just to see how beautiful it was and to close my eyes to the beautiful designer stores taunting me from all sides on the way to its center.
Then, I hopped on the metro in search of antique and vintage clothing stores. I got gotten directions from my book, had places saved in my map. I went towards the Bastille near the 11th and farther up (or down?) the river, a place I had never been before but immediately loved. I found street art and, though the stores I had originally been looking for were all closed, I had a wonderful time getting lost and found and lost some more.
The streets here were cleaner than most. It was a nice neighborhood, somewhere in between the high end opera area and the Champs and the Latin Quarter. The place our hotel was doesn’t even fall on that scale. It falls off the bottom.
When I got hungry for dinner, I had the most amazing falafel wrap from a street vendor. I walked around eating it, people watching and taking pictures.
After a while, I figured that I had seen that area through and through, so I went searching for people. Maybe the extravert in me was rearing its head, craving company; I headed back towards the metro and touristy areas for a while. I saw Notre Dame once more, then walked around the dozens of bridges that crisscrossed the river. I never did find the lock bridge again, though.
When it started to get dark again, I went back to the hotel. It had definitely been another full and crazy and busy and wonderful lovely day.
The next day, we went to Dorsay (which isn’t really spelled like that but that I choose to spell like that for the sake of my missing sanity) and Versailles. Both places were so special…and I took so many pictures there…that they both have their own posts coming up next. So like, Next Week on Youn—I mean, Lauren’s Blog or something. (If only this WERE an episode of Younger!)
The last night that we were in Paris, though, so after we got back from Versailles on Saturday night, was truly a dream. We all got cheap but good wine and prosecco, bread, cheese, and jam from a variety of mini markets and sidewalk stands. We picnicked underneath the Eiffel Tower. We met French people. We got to know one another. And we got to see the sparkling lights overhead once again.
Those were the yellow shoes that were tragically attacked by my amazing crepe.
A brilliant idea, one that was shared with us by former groups, shared by us to other current groups, and will be shared with future study abroad groups to come. Do you hear that? Go to the Eiffel Tower with your new travel family. It’s one of the best things you can do.
It’s certainly a SPARKLING memory from my wonderful but exhaustion-driven whirlwind of a time in such a large, dirty, lovely, gross, and crazy first city.