Best Weekend Ever

July 17, 2007

An uninspired post title, but the absolute truth. This last weekend was amazing not only because I was in Paris (!!!) but because Christina and I planned the whole thing ourselves! We did all the research online, made to-do lists, packed well, and basically got everything we wanted to get done done plus even more. I’ll try not to let this post get too out of hand length-wise.

On Friday morning I woke up at 3am, took a shower, threw together a few last things and met Christina in the yard. We took a cab to the Oxford train station, a few miles down the road. We had a train to catch at 4am, but since it was the first train of the day the station was locked up! As we stood there in confusion, three grungy looking guys who were lounging around on a bench invited us to come sit with them. They looked to be a little younger then us, and we went and sat with them. They (Silv, Stuart, and Rory, we later learned) live in Oxfordshire and had missed the midnight train to their homes, so had spent the night in front of the train station. Turns out they and some friends had been drinking in Christ Church Meadow and had been looked in the park at 8:30, when the gates closed.

We talked to them for a while about where we were from and school and stuff, and then Silv mentioned the VATech shooting and some picketers from Westboro Baptist Church (the “God hates f**s” folk) that had been in the news. So then Stuart suddenly asked “So what do you two think of gays?” We awkwardly replied “Um..they’re fine?”, to which he replied “Oh good, because you are surrounded by them.” Gee, good thing he asked.

So that was an odd start to the day, but the guys were actually really nice and gave us good tips about how the trains work. We barely made it on time to the Eurostar- we got there with 5 minutes to spare. And we didn’t know that there were assigned seats, so we sat in the wrong seats the whole way and prayed that no one would oust us. The Eurostar is surprisingly comfortable, with tons of leg room and luggage storage. The food on the restaurant car is not bad, either. We bought some breakfast sandwiches on the way there.

After an uneventful and very tired ride we arrived at the Gare du Nord in Paris. It’s a huge indoor station but with a whole side missing, essentially, because it used to be a real train station (like old school locomotives). So the beautiful, warm, Paris air greeted us as soon as we stepped off the train. It was in the 90’s all weekend, not a drop of rain and very few clouds. What a difference from Oxford, where it rains every other day and is cloudy in between (though I love it all the same).

After some wandering about figuring stuff out we got on the Metro (subway) to Rue du Marcadet, a street kind of near where our hostel supposedly was. We then roamed about streets lined with vegetable and cheap clothing booths for a while before realizing that literally the next stop on the line was across the street from the door of our hostel. veggie boothsOh well! Our room was comfy and very old and creaky. It was right across the hall from the toilet and shower, and we had our own private sink and a bidet/toilet/sink thing that we couldn’t figure out. I tried to convince Christina that it was a foot-washing bowl but she didn’t believe me.

The whole idea of our trip was to make the most possible of the three days we had. That’s why we arrived so early and left so late on Sunday (our Eurostar ride was at 8:40, we got back to Oxford around 1am). Some other people from Oxford went to Paris, but got there around 4pm on Friday and some even left at noon on Sunday. Crazy!! Why waste your time like that?

ALBUM FOR MY FIRST DAY IN PARIS

We went right away to buy three-day Metro passes for about 19E (about $26). So, our first day in Paris began with a subway ride to Rue de Clichy to see the Moulin Rouge. We then decided to walk around and find the Two Windmills Cafe, which is where the amazing movie Amelie is set. Christina brought this amazing little Lonely Planet guide book to Paris, so it was easy enough to walk around, following the various maps, and find stuff that we wanted to see. We used it all weekend long and it was fantastic. It told us about stuff that we definitely wanted to see but would never have thought of otherwise. My advice to anyone traveling anywhere is to get a Lonely Planet for that place.

One great thing that we did was make a to-do list the day before. We jotted down a few things for each day that we definitely wanted to do. We blocked out time for meals and for just exploring. We left most of Sunday free to take care of anything else that we wanted to do. It worked so well…I am just so happy that we were able to do this! For inexperienced travelers it sure turned out amazingly.

So, on Friday’s to-do list was exploring that our hostel was in, Montmartre. Montmartre literally means “Hill of the Martyr” and it is where St. Denis was beheaded for his faith. There is also literally a hill. So we hopped on the subway from the Two Windmills and walked around, seeing many amazing things and taking many amazing pictures. I was able to practice my limited French. My most used phrase on Friday was probably “Parlez-vous anglais?” If not, I would stumble along with French; if so I would say “Great!” and speak English. Contrary to popular (uneducated) American opinion, not a single person that we ran into reacted negatively to our being American. If they could speak English, they did. (This is with the exception of several Metro employees, who I’ll mention later.)

Montmartre is known as the artsy and ethnic area of Paris, and it lives up to it’s rep. Monmartre paintersThere are street musicians all over the Metro stations that are scattered under Montmartre, and whole squares filled with painters and portrait artists. Where our hostel was there were a lot of Arab families- women dressed in “regular” clothes and in full hijab with almost their entire faces covered. I found myself smiling at just such a lady and realized that she was smiling back, though I could not see her mouth or nose at all. You could tell from her eyes, but it made me sad because no one will ever see her smile unless she is at home.

I am not sure that our Friday was a typical “Paris experience”- we didn’t do any big touristy things, but just walked for many miles and took it all in. The album linked to above has a lot of the things we saw- too many to be described adequately here. But it was so beautiful and interesting. One of the coolest things were the apartment buildings that line all the streets here. There are very few streets that do not have some sort of apartment building. Apartments are either above stores or in their own building. In Montmartre, the Latin Quarter, and the city centre (which we visited on Saturday and Sunday) the apartment buildings are all a cream colored stone with decorative windows and carvings all around the building, and with black wrought iron window railings and balconies. These buildings always have the architect and the date of the building near the front door and are all pre- or immediately post-WWII. So you can imagine the history that these buildings have seen! I took a lot of pictures of particularly beautiful apartments.

The next thing on our to-do list was to see the Dali Museum, which was tucked away behind a beautiful cafe. I have not seen much of Dali’s work, but he lived in Montmartre for a while and is (obviously) a big deal, so I was glad to go. As a side note, we spent very little money on actual sightseeing. Most of the things we went to were free and they few that cost money were cheaper than some of the meals we had! Anyway, so the Dali Museum was great- very interesting and strange. dali artWe took a lot of pictures, which is so much fun in a museum. To the right is one of his more famous pieces- the ants represent mortality, the corn is fertility. Towards the back there was a room of some copies of Dali’s work that were for sale. We asked about a 3×3 copy of a painting of the Trojan Horse on silk fabric. It was 950E, including the 13% tax. We could have had it for 826E since foreigners get that tax refunded to them. Crazy! But it was beautiful and reminded me of all my ancient Roman history classes.

Overall it was a long day. By the end of it- heck, by the middle of it- we were experts at the Paris Metro. I’m telling you, I could go back today and show anyone around! It is just that well-organized and the signs and maps are incredibly clear. Paris also has giant maps of every neighborhood inside and outside of the metro stations, at every stop in the station and at random street corners, too. Plus, inside each car above each door is a map of the route. Very well done, Paris.

We went to Abbesses (the Butte of Montmartre) to eat dinner at a lovely little cafe where we talked with a family from Northern France who was in town for Bastille Day. One of the older guys was really funny- when I asked if he was from around Paris, he said “NO!” and pointed to his mouth. “Parisien“, he said, making an exaggerated frowny face. Then: “Moi“, with a huge, silly grin. “Je ne suis pas le Parisien!” We left them saying that we hoped to see them the next night at the Eiffel Tower for the fireworks.

The day wound up with another trip to the Rue de Clichy to see the Moulin Rouge lit up at night. We discovered something that we should have guessed: that the streets around Moulin Rouge are Paris’ small red-light district. Sex shops and strip clubs line the whole Street, above which (of course) are apartments. I guess the rules about what is OK for public streets are looser here: there were photographs of completely naked women in the windows of these shops. Very interesting. But the lights on the Rue de Clichy at night really are something.

After such a long day, we wondered how we would manage the immense amounts of walking the next day, Saturday. But we didn’t go all the way to Paris to sleep late! So we went to sleep around 3am and set the alarm for 9:30am. This post is super long, so I will write another for the second and third days. Meanwhile, make sure you scroll up, click on the link and look at the pictures of my Friday in Paris!

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