Spending and Studying

August 2, 2007

It’s Thursday, which means I only have one and a half days left here in Oxford. Tomorrow will be spent doing…well, a lot of stuff. We have our two final exams, each three hours long. We also have our convocation and “going-down” banquet, which I gather is a sort of mini graduation from the program. There is an hour for lunch in there somewhere, too. Unfortunately it looks like I will be using that hour to sell back my books at Blackwell’s. They only buy books back before 1pm.

I am really going to miss this place. Life seems to move more slowly here. And there are endless amounts of things to see in Oxford. You could shop all day if you wanted to- and I have never seen so many great sales in one place. You can read, sleep, or picnic on Christ Church Meadow on every sunny day. Or you can tour any of Oxford University’s 32 colleges, or one of the old churches around here. You an go punting on the river, rent a bike and ride a few miles into the English countryside, or climb to the top of the mot at Oxford Castle. And a short bus ride will take you to any number of great places: London, Blenheim Palace, Windsor Castle, the Cotswolds, Klemscot Manor.

I don’t know. I feel very unprepared for the busy semester ahead. On one hand I feel very motivated. I had a great chat with Prof. Bonnie Wheeler (affectionately known as “Bon-bon”) and she gave me some good insight into grad school and what kinds of classes I should be taking. She also reminded me that these four years of college (now just two!) are one of the only times in my life that I will be able to focus entirely on me. I should be expanding my mind, figuring out who I am and what I want, and all of that rather gown-up sounding stuff. Good point, though.

On the other hand, I will be working in the mornings before class for the first time and I will be the ARA for an all first-year hall. Among other things. And, let’s face it, I like to sit around and do nothing.

I have to study King Arthur and the 18th century for tomorrow, so I’m going to go get started. I finally finished all my souvenir and gift shopping and am hoping to escape without spending any more money at all. That would be so amazing! Budget-wise this whole trip (with it’s little side-trips) has been a great learning experience. I created a really cool Excel document to keep track of my spending. Before I even left I budgeted out how much I would spend on food, the Paris trip, the France, Belgium trip, and other stuff.

One of the things I am most proud of is my Paris budget. Christina and I did a lot of research and made a lot of phone calls to figure out how to get good deals on everything. We got a great, cheap hostel and did a lot of research to find good deals on the Eurostar. We finally settled on buying a package deal from an STATravel agent. We agreed to set a $500 budget for the whole weekend, including spending money- and my total for the weekend was $499.80. CRAZY!

Right now the coffers are getting kind of low, so I need to be careful. But fortunately (and I recommend this), I kept some U.S. money and didn’t exchange it. That way I know that I will have money for the trip home whether or not my bank account is empty (not that I am expecting that…). And if I don’t spend it I can just redeposit it. The plus side is that whatever is in my bank account stays there once I leave Oxford…I don’t have to make any more withdrawals. Which is nice since it gives the illusion of not spending any money. It would be great if I could amend my budget with a plus sign once I get home!

One other thing- did you know that you can’t exchange coins?? It makes me so angry, especially since there are no one or two pound bills or one or two Euro bills- only coins. Right now I have about 8 Euros in coins that I can’t exchange anywhere. So, word of advice: before you leave for the States convert as many of your coins into bills as you possibly can. Or spend them! Just don’t let them sit around making you feel all bitter.

Our Sunday in Paris

July 24, 2007

So, I finally get to the third and last day of Christina and my adventure in the vast and magnificent city of Paris. It was interesting being in Northern France this weekend and seeing how incredibly different it is from Paris.

PHOTOS OF DAY THREE IN PARIS

It had been quite the night, what with the huge crowds and the adventure getting back home from Bastille Day, so we ended up sleeping a little later than we intended. But after cleaning up, dressing packing, checking out, and grabbing the fruit that we had packed to eat along the way, we were off to the Sacre Cour Basilica for Sunday Mass. It was a beautiful, clear day… but in the mid-90’s. What a change from Oxford, where it hovers around the 60’s and 70’s on the sunniest of days.

It didn’t take us long to get there, and when we did we were a little surprised to realize that in order to actually enter the basilica we had to climb, oh, several hundred steps. The Sacre Cour is on a huge hill that overlooks the whole city of Paris. This is the “hill of the martyr” for which Monmartre is named. At the entrance to the steps, we had to walk past four African men dressed in all black. At first I thought they were guards, but as we walked up to them the blocked our path. One of them actually grabbed my wrist and tried to tie some colorful string onto it. I had to say “Please don’t touch me!” and pull away rather violently. This is after he yelled “Acuda matata, man! No worries, I’m Jamaican!” Yeah, I don’t care who you are, you aren’t tying random strings onto me! I guess the idea was that they would braid them and then expect you to give them money, but they were very intimidating.

We walked up the steps that had been cut into the hillside, and when we got to the top we were rewarded with the most amazing view of Paris. It stretched out around us like a gray and green carpet… and went all the way to the horizon in every direction. And the cathedral itself- words cannot really describe the beauty of it. It is a bright, pure white and it’s style is very different than all of the other cathedrals that we had seen. sacre courOn the (many) steps up there were various buskers, specifically a harpist who drew a rather large crowd. One wonders how he got that huge harp up so many steps. There were also merchants selling fake designer purses off of blankets on the ground. Like I said in a previous post, these people are everywhere.

The service was beautiful, though of course it was in French and Latin- not a good combination if one is wanting to actually understand what is going on. But the music was great and very echoey in such a huge space. Like all the other cathedrals we had visited, the service goes on despite the constant flow of tourists. They simply block off the main floor of the cathedral and set up a couple hundred chairs. I wonder if people actually attend regular mass at the Sacre Cour. I don’t think there are any youth groups or anything like that, so you would kind of be missing out. But what a beautiful start to the day!

We grabbed some amazing Nutella-filled crepes from a stand nearby for breakfast (I had bananas added to mine- heavenly), and I finally got my three-day Metro pass re-printed at the nearest station. It had only been working about half the time all day Saturday, which was a little scary since it was really our only way around and, well, I had paid for it already. Christina and I had heard about this flea market called the “the biggest flea market in Europe”, that was only a few miles north of our hostel. It has ten miles of booths. I pictures antiques and handmade jewelery and all sorts of cool stuff.

In hope of finding all of the above, we set out on the Metro and got off a few blocks from where this flea market was supposed to be. It was a pretty bad part of town: trash everywhere, homeless people everywhere and, worse still men walking about with fake designer wallets and sunglasses approaching everyone in sight. Considering how uncomfortable it makes me when strange people come up to you wanting something, this was not good. But we ignored them all and soldiered on, following the crowd that had gotten off our train. We arrived at something very different than what we had imagined. Mile upon mile of cheap club wear, fake Nike shoes, fake American “ghetto” clothes and stripper outfits. We walked around hopefully for about 30 minutes, but it didn’t get any better. The high point was the owner of a stand selling old records saying “I alvays knew you would come to me! I haf nayver seen a girl like you! Are you staying here vid me? You must stay!” Shucks, I bet he says that to all the American students that stop by his booth.

That was quite enough of that, and Christina and I hopped back on the Metro (we were by then experts) and headed to the Latin Quarter. This was a last-minute addition to our plans, but after the horrid sweatiness of the flea market, we wanted to get somewhere that we knew would have, oh I don’t know…civilization. In our desperation we indulged in delicious frappacinos at Starbuck’s. starbucksWhile relaxing and cooling down we suddenly realized that we had only three hours before we had to get to Gare du Nord and set off for London! AHH! We quickly scanned Lonely Planet for interesting things to see in the Latin Quarter and set off. Luckily, we planned for Sunday to be an open day so that we could cram in anything we wanted to do. Pat on the back for our foresight!

Our first stop was Eglise (Church) St. Germaine, a cathedral built in the 11th century and still in use! Quite amazing actually. All the columns and walls were still painted in bright colors and gold from when the church was originally decorated. I just love old churches- they have an amazing feeling of permanence and solitude about them. Especially the huge ones, you can just imagine God filling up the whole space. The amount of work that went into these places is amazing- much more than goes into the building of a church today, with modern machines and materials. Every stone here was laid by hand, every column individually painted.

Next we stopped in at the Village Voice, a famous little Anglo-American bookshop. It was founded in 1982 as a place for Anglophiles and expats to get the best in English-language literature and media. It has two employees plus the owner. As we went through it I thought to myself, what a life. What a wonderful life to own a small, vibrant bookstore in a beautiful city and have it all to yourself. To live for books! How wonderful.

It was only a short walk to Eglise St. Sulspice, another beautiful church with the distinction of being where the murder scene in the movie The Da Vinci Code was set. The whole thing was lovely, and huge. And there were rose petals on the ground around the door, which makes me wonder how one goes about getting married in such a beautiful place. Oh, wait, one needs to be engaged before one is married…and a boyfriend before that. Oh well, St. Sulspice is going to have to wait until I care about things like that! Haha. This cathedral was home to a cool obelisk that is used as a sundial. It is apparently very accurate, and works because of a small hole in a stained glass window way across the church and 20 yards from the floor. When we were there there was cardboard over the whole, so there is no telling how good of a sundial it really is. But it plays a large role in the book upon which the movie is based, so that was neat.

The next stop on the route that we planned in Starbucks was the Pantheon, France’s great burial place for her most famous and treasured citizens. Its residents include Victor Hugo, Voltaire, and Marie Curie. Sadly, we didn’t make it in time to go inside. Too bad because from the pictures I have seen it is simply breathtaking. On the way there we got sidetracked by Eglise St. Etienne, yet another beautiful cathedral. It’s cool how they are all so different yet all so intricate. The Pantheon was just right across the street, and it was huge! We took a bunch of great pictures (scroll up and click on the link) and then decided it was time for dinner.

For our very last meal in Paris we sat down at a cafe called Le Luxembourg after the lovely Jardin du Luxembourg which is right across the street. In Paris all the cafe chairs are turned the face the street- the street is the theater, the cafe patrons are the audience. dinnerIt’s fantastic because there really are very interesting people walking about in Paris. Christina ordered a panini sandwich and I had a crepe with fried egg and salad. Our meal was tasty and filling, the weather was sunny and crisp- all in all it was a fitting end to what had been a very pleasant and full weekend.

We got back to the hostel as quickly as we could to retrieve our luggage from storage, and set off for Gare du Nord to meet the Eurostar. This time we actually knew how to read our French tickets and got the right seats. It was a long and uneventful ride back. There were actually several other SMU-in-Oxford students on the train. For the ride back to London the Eurostar had 17 cars and two restaurant cars. On the way to Paris it had only had seven cars.

We arrived in London at the Waterloo station, and needed to get to the Paddington station in a hurry to catch the train to Oxford (which we had already paid for). But as soon as we went to buy tickets to Paddington we learned that the whole Bakerloo line (the line we needed) had been canceled! We had no idea what to do: though we had recently mastered the Paris subway system, the London underground seemed vast and confusing. We took a chance and got on another line that we hoped would get us to Paddington in time, but with only two minutes and 5 stops to go we cut our losses and got off at Victoria, where we knew we could catch a bus to Oxford.

The only problem? We were on the underground, not a bus, so we got out at an underground station. Everyone we talked to worked for the underground, not the bus, and so could not tell us where the coach station was exactly. This led to us walking several times around the huge downtown London block in different directions at midnight, carrying what felt like 50 pounds on each shoulder. Everyone we asked pointed a different way. When we finally asked someone who seemed to actually know, we ended up walking several blocks on an abandoned downtown street. It was very frightening- there was no one about and it was very dark. Plus, I had no idea where I was in relation to anywhere else that I had been in London. We were trying to catch what was the very last bus of the night, and as we walked past the underground station and eventually into the coach station, the information counters and ticket stand were being closed and locked up. So there was a very real chance that we could have missed the bus and spent the night in downtown London.

Fortunately, we ran around the coach station fast enough to catch the last coach right before it left. We had to buy tickets right from the bus driver, but were two pounds short of enough money for two tickets. I was that much more bitter because we had already paid for tickets for the train that we missed. A really nice girl on the bus gave us the money we needed and we sat down. It was the most stressed we had been the whole weekend, and it was the very last leg of the whole trip.

I then stayed up several more hours to begin writing a paper that was due at 11am the next day. What an adventure! The weekend went so well (London doesn’t count!) and it was just a great, great experience. This is the last time I detail a day in such a long-winded way, I think! You can see how we really did see so much. Thanks for reading along.

On this past Saturday, Christina and I woke up to our second day in Paris. What an great feeling! I took a shower in this crazy shower that turned off every 30 seconds. I had to keep pushing the handle in to get the water back in. It turned into a little dance: scrub, scrub, hit shower handle, scrub, scrub…

PARIS DAY TWO PHOTOS (part one)

PARIS DAY TWO PHOTOS (part two)

As with the first day, we had already made a to-do list for the day. Saturday was Bastille Day, so Paris was rockin’. There were tons of people at all of the major sites, and red, white, and blue French flags hanging from lampposts and monuments around the city. Oh, and lots of tourists. It was kind of funny actually because Christina and I kind of felt like the only tourists in some parts of Montmartre- it was just so relaxed and chill. Another funny thing: people seemed really surprised to find out that we were American. Maybe it was because we both have dark, curly hair and olive skin. I don’t know but it was kind of fun. It was very, very strange to be able to speak in English on the Metro and be sure that no one could really understand you. We did meet a lot of people who spoke a very minimal amount of English, but, surprisingly, most Parisians we talked to did not. This is surprising not because I think everyone should know English but because I thought that it was taught in the public education system. Guess not.

Our first destination took us out of the Montmartre area that we had become used to the day before. We hopped on a bus to the Ile de la Cite, one of two small islands in the middle of the Seine River. riverThis was the island upon which Paris was supposedly founded, and is still home to many government buildings and such. We just went to see Notre Dame, but ended up walking around a bit and taking some great pictures of what is surely one of the most beautiful areas of Paris- if you like water, great old buildings and lots of history. (And if you don’t, you are a sad person.)

Notre Dame was beautiful! The best part of it all was the fact that we found our way ourselves and only asked directions from a really cool French policeman once. (“Um…Ou et le Notre Dame?” “Well…it’s pretty big…” “Um…”) There were lots of French flags all about, and street blocked off for some sort of parade that was to be held later. While we were there there was also a caravan of police on motorcycles, driving down the street in formation. I also saw a tank driving down the street! Very cool vibe, being in France on their biggest national holiday. It was neat seeing how much the French Revolution is built into the city completely aside from the holiday. For example, the interior of the Concorde Metro station, one of the biggest in the city, is completely tiled with the text of the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, one of the most important documents of the French Revolution. Very cool looking, even though at first I thought is was some sort of homage to the crossword puzzle. I had to write down the words I saw and Google them to figure out what it was.

We walked all around inside the cathedral and it was beautiful. I think these huge cathedrals are amazing- every single detail in the whole enormous place is focused on the Catholic faith. Nothing is just there- it all has a meaning. How wonderful. Even the huge reliefs and just gigantic stained glass windows tell stories. dogIf you inspect them well enough you can actually recognize famous Bible stories, or stories from early French history. Fun!

As at all the huge tourist attractions, there were a lot of beggars in large open area in front of the Notre Dame. As soon as they hear you speaking English, they assume you are a wealthy American or Brit and ask you for money. It’s a problem because if you give money to one, the rest see and come up to you. Some of the men will even put their hands on you and try to physically block your path if you won’t respond to them. It can be kind of frightening, even in very crowded areas like Notre Dame and it is certainly disorienting. I kind of wonder what the government is doing to curb this problem in what is 1) their capital city and 2) one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world. It was hard because I did feel for these people but, though I am rich in comparison to them, I truly did not have any money to spare at all. On Sunday I actually had a man curse at me, inside a church no less, for not giving him any money. Very saddening.

But, back to Saturday’s events. Christina and I found our way back to the Parisian mainland north of the Seine and followed some arrows along a very roundabout path to the Musee D’Orsay. We ate lunch on the steps of the museum and then waited in a long line- kind of surprising since it was one of the museums not free on this national holiday. We paid the extra 1.5E for the Renoir/Van Gogh exhibit- well worth it. It was crazy seeing paintings that I had seen many times in books and on posters, in real life. Wonderful. The museum itself, much like the Royal British Museum in London, is itself a work of art. It’s a converted railroad station and is massive. The interior is very open with walkways and exhibits on multiple levels and a beautiful glass arched ceiling about four stories above the floor. We spent a couple hours there- including in the gift shop which, as with any gift shop, Christina was really excited about. Sillyface.

It was only a short Metro ride to the Arch D’Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees. The exit to the station sends you right to the sidewalk across the street from the arch. What a breathtaking sight! We had a “I can’t believe we are here!” moment before dodging about four lanes of unstopping traffic on the unmarked circle drive around the monument. I really did not realize how huge it was! archIt was very moving to think of the meaning behind all the words and reliefs carved into the arch. It has over 500 names of French generals from the Napoleonic wars carved into the underside, as well as the names of important battles, and reliefs full of symbolism. In the picture to the right you can see two of the most famous sculptures on the arch- the right is an allegorical depiction of a fiery France leading patriots into battle. Look in my album for a more detailed picture. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a postcard.

The day was really only half over- it was around 5:30 or so when we began strolling down the Champs-Elysees. Talk about tourist traps! The whole street is lined with outdoor restaurants charging 4 times the prices that cafes in Montmartre charge. But every table was full! Of course, all of the huge stores were packed too, especially since it is sale season. So we walked down and stopped in a few places. We tried on some sweet Ray-Bans and Christina bought a “Paris dress” at a store called Zara. It was a good experience (a requirement for anyone visiting Paris) and beautiful, but not for me- I prefer the historic stuff and quiet streets. Our poor feet were yelling in protest at the beating they had been through for the last day and a half, so we stopped at a park right off the the Champs-Elysees and took a quick nap. No worries, we were perfectly safe: the entire lawn was covered in people taking naps and picnicking. Walking around Paris is no easy business! The dogs were barking, let me tell you.

At this park Christina and I saw a very ordinary 60-something-year-old woman picking up trash off the ground and placing it into a trash can. The trashcans in Paris are more like trash bags: There is a metal hoop with some sort of clasp, and city employees go around replacing the bags that hang from the hoops. Seems pretty economical, and many of these hoops are connected to pre-existing lampposts and such. These are all over Paris, in every neighborhood and on every street. Anyway, we watched this woman and though “How nice, she is helping clean up the park”. But then she started digging through the take away bags that she was throwing away, and soon enough had gathered a sizeable amount of leftover salad from several containers into one plastic bowl. She rummaged around, found a fork in the trash, and then found an unopened thing of salad dressing. As she stuck the fork into the salad and brought it to her mouth, Christina and I both whispered “Oh nooo…” and covered our eyes. Pretty funny, actually. As she was leaving the park with her dinner she handed an unmarked bottle of water to a Pakistani family that was sitting on the lawn. We thought that they would surely throw it away, but when we walked by their two-year old kid was drinking it. There is just no accounting for…well, for a lot of things.

Anyway, we decided to spend the rest of the beautiful sunny weather relaxing before the big fireworks show, so we walked towards the nearest Metro station and I took some more pictures of a monument to Charles de Gaulle and the Grand Palaid de Beaux-Arts. We went back to the hostel so I could change my camera batteries, dump my memory card, and wash up. It was just so hot and of course the subway is very germy and you have to hold the railings while riding. So I constantly felt like I needed to wash my hands. Christina made fun of me because every time we were back in the room I washed my face and then put my makeup back on. But it was hot! I was sweaty!

While we were in the room these guys who lived in the apartment across the narrow street spotted us through our open windows and began singing and playing guitar in our direction. I ended up leaning out the window over the street, trying to communicate with one of the guys who didn’t speak any English. He kept leaning back into his apartment to get the English words for what he wanted to say from a friend. “Do you want… (leans into apartment)…to… (asks friend)…come with me…(excuses himself for a second)…to birthday of my cousin?” Hahaha! Of course we declined, but his English-speaking friend Sebastien came to the window and chatted for a while and that was fun. Before we said goodbye, our first new friend leaned out of the window with his guitar, strumming and singing in broken English: “Je t’aime, my girl-lover, you are on fire”, in Christina’s direction. Charming!

Next was the big event of the day: fireworks at the Eiffel Tower in celebration of Bastille Day. It didn’t occur to me that the ride over would be crowded, but it definitely was. It was standing-room only on the Metro, and the stairs from the Metro station to the street were ridiculous. Once we got to the street (the stations near the Eiffel Tower are above ground, unlike most of the rest) we simply followed the huge crowd of thousands of people to the Eiffel Tower. There were people everywhere: on the wall of the Seine, on the grass, on the dirt, walking around, in line at the few cafes that were open and selling sandwiches.

By the way, if you are picturing a July 4th/Houston Rodeo scenario with food and souvenir booths and vendors selling water and cold drink you are very wrong. There was not a single booth or vendor to be seen. One or two people were selling water bottles out of small coolers- but in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people, that makes but a little dent. The closest foods places were several long blocks away and of course very, very overpriced. We each paid 5E for a very boring sandwich, which is a little less than $10. We had definitely been expecting a festival type thing, but the air was festive enough with the amount of people there.

We found a comfy spot on the grass, but as soon as it got dark and the fireworks began literally hundreds of people stood up and moved closer. towerSo we had to, as well. We stood for the whole show, but it was OK because we were able to get some great pictures and videos. The young Arab guy standing behind me, Amin, was really nice, too, and wanted to know I where my cowgirl hat was and why I left it in Texas. Overall, it was a beautiful show and I was super glad that we went. Especially cool was the glittering lights running up and down the Eiffel Tower for most of the show.
The worst was yet to come though. We waited in McDonald’s for 30 minutes hoping to miss the huge crowd at the Metro station home, but it made no difference. We got in a line/mass of humanity to get into the Metro, but it was literally at a standstill for 30 minutes. By standstill I mean that every inch of my body was pressing against the people around me and, let me tell you, Christina and I were by far the best smelling in the crowd. The line was backed up from the turnstiles, which for some reason didn’t seem to be working. After 30 minutes of fearing for my purse and general health the police came and opened the exit gate to just let everyone in. No one had to swipe their cards or buy tickets to get in, presumably because there were so many of us (hundreds in our line) and it was getting close to the last train.

After that long of a day- and that wonderful of a day- there was nothing left for us to do but go to sleep and try to recuperate. We took hot showers, tried to stretch our muscles, quickly reviewed our goals for the next day (the secret to our success) and went to sleep. Thank God it was much quieter on the street than the night before, when (as we now know) our friends from across the way threw firecrackers outside of their window until the wee hours of the morning.

I have a few videos of the fireworks, which I will try to post, and of course another post about our third day in Paris. Meanwhile, scroll up and click on the links to my albums- there are some great pictures! I promise that this is the last time I go through each day in such detail, but it was such a weekend…

Street Art in Paris

July 18, 2007

Paris has lots of great graffiti and street “art”. These are some examples from my three days there. I thought it would be cool to put them all in the same place instead of leaving them scattered around my various online albums. From what I can tell, Paris makes little to no effort to clean up any kind of graffiti, especially in the bad areas of town. I actually like this because nothing I saw was obscene and if you know me you know I am strange and think that graffiti is actually really, really cool. So, enjoy!

1Graffiti on the railing of a freeway over a crowded (and raised) graveyard in Montmartre.

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On a rotating billboard on the way to the Dali Museum :”Visual Pollution”.

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Near the Two Windmills

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Wandering our way back from the Museum. One wonders what this means.

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Near the square with all the painters, pictured in the post below.

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The sign above the Dali Museum…is nothing sacred anymore? Haha.

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Two different pieces on a small side street in Montmartre.

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Even trucks get decorated- it’s hard to tell what is graffiti and what was supposed to be there.

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OK, now how did they get up there?

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This mural/poem is on a building on Rue Descartes near the Pantheon. It’s a poem by Yves Bonnefoy and begins: “Passer-by, look at this big tree…”

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A public park a block away from the Eiffel Tower, in a not so good part of town. Compare this to parks like Jardin de Tuilleries in the city center. Notice that even the goals of the soccer goal are graffiti-covered. Kind of beautiful, no?

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Taken while speeding through a Metro station. I appreciate that the artist made sure to match the retro seats. I think this a political satire of the most recent presidential electee?

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And finally, a shot inside just one of the many Metro tunnels that we rode in this weekend. Every tunnel is decorated from floor to ceiling in graffiti of all sorts. I imagine that some is many, many years old, since they make no attempt to clean it up. Most is in white paint for maximum visibility.

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!