Before I get started, a word about the title: no, I am not American. I’m Canadian. But I am a writer, I do live in America, and I did go to Paris, so two and a half out of three facts ain’t bad. I just liked the play on the film title An American In Paris.
If you missed it, check out the first leg of my European journey: Postcard From London.
Thursday morning at 7:30 found me at King’s Cross St Pancras Railway Station in London. It was still dark and quite cold, and my darling friend Sara accompanied me there to send me off (and probably to make sure I got there properly!).
I hadn’t realized that the process in the train station was just like an airport—we were going to another country, after all. There was a long line for security where we placed everything but our knickers in trays on conveyor belts, went through a security scanner, got in another line for customs, and finally proceeded to the crowded and noisy waiting area.
At 8:31 a.m. the high-speed train left the station and traveled 285 miles to Paris' Gare du Nord railway station in just over two hours. Despite the group of eight or so English gents in ugly Christmas sweaters indulging in beer before noon surrounding me, the trip was smooth sailing, and before I knew it I had arrived in Paris.
When I stepped out of the train onto the platform, I stood there for a minute while everyone rushed past me and just absorbed the fact that I was actually, finally, incredibly in Paris.
I have a large, framed, black-and-white photo print of this city on the wall over my couch which I have stared at for about eight years (and thought about even longer), imagining myself walking those very streets. Going to the City of Lights has been one of those dreams that felt like it would always remain a nebulous fantasy because I just couldn’t figure out how to make it a reality. Mostly money was the obstacle, but even despite that, there was still something so unattainable about going. So when I stood on that platform staring at all the foreign signs and hearing the announcements in French, a huge smile took over my face and I felt like a true adventurer.
I found the Metro easily, purchased a ticket, and hopped on the right subway train. When I emerged from the subway stop, my hotel, Hôtel Royal Bastille, was right across the street. I checked in—en français!—and once I was in my room—small, clean, huge bathtub, and Dali-like artwork on the wall—I dropped my bags on the bed, shrieked, “I’m in Paris!!” and did a happy dance across the room. Until I tripped over the edge of the bedspread. But even that didn’t deter me. “I tripped…in Paris!” I laughed from the floor.
The first thing I did was go out and explore the immediate neighborhood. It felt like I was in an arty French film—the architecture was so 19th century, there were tons of little side streets or alleys that reminded me of the English mews with their cobblestones and narrowness, and a surprising number of people rode bicycles and smoked (not necessarily at the same time).
As I delighted in simply everything I laid my eyes on, I walked around a corner and stopped in my tracks. Here was the first remnant of the November 13th terrorist attacks that I’d seen. It was La Belle Équipe café on Rue de Charonne, 1 km (a little more than half a mile) up the street from my hotel. The front of the café, the outdoor terrace, and the sidewalk was still piled high with the wreckage from the shooting three weeks earlier. I saw shattered glass, chunks of furniture, bits of cups, and other fragments I couldn’t identify.
But covering the entire pile of rubble were countless colorful flowers: bouquets of flowers, single flowers, pictures of flowers. There were also drawings of hearts and expressions of love attached to the makeshift fence and police tape that surrounded the entire café. This scene—of both the worst and best of the human spirit—brought me to tears and I walked away, crying.
The weather was cold and overcast and I shoved my hands deep in my pockets. I came to a suitable place to stop and have lunch, called Café Divan. As with most places, it had the word “café” in the name, looked like a bar, and served restaurant-quality food. I enjoyed the Croque-monsieur Classique, which was a baked ham and cheese sandwich on Brioche-type bread, topped with grated cheese. Mon dieu était-ce délicieux!
I noticed that everyone but me had not just a glass but a whole bottle of wine on their tables as well as cups of café au lait or espresso. When in Rome, right? Holy crikey I drank more wine and coffee in those three days than in the last ten years of my life! Of course, all the walking I did promptly burned off all the alcohol and caffeine, so I was never drunk or hyper.
Later that afternoon I walked down to the Cathédrale Notre Dame on La Seine where I arrived just in time to see them close and lock the gates. I made a mental note to come back the next day and in the meantime took several photos of the cathedral “which is widely considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture.” It, like pretty much every other building I saw, was simply awe-inspiring. The grandiosity, the details, the beauty....
I crossed the Seine and popped into Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank. This little bookstore houses both new and used books and also serves as a reading library with big, comfy chairs. It appeared in two of my favorite movies, Before Sunset and Midnight in Paris, and back in the ‘20s was a meeting place for expat writers like Pound, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Joyce. It specializes in English-language books, so that was the only time in Paris I heard native English speakers (the employees). Despite what people told me about Parisians speaking fluent English, I found that few people spoke it at all, and they were always delighted with my French, however much of a mentally-defective child it made me sound.
By the time I made it out of the bookstore it was nighttime. I wandered around the neighborhood and as I emerged from a narrow, cobblestone alleyway, I suddenly found myself in the Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter)—a small, colorful area filled with people (not in the picture on the left, obviously), bistros and shops. Well-dressed maître d's (bit of trivia: maître d' is short for maître d'hôtel which means “master of the hotel,” or “butler”) hovered just outside their restaurants, trying to entice people in with the promise of a free glass of wine. Apparently that tactic worked, as most places were filled with patrons.
One of these gents succeeded in stopping me with a charming, "Bon soir, belle femme!" (Hey, who am I to pass up a compliment, genuine or not?) When I told him that I would be back later, he bowed and kissed the back of my hand.
Half a block later I paused to take in my surroundings and a handsome man stopped, did a double take, and came back to tell me, "Vous êtes une femme avec le visage d'un ange." ("You are a woman with the face of an angel.") Again, even if all these kind words were mere flattery, I didn't care. They sure beat the hell out of "Hey baybee, nice tits!" from the average American male.
I finally returned to that restaurant with the hand-kissing maître d' and had a delicious filet mignon dinner with salade niçois and the most incredible tarte aux pommes avec crème glacée à la vanille for dessert.
On the way back to my hotel, I purchased Epsom salts and that night had the most relaxing bath in a bathtub that actually accommodated my 5’9” frame. After all the walking I’d been doing, my body desperately needed it!
The next morning when I woke up it took me a second to figure out where I was.
And then when I remembered that I was in Paris, I laughed out loud in pure childlike delight and leaped out of bed (and I haven’t leaped out of bed since it caught on fire back in 2011!).
I started the day with an espresso and croissant at the nearby Le Pure Café (featured in Before Sunset), and then, temporarily fortified (I found that the French don’t really believe in breakfast, and as such I had to make do with coffee, orange juice, and some kind of bread product), set off for Le Louvre, which was about a 3 km (just under 2 miles) walk.
The Musée du Louvre is one of the biggest museums in the world and covers 652,300 square feet. This place is HUGE.
I entered off Rue du Louvre, went through a little tunnel in the building and emerged into an enormous courtyard (Cour Carrée) which was about the area of a city block. I was surrounded on all four sides by gigantic, palatial-looking buildings, and once I’d crossed it, I went through another little tunnel and came out into yet another courtyard (Cour Napoléon), where I was suddenly face to face with Le Pyramide du Louvre.
I learned later that the Louvre Palace, which houses the museum as well as several government departments, was originally a fortress back in the 12th century. So no wonder if felt all castle-like.
I also learned that the museum opened in 1793 with just over 500 paintings, most of which were confiscated church property.
Kind of like a pawn shop, except without a ticket to get your stuff back.
And by the way, I didn’t learn these fun facts at the Louvre; I read about them later. By the time I found the bloody entrance to this gigantic building, went through security, descended into the museum proper, and then found myself in the middle of what I can only describe as a monster shopping mall, surrounded by oblivious tourists, screaming babies, and way too much square footage, I was experiencing sensory overload.
It took me about 20 minutes to find the bathroom because every time I followed the signs or asked directions from shop clerks, I kept winding up at some kind of salon that was emitting a bright pink, haze-covered light. On my fifth round I finally realized that yes, this was les toilettes!
A man and woman, both dressed in suits, manned the entrance. You paid the woman—by placing your Euro on a small conveyor belt and not in her hand—and then the man personally escorted you into a room with stalls, opened the stall door for you, and bade you a pleasant experience. Okay, not that last bit—but everything else. It was hard for me to pee because I kept expecting him to open the door and hand me the toilet paper!
After that I desperately needed to be out of this place. The crowds, the palatial size, and my own tiredness were too much for me; I was entirely overwhelmed. But then it took another 20 minutes to finally escape.
I followed the signs—Sortie—which seemed to lead me on an insanity-inducing labyrinth that went nowhere like the famous penrose stairs illusion.
As I went round and round, all hope of freedom getting further and further away, I actually started to mutter in French, “Sacré bleu! Mon dieu! Comment diable puis-je sortir?!” At last I saw the light and fairly ran towards the exit, bursting out into the overcast daylight like a felon who’d just engineered a prison break.
Partly to get off my feet, partly to use the Wi-Fi, and partly because I was still on a quest for a good cup of tea and if Britain wasn’t going give it to me then goddamit maybe France would, I stopped at Tea by Thé (thé is pronounced “tay”) across the street from the Louvre. This place was not just a café but a salon de thé (“tea room”) of which there are plenty in Paris. It was the most beautiful setting with a super nice employee who took my order and, most importantly…
I finally had a delicious cup of tea!!!
Rich, flavorful Darjeeling tea, with cream and honey…aaaahhh. And a couple of heavenly macarons to take the sting out of the fact that I hadn’t seen any art at the Louvre.
By the way, I encourage you to visit the Tea by Thé website if only for the song that plays automatically: “Nine Million Bicycles” by Katie Melua (“There are nine million bicycles in Beijing / And I will love you till I die…”).
Full of vim and vigor, I headed out into what was becoming dangerously close to a rainy day and strode off in the general direction of the Eiffel Tower. I figured I couldn’t miss it, so I wasn’t too concerned with Google Mapping the exact address. From the Louvre I knew it was a 5 km (3 mile) walk, and after crossing the Seine, I wandered through the 7th arrondissement until I stopped at another café to warm up and use their Wi-Fi.
This café was classic old-school Paris run by two perpetually grouchy French matrons who seemed determined not to sell me anything despite the handful of Euros I was ready to part with.
They reminded me of Statler and Waldorf, the two judges from The Muppet Show.
I left the warmth of the café and then quite suddenly, I turned a corner and there it was: the Eiffel Tower in all its 300-meter-high (984 feet), lit-up glory! Dusk had just fallen, so the contrast of the warm lights of the tower with the deep blue sky took my breath away.
Bit of trivia: French civil engineer and architect Alexandre Gustave Eiffel used his revolutionary bridge building techniques on the Eiffel Tower…and the Statue of Liberty.
The line-up to go up the tower was ridiculously long, so I settled for taking a few pictures and moving along. The framed photo of Paris on the wall of my living room was taken from, as best I could place it, the Palais de Tokyo or Musée Galliera on the other side of the Seine, so I headed over there in an attempt to recreate the photo myself.
As I crossed the Pont d'léna it started to rain, so between that, the 45°F (7°C) temperature, and the fact that I had walked over 10 miles that day, I took the Batobus (“boat bus”) down the river, got off at the Notre Dame stop, and walked to my hotel where I promptly fell fast asleep.
On my last day in Paris I awoke early and took the Metro out to Montmartre, which is described as “a large hill in Paris's 18th arrondissement.” Ah, but it was so much more than just a large hill. More specifically, it’s a historic district with a fascinating history:
- Montmartre is primarily known for the white-domed Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur on its summit.
- The other, older, church on the hill is Saint Pierre de Montmartre, which claims to be the location at which the Jesuit order of priests was founded.
- The name Mons Martis is Latin for "Mount of Mars" and was Frenchified into Montmartre, which means 'mountain of the martyr'; it owes this name to the martyrdom of Saint Denis, who was decapitated on the hill around 250 AD.
- A fossil tooth found on this site and identified as an extinct equine.
I maneuvered my way through a variety of colorful “independent sales people,” also known as “those guys selling trinkets on the street,” including an African fellow with a French accent whose brother had moved to Vancouver, Canada. When I told him that I was from Vancouver, he gave me a huge hug and said that he loved Canadians. Thanks to our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who doesn’t?
I climbed the main steps to the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur where I came across a busker playing the accordion.
The whole scene was so delightfully Parisian—the beautiful old church at the top of a hill, the French language I could hear the people around me speaking, and the sweet accordion music.
I dug into my pocket and dropped a handful of change into the musician’s hat where he immediately smiled and gave me a hearty “Merci!” As in London, I was giving out €5-7 ($5.50-$7.50) in one go because I couldn’t tell the coins apart. Also as in London, I didn’t care because I was on vacation!
All the tourists stayed in the front of the church, taking photos of it as well as the view of Paris we had from way up here. I strolled around the side of the church where I discovered that a whole town, well village, lay, mostly deserted at 9:30 in the morning. With its picturesque cobblestone streets, brick buildings, rustic lamp posts, and air that felt saturated with history, I almost expected a horse and cart to come wandering around the bend. (P.S. the featured picture of this blog was taken in Montmartre.)
Further into the village I came across Le Consulat, a quaint café in a crooked little intersection. It was closed, so I didn’t go in, but I noticed a sign on the side of the building, which said, “Le Consulat was the meeting place of the greatest artists, including painters like Picasso, Lisley, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Monet.” In addition, Woody Allen filmed his 1997 film Everyone Says I Love You here. To think that some of these Belle Époque artists sat in this very café discussing art and getting inspired by the surroundings and drinking vin before noon….
I kept walking and crossed paths with an older man carrying a small, hand-held easel with sketch paper and charcoals. “Quelle belle femme!” he said to me with a big smile. Of course I had to stop and say, “Merci, monsieur!” He told me that I had a beautiful face, very open and radiant, and I replied that was because I was in love with Paris. He asked if this was my first time here, and I said yes.
At this point I looked down at his hands and realized that he had been drawing me. “Je dois dessiner votre visage!” he said. ("I must draw your face.") My French wasn’t all that great, so we switched to speaking in Spanish. He told me his name was Sandro and he was from Italy, but after coming to Paris on a visit, he never left. When he finished the sketch of me, I asked how much it was and he replied, "Para usted, mi querido, a mitad de precio!" (“For you, my dear, half price.”) I’m sure that was a clever sales trick (double your price and then give the person a half-off discount), but as I’ve said many times here, I didn’t care—I was in Paris!
I was happy to pay this artist for a delightful experience and a keepsake of my trip.
My last sojourn was to the 9th arrondissement to visit the InterContinental Paris Le Grand Hotel. I took the metro and got off at the Opéra station and when I came up out of the station I stopped and exhaled, “Wow.”
I was in a tiny little island in the middle of a huge intersection and was face to face with the Academie Nationale de Musique, yet another palatial-looking building.
And best of all, a small brass band was playing lively music right outside so I got to enjoy a free concert.
I put a handful of change into the top hat they were passing around and then walked a few blocks to the InterContinental. It was a luxurious hotel with, yup, you guessed it, a lot of fascinating history:
“Le Grand Hotel was built in 1862 and inaugurated by Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III…. The hotel has hosted royalty throughout its long history, including Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra, King Edward VII of England, and Queen Rania of Jordan…. In 1869, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., publisher of the Paris Herald, met with Henry Morton Stanley in the hotel's Imperial Suite to convince him to make his famous journey to Africa in search of David Livingstone…. And Roman Polanski set much of his 1988 film Frantic, starring Harrison Ford, at the hotel.”
A friend had recommended that I sit in the grand lobby and order the chocolat chaud, which I did. Oh. Mon. Dieu. It was heavenly. It’s basically high-quality chocolate melted and then served in a cup, along with a side of steamed milk, which you add to the chocolate as you see fit. Which I did not. It is so velvety smooth and not nearly as rich or sweet as you would imagine.
It was the most luxurious gift my tongue had ever experienced….
After that I made my way back to the Gare du Nord train station and took the train back to London. This time I treated myself to a first-class seat, where I was served a light dinner on actual dishes with actual cutlery and all the wine I could drink (which, for the record, was only two glasses).
I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried for the first twenty minutes or so as the train made its way out of the city under the cover of darkness. Paris is a place that you absorb into your very being and when you leave it’s like leaving a lover. But it’s also a city that endures with art and love, so you can never really leave it behind or get it out of your system.
I'm no Hemingway or Woolf, and this blog is far from iambic pentameter penned with a feather quill, but as you can see by my lengthy words and photos of adoration, it's truly a city that inspires.
Paris, je t'aime et je reviendrai!
Unless cited as "source," all photos taken by Selena Templeton. Except the one of me. That was taken by Sara.