Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Day 2, Paris

After falling asleep at about 5pm in the afternoon, I awoke at midnight, confused. We had left the blinds open however, and as it struck midnight, the room began to sparkle, and I climbed out of bed to watch the Eiffel Tower effervesce, wordlessly curled up in my tiny little window watching the lights fizz and pop like an interminable glass of Champagne. When it finally stopped I got back into bed, curled up and fell asleep again, listening to the sound of Bingley's rhythmic breathing.

At 5am I woke again, and there was to be no going to sleep again this time. The world outside was dark and the tower was no longer lit as I played around with the free Wifi on my phone and wrote and drew for a while before Bingley finally awoke. It was now around 7am and the tiniest banners of dawn were visible on the horizon like wisps of grey smoke as we got ready to start the day, bouncing around a little as I put on my favourite twirly pettiskirt and sparkly ballet flats in preparation for a day of exploring.

As we headed out the front doors it was still dark outside and we decided to walk for a while before finding breakfast, heading to the Champ de Mars. The streets were near empty, even more than the day before and in near darkness as we approached the end of the park. We wandered alone up its long avenues before standing alone under the Eiffel tower, gazing up under her skirts like naughty voyeurs. It was beautiful and quiet. Intimate. We marvelled at the size and construction, the display of sheer force of will that it represented. I had been told that the best view of the tower was to be found on the opposite side of the river, at the Trocadero and so we headed across the river as the sky began to blush with purple.

The curving path up the Trocadero was also empty, reaching the Summit quickly before turning to see the view - even more amazing than promised. We sat on the cold steps alone together as the sky brightened with dawn, jewel colours behind the tower and marvelled again at this beautiful city.

We were starting to get hungry though, and decided to find a cafe for breakfast. This is not a difficult task in Paris, where there are more cafes than there are houses, or at least it seems, particularly in certain neighbourhoods. In the end we chose on the scientific principle of "I like the chairs" and scooted in to watch the world pass us by.

Our flamboyant waiter spoke to me in rapid French as I ordered, and smiled unswervingly as he put on the overhead lamps so that we could take off our coats and be comfortable. Nothing was too much hassle for him as he grabbed another table to fit our food on and brought me the most delectable, evil hot chocolate I have ever drunk in my life. It came in a little pitcher, with a porcelain swizzle stick, to stop the chocolate from solidifying before it made its way into my cup, or indeed my mouth. It was liquid happiness, that poured in a viscous stream into my cup and reminded me of Willy Wonka's waterfall.

Being a Monday morning, as we leisurely ate our breakfast there were people whizzing by going to work. Children on scooters, impeccable mamans looking harrassed and perfect at the same time. Men in suits, women in fabulous dresses, traffic becoming the bizarrely balletic gridlock to the harmony of beeping horns. And in the background, against the lightening sky was the Eiffel Tower, watching over it all.

Once stuffed ridiculously full of good things, we set off again, along Avenue Kleber in search of another monument to tick off my Big 5 list. Technically we had seen it the day before, but standing under the Arc de Triomphe gave it a sense of the pomp and ceremony it must command on Bastille Day. The wind was shrieking through it, as we looked down onto the Champs Elysees, and then up towards La Defense. The carving on the monument is amazing as well - clearly France does nothing by halves, after centuries of Empire Builders doing it properly or not at all seems to be the motto.

We wanted to climb to the top, but were too early, so decided that we'd take a stroll down the Champs Elysees to see the famous shops. Like many others though, I found it a bit ho hum. Not quite veering into tacky, but not particularly special either. In a city where elegance and style drops off every geranium adorned balcony, a McDonalds will stick out like a sore thumb. I still enjoyed the pretty Louis Vuitton windows and tried to take a photo of the beautiful balloons used as a backdrop.

By the time we got back to the Arch, the first of the busloads of tourists were arriving, and we amused ourselves by watching the photo taking antics of a group of hilarious Koreans who were trying to perfect the jumping shot. In amongst it all was a grumpy French employee we named Claude, who clearly had woken up on the wrong side of the bed as he chomped on his cigarette and erected the bollards to form queues. Claude was not to be messed with, and one particularly pushy man I thought was going to end up with a cigarette in his eyeball after he tried to circumvent Claude's haphazardly instructed and poorly signed queue.

Once we had bought our tickets, the next mission was to climb yet more stairs. The lift broken (this seems to be a common thing in France, and anyone who questions it gets a hilarious shrug of the shoulders in response), we, the veteran stair climbers were quickly overtaking those that had pushed in front of us in the queue with a certain air of smugness. Reaching the alcove at the top, it appears that this was once, or has plans to be some sort of museum, but that figuring tourists like us don't care so much anyway, they haven't bothered doing more. I was wondering if maybe the admission price had not been worth it when we spied the stairs to the roof and made our way up.

The views were amazing. Different to those of Montmartre the day before, because the way the etoile or "star" of streets around the Arc works is to make it the epicentre of great spokes of straight avenues, lined by beautiful regular buildings with their own tiny, individual differences that somehow make them extra beautiful. After we had had our fill, we bought our gold medallion and decided to visit Les Halles.

Now if you've read all of my wordy anecdotes so far, you may be of the impression that Paris can do no wrong in the beauty stakes... this is not entirely correct. Whoever approved the absolute stain on the landscape that is the monstrosity that is Les Halles clearly was not someone with either taste, nor fashion. It has dated horribly, assuming it ever held any sort of appeal, and unlike the clean geometry of the IM Pei pyramids, there is nothign to like. It felt tired and dated and unbefitting the city. It seemed most Parisians thought so as well - it was near empty, and those that walked through that did have a French accent, seemed a little embarrassed to be there.

After escaping, we were disorientated, but decided, with nothing else on the plan for the day to just wander and see what we could find - which turned out to be a corner of the Marais district which was crammed with restaurants of every persuasion. Everything from haute cuisine to little Italian trattorias. French bistros everywhere, intermingled with patisseries and bakeries. Stomachs grumbling as we zigzagged through the bustling streets, we settled on the Cafe du Centre which although early by French standards was packed, and filled with the musical sounds of French conversation.

After asking to see the special board, I was immediately answered in English - an all too common occurrence unfortunately, and we squished into a street side seat. Being as we were in France, we ordered snails for an entree, followed by a cheese plate and salad to share. I think I can confidently say that this was the most amazing French meal that we had on our trip. The snails were succulent and garlicky - perfect with the carafe of wine that we had ordered through the close eyes and jab method (seriously the wine list had over 200 listed varieties...). The cheese platter was generous and the atmosphere amazing. It was the sensation of the city breathing, talking, being excited to be alive. The area we were staying was beautiful, quiet and austere, but here was the thumping heart.

After our meal we wandered some more, before deciding that we wanted to see the Moulin Rouge (Monument Bingo) and the Museum of Erotica. As we walked and walked through the Pigalle region, Bingley commented with amusement that we were not in Kansas any more. I'm not sure which street we crossed, but it was absolutely true that the atmosphere had changed very suddenly. If the Marais had been Paris' heart beat, then Pigalle was surely her undergarments. It was fabulous and seedy and tacky and genteel all at the same time. One could imagine easily the place in the time of the Belle Epoque and the women immortalised by Toulouse Lautrec and the top hatted gentleman who frequented the establishments. There was a sense of brashness, in the way that the "Erotic Supermarket" was advertising itself to the street and yet still presenting itself in Paris as though it belonged.

The Moulin Rouge itself was clearly a huge tourist hit (more jumping photos!) and I took a few obligatory shots with general amusement. There is something funny about watching a busload of Midwestern God-fearing American tourists snapping away shots of a symbol of decadence and debauchery, in amongst the sex shops and peepshows.

Just down from the Moulin Rouge is the Musee d'Erotisme, which had made its way on several lists of odd museums to visit in Paris. It is a small, slender building with 6 floors of displays, dedicated to all things sex. Procreative, fetishistic, fecund, wildly optimistic... I have never seen so many phalluses in my life. But it was displayed in such a way so as not to be titillating so much as genuinely interesting. There were exhibits from all over the world and from many points in history, with both Eastern and Western cultures represented. It was interesting to look at how sex has always been such a huge part of society, but how the Middle Ages and the rise of the church in Europe in particular seem to have affected that. Enlightened, but still blushing a little, we walked out a little dazed.

By now, the famous affliction of the flaneur, the dreaded sore feet were beginning to make themselves felt and I was almost in tears as we navigated the Metro and then walked home. Although we had had plans to eat out that night, we were again exhausted, and instead, curled up in bed and watched for the first of the hourly Eiffel sparkles to begin.


Dolly B said...

Really enjoying reading about your trip to Paris, you certainly have a way with words, and makes me sooooooooo want to go back. Fabulous Pics also


Jenn said...

Thanks, Mary! Many more days to come, LOTS more pictures lol.


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