The great thing about being in Europe is that you’re only a stone’s throw away from numerous other countries. You don’t have to endure the interminably long transatlantic flight (it is only when traveling to Europe from the states do you realize just how very large the “pond” between the two continents really is). No, instead you simply board a plane at point A and get off two hours later at point B. Ah, what niceties.
Although I had spent the previous summer “toiling” away long hours at my two part-time jobs (one was in a fluff position at a county law library, the other a bit more involved as it consisted of watching toddlers and young children), I still hadn’t amassed a large fortune, so I didn’t have the funds to jet-set all over the continent every weekend or stay on in Europe to travel after my program had ended. But I did have a relatively small fortune, so the day I saw Iberia’s mid-winter sale advertised on its website, I knew I had to take action.
A ticket to Paris was the logical choice, of course. Although I had been there before, it had been a complete bust of a trip. Not only was it on a poorly planned guided high school trip (yes, all you savvy travelers out there, you can commence the rolling of the eyes starting now), but I developed a tonsil infection as well. So my memories of Paris consisted of seeing its major sites from the bus window and napping in the Lourve cafeteria for hours as my fever raged. Needless to say, I wanted to make things right with one of the most spectacular cities lo mas pronto posible (as soon as possible).
From an early age I had always been independent. My mother never fails to regale people with how I wouldn’t allow her to walk me into pre-school. At the time, with all the infinite wisdom a three year has, I probably thought it was nerdy to be seen with my mommy, but on the other hand I’m sure my thumb sucking while clutching my blankie was acceptable. Needless to say I would be traveling to la cite lumiere (the city of light) sola, which was absolutely fine with me. I have been in too many group instances in which people’s indecisiveness ends up being the only thing accomplished. Plus, I didn’t want to visit Paris of all places only to sleep during the day in order to recover from the hard partying the night before. There were too many people in the program who did just that…each and every weekend. What money they did have was spent on alcohol. Large amounts of it. The only person who really seemed taken aback that I would be traveling alone was my host mom.
“You’re going there alone?” “Yes, Estrella although it really doesn’t bother me. I can see and do what I want.” My roommate Lisa was also at the dining table when the conversation was ensuing. I’m sure she thought I was a bit of a loser since she really didn’t do anything alone. She and another girl from her college seemed to be attached at the hip. “Entonces, ten cuidado.” Of course, I’ll be careful. I wanted to tell Estrella that she should really worry more about her other host daughter, as she was the one constantly boozing it up along with the hordes of other young borrachos (drunks) at the banks of the Guadalquivir, but I didn’t. But for all Lisa’s intense partying, she always made it safely home before the sun came up, so she seemed to be doing okay.
Before I knew it, I was in Paris. It still felt surreal being there after only a two hour flight and not having my passport examined (traveling from one European Union country to another is like you have never left the original country, so there’s no need for a new inspection). The smell of the rotting oranges that littered the street and the lispy Andalusian accents had been replaced by the sight of the delicious looking pastries in the windows of the patisseries and a language that didn’t turn z’s into a ‘th sound. Granted the amount of years I had studied Spanish, far surpassed the one semester of French I had taken in college, but still. I was just relishing being outside of the Spanish border even if it would be for a grand total of only 40 hours.
Having taken public transportation in from Orly Aeroport and gotten off at the Filles du Calvaire metro stop in central Paris, I was in the neighborhood of my hotel, but had no idea what direction to go. I was not the most adept at using maps back home but at least there, thanks to William Penn, the streets in my native city of Philadelphia had been laid out in a grid-like pattern. As in, you look at a map of Philadelphia’s city center and it’s pretty easy to plot your course. In a city as old as Paris where grid-like patterns didn’t really exist, not so easy. After attempting to not appear too conspicuous while looking at my pocket size map, I went in one direction only to have to retrace my steps five minutes later, realizing I should have gone the other way to begin with. Happily I found the hotel no worse for wear.
I had booked a single chambre online at the Mary S Hotel as its location was decent enough (this coming from my Parisian wannabe father who had visited the city numerous times and was well acquainted with the city’s arrondisements), and the price was good as well. When I greeted the young Arab looking man at the desk with a bonjour, he rapidly said something to me in French (I guess sometimes I do look something other than Americaine). But before I could even muster my je ne parle pas le francais (I don’t speak French), he had quickly switched to English, I’m sure upon seeing my lost expression, making me feel slightly bad for my only one semester of French.
My room was not ready so I set out to explore the neighborhood, stopping forst at what are the fringes of Paris’ Chinatown. I entered a small eatery there and ordered the cheapest menu option. It always amazes me when eating ethnic food in a country where it is not native to begin with, how much it varies from each country. Therefore Chinese food in France tastes nothing like Chinese food in the states. It was here in the restaurant, among what appeared to be Parisian workers dining on their lunch break and chatting animatedly in French, that I felt alone and sans amies (without friends). I have always partaken in many activities alone, but dining in public is not one I enjoy. I guess the only thing that saves me from a pity party is that I am not a spinsterish elderly woman outfitted in musty old clothes. Thank goodness for my extremely youthful looking appearance.
The Arc de’Triomphe, Napeoleon’s gift to the city of Paris, was high on my list of must-dos when there. I had seen it pictured in countless books, heard about, read about it. My parents even had a near-death experience there on one of their visits to Paris when my father was not able to maneuver their rental car out of the pattern of the traffic circle. And so they went round and round. And some 30 years later so did I, only on foot.
Although whenever I’m with my husband and we’re slightly turned around he’ll continue to go out of his way instead of asking for help, surely a testament to the stubborn and slightly pigheaded nature of the male species. Yet I was the exact same way in Paris. I don’t think it was because I felt stupid (which I feel is the underlying issue beneath my husband’s refusal) but more that since I was alone I didn’t want to appear the distressed female to others. But perhaps that day in Paris I should have spoken up and asked someone how to access the Arc, as it would have saved my poor feet from walking almost the entire perimeter of the island where the arc is situated. It was only after I arrived at the point where I had begun my “circular walk” did I realize that the stairwells I had seen scattered about around the perimeter of the arc were in fact meant for accessing it. Le sigh…
Besides having to endure solitary meals at restaurants when traveling alone, you are also forced to to ask strangers if they would be so kind as to take a picture of you so you at least have one preserved memory that you were indeed there. Occasionally however you strike conversational gold as I did when the family I had asked to take my picture with the Eiffel Tower in the background was from the same city as my grandparents. I felt even more pleased when I saw the impressed look in their eyes after I told them I was studying in Spain for the semester and had come to Paris for the weekend. It’s all about the little “gems” that serve as pick-me ups when traveling.
That night while sitting on the bed in my closet-size hotel room eating the two samosas I had gotten for my dinner from the Indian restaurant down the street, I looked at all of the wonderful pictures I had taken that day and just let out a sigh of contentment. I was really here in Paris, and this time I was doing things right.
The French petit dejeuner (breakfast) is your typical European continental breakfast, consisting of a roll and a hot drink. At my hotel it was nothing different yet it still managed to feel special, to feel French (anything was better than the two sweet rolls my host mom left out for us each morning to eat for breakfast). Even though I had to argue with the hotel clerk that the rate I had booked included breakfast (this was not easy as he spoke no English and my French was surely not at the level to vigorously press my case) I still managed to emerge as the victor and enjoy my ultra flaky croissant, tartine (a piece of a baguette served with butter and marmalade), and a cup of steaming hot chocolate (even if it was from a machine). Although in Paris cafes you will find menus that offer the petit dejeuner Americaine, go for the croissant and tartine. It may be less food but it’s so French. (On our recent honeymoon in Paris, my husband and I arrived early in the morning and as our room was not ready (mais oui-of course), I had us go to a nearby café for some breakfast. I ordered us the croissant and tartine, a chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) for me and a café crème for my husband, now we were in Paris).
Although I had come to Paris with a jam packed itinerary, I still made a point to enjoy those Parisian moments. Strolling along the Left Bank, I perused the wares available at the bouquiniste stalls. Nothing really caught my eye until I came across a 1960s edition of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. I didn’t get it as it was in Italian and I knew even less Italian than French. But to this day it is something I regret not having purchased because what could have been more Parisian than having bought a historic copy of one of Papa Hemingway’s works in a city he so truly loved?
I found one of my favorite things to do in Paris was to pass by the boulangeries (bread shops) and gaze in the window. Seeing the dozens of beautifully sculpted long baguettes being readied to be baked in the ovens and then enjoying the tantalizing smell once they have finished baking to a crisp, golden perfection is a joy and experience within itself. Only in France do you have people queuing up every day to purchase their baguette. It is so different from in the United States where most families’ dinner bread is the frozen or refrigerated and bake kind, and certainly not from a store whose sole purpose is the making and selling of breads. A couple of years later on the BBC Internet site I read each year Paris sponsors a contest of the best baguette baker. That year the winner was a Senegalese immigrant which the article said surprised some but to others it made no difference since the color of one’s skin has nothing to do with the taste of an award winning baguette. Where the French went in the days of colonialism, the ubiquitous baguette followed, whether it was to Senegal, Algeria, or Laos.
The Place de la Madeline area of the city is an extremely posh shopping district. It is home to the city’s glitzy stores and features prices to rival any found on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Although I bought the requisite souvenirs (a tea towel of the Eiffel Tower, prints at the Musee d’Orsay gift shop), I still wanted to purchase some foodie related ones. The only problem was that after a long day of sightseeing, not only is your entire body fatigue, but most stores are closed as well. It is only the extremely tourist trap shops selling your cheesy glow in the dark Eiffel towers that remain open until much later in the evening.
As I ascended from the steps of the metro at what all the guidebooks describe as some of the best shopping in the city, all I could see was darkened storefronts. Le sigh. But there was light still being emitted from what used to be (and what some would still consider is) the best gourmet food store in all of Paris…Hediard, a shopping “institution” that has been in operation since the 1850s. Score!
Although the majority of the goods lining the shelves of Hediard far exceeded my budget such there were bottles of wine over 1000 euros along with some pretty expensive truffles. All weekend I had been keeping meticulous track in my journal of every euro I had spent, mostly to show myself I could totally be a budget traveler when needed. But it was still neat to look upon the endless rows of gourmet cheeses whose names I couldn’t even begin to pronounce and the other fine wares that are purchased by the same men and women who buy couture. Oh, to be French and wealthy. But I did find a small item that suited me and my wallet just fine, a petit size canister of loose vanilla tea. Even though I hadn’t had the time to make it to any of Paris’ fine tea salons, I thought it was perfectly fitting to take home some gourmet tea as a more foodie souvenir of my wonderful weekend in Paris. The fact that it only cost six euros and hardly weighed anything in my backpack was the cherry on top.
Even though I had been eyeing them ever since my arrival on Friday, I had still not indulged one of Paris’ delectable pastries. Although some cost as much as a menu option at a two star restaurant, you cannot go to Paris and not consume a pastry. It is like going to Belgium and not eating any frites. Needless to say I needed to find one and eat one lo mas pronto posible since Spanish pastries were almost non-existent. In fact, the only sweet that the Spanish people seem to go loco over was flan. I like flan, but compared with pastries that resemble little works of art? I don’t think so.
The only thing I can say is don’t wait too long in the day to select your pastry. The pickings are slim…But what I did select was oh so delicious…une tarte citron (lemon tart). As it was dark by this point and I was not about to sit alone on the street enjoying my treat, I had to transport it back on the metro. By the time I got back to the hotel it had toppled over in the box and the filling had gotten slightly smudged, but it was still one of the best things I had ever eaten in my life. I say this because there have been very few instances in which I have licked my fingers clean from something I had eaten. But this was one of them.
All too soon it was Sunday morning and time for me to return to Orly Aeroport for my flight back to Sevilla. I’m not embellishing when I say I was seriously sad. On one of our family trips to Disney World as a child, my mom told me some years later that my older brother was extremely melancholy for weeks after our return. As the metro took me further away from the center of Paris, I knew exactly how he must have felt. The thought of returning to Sevilla really depressed me. I don’t know why, but I wanted nothing more than to stay in Paris, a city that at that moment had everything that Sevilla and Spain did not. For a couple of weeks after I returned I was in an “I hate Sevilla and all Spanish customs mood”. It didn’t last of course but deep down I knew that if things had been reversed and I had studied in Paris instead of Sevilla, and gone to Spain for a weekend, I know I would have relished being away from all things Paris and French. That’s usually how those things work. You always want what you don’t have.