The train station was large and well-marked, which is another thing that I enjoy about Paris. We did some grocery shopping, and hopped on an intercity train to Blois, which was an altogether different, lovely experience that I will write about a bit later. Two days later we returned to Paris for a quick evening before catching our plane in the morning. We planned to see the sites of Montmartre, and, as luck would have it, we had booked a hostel directly between Gard de Nord and Sacre Coeur, less than a kilometer from either. All of the guidebooks had warned us about the steepness of Montmartre, and in that we were unimpressed. It didn’t seem any steeper than Old Town Plovdiv, which is not particularly steep. We walked up the steps to Sacre Coeur, and enjoyed the views on the steps of the church. In front of the steps a street artist did an excellent routine with a football and a lamp post, that proved amusing for a bit, and overall I enjoyed the atmosphere of the steps. We then wandered through Montmarte, down to the Moulin Rouge, stopping at another bakery along the way. From the outside the most impressive thing about the Moulin Rouge was not the windmill, but the intensity of the security. I guess all of the good stuff is inside, but not really within our time, energy, or financial budgets. We then walked through the red-light district of Pigalle, back to our hostel. In some ways I was very amused by all of the sex shops and cabarets, nestled between hamams and strip joints, but overall it just made me kind of sad. Artists say that Montmartre is not what it used to be. They say it has become too touristic and artists can no longer afford to live there. I can see what they mean all the way down to Pigalle. It had traces of North Beach, San Francisco, but it was too clean, too monitored, and something makes it not seem quite as real. I suppose that all of Paris is that way, and every city on the planet, really, is being slowly eaten away by the financial force of tourism, and the ease with which modern man travels, not for a week or a month, a year or a lifetime, but for a day or an hour. Paris, although lovely and lively, does a very good job of making me long for a time past that I have never had the opportunity to experience.
I used to remark that I wanted Istanbul to be my Paris. Of course this makes very little sense unless you know about my obsession with Hemingway’s writing, and specifically the teasing of dark morsels of life that he either achieved while in Paris, or later wrote reflected on his memories of the city. When I saw Istanbul for the first time I thought that it was a city that I could dissolve myself within. I thought that I would become pen and paper and light and shadow and nothing more than words. Nothing more? Nothing less. However, moving here brought about a quite different reality, which probably has a lot to do with the husband that I have acquired since my initial interaction with the city. I occasionally have a desire to write, but it is no stronger than any other place in the world, and most often I do not find the time or the space to write. Istanbul lacks the cafe culture that is important to my writing style. I need the bars and cafes, or at least a window looking down on a busy street, to begin stringing together lines. Yes, the stories are finished in the dark quiet of night, always alone, but they need to start from a place of life, which just isn’t here for me. However, it is only after finally visiting Paris that I can properly express the reasons behind my disappointment.
Paris (and the rest of France that we saw) was absolutely amazing. It was charming. I quickly fell beneath the spell of romance that travelers have come to expect. Of course, for my introverted self, the streets were too crowded with cars and people, the noises too loud and the stimulation a bit too much. From the moment that we set down at CDG, and took the rer into Gare de Nord things were stressful for me. However, our initial choice to stay a bit on the periphery of the city, in a lovely studio apartment, was great. We had a bit of difficulty finding the place, but two women were very helpful, one even calling our host since my phone would not work in France. This immediately dispelled the myth that had me worried, about French people refusing to speak English with foreigners, and being rude to people who do not know French. My French was not much beyond Oui and Merci, with an occasional Pardon, and yet not a single person seemed to be bothered by it. I have a theory that it is less an issue with foreigners not speaking French, and more of an issue with foreigners expecting to be catered to quickly in English. There was nothing quick about Paris except the metro lines, and adding in the communication barrier caused a bit of waiting in cafes, where French people could get quick, efficient service, but I would hardly call that a negative experience and certainly recognize it as my own shortcoming of language.
The first night in Paris our host showed us a lovely cafe in her neighborhood. I thought that it was lovely. It was completely packed with young, beautiful Parisians. The way they chatted, the way they smiled, the way they dressed, the way they drank. It was complete poetry. It was a very different cafe culture than Bulgaria (and the non-existant one in Turkey). There was almost no space in the cafe. The particular cafe that we were at (I cannot remember the name) was large, but it was filled from wall to wall with small tables, surrounded beyond capacity by groups of friends. The noise level was high, and it was a confusing entry into Paris. One waiter spoke English and recommended a platter of melted camembert, various meats, and roasted potatoes and tomatoes. It was absolutely delicious and way too much food for the three of us. I felt completely awkward, not knowing how things worked, what to say, and what to do, and yet I felt completely at ease. No one cared about us. No one stared. They were all wrapped up in their own very vibrant lives. The people at the table next to us teased with the waiter. The ladies at the table across from us never stopped talking and, above all, smiling. The joy in the place was nearly tangible. Unfortunately my companions did not care much for the cramped quarters or loud noise, and I knew that cafes would not be our main indulgence for the weekend.
The next day we were completely free to explore Paris. The strange thing is that none of us had anything that we particularly wanted to do. What do you do in Paris? What do you do when traveling in general? These are questions that I have been asking for the past few weeks, and the answers are in short supply. Paris seems to be a very artsy place filled with museums of all types. I am slowly gaining an appreciation for smaller galleries and the experience of collection, but am still not one to actively search out a museum to spend an hour in, let alone a day. That means that the Louvre was out, as were most of the churches, and historical monuments. What is left in Paris when you strip away all of that? We set about on a wander. We wandered to Notre Dame, completely on accident. I found the massive building impressive, but the crowds of school children and tourists made it difficult to appreciate. We wandered along the Seine, up to the Louvre because I like those giant glass pyramids on top of it. We continued wandering up to the Eiffel tower, and then eventually made our way back to the metro. The most impressive parts of the day were the quiches that we had for breakfast from the bakery at the bottom of our apartment, and the THINGS that were in all of the shop windows. Shopping in Paris must be quite an experience, as I believe that everything in the world must be available there, and put together in very aesthetically pleasing displays. From toys and games to clothing, books and journals to tourism trinkets, I was in sensory overload looking in the windows of countless shops. The next morning I did a little bit of shopping, for running tights, and the store, laid out over an entire city block, was an outdoor girl’s heaven. It was as if REI had rented out the bottom floor of every apartment building, put together their stock in a pleasing, easy to navigate way, and employed friendly people who were willing to help, and only had to manage a bit of stock at a time. It was amazing. But, with our budgets we were definitely not in Paris to shop. The next impressive thing was the metro system. It went everywhere, it went quickly, it stayed on time, and it was easy to navigate. It was like an entire city beneath the real Paris, and filled with interesting motifs at each station. I could have stayed in the metro all day.
In the evening we were quite tired from the walking, and I was coming down with a cold, so we decided to dine near our apartment. There was an Ethiopian restaurant just down the road from us, not more than a five minute walk. The food was okay, but not in the quantities or style that I love about my Ethiopian place in Tucson. It was fun to introduce my companions to the style of food, and they seemed to enjoy it, especially the quiet environment that came with it, and i suppose that it was a good break from the people piled upon people that we experienced the rest of the day.
In the morning it was quiche Lorraine, to pay homage to my name by devouring creamy, ham goodness, and then a stroll through the latin quarter towards the train station. When I first read “latin quarter,” and learned that it was a student area I thought about New Orleans, or Havana. I expected something hot and dirty. Then, I read that it takes its name from actual latin, which was spoken in universities, and was a lot less thrilled with the idea of it. It was still a very cute area, and a bit more my pace than other areas of Paris, but I did not attach to it the way that the name implies that I might. I am sure that if I stayed longer it would have exuded a certain charm on me, but overall I was not impressed any more by it than wandering down any unnamed district.
My overall impressions were that Paris was touristy and expensive, as expected, but beautiful and enchanting at the same time. The locals that we met were completely lovely, and really the only thing that would really annoy me is the number of cars, as they are a very loud, demanding force that detract from wherever they are. Paris, as most big cities, is not a place for couples as much as it is for singles, but I think that is true of most big cities, or maybe I just enjoy exploring urban life on my own. I would have loved to spend a summer up in a studio apartment, looking down on the city from behind blowing white curtains, that is, until I experienced the French countryside and decided that would make a much lovelier experience if I was going to make any kind of summer investment in France.
What I learned about myself in Paris is that I miss writing, and that even though I am an introvert I gather a lot of energy from being around vibrant people who do not require any interaction from me. I prefer urban exploration alone or in pairs, as a trio is a little difficult to manage, especially when I am the only common factor within the trio, and I definitely need to find some friends who have similar ideas of romance as I do, because although I love my husband he does not share the gooey-eyed Hemingway inspired world-view that I have, and neither did my friend that we traveled with. That is a thirsty view, and needs a little bit of love and support, and someone to share it with. I do not like tourism as much as travel, and even travel is not nearly as good as movement within place.