The New Year came while I was asleep in midair. The airline gave me several complimentary glasses of wine for my transatlantic flight so I zonked out and woke up in 2019. It was the winter break of my Junior year of college and I was on my first solo trip to Europe. An old friend from high school posted that she was looking for a travel companion to Paris after her original travel companion dropped out. It was a perfect opportunity because I missed seeing this friend, and I hated doing nothing during breaks from school. We had made plans and lists of destinations. Reports from the BBC had recently come in about the Gilets Jaunets (Yellow Vest) protesters rioting on the Champs-Élysée over President Macron and his recent gas tax. As the reports of rioting and footage of tear-gas clouds were projected on our screens, my friend backed out, but I was still determined to go see how bad it really was in Paris. If all else failed, I would take a train somewhere safer. I was excited for the challenge of solo travel. I was excited to meet the world.
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Landing in Paris
Photo by Jad Limcaco on Unsplash
The train ride from Charles de Gaulle airport was my first glimpse of France. Passing by the suburban landscape I was reminded that, even though I carry this idealized vision of “The City of Lights,” this is still a real place with real people who have jobs and commute from the suburbs. I checked into my St. Christopher’s Inn hostel at , dropped off my bags and began exploring on foot. I walked everywhere. I walked under arches, I walked past fruit stands, past Victor Hugo’s house, where the Bastille stood, to a creperie, through alleys, past old churches, into train stations, up to public art, up to memorials, past shops, and up to buskers. To my eyes, everything was beautiful. I was surprised at how blasé everyone was about the beauty around them. To me, each thing I walked past was a new and fascinating glimpse at something that seemed out of a novel or painting. It was urban, dirty, and old, but also poetic and artistically placed. The phrase that kept appearing in my head was “a scuzzy kind of splendour.” I was as equally impressed by the street art as by the statues, by the sprawling “Absurd!” scrawled in spray paint on an apartment wall as well as by the monument cherubs. I had to take a piece of this beauty home with me. I bought an engraving from a street artist and he signed it “Bonne Année,” (“Happy New Year”).
When my feet got tired, I parked myself in a cafe to reflect on the day’s experience over a glass of rosé. I ordered another glass and journalled until late at night. "This place is just how I imagined it to be, people smoking and wearing berets, couples making out, old men lingering in cafés nursing coffee or wine. I'm watching an older couple laugh and smoke in each other's faces while two bearded men play backgammon at the table behind me. This city cannot possibly be real. This city is something from movies and books. It must be a fictional city from my imagination playing tricks on my eyes.” I walked the city well after midnight before returning to the hostel.
A bucket list day
Photo by Marc Fanelli-Isla on Unsplash
The Gare du Nord St. Christopher’s Hostel was booked for the next night, so I travelled to St. Christopher’s other location near the Crimeé metro stop right along the canal: . I dropped my bag off in a locker and headed to the metro stop Pont Marie. I hopped on a canal boat and sat back and relaxed to watch the city go by. When the boat returned, I crossed the Seine to Île La Cite, which I learned gets its name from the fact that it was the original city of Paris when it was under the Roman Empire in the 4th century. Now, it is the most expensive neighbourhood in Paris. I toured the ground floor of the Notre Dame just in time to hear the bells, just as if Quasimodo himself were ringing them. From there, I walked further into the "Latin Quarter" to the Sorbonne and the Panthéon. After seeing his house and the site of the “Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” I thought it was appropriate to pay my respects to Victor Hugo in the Panthéon, along with my own tattered copy of his most famous work, Les Misérables.
Fromage crepe in hand, I walked through the Jardin Du Luxembourg. As I sat in the gardens, I remembered that the person at the front desk of my hostel recommended the observation tower of Montparnasse which was nearby. “It's just as good as the view from the Eiffel Tower, but you can't see the Eiffel tower in the skyline from the Eiffel Tower.” I walked up to the observation tower at 5pm, which was perfectly timed because I was able to see the skyline both before and after the sunset. I bought a pastry from the café on the 59th floor and stared at the lit-up Eiffel Tower and the grand skyline until it got late. I ended the night with my new nightly ritual of walking the streets until my legs gave out.
Montmartre: the 'artsy' part of Paris
For breakfast, I bought some chocolate cake and a croissant to go from a boulangerie (bakery) for 3 Euros. I ate my cake as I walked along the canal until I got on the metro to the Abbesses stop. I walked up the seemingly never-ending steps past more graffiti and street art to the Sacré-Cœur.
The Sacré-Cœur is built on a 130M (430ft) hill called Montmartre. At the summit of the hill, I stopped and ate my croissant, taking in the view I had worked for. In the background, a harp player plucked away Edith Piaf’s “Non Je Regrette Rien.” The people surrounding me are either tourists wearing berets because that’s what they think Parisians wear, or they are locals and Parisians really do wear berets. Either way, it feels like a cliché idealized cartoon version of Paris come to life. In the Sacré-Cœur, I climbed the 300 spiral steps up their artistically detailed towers to one of my favourite views of Paris.
After climbing so many stairs today, I thought I deserved a large lunch and treated myself to big lunch at a nearby restaurant. I had a pre-fixe menu of Escargot, Duck Confit, and Crème Bruleé. My philosophy is, you can spend money on things or experiences, and the memory of experiences will last with you longer than any item. I told myself, “Remember, food is one of the reasons you came here, don’t just eat fast and cheap street food,” That was one of my most favourite meals I have ever had in my life.
Montmartre is known for being the artsy part of Paris. In celebration of that, I went to the Salvador Dali Museum and had my portrait drawn in charcoal by a local artist who was stationed in the Place Du Tertre.
A €5 play in the heart of Paris
I walked around Montmartre and then continued on. I got lost and found myself in a cemetery with small standing crypts the size of telephone booths. I walked past the famous Moulin Rouge and passed the Opera Garnier, where Phantom of the Opera takes place. They were just opening the house and I didn’t have a ticket, so I walked on. I found myself at the Comédie-Française just as the ticket line was opening up. I stood in line not knowing what the show was or how much tickets were. I lucked out! For 5 Euros I got the last unbooked ticket in the nosebleed section. The show was a play based on a Victor Hugo novel. I didn’t know the plot, but the movement and scenery were enough to intrigue me. Plus, it was fantastic to see the home theatre of Moliere I had seen in my theatre history classes.
It was late; I wasn’t sleepy yet, but very exhausted. I retired to the hostel bar for a nightcap. I wasn’t sure what to do with myself at night. I really enjoyed that by travelling solo I could cram so many adventures into one day and keep walking all over the city without going off of anyone else’s schedule or hearing them complain, but I hated that I didn’t have anyone to share the nights with. I didn’t want to go out for the nightlife by myself. I tried making friends at the hostel, but the hostelers usually came as a group and did their own thing as a group. Most nights I sat by myself at a quiet café and journaled before going out for a late-night stroll.
A royal day trip to the Palace of Versailles
I woke up early and got on the metro to Gare de L’est where I attempted to get on the regional train to Versailles. A train operator used her phone to translate that I had to take a detour from the Invalides metro stop. I took the free detour bus, but I missed my stop and had to walk back past the Army Museum. I planned to get there just as the gates opened for the day, so the train was crowded. Getting off the train, I got my ticket at the tourist information centre (slightly cheaper and faster than getting it at the ticket booth). I sped-walked past the horde of tourists, knowing that each person I passed was a few minutes in line I had saved. Even before I got into the estate I was awed by the beautiful majesty of the palace. As I walked closer, the intricate details of the gold gate revealed themselves.
I followed Rick Steve’s audio tour through each room: the war room, the Apollo room, bedroom, guard’s room and so forth. I am sure the hall of mirrors was an opulent sight to see when mirrors that large were a novelty, but since I have seen rehearsal rooms with larger mirrors in it, what I found more impressive was the golden lamps.
I wasn’t the prince, but I did get a royal lunch from the café Angelina of the soup of the day, a glass of wine, and a Mont Blanc. With my belly full, I walked through the history museum part, which was portraits and paintings of wars and other significant historical moments. When I had gone through all the rooms and seen all the paintings, I went outside to see the grounds. The grounds are enormous, more than twice the size of Central Park. It was all beautiful and meticulously manicured. A prominent staple of the grounds is the water features. There is a large canal that rowboats call home, and many fountains, including my two favourites: Poseidon coming out of the sea and Leto with Apollo and Artemis. The story goes that the townspeople mistreated Leto for being an unwed mother (because she was impregnated by Zeus) and so she turned them into frogs. The Frogs surround the family and the fountain. Apollo is a common theme at the palace because he is the god of the sun and Louis XIV is referred to as the “Sun King.”
Further out is the “Village” Marie Antionette had made. She cleared the local village of the townspeople's homes so she could create a Faux peasant village where she could pretend to be a peasant. That would make me want to cut some heads off if I was an 18th-century French peasant.
Lost in Versailles
It was getting dark and the palace was closing. I started heading back, but I soon realized I had no idea how to get back because I followed the crowd on the way in. I took a different entrance than I had come in from. I was lost. I saw a sign saying “Notre Dame” so I thought it was a train to Notre Dame back in Paris. It was actually a train to the Notre Dame church in Versailles. I was even further away than I was before. I walked on and on and saw nobody to ask for directions. After walking all day, fatigue started to set in. Finally, I found a woman in a trench coat who looked approachable and I asked for directions back to the train station.
Modern art and beef tartar
I went straight to the catacombs, but after an hour of waiting in line I gave up. I wasn’t even halfway through the line. Instead, I took the metro to the Pompidou Centre. I spent three hours looking at Picasso, Georges, a cubism display, and the modern art exhibit. I found a restaurant that didn’t look too intimidating and ordered Le Beouf Tartar (a raw beef patty). Eating it was an interesting experience in both taste and texture. I’m glad I tried it, but I don’t think I would order it again.
What is it that makes Paris so romanticised?
As I was eating, I reflected on how much this trip was starting to take a toll on my body. I was walking so much either from exploring, getting lost, or going through museums. I was eating at irregular times and waking early and staying out late. I was starting to get tired. All day I was tired and lost and it was starting to put me in a foul mood and I took it out on the city. Throughout my time in Paris, I was trying to figure out why Paris is thought of as being a romantic city. It was something people often mentioned when I said I came here alone. I frequently saw people embraced in some dark corner of a park, staring into each other's eyes on a bridge, or holding hands walking along the seine. I didn’t get it: how can a city be romantic? Were you supposed to be inspired by the views and architecture? Possibly, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, that people come to the city with these expectations and Paris becomes a romantic city because people come to Paris to be romantic. Just in the same way as the berets? I walked along the Seine back to my hostel feeling lonely.
Meeting the Mona Lisa
My bucket list of things to do in Paris was getting checked off. I had seen all the top-recommended sights. I had crossed off almost every attraction on my personal list (except for the things with too long of a line). I found myself getting into a routine of going out and seeing four or so museums or sights and then walking to the point of exhaustion. As the unchecked-off items of my list shrank, my contempt for people’s expectations was growing. I decided after today I was going to take the bus to Amsterdam (for only 8 Euros!). One of the last big unchecked things on my list was to see the Louvre and of course, the Mona Lisa. I was first in line to buy a ticket and went straight for the Mona Lisa to get some intimate time with the famous lady before the hordes of tourists could gather. I walked briskly through the other exhibits passing those fools glancing at each portrait until they got to the prize jewel. I stared into her eyes trying to understand the mystery she held. She is much smaller than I thought, which is exactly what the Rick Steve’s audio guide said would be everyone’s first impression. The painting is just that, a painting. A simple portrait commissioned by a wealthy nobleman. This one just happens to be done so expertly that it garners this amount of attention.
When I got my fill, I backtracked and saw the rest of the museum. I was particularly enthralled with the painting of The Scene of the Flood by Girodet-Trioson. The beautiful desperation. When I was done with the museum it was almost three in the afternoon. I walked over to the Museum Orsee, but when I saw the line stretched out for a few blocks, I kept walking through the Tuileries and over to the Champs Élysée. While I was out of town at Versailles, there was a Yellow Vest riot/protest there and apart from the boarded-up businesses, it was hard to tell that anything had happened. The other evidence of anything happening at all was the security check by police in full riot gear. I continued walking and made it to the Arc De Triumph, which, as luck would have it, happened to be free the third Sunday of the month, when I was there. It was yet another wonderful viewpoint for me to see the Paris skyline. When I got pulled over and searched by a policeman after I left the Arch, I decided it was time to move on. I had to move on to Amsterdam, but there was one more bucket list item I was going to cross off.
A real local experience
For the last 40 years, Jim Haynes has hosted a weekly dinner party with an open invitation for anyone with a name. I had heard of this open invite from my friend who backed out. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to get away from the touristy action and meet locals to get their impression of national politics.
I entered Jim’s small apartment and Jim’s assistant checked me in. I was given food and was introduced to other party-goers. I talked with everyone. I talked with other young artists, I talked with Swiss bankers, I talked with blue-collar workers, with young, old, locals, ex-patriots, travellers, immigrants, conservatives and liberals. Each time, the conversation came to an end. the other person would say “Have you met so-and-so?” “Why don’t I introduce you to this person?” I talked about travelling, about arts, and politics. In one conversation about the influx of refugees into Paris, we had a local who represented the xenophobe, the Swiss banker ex-pat playing the pragmatic moderate and myself, of the opinion that all immigration strengthens the country. Later in the night, I was finally introduced to our gracious host. Jim claims that he invented social networking before the internet by just simply knowing everyone and connecting people from his enormous book of contacts. He told me about meeting Salvador Dali for tea and how he would connect John Lennon with people when he needed a contact. When I told him I was studying playwriting he proudly declared that he founded a theatre company and was involved in setting up the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. After a while, it came time for me to leave so I could catch my bus out, so I thanked and parted with the modern Gertrude Stein and his motley companions. I hopped on the bus at midnight and fell asleep knowing I would wake up in Amsterdam.
This isn't the last you'll hear of Rudy's European adventures. Find out what he gets up to in Amsterdam in his second Innsider article for St Christopher's Inns' travel blog.
Other photography provided by Rudy Schreiber