New Year’s in La Ville Lumière

New Year’s Eve isn’t all that exciting once you have kids – basically we stay in and I usually sleep through the ball drop every year. But it is fun that we have managed to start a new year in different time zones and places over the past few years: Jakarta, Sydney, Banff, Leuven and now Paris!

If you recall, BigB was pretty sick, but I managed to pack him into the car and drive us on to Paris. It’s only about a 5 hour drive from here, and the weather was in our favor. As usual, there was plenty of fog along the way so the views were not exceptional, but the sun came out a few times and gave us glimpses of some beautiful frosty landscapes.

We arrived at the adorable, tiny apartment we rented. It was probably the most parisian place ever, filled with weird knicknacks, old theatrical posters, a bathroom plastered with books and maps, a collection of VHS tapes from the 80s, and the tiniest kitchen I’ve ever seen (we couldn’t even figure out how to get the over door open because it kept getting stuck on the door frame beside it). So, basically, we loved it. It also had a huge balcony (it was the top floor of a large apt building) with views of the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre and across the city. Well, theoretically it did. Mostly we saw fog. And it was cold. We didn’t spend much time out there.

We arrived on NYE itself, so we grabbed a few groceries from the store and settled in for the night. A few bottles of wine and a viewing of “Conan the Barbarian” went down well. We brought some sparklers to light outside, but forgot a lighter, so we just looked at unlit sparklers for a while, and went to bed by probably 10 pm. Happy New Year!

We woke up the next year and headed out for the day. New Year’s day in Paris is celebrated quietly, but there was a parade happening in the Champs Elysées – so we checked that out. Their Christmas market was still going on, which meant we filled up on vin chaud and crepes, poked around at the shops, and saw some depressing animatronic “christmas” dinosaurs. The parade itself was a bit of a mess – it wasn’t well organised, just clumps of people crowding around a handful of marching bands from the US and some random other acts. The best part was probably the tiny firetruck blowing confetti at everyone. We followed it around for a while to get extra confetti. By the way, air-blasted confetti gets everywhere.

The next day we did a little walk around to see the Bastille (which was under construction, so instead we checked out the Starbucks next door), visit Notre Dame (where the kids were only interested in the spinning play structure at the playground), and exploring Saint-Germain (where our rain-soaked kids just cried until we fed them hamburgers and went home on the metro). So, we managed to see Starbucks, a few playgrounds, a hamburger joint and some metro stations. All in all, I guess it was a typical vacation for us!

We ended the trip with an evening of sparklers (we finally remembered to buy a lighter), watching “Peter Pan” in French on VHS (watching something on “tape” blew our kids’ minds), and a microwaved frozen pizza (recall the oven issue) – and we left town the next morning on our way to the Netherlands!

Paris part 3: the tour

We saved a walking tour until our last day, hoping that the sun would come out and burn off the mist hanging over the city. Unfortunately, no. If anything it got worse, and our tour was cold and rainy. But we would not be deterred: I put on my mittens and we headed out to the Eiffel Tower.

For some reason I was convinced the Eiffel Tower was black. Maybe cartoons and pop art have led me astray, but I was sure it would be shiny, black metal spiraling up into the sky. But as we walked toward it and watched it creep into view through the fog, I realized it was brown! A light brown-beige color of untreated metal. My world was shattered.

It was still neat to see. But we just walked on past. Because it was cold. And there are only so many touristy pictures you need of your sister pretending to hold up the Eiffel Tower.

We powered on to the Arc de Triomphe. It was in the middle of a busy traffic circle so we just snapped some shots from afar and decided to catch the train. And there are only so many touristy pictures you need of your sister pretending to hold up the Arc de Triomphe.

We were headed to Montmartre. We were both pretty excited about this one – both of us studied art history and couldn’t wait to see this place that had inspired so many amazing artists.

…It was not very exciting. I mean, it was incredible to be there, but it was dirty and filled with too many tourists. It looked like a hobo town, with run-down shops and cracked pavement. Stores were bursting kitsch through their windows and garbage from their alleys. Hawkers were selling tiny Eiffel Towers (painted black!) all over the place. A random busker had carried a full-size harp up to the top of the cathedral stairs and was playing a mediocre version of Coldplay or something.

We wandered around the hill top, aghast at the cheap trinkets and street art for sale, with at least six caricature painters following us around, until we finally settled in a cafe for an expensive snack. The whole thing was a bit disappointing, but at least we did it. And it meant that we could reward ourselves with some shopping and a lavish dinner later on.

We decided to go looking for an oyster bar. The first one we tried turned out to only have oysters on Sunday (why?? no idea). So we wandered around to Saint Germain, grabbed some beers and watched the people for a while. Then we found a great seafood place nearby and settled in for our last big night in Paris. The oysters were great – served on steaming dry ice – the drinks were great, the company was great – a perfect ending to a wonderful trip.

The next day we headed off to the airport – my suitcase (and me) both at least 10 pounds heavier than when we arrived. But I had about 10,000 steps back through the metro to burn it off. I waved goodbye to Cheryl and spent the next eight cold, boring hours waiting for my plane. They really need to heat the airport.

Au revoir, Paris!

Airport goodbye!
Airport goodbye!

Paris part 2: the art

The top of my Paris bucket list was the Louvre. We spent an entire morning there, and we easily could have spent days. Of course, the Mona Lisa was a show stopper, but I enjoyed a lot of the other pieces as much if not more. I was distraught that the Vermeer wing was closed, but I satisfied myself with the Venus de Milo, the Medici cycle, some Monets and the ever-titillating Gabrielle d’Estrées and her Sister, among others.

That afternoon, we wandered over to a gourmet food store so I could buy some truffles to bring home. We stocked up on goodies and cooked ourselves a delicious fresh pasta for dinner and sat up drinking wine into the night. Another perfect Parisian day!

Up next: Eiffel Tower & Oysters

Paris part 1: the palace

The train from London to Paris was pleasant but unremarkable. Once again, we didn’t see anything but darkness in the tunnel, and we watched as the English countryside turned into the scattered suburbs of Paris. We arrived at the Gare and hopped on the metro to Bastille – where we had rented an apartment for the next four nights.

If you’ve never been to Paris, then I don’t blame you for this – but for all you folks who have visited or lived there, you neglected to warn me that Paris is the least suitcase-friendly city in the universe. We went up and down about 10,000 stairs between getting off the train and entering our apartment. No escalators. No elevators. Just many, many stairs and plenty of uneven sidewalks interrupted by construction. I think, actually, by the time you go down into to the bowels of the Paris metro and walk the several kilometers of winding underground paths to your stop, you might as well have just walked along the street. Also, normally I subscribe to the ‘pack 2 pairs of underwear in a bag for the week’ kind of travel mantra, but for this trip, I made the mistake of bringing an actual suitcase (to bring back large amounts of delicious Parisian treats). So I had to lug that suitcase through what I assume was equivalent to the distance of the entire metro line. Only backpacks for me from now on.

But we did make it safely, and we couldn’t wait to head out for amazing French food for dinner. But where to go? We did some quick online searching and found a highly rated restaurant nearby that was unique in being run by a single chef who also acted as waiter and host – serving only a handful of people each night, as though you were sharing a meal with him at his house. Perfect! I called him up and managed to get reservations for that night.

And it was AMAZING. Easily in my top 3 meals of all time.

The next day, we decided to venture out to Versailles. Travel tip: Don’t book with an overpriced tour. It was an easy train ride and we had no problem buying tickets at the palace itself for much cheaper than any tour.

We were expecting a lavish, opulent palace filled with rococo curiosities. It turned out to be more like a dusty museum that had been pillaged of its contents over the course of a few centuries. Actually, I guess that’s exactly what it was – an empty building with most of the stuff having been sold off for the good of the republic at various points in history. There were still a few items in the main bedrooms, but they weren’t *stunning*, and they were caked with dust. It was most interesting to see the layout of the building itself – I’ve watched enough period piece movies to know that the king and queen had zero privacy, and this proved it. All the rooms were essentially hallways, and it was pretty clear that they were high-traffic zones. Probably they didn’t sleep much in there, and it was mostly for show, but still, they really did give themselves to the motherland, in all the being-naked-and-going-to-the-bathroom senses of the word. The Hall of Mirrors was cool, but again, kind of dusty and run down.

We wandered outside into the gardens, which are enormous and famous. But because we were there in early spring, they were mostly ugly and misty. Plus there were some refurbishments going on in many of the fountains. The entire garden is hundreds of acres, which was so overwhelming we didn’t even bother leaving the palace area to explore deeper into the yard. Time to take our tired feet home for some wine.

Along the way, we stopped at the Notre Dame cathedral to watch pigeons poop on all the tourists, found a little cafe and ate some crepes for lunch, and I bought some local art. It was a perfect Parisian afternoon!

Next up: Art!

London part 1: the arrival

Back in March, my sister and I went on a Thelma-and-Louise style trip to Paris and London (minus the manslaughter and double suicide, of course…). But it was a super fun last-minute vacation, and extra special because it was probably the first time we had ever traveled together, just the two of us. Why Paris and London? Well, it seemed to be a fair halfway point between Canada and Indonesia. Plus, who wouldn’t want to go there??

It’s taken me a while to post this because we crammed so much into our week abroad that I was exhausted just trying to sort through all the photos. But now I’m ready! So let’s do London.

We met in the Paris airport on a chilly Saturday morning. As it turns out, public spaces in Paris are not heated. Coming fresh off the plane from Jakarta, I had to put on two pairs of pants just to keep warm while I waited. Soon my sister arrived and there was much rejoicing. Our plan was to head straight to the Gare du Nord and catch our train to London. We hopped on the metro, passing what I think must be the ugliest part of Paris: crumbly buildings, industrial yards, graffitied train stations and gypsy tents made out of discarded fridges and old clothes. As it turns out, most of Paris looks like that, but more on that later.

When we arrived at the Gare, we had a few hours to kill before our train to London, so we took a little wander around the area. Although there wasn’t a lot to see – other than about 1000 cafes, all with the exact same red awnings and wicker chairs out front – we stumbled on a lovely little indoor market (also not heated) selling fresh produce, flowers, seafood, cheese, meats – so we picked up a little treat of salami and delicious stinky cheese for the train ride. Our train companions were thrilled about that.

The trip was only a few hours, and the track went under the English Channel. I was hoping it would be epic – how often do you get to travel for miles underneath the water? But we didn’t see any coastline or actual water, because the tunnel starts so far away from the edge, and then inside the tunnel is quite dark – of course, because it’s a tunnel. This makes total sense in hindsight. I’m not sure what I was expecting; maybe one of those glass aquarium tunnels where fish swim right over top of you? I guess that was a bit unrealistic. So the ride wasn’t very exciting, but it was neat to see the Paris suburbs turn into quaint English pastures as we chugged along.

We rented a little apartment in London just south of Regent’s Park, perfectly situated to walk to most of the tourist areas, and right on the underground line for areas that were a bit too far on foot. That night we were up for an adventure, so we headed straight out to explore the town!

The first place we ended up was an adorable and totally packed English pub that was about the size of a small living room. We shoved our way to the bar, ordered some pints and started chatting to a couple nearby. Turns out they were visiting from the U.S. and were equally up for an adventure. So the four of us had a few more drinks and wandered off to find “real English” dinner – that didn’t turn out to be too hard, and we soon found ourselves in the (probably haunted) top floor of a pub eating a variety of liver pies and heartily overcooked vegetables. And it was all as bland and tasteless as we expected. Mission accomplished!

We stumbled out of the pub and wandered around Piccadilly Circus – which, disappointingly, is not at all the animal kind of circus. Wikipedia informed me that our British friends use “circus” to mean a junction of streets in a circle. Silly. We checked out some shops, I bought a coat because it turns out London is cold, and eventually parted ways with our American friends to get a bit of sleep back at the apartment.

Next up: Irish partying & garlic love